Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

Dennis Miller: Not So Black and White

Winston Churchill once said, “Show me a young conservative and I will show you a man with no heart. Show me an old liberal and I will show you a man with no brain.” Now, he was probably drunk when he said this (unless he said it during breakfast) so take it with a grain of salt.

However, no comedian working today embodies this quote more so than Dennis Miller. As the anchor for Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, Miller became the avatar of hip, aloof cerebral comedy, cutting down both vapid celebrities and blow-hard politicians alike with an acidic, arrogant wit that could be alternately brutal and goofy. In recent years, though, he has earned the ire of many on the left as his act has become increasingly conservative, relegated to talk radio and occasional guest spots on The O’Reilly Factor. The conventional wisdom has been that Dennis Miller has lost his edge and simply isn’t funny anymore.

But is it true? Before we look at where Miller is now, let’s take a look at his first HBO special from 1990, Dennis Miller: Black and White.

I remember watching this special when it aired. I was just a kid, and it confounds me that I could have enjoyed it so much as so many of the jokes are peppered with obscure references that I couldn’t possibly have understood at that age. Miller’s machine-gun delivery and densely layered references seem to have laid the groundwork for sitcoms like Arrested Development, Community, and 30 Rock. Not to mention the fact that Miller made the bold choice to literally film in black and white.

Yet the arrogance and complete sense of self that Miller displays work as a kind of catnip for a young boy taking his first tentative steps into adulthood. Laughing at his jokes meant you were smart; you were part of an exclusive club that was as cool and above it all as Miller himself was. Miller proved that a comic didn’t have to pander or lower the bar to win over an audience. Often he was willfully obtuse in his references and it is a testament to his confidence and stage presence that his act translated so well to such a wide audience.

It was this attitude that won him accolades on Saturday Night Live and gained him a considerable following afterward, landing him two late-night talk shows (the short lived The Dennis Miller Show and HBO’s Dennis Miller Live) and even two seasons as a sportscaster on Monday Night Football, which went over as well as you might think.

Dennis Miller Live was perhaps the best format for Miller’s particular brand of humor. He would start the show off with a few monologue jokes and then run into his weekly “rant” about whatever was bothering him in the news that week. In many ways, the show worked as a precursor to Bill Maher’s Real Time, although unlike Real Time, Miller was more interested in the comedy of the moment than sticking to the subject and was happy to let the show go gloriously off the rails.

Despite being the first series to bring an Emmy home to HBO, the show was canceled in 2002. Miller seems to retain a good relationship with HBO as he has made three comedy specials with them over the years, the most recent being The Big Speech, which premiered in 2010. However since 2002, Miller struggled to regain an audience. He had a short-lived political talk show on CNBC, but he never really seemed comfortable in the role of journalist.  His laid-back approach works wonderfully on the radio (which is what he has been doing since 2007), but it comes across as nonchalant on television.

So, Miller’s career fizzled out a bit in the past few years, but he's doing fine. He has a daily talk radio show, appears regularly on television, and plays theater gigs across the country. Miller is still out there doing his thing, but is he still funny?

This is a clip from Dennis Miller’s most recent HBO special, The Big Speech. While I don’t agree with anything that he said, I can’t say that it wasn’t funny. Despite the subject matter, all of the old Millerisms are still there: the same caustic wit and gift for an apropos metaphor; however, the machine-gun delivery is gone now and in its place is a lackadaisical, folksy style has emerged.

Dennis Miller is funny and he can still crank out a reference like nobody’s business, but seeing him use his brilliant intellect in defense of George W Bush, John McCain, and (shudder) Sarah Palin is downright painful. It’s not that Miller isn’t funny anymore, but ever since 9/11 Miller seems incapable of the kind of objective and rigorous thought that chiefly appealed to us in the first place. My God, this is the man who championed Bill Hicks, for Christ’s sake!

But then, perhaps I'm blinded by my own political leanings. It’s not like Dennis Miller wasn’t already a conservative when this clip first aired (Al Franken has said that Miller was always pretty conservative on many issues). Miller seems to genuinely enjoy standups that challenge his point of view. Honestly, that's a goal that we should all have. And perhaps as a comedian who leans right, this comedic open mind is something that simply must be cultivated.

After all the comedy community, like any artistic community, tends to attract people with a liberal bent. As the media landscape continues to become more fractured and the news is now a niche market, it behooves us to listen to comedians who say things we don’t like. The goal of comedy is to make an audience laugh in spite of themselves and to challenge our way of thinking about something. As a standup this is something Dennis Miller has always excelled at, left or right.

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  • Ben

    The problem I always run into with right leaning comedy is that you have to be drinking the kool aid to find it funny. You have to already think Nancy Pelosi is an idiot to get his comments about her. My right wing friends have asked me why there isn't a conservative daily show and that is the first thing I tell them. Try to find a bunch of clips of left wing politicians saying some genuinely stupid or hateful shit as soon as someone does there will be a right winig daily show that people actually find funny.

    • Craig Stephen Tower

      Well, if a right-wing comic limited himself to scathing attacks on liberals, he might be very successful-even very GOOD- if he chose his targets wisely, and his aim was true.
      But they lose all credibility- not just as satirists, but as just "funny guys"- when they give in to their obsessive need to DEFEND even the most imbecilic and wrong-headed on their own side.
      Seriously guys, if you want to call Obama a liar, feel free- but stick to pointing out his ACTUAL lies; don't make up new ones- and don't try to tell me Mitt Romney is a saint while you're at it.

      • Bhess

        I am right wing but I listen to Patton Oswalt and David Cross. Both during the Bush years lobbed some big bombs. I didn't always care for it but it was a small segment of what they did.
        Honestly you don't think Obama has lied? Bush was a big liar but Obama is without sin? C'mon if you really think that you need to think things out. I liked Bush but he was hardly a saint and made mistakes.
        Both sides are deserved of skewering. Both sides are full of s**t.

        • famousmortimer

          Even W Kamau Bell is attacking Obama now, though, so I'm not sure your point stands. Literally no-one is saying Obama is without sin. The guy above you just said "if you want to call him a liar, stick to his actual lies".

          I disagree that both sides are somehow equal and equally deserving of abuse. Both political parties might be, but one's far-right and the other's sort of in the middle, so the left isn't represented in the mainstream in the USA.

          • jm313

            You think the Democratic Party is in the middle? Yeah back during the Clinton years in the 90's they were more in the middle but the Democrats have moved farther left over the years. A lot of Democrats see the Tea Party as being far-right. Ok well Occupy Wall Street is more on the far-left side with all it's rabid socialists and communists.

          • famousmortimer

            No they haven't – Obama is a warmonger, has done nothing to help the average working people of the USA, is increasing surveillance…none of which are left-wing ideals. To say the Democrats have moved left is to have a very faulty understanding of what left-wing is. What examples do you have to back up your theory?

      • jm313

        What you said can be applied to left-wing comics too

    • IhateDisqus

      I'd argue that the problem is the most liberals take themselves way too seriously. I'm a libertarian, leaning conservative on a lot of issues. There are a lot of comics on the left whose political views I don't agree with, but who I still find funny. I just accept that I disagree with their premise. It doesn't seem like liberal comedy fans are willing to treat conservative comics the same way.

      And I am sure you will say "but, conservative comics are way worse." Or not as funny. Or stupider. Whatever you will come up with to make yourself believe that your distinction between the two is fair and objective, and not a personal bias. As someone in who mostly in the middle, I don't think so. I think it's just a political bias. People on the right and left are not all that different — they are just on opposite sides so they think the other is like another species.

      • jm313


    • Bhess

      I have to take your premise of that only right-wing politicians say stupid stuff to task. There is a degree of insanity in politics and if you can't see that and poke fun at it regardless of left/right there is something wrong with you. I'm right wing but neither side really drapes themselves in glory enough to not be made fun of.
      Whether your left or right if you can't see the funny in both sides you need to revaluate things.

    • steve

      Same with left leaning comedy. If it's preaching it ain't funny.

    • Dave

      wow don't step outside you will melt Ben

    • jm313

      There are tons of clips of left wing politicians saying stupid shit. You liberals take yourself too seriously and are really pissy about things

  • SheHasHotPants

    First Special? Mr. Miller Goes to Washington came first ('88) – and it's funnier.

  • randyfraz

    After 9/11, Dennis Miller became a coward. His fear made him turn to conservatism, much like a near death experience can turn someone to God. Fear will make you stupid.

    • Dane

      Coward? And you know this how? Your opinion? Well, we all know about opinions and that opinions can be imperfect. Take the hint.

  • GershMershTersh

    When I first started paying attention to stand-up comedy as a kid, Dennis Miller had his show on HBO. He was a good comic for a young kid to watch because he had a lot of the essence of stand-up – the willingness to scrutinize anything in order to find some kind of true meaning. He was speaking truth to power and that's what I think younger audiences connected with.

    It's a shame he finally picked a side because that can blind you to finding that true meaning. However, he's taken the more challenging route and that's something to be admired. I wish some of it didn't come off as bigoted because that's not the Dennis Miller I remember and I don't think that's who he truly is. In my opinion, a comic should never defend a political figure because they are all full of shit in one way or another. The guy I remember from my childhood was attacking the overall structure of power in this country/world. The end credits of his show wrapped it up perfectly – "everybody wants to rule the world".

    • Cutlass12

      Can you provide a specific example of what you consider a "bigoted" statement from Mr. Miller?

      There is no shortage of left-leaning comics who pick a side or defend political figures. Do you hold that against them?

      Given that Democrats currently control most of our government is it not fair to say that Dennis Miller *is* attacking the power structure?

      • GershMershTersh

        I think there are people that would interpret his comments regarding the Middle East in "The Big Speech" video posted above as bigoted. There are some blanket statements in there. It sucks to have to say that about someone that I respect as a comic.

        Is he really a guy that still attacks the power structure? That's kind of up in the air at the moment. Remember, he made the conservative turn when Bush was in power. So, at the time, he wasn't challenging the power structure, though he may have been challenging the majority because his opinions did not reflect popular opinion. That's actually a larger challenge than going after the people in charge and speaking truth to power. And, I think that's a respectable choice on some level.

        The only comic I can think of that was capable of taking an unpopular opinion and getting the crowd to come to his side was Patrice O'Neal.

        A part of me really does think that he's doing this for the challenge of it.

  • Mike

    Dennis Miller's style and humor hasn't changed just his targets and his audience. i credit the author for not automatically turning this into a " I used to like Dennis Miller when he was funny" commentary. I am thankful that there is a comedian who is willing to puncture the current establishment rather than just make a couple of mother in law jokes to show how fair they are. Jon Stewart has been very clear about his political leanings, so why is what Dennis Miller done so taboo that he is called a coward, fear monger, stupid, etc. DM is for gay marriage, and his philosophy is closer to libertarian. I am also guessing that the people who have decided that they no longer like Dennis Miller haven't heard him tell a joke in years, only that he's switched "sides". Lame.

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  • AndrewMilner

    Winston Churchill once said, “Show me a young conservative and I will show you a man with no heart. Show me an old liberal and I will show you a man with no brain.”

    Show me a Fox News personality and I will show you a man with no soul.

  • Steve

    I love how he can't be objective if he disagrees with the authors own political views.

  • D. Ray Morton

    Good even-handed post. Good comments, too. Remember getting into endless debates 4 or 5 years ago on a board. He changed a bit, for sure, but not as much as people think. I mean, this is a guy who was openly supporting Perot in the early 90s and in the late 80s advocating pedophiles to pull the trigger. It's also true that the predominantly left-leaning hardcore comedy crowd never wants to consider that certain thoughts or bits could be characterized as RW, it's easier for them to do a mental sleight and slap the "libertarian" catchall over some of Maher and Carlin's material that was decidedly RW or at best, very anti the kind of collectivist, empathetic view many on the left have.

    With Miller it's all about context/venue for me. He's unbearable on Fox, unbearable on Leno, the radio stuff I've heard is sometimes good sometimes unbearable. Saw him live 4 or 5 years ago and it was a good night out, laughed at most of the material, though of course not nearly as great as when I saw him live on the tour he did with Lewis in 1991.
    I just think he should get out of the horse-race type political stuff not because he's RW but because he's really really bad it. I mean, 2 years out from a pres. election, he's gone I think 1 for 5 in his predictions/preferences the last 20 years.

  • Teaflax

    The problem for Miller is that the US right is so far, far, FAR to the right that the US left is essentially aligned with the right wing of any other Western nation.

    Which means that where many right-leaning comedians in other nations can point to some sort of conservative "common sense", it's very hard for anyone in the US to seriously defend some of the insanity on the right in America that's been ramping up over the last two decades or so.

    When you're in a political landscape where Nixon – and even Reagan – would be considered "hardcore liberals", taking the side of blinkered and often entirely illogical reasoning is never going to make for particularly cohesive or fruitful comedy.

    • jm313

      You are incorrect! Going by what your saying this would mean that the left-wing U.S. Democratic Party is aligned with the right-wing U.K Conservative Party but this is not true. The political parties in other western countries are very similar to the United States political party's for example in the U.K. the right-wing Conservative Party is identical to the U.S Republican Party and the U.K. left-wing Labour Party is identical to the U.S Democratic Party.

      Liberals constantly say that conservatives, the Tea Party etc. are very far-right but liberals should look at themselves for once because they have been moving far-left just take a look at Occupy Wall Street which was the liberals tea party. If the Tea Party is far-right then Occupy Wall Street is far-left.

      Reagan would not be considered a hardcore liberal today this is a stupid fallacy pushed by the liberal media. Reagan's views are conservative but his presidency was more moderate because he had a Democratic majority in one part of Congress throughout his presidency. Nixon was not even a conservative in his day he was a moderate/liberal Republican.

      And it's funny how Liberals call the Republican Party far-right when the party's recent presidential nominee's have been moderate Republicans like Romney and McCain.

      • Teaflax

        I don't know what's funnier, tha you consider McCain and Romney moderates (both far right of any centrist politician in the rest of the Western world) or that you use "your" for "you're". Both undermine your points equally.

    • MikeChuk21

      You realize that David Cameron is on record as a supporter of same-sex marriage (he may actually have come out for it before Obama did) and has publicly called for strong action to curb global warming. In other words, he just failed two U.S. conservative litmus tests.

      • Teaflax

        Which was my point, more or less.

        • MikeChuk21

          Meant to respond to jim313's post … thought you were spot-on.

  • Cutlass12

    Thank you, Justin, for this honest and even-handed article.

    GIven that the entertainment business tends to draw left-leaning people we understandably have a popular culture that slants to the left. By necessity conservatives like myself have learned to separate personal politics from a performer's films/music/comedy. When it comes to comedy I can even appreciate humor that is directed at my own convictions or preferred candidates – so long as its funny.

    Frankly, a few of you need to get out of your bubble. If you want to discuss ideas intelligently try reading or listening to the actual ideas you disagree with instead of getting all of your news from clips on The Daily Show and Reddit.

  • Colin

    Winston Churchill once said, “Show me a young conservative and I will
    show you a man with no heart. Show me an old liberal and I will show you
    a man with no brain.”

    Churchill never said this…

  • RG

    I used to like Miller int he 80's, but grew tired of him sometime around when his nightly show was airing in the early 90s. So I can honestly say I lost interest in him long before he switched to the right, and long before I even knew the difference between right and left.

  • steve

    Love how Janeane gets a pass due to politics but Miller gets ripped.

  • DrRocker

    Miller lost his mind on Monday night football. Rumor has it he took one to the head and was never the same.

  • prunellalabouef

    I think dennismiller is hilarious !!!

  • James Collins

    Dennis Miller is a "brilliant intellect" who makes "densely layered references." What a stupid comment.

    Miller's references are superficial, pretentious, and frequently inapt.

    I heard him garbling the pronunciation and definition of the word "vouchsafe" on his radio program, and admitting that it was a new word that he was learning. Anybody who truly was familiar with the classical references that Miller makes would be very well read. And anybody that well read would have encountered the word "vouchsafe" many times.

    He never was funny, just incomprehensible, and people gave him the benefit of the doubt. People only laughed at him because they didn't want to be seen as the only ones in the room who didn't get the joke.

    I'm sure that this Justin Gray knucklehead was one of those who were sucked into Miller's pseudo-intellectual mirage.

    Miller, the "brilliant intellect," once said on his show, in all seriousness, that he was impressed with Sarah Palin because when she spoke he heard his thoughts coming out of her mouth.

    Case closed.