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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