For a shorthand description of Dennis Miller as a radio host, there’s this one: the Al Franken of the right.
OK by you, Dennis?
“Listen, Al’s a good friend of mine,” says Miller, who’s fine with the comparison but would like to clarify the “right” part.
To be precise, he considers himself “more libertarian on most things than I am far right. It’s just on the war, I guess, I’m construed to be Curtis LeMay now. But I just don’t trust radical Islamic fundamental terrorists, sorry.”
That’s Miller for you, dropping the name of the gung-ho Cold War Air Force general into the opening minutes of a conversation.
He’s never been one to dumb it down for an audience. Instead, he dares you to keep up with his fast, fierce comedy and encyclopedic stash of plucked-from-obscurity cultural references.
Since making a name for himself in the 1980s as a “Weekend Update” anchor on “Saturday Night Live,” he’s built an eclectic career that includes hosting shows for CNBC and HBO, co starring in action flicks and being part of the ABC “Monday Night Football” team.
His latest venture, “The Dennis Miller Show,” is a politically oriented syndicated radio talk show that’s low on venom, with a guest list that runs the gamut from familiar pundits to old pals like Dana Carvey.
“Once you fall into the rhythm of it, it’s kind of fun,” he says of the show, which launched this spring. “It’s easier than you’d think to chat for three hours as soon as you just release the fear gene and start extrapolating instead of trying to premeditate it.”
During a recent phone interview, Miller shared some thoughts on his political views, his favorite presidential candidate, his choices for comic fodder and why he’d rather generate laughs than wage a campaign of his own.
On whether his politics have evolved over the years. “My leanings have always been sort of to the libertarian side, but I must admit, I was always more of a pacifist until 9/11. And I just remember thinking the next morning, `Wow, I guess we’re going to have to go to war with these guys.’”
On the fact that his political leanings put him in lonely comedy territory. “Listen, I’m 53. ... At some point, you’ve just got to say, this is what I think. ... I’ve actually heard some people say this was a career move for me. And I just want to say if anybody believes that announcing out loud in Hollywood that you’re for George Bush and the war in Iraq is a career move, well, then they don’t know Hollywood.”
On why some comics are drawn to politics. “There’s a pragmatic thing behind it, in that the daily paper affords you a bit of a new act each day. ... As I go t older, I didn’t want to do jokes about bad drivers or McDonald’s drive-through windows. You start to think, `What do I want to talk about?’ and you express your feelings more. But the prime directive behind anything I do is to get laughs. I’m not out there to change minds.”
On the style of his radio show. “I don’t want to get into Hatfield and McCoys with people. That daily Sturm und Drang is not worth it to me. It would give me a headache. The rancor, I find boring nowadays, for the most part, on radio. Other people have great shows. I don’t want to get into that competitive thing. I’m just saying for my sanity, I have to try to at least have a pleasant chat with most people.”
On his support for Rudy Giuliani in the presidential race. “I can’t agree with people on pizza toppings, much less their deepest core beliefs. What I do find is as I look at Giuliani’s curriculum vitae more ... he’s kind of an ideal candidate for me. Like I always said about Rudy vis-a-vis terrorism, I think he’s entering his peak killing years. That’s what I’m looking for, somebody who’s not going to be neurotic about defending us against morons.”
On his support of gay marriage. “You know how Tip O’Neill said all politics are local? Well, I’ve got two gay friends who are married and they’re happy as clams and I would feel like an idiot telling them I didn’t think they should be married.”
On his lack of interest in running for office. Miller says he received a call from former Sen. George Allen a year or so before the infamous “macaca” incident. “He called and said he was in charge of some Senate recruitment committee and would I be interested in running against Barbara Boxer. ... Let me say this. There are 535 people up on the hill and many of them remind me of the kid in grade school who, two minutes before the end of class if we hadn’t gotten homework, would remind the teacher. So excuse me for not coming up there and immersing myself in that metier. It just doesn’t interest me.”
On his wide-ranging career as comedian and broadcaster. “I like the little niche I’ve carved out. Indeed, it has cost me a couple of firings, because I’ve probably strayed too far afield in certain things. I like the eclectic resume. I don’t have a lot of pride about show biz. ... I’m enamored of it, but I do take it less seriously than I do real life. But one thing I’m proud of, at least when I’ve been summoned to a few things where I thought, wow, that sounds like a kamikaze run, I’ve at least jumped in and said, `Well, when you go for it, what’s the worst that can happen. You get whacked.’”
On defying the stereotype of the tortured comic. “I have a wife who I never thought I could get to date me, much less marry me. I’ve got two glorious boys, a 13-year-old and a 16-year-old, and they seem happy and healthy. I’ve made some money. ... I genuinely hit my knees here now and again and thank God. I got the luckiest break in the world. ... I have had bad jobs, I’ve done the clean-toilets, drive-the-flower-truck, cut-the-lunch meat stuff. To think they give me green rectangles for just talking and I’ve been lucky enough to have some sort of quirky sense of humor. What a blessing.”
5 FUNNY FOLKS WHO ALSO MIX IT UP IN THE POLITICAL ARENA
Jon Stewart. He’s been helming “The Daily Show” and making fun of news media and political hypocrisies for so long now, he’s practically the Walter Cronkite of satirical news shows.
Rosie O’Donnell. Her unvarnished opinions on topics like the Iraq war revived “The View” as must-see daytime TV and spawned her infamous on-air spat with Elisabeth Hasselbeck.
Stephen Colbert. The pseudo-self-righteous host of “The Colbert Report” uses parody like a stealth bomb. His monologue at last year’s White House Correspondents Dinner touched so many nerves, the group turned to Rich Little for blandness this year.
Al Franken. After cutting his comedy teeth with a long stretch on “Saturday Night Live,” he switched to writing books and hosting a politically themed radio show. Now he’s focusing on a run for a U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota.
Bill Maher. Not long after making comments about the 9/11 hijackers that offended some viewers, Maher lost his “Politically Incorrect” show on Comedy Central and ABC. But it didn’t take long for him to rebound and move on to the edgy “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO.