[22 February 2008]
Most people have had that moment when, asked about an incident or person from their past, they froze like a deer in the headlights.
Now, just imagine doing that on network television.
The potential for humiliation is huge, but Mark Burnett, executive producer of NBC’s game show “Amne$ia,” premiering Friday, doesn’t want to go there.
“There’s no meanness in `Amne$ia,’” says Burnett (“Survivor,” “The Celebrity Apprentice,” “Are you Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”). “Clearly, there’s a market for meanness. I don’t do it in shows.
“It’s a lot of fun. It’s trying to combine a game show with a variety show. It’s like a family, Saturday-night-fun-in-England show. It’s not like `Apprentice’ or `Survivor.’ It’s not like a classic game show. There are no puzzles. There’s no podium. ... All you’ve got to do - it couldn’t be easier - is remember your own life story.”
Comedian, radio talk-show host and political commentator Dennis Miller presides over the show, and his job is to ask contestants questions about their own lives and, if they get the answers right, hand out money.
Those familiar with Miller’s work know he can be quite a sharp-tongued observer of people and events, but that’s not the side he shows in “Amne$ia.”
“Listen,” Miller says, “I’ve been a Marlboro-Man sardonic outlaw for so many years, I was enamored of anybody coming to me and pitching me an idea to be a more convivial, `This Is Your Life,’ Ralph Edwards type, that I sucked it up like a sponge. It was just nice to walk through their lives and do it in a reasonably amiable fashion.”
But Miller didn’t necessarily know he was going to do “Amne$ia” this way right from the start.
“I didn’t really hatch how I was going to be out there until I first got there,” he recalls, “and saw that the heavily sardonic thing wasn’t going to play. You’re standing there with people as they unfold the stories of their life. I remember thinking, `This is more of a celebration than you making it any harder than it is to win this money.’
“So I got it pretty quickly, but I didn’t have it before I got there. I had to do one to know what the vibe is. And I thought, `These are such sweet people, and they’re unfolding their stories to you, and if you don’t watch it, this could turn into a show on another network with a lie detector.’”
(By the way, Miller is referring to Fox’s Monday-night game show “Moment of Truth,” but he says he’s only seen a trailer, not an entire episode.)
“What are you going to do,” Miller continues, “sit there and be snide about it? The world doesn’t revolve around Dorothy Parkers at some point. That’s why they all ended up around one (Algonquin Round Table) with each other. They were too buzzkill-ish.”
Miller says this kindler, gentler thing isn’t a new persona, it’s just not one he usually trots out for the cameras.
“This is how I am in regular life,” he says. “Once you go into the public arena - I don’t feign that Dennis Miller, that smartass thing, but it is the monkey trick they bought at some point.
“At the end of the day, I’m trying to grow as an artist. No, I’m not.”
He also understands why people who remember their lives perfectly well might not be able to regurgitate those answers on command.
“Most of these people knew all the answers,” Miller says. “It is indeed their life. But as soon as you put that clock on it, they start to flinch. `I gotta think of this. I gotta think of this.’ It’s almost like they need some sort of nostalgia Viagra at that point, because they’ve jumped it.”
Miller also used his stand-up comedy experience to keep the wheels greased during taping.
“I have an ability,” he says, “from nightclubs, to not panic during the incessant breakdowns, and indeed, to keep chattering during breakdowns, so they could pick it back up when they fixed the breakdowns and not even stop.
“I went verite with it. I just kept yappin.’ I remember thinking, `If this thing turn into incessant trench warfare, where I take an inch, lose two, take an inch, lose two, we’re going to be here 10 hours, and this crowd is going to hate us. It’s going to be like “Day of the Locusts.” Or I can keep an amiable chatter going, have fun with it and look like you don’t have it perfected, go with more of a verite feel.’
“That’s what happened.”
While he says he won’t actually see “Amne$ia” until Friday, Miller has hopes for its future.
“If nothing,” he says, “I’m Pavlov’s dog, so I just hope we go beyond eight and I get the corn kernel instead of the electric shock.”