Despite his curious and regrettable turn toward the unfunny, Dennis Miller still looms large as one of the five best stand-up comedians of the past 20 years.
At issue is not whether Dennis Miller, after 9/11, lost his mind and starting cheerleading for Bush, Cheney and the Iraq War (he did). It’s also not an outrage that, coincidentally or not, he is no longer near as nimble or gratifying as he was in his prime (he isn’t). What’s important to acknowledge is that, while his newer material is sorely lacking, when he was on his game, he was the baddest—and brightest—stand-up comedian in the country.
For those of us who have pined many moons, equal parts impatient and incredulous, for his inexplicably unreleased HBO comedy specials from the ‘90s; it’s time to celebrate an overdue victory. Dennis Miller: The HBO Specials is exactly what the doctor ordered for fans who remember the days when a thesaurus was a requisite part of the experience. A comic who could make you laugh and think is never something to take for granted, as they are always in woefully short supply.
Miller, from his snarky heyday as Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” anchor in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, was arguably the most consistently entertaining, and intimidating, funnyman on the scene. After admiring him in relatively small doses during the “Weekend Update” segments, it was something of a revelation to see him stretch out and hold court for a full 60-minute set. Starting with Mr. Miller Goes to Washington in 1988, Miller has made seven official specials for HBO, all of which are collected in this very reasonably priced and highly recommended set.
When Miller performed in D.C. for his first special it was more than 20 years ago, but somehow seems even longer. Impossible, almost, to recall a time when Reagan was limping out of office and Miller was not yet middle-aged. Indeed, he was young, confident and he had a hell of a head of hair. He knew it, too. At this point in his career Miller took few prisoners and no target was spared from his lacerating sarcasm. Commenting on his recent gigs in the Deep South, he sardonically observes “Talk about Darwin’s waiting room…there are guys in Alabama who are their own father.”
Later he laments “You spend your whole life stopping at red lights, then at the end there’s a cruel irony when you die: they let your funeral procession run the red lights on the way to the cemetery.” Regarding born-again Christians who insist he’s going to Hell if he’s not born again; he says “Pardon me for getting it right the first time.”
Perhaps tellingly, he has an (admirably) prescient take on terrorists, marveling at the ways horrendous acts can be justified in the name of God/religion. This is the lovably bratty Miller, a smart-ass with a heart of cubic zirconium: he was more intelligent and better-looking than you, and that was all there was to it. Chevy Chase, the first “Weekend Update” anchor, had the corner on this market for a minute, and then Miller ran with the baton for about a decade.
In 1990 he recorded Black and White which, for me, is on the short list of all-time post Lenny Bruce stand up concert recordings: it is an absolute tour de force and easily justifies the purchase of this entire set. Miller begins with a muted bang, claiming “I’d like to start off with an impression…I’d like to, but I’m genetically incapable.” For the rest of the special he is at the height of his “more loquacious than thou” phase and it’s a delight to watch how unreservedly he revels in his own brilliance.
A few highlights, taken at random: “I view the reunification of Germany in much the same way I view a possible Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis reconciliation: I haven’t really enjoyed any of their previous work and I’m not sure I need to see the new shit right now”; “I’m in therapy now, I’m so insecure I get depressed when I find out the people I hate don’t like me”; “(TV preachers) say they don’t favor any particular denomination…but I think we’ve all seen their eyes light up at tens and twenties.”
Of his father, Miller deadpans “My old man made The Great Santini look like Leo Buscaglia,” and on the then-new development of interminable automated customer service recordings, “I don’t stay on the phone that long with friends contemplating suicide.” If you’ve never seen this, you owe it to yourself.
They Shoot HBO Specials, Don’t They?, from 1994, is worthwhile just for its ingenious title, but the show is actually quite satisfactory. Speaking of the post-LA riot tensions, he says “I get pulled over by a cop in LA I don’t even fuck around; I just wind the window down and blow the guy.”
Politically, he has few kind words for Bush the Elder, and no fondness for Reagan, but he’s already dubious at the prospects of Clinton being a successful, or accepted, leader. He actually defends Hillary (!) saying, revealingly, “I think she’s a good woman…we need smart people now; maybe she can help.” And this is a crucial component of his subsequent devolution as a comic: he was never a liberal; he ridiculed pomposity and idiocy which is always abundantly represented on both sides of the political spectrum. Of course, he had a particular penchant for calling out the bullying tactics of media blowhards and the baser instincts (fear, power) that the most cynical politicians prey upon, so it’s impossible to ignore the sad irony of seeing him prostrate himself (for a paycheck?) at the fortress of Pomposity and Idiocy at Fox News.
It certainly doesn’t make his old material any less funny; it just makes it a tad bittersweet to look at, all these years later. In any event, and for the record, my favorite moment of the entire show is when Miller delivers an impassioned—and quite moving—defense of James Stockdale (remember him?), lacerating the media (and public) that found him lacking for the sole reason that “he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television”. He ends the show by predicting that the day Dan Quayle (remember him?) successfully runs for president (and he was then threatening to do)” is the day Shelley Winters runs with the bulls at Pamplona.” That’s good stuff.
By 1996 the also impeccably titled Citizen Arcane was in the can, but the first cracks in Miller’s fortress are visible. For starters, he seems a tad lethargic; it turns out the Aspen altitude is getting to him and as he reaches for an oxygen mask, a few folks in the crowd scoff at him. “Well fuck you,” he retorts. “Get a climate!” To be certain, he’s still amusing, and he is still articulate. He offers up perhaps the best summation of Bill Clinton’s frustrating legacy I’ve heard: “The chasm between his potential and his actuality is so vast…and the struggle (to find balance) sets off all his deficiencies.” It’s pretty hard to quibble with that assessment.
But when he observes “we have too many hung juries and not enough hung defendants”, one wonders what his beef is. It turns out, a little bit of everything, as he refers to the US as “one big, violent trailer park.” He is (understandably) outraged at the general inanity of the population, which results in easily duped juries. It just seems odd that for a man so obviously intelligent, he doesn’t (or doesn’t want to) connect the dots between those who are brought to justice and those who have money or influence. In other words, he seems content to scoff at how moronic our talk-show nation has become, but doesn’t seem unduly perturbed that it’s often his fellow celebrities who waltz away from prison time for very obvious—and odious—reasons.
He spends an insufferable chunk of time lambasting the ACLU and has little to say about politicians or the powerful. At one point he declares “I’m looking to make a little bread, build a wall, take care of my loved ones…and stay out of the crosshairs.” Die-hard Dennis Miller fans may have to Windex off their LCD screens after that one.
Miller’s HBO feature for the end of the century, 1999’s The Millennium Special: 1,000 Years, 100 Laughs, 10 Really Good Ones is a terrific idea that is pulled off with aplomb. Miller focuses on the 1900’s and breaks the century into 20-odd year chunks. He does “the news” (relaying the popular stories of the times with his trademark “Weekend Update” shtick): it is clever and mostly funny. There is a trace of a creeping jingoism that would reach its apotheosis in short order.
Miller takes potshots at a few predictable targets: Russia, Germany and (sigh) France; while it’s an exercise of shooting fish in a rather safe barrel; it’s fair to say that the blood, gore and comedy of the last century provide bountiful material. One of the better moments features the famous picture of Elvis shaking hands with Nixon with Miller remarking “And here we see two of the greatest recording artists of the 20th Century.” This one is the last feature likely to prompt repeat viewings.
Flash forward to 2003: we all know what happened in the three years since his last special. The Raw Feed starts off promisingly enough. Miller laments that he does not masturbate as much these days because his expanding waistline obliges him to slip himself the date-rape drug. Later he says “I was raised Catholic: I went to confession the other day and said (to the priest) ‘You first’.”
He retains some spin on his curveball and it is obvious he still belongs in the big leagues. But then he starts in on the Middle East, and things begin to derail as the stand-up turns into an occasionally ugly right-wing rant. As America was about to deploy forces to Iraq Miller, like many like-minded citizens of the time, is blasé to the point of cockiness. He not only returns to the hackneyed ad hominem toward the French, he boasts that once we’ve “won” in Iraq (quickly and decisively, obviously) the French will be sorry that they blew their chance at the spoils. It’s embarrassing.
Then he lays into Sean Penn with the snide pronouncement “Dead Career Walking”. Of course, two Academy Awards later, Miller was about as accurate with that assessment as he was about the course of our overseas adventures. Lest any of this sound like piling on, I’m saving the best for last: Miller actually pauses mid-performance to utter the words “I’d like to thank George Bush for allowing me to respect the American presidency again.” It is, as they say, to laugh—even if it’s for the wrong reasons.
Finally, in 2006 Miller went to Vegas to perform the show recorded as All In. It’s not terrible; Miller is simply too intelligent, too witty and too observant to flop onstage. But one might think he would feel obliged (for the sake of his comedy, for the sake of his integrity) to reign in the rhetoric. Then again, not for nothing is the special is called All In. It takes less than five minutes for Miller to lay into the cowardice of the French.
The rest of the show teeters between Miller’s patented perspicacity and his unfortunate, newly acquired nationalism. Funny bits about being able to access Internet porn anywhere and the plethora of erectile dysfunction commercials give way to longer rants about the dubious science behind global warming, and the benefits of aggressive drilling in Alaska (drill baby drill?). To paraphrase a younger, shrewder Miller, he doesn’t favor any particular political affiliation, but I think we’ve all seen his eyes light up at Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean.
Bottom line: despite his curious and regrettable turn toward the unfunny, Dennis Miller still looms large as one of the five best stand-up comedians of the past 20 years. This egregiously overdue purging of the HBO vaults should come as a welcome relief to fans who remember watching these specials in real time.
Worst case scenario, the first three (and superior) features are all contained on one disc: if you feel obliged to burn after viewing, retain that first disc and put it in the time capsule. The younger generation might be refreshed to see a less bellicose and more beguiling Dennis Miller, and many decades from now, when Miller’s awkward repartee with Bill O’Reilly is a footnote in unintentional comedic history, his greatest work will be remembered, and justly venerated.