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Rat Pack of One

The transformation of Dennis Miller.
Rat Pack of One

The transformation of Dennis Miller.

Several years ago, Dennis Miller called and invited me to be a writer on his HBO program. He requested that I send him some jokes and, his specialty, a longer rant on a specific subject. I did so but never heard back from him. After a few weeks, I wrote to ask if he had made a decision.

Again, I was rudely ignored, but I didn't take it personally. The truth is, I was actually relieved not to be hired. I would've had to change my lifestyle-working at home and not going to an office every day (especially since I never learned how to drive)-plus I would have been writing for an individual whose personality is snide ("Lenny [Bruce] was a heroin addict, and I could care less about heroin addicts," he once said) and whose humor has a streak of mean-spiritedness. Although to be fair, I respected him for once apologizing publicly to a sick child whose photo he had made fun of on his HBO show.

His material has become increasingly tainted by reactionary intolerance, as indicated by early tremors such as his disdain for the American Civil Liberties Union. And so I thought it was courageous of him to perform before an audience of 1500 at Davies Symphony Hall in ultra-progressive San Francisco last November. Miller himself was shocked that anybody had shown up, and said so on stage: "I thought I was persona non grata in San Francisco."

His material that night ranged from a defense of Operation Iraqi Freedom (poking fun at what he described as "the left's fixation on the administration's failure to rally international support"), to an allusion that something was "harder to get off than Martha Stewart on a set of dirty sheets," to "recasting the film title Fitzcarraldo as a verb in an old routine about post office inertia."

So many comedians rely on easy joke references that will be recognized by the largest common denominator. Since there's nothing intrinsically funny about them, instead of laughing the audience applauds; they're really applauding themselves for recognizing the reference. Miller, on the other hand, is infamous for his obscure references that will be recognized by fewer folks, but the result seems to be the same.

I recently asked James Sullivan, pop culture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, for a comment on this phenomenon.

"I'd say that Miller's fans tend to think of themselves as smarter than average," he said. "Certain fans of all kinds of entertainment pride themselves on being the ones 'in the know,' the ones who have done a little cultural research beyond whatever new video release is on sale this week at Target. There are cult bands and cult movies and cult tv shows. And Dennis Miller is a cult comedian, albeit one who has managed to develop a considerable national audience."

It's an increasingly elite audience, too. In May 2003, the Wall Street Journal invited Miller to write an op-ed piece reacting to Norman Mailer's commentary in the Times of London the previous week. Mailer had written, "With their dominance in sport, at work and at home eroded, Bush thought white American men needed to know they were still good at something. That's where Iraq came in... The great white stars of yesteryear were for the most part gone, gone in football, in basketball, in boxing, and half-gone in baseball... On the other hand, the good white American male still had the Armed Forces."

Miller attempted to skewer Mailer with pedantic insults while missing the point with a politically correct sermon: "You know something, the only 'race' that really occurred to me during the war was our Army's sprint to Baghdad. Conversely, Mr. Mailer appears to see just race in our armed forces, right down to the 'Super-Marines,' as he calls them... And as Mr. Mailer's prostate gradually supplants his ego as the largest gland in his body, he's going to have to realize, as is the case with all young lions who inevitably morph into Bert Lahr, that his alleged profundities are now being perceived as the early predictors of dementia."

One must wonder whether Miller's allusion to "young lions" indicates that he thinks Irwin Shaw wrote The Naked and the Dead. A few days later, the Journal published Mailer's response to Miller:

"Just because the two big guys who flanked you on Monday Night Football took away your balls and left you with a giggle in replacement doesn't mean you have to suck up to the Wall Street Journal."

Meanwhile, Talking Presidents, the toy company that manufactures talking action figures at $30 each, is now marketing a Dennis Miller doll, to go along with the George W. Bush doll ("You're working hard to put food on your family"), the Bill Clinton doll ("It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is"), the Donald Rumsfeld doll ("I believe what I said yesterday-I don't know what I said, but I know what I think and I assume it's what I said") and the Ann Coulter doll ("Swing voters are more appropriately known as the idiot voters because they have no set of philosophical principles-by the age of 14, you're either a conservative or a liberal if you have an IQ above a toaster").

Incidentally, when Coulter and I both played pundit on the same tv panel-about the assassination of Robert Kennedy on the short-lived series, Conspiracy Zone-I suggested to her during a commercial break that the labels "conservative" and "liberal" had become obsolete, and I asked what she thought might be appropriate substitutes.

"Americans and cowards," she said.

"Yikes," I said.

Anyway, Miller supplied comments for his doll in both family-suitable and explicit-language versions. Here are some samples of his 21 utterances:

"The world should remember that the United States does have a long fuse, but at the end of the day, it is connected to a big friggin' bomb!"

"And quit bringing up our forefathers and saying they were civil libertarians. Our Founding Fathers would've never tolerated any of this crap. For godsakes, they were blowing people's heads off because they put a tax on their breakfast beverage. And it wasn't even coffee."

"Of course, that's just my opinion-I could be wrong."

"The only way we were gonna get the French to go into Iraq is to tell them we thought there were truffles in there."

"Guess what, folks-that's the news, and I am outta here."

And where did he go? For a ride in George W. Bush's limousine, and in Air Force One, referring to himself as "a Rat Pack of one for the president in Hollywood." On Larry King Live, Miller explained what had brought about the change in his political perspective. He said that when he was in New York, he kept hearing people comparing Bush with Adolf Hitler, and he didn't think that was fair.

In this particular circumstance, though, I agree wholeheartedly with Dennis Miller. There certainly is a difference between Hitler and Bush. Hitler was elected.

~ ~ ~

Paul Krassner can be reached at  http://www.paulkrassner.com

homepage: homepage: http://www.nypress.com/17/4/news&columns/zen.cfm
address: address: New York Press

Nice article 30.Jan.2004 01:56


I watched Miller's new show last night for the first time, and what struck me was how god-damned boring it was. His jokes were fell pretty flat. I kept hearing some forced fake laughs in the background. I guess he doesn't have an audience for a reason. With his choice of guests, you may as well watch O'Reilly, you'll get more laughs anyway.