The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Now, I don’t want to get off on a rant here, but Dennis Miller is a guy who’s gone through a lot of different personas throughout his storied career. He’s been the smarmy “Weekend Update” anchor, smarmy late-night talk show host, and most recently a smarmy conservative political commentator. During this run he’s had more shows with his name in the title than Tyler Perry that have been attached to more networks than Paddy Chayefsky. His reference-heavy, laid-back demeanor has made him the kind of guy you either love or hate. Well, today we look back at his first solo venture; hot off the heels of his six-year Saturday Night Live run where he hosted his first late-night talk show entitled The Dennis Miller Show.
Premiering on January 20, 1992, The Dennis Miller Show was syndicated, which meant he was a world away from the freedom he would later be given on HBO with his much more long-running Dennis Miller Live. What’s interesting about that date, however, is that it meant that Miller was starting out in a much different late night landscape than the one that exists today. At this point, Letterman was still on NBC at 12:35, Carson was just finishing up his run on The Tonight Show, and apart from Nightline the only other competition was from The Arsenio Hall Show. Dennis Miller was there to speak to a younger audience that wasn’t being served by Carson’s show, but maybe wasn’t into Arsenio. However, this was a narrow audience that was probably already being served by Late Night with David Letterman, which might explain why Miller’s show lasted only seven months.
The first episode of the program lays out the voice of the show pretty clearly. It follows the standard late night talk show structure of monologue, desk piece, interview, musical guest, but with a strong Dennis Miller attitude throughout. For example, here are the first words Miller says as host of his talk show, with links to Wikipedia to explain the references. “You know, I am so whacked out on Prozac. What do you think of the place? We had some of my Amish friends over and we had a set raising. Don’t get too used to it, though. It’s trompe-l’œil and I’m a hologram.” That’s right. In his very first words on stage, speaking to America, he makes a trompe-l’œil reference. This was very clearly the show that Miller wanted it to be. Joining him there was Andy Summers, who Miller describes as being “formerly of The Police, let go in the wake of the Rodney King beating,” with a joke that the audience reacts to with a “too soon” oooohh… which may be fair as the incident happened less than a year previous and the resulting LA riots were only four months away. Also on stage was his announcer Nick Bakay, a writer and comedian in his own right, who I know best as the voice of Salem on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, who isn’t given much to do in this episode. Behind the scenes, his writer’s room was pretty fantastic, with such talent as Norm MacDonald, That 70s Show co-creator Mark Brazill, 30 Rock’s John Riggi, stand-up and writer Drake Sather, and as it progressed would feature Will & Grace creators David Kohan & Max Mutchnick, SCTV’s Dave Thomas, and Bob Odenkirk.
If you’ve ever seen Miller’s “Weekend Update” segment, then you have a good idea what his monologue for this program sounded like. I was actually surprised at how contemporary a lot of it felt with a number of non-sequitur punch lines, as well as some sharp, brutal hits of the Chelsea Lately/Gawker kind. Some examples that I think work pretty well with only a cursory knowledge of the 1992 headlines they reference: “Vice President Dan Quayle went golfing with Bob Hope and Gerald Ford. At one point, Quayle hooked a drive into the deep jungle brush and then used his father’s connections to avoid going in after it.” Or, “LA Police chief Darryl Gates thinks he can run for mayor and win, but Gates believes he can beat anybody.” Finally there’s this one that might require you to hear Dennis’s rapid-fire delivery in order for it to work, but know that I had to pause the video for a moment to recover after this delightfully dumb joke: “According to the New York Times, Upjohn, [now part of Pfizer] the guys who make Halcion, the sleeping drug, they gave it to Bush after he vomited in Japan. They’re accused of concealing evidence that it has serious psychiatric side effects. The chairman of the company denied it, saying “It’s like I told Enrique Caruso in the dirigible, ‘the delicious cupcakes are safe.’”
The last joke of the monologue was actually a precursor to a something that would become a mainstay of Dennis Miller Live: the rant. While it lacks the signature opening line of that segment, he begins talking about Pete Rose doing a radio show in Florida, which leads into a whole thing about separating the art from the artist that one could read online today and it would feel just as apropos. “Isn’t it about time we stopped confusing their personal lives with their professional lives until we have nobody left in the Hall of Fame, a bunch of sub-moronic nerds in the White House, and a nation full of snoops and busybodies too busy worrying about the lives of their neighbors to beat the people in Japan at anything but pie and donut consumption?”
Miller, at this point, has plenty of experience telling jokes, but now that he has to do bits over at the desk, things get a little shakier. The first bit is actually a play on the old show-biz trope of reading congratulatory telegrams from all your celebrity friends on the air. In “From the Archives” we previously saw Jack Parr do this in earnest, but when Miller does it they’re all scripted jokes. For example, his telegram from J.D. Salinger reads, “Break a leg. Hey, these are the first words I’ve written in years! Feels good. Maybe I’ll take it up again.” The bit is fine, but it doesn’t set the audience on fire. Similarly, Miller introduces a segment known as “For and Against” in which he takes a topic and looks at both sides of the issue. In this episode they look at the existence of UFOs, and I don’t have any jokes worth quoting from this segment so let’s just move on.
For the first episode of an unproven syndicated talk show, Miller does manage to get some big name guests for his first episode. Tom Hanks is out first, and I have to say, more so than most contemporary talk show interviews, this one feels like two guys just hanging out. They talk a bit about what it’s like working on SNL, Tom promotes his new movie, A League of Their Own, with some inadvertent Madonna double entendres, and then talks a little bit about his newborn son who we may know best today as Chet Haze, but was then lovingly referred to as “Chet the Jet.” Bonnie Raitt shows up and performs a song, and then Christian Slater shows up and they talk about how big a Star Wars buff he is, and present him with a belt of vintage action figures. There is very little use of the standard blue question cards, and Miller’s laid-back attitude really works well when he’s talking one-on-one with the guests.
While Miller seems fine as a host, I would say there was really only one innovation that I saw within the first episode, and that was in his interactions with the audience. He treated the crowd as one massive entity and rewarded said entity in a few different ways. Each night, every person in the audience was given a lottery ticket for the California State Lottery, and if one of the people won, they’d split it with the entire audience (and Miller). At the halfway point of the show, as a pallet cleanser, the audience was given a sorbet (the first episode’s flavor was mango). When asked how they liked it, the audience responded in unison: “Mmmmmmm!”
In his review of the show back when it originally aired, Ken Tucker from Entertainment Weekly discussed his two reactions to the show thusly: “Miller is really funny and really nauseating, truly smart and truly repulsive… Miller’s intense self-consciousness – his fixed, ironic smirk; his tic of ruffling his long, layered hair-can be simultaneously amusing and awkward.” And apparently the rest of the country felt similarly. Arsenio soldiered for a little while longer, and Leno took the reigns from the stalwart Carson and saw Miller as just a blip on his radar. While this particular solo venture didn’t work out so well for Miller, he bounced back into television just fine.