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Dennis Miller: Monday Night Live

ABC hoping miller boosts 'Monday Night Football' ratings

Sunday, July 30, 2000

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Immanuel Rant, he wasn't.

 
   
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
ABOUT DENNIS MILLER


Patrice King Brown, KDKA-TV anchor and former co-worker with Miller: "He's a Pittsburgher. Dennis does not suffer fools, as most Pittsburghers do not. And that's why I think this just might work."

Jimmy Krenn, WDVE-AM morning co-host and former opening act for Miller: "All the savvy through his live TV and just doing standup -- if you can handle the second show at night in the Desert Inn, Las Vegas, you can handle 'Monday Night Football.' Every impressionist, one of their first few impressions was [in voice] Howard Cosell. Maybe now all the impressionists growing up, one of their first impressions will be Dennis Miller."

Budd Friedman, The Improv founder: "Dennis Miller is brilliant. But not everybody knows who Dennis Miller is. Here we have [Improv alumnus] Jay Leno hosting the most important series probably on the air. All the other comics have been on sitcoms like Jerry Seinfeld and Drew Carey and Ellen DeGeneres and Billy Crystal and Paul Reiser and Bill Maher [all portrayed on a mural beside his building]. But this is such a real leap."

David Gee, Improv comedian: "I can't wait to hear a reference to Moliere on a crackback block. In the fourth quarter, after an eight-beer binge, people will be saying, 'Who's this Fellini?' A lot of sports fans are going to have to hang out with a Thesaurus or an Encyclopedia Brittannica. I think what they're trying to do is to recapture the best thing that was 'Monday Night Football.' You had a guy who was a drunk [Cosell], a guy who was high on weed [Don Meredith, so the story goes,] and a guy who was waiting for the next flight. . . attendant [Frank Gifford]."

Garry Shandling, comedian and TV star: "He'll be fantastic. I have too many intimacy problems to be locked in a booth with two other men during a football game. At that point, why not just get naked and go into the huddle?"

Dan Fouts, Miller's "Monday Night Football" boothmate: "He grew up a Steelers fan, but we'll forgive him for that."

Al Michaels, boothmate: "I keep going back to one thing: He's so smart, he gets it. It's hard to project. But this guy has a chance to be very successful."

Boomer Esiason, former Michaels boothmate: "I loved him when he did 'Saturday Night Live' Weekend Update or Sports Update, or whatever it was. So I'm like everybody else. We'll see ..."

 
 

Dennis Miller, in his early years, was actually timid.

Quiet even.

No hard-bitten humor. No literary references about philosophizing Kant to beguile or bewilder his St. Anne Elementary schoolmates. No popular-culture allusions to the Beatles or VW Beetles or dropping acid like it was Tang, what the astronauts drink..

If you expected Jackie Mason in Chuck Taylor tennies, you were way off.

Little Denny Miller of Castle Shannon was, by his own admission, back-of-the-room modest. "Essentially a shy kid. Never an innate performer."

He was the oldest of three boys and the big-brother shepherd over the herd of five children that Norma Miller raised by herself. The kids never did talk much about their absent father and still don't, so all friends and neighbors knew was Norma. She was a dietician at a Baptist home and the head of a latch-key family during the Cold War '50s, the Turbulent '60s, the Disco '70s and onward until her death a couple of years ago on her 70th birthday. And about the worst thing that happened to her brood was: The Miller boys went Hollywood.

Jimmy represents actors and comedians, most prominently Jim Carrey.

Rich books comedians for night clubs.

And Denny rants for a living. On television. In Vegas. In books. The only time he might get shy, quiet around a camera and a crowd nowadays is while undergoing one of his colonoscopy procedures, and that because of anesthesia.

"Looking back," the comedian with the wacky new gig said of his life of 46 years, smiling at the thought, "it's pretty surrealistic.

"Kind of a circuitous route."

You follow him? Quiet kid to clowning teen. Sports writer to Giant Eagle deli clerk. Janitor to flower-truck driver to ice-cream scooper to Rec Room manager. Local comic to KDKA-TV clown by age 30. Club-circuit standup comedian from New York to Los Angeles. "Saturday Night Live" to talk-show host. "Dennis Miller Live" to "Monday Night Football."

That football gig starts tomorrow on ABC at 7 p.m., when he moves into the zaniest room a comic never before worked: America's living room via the most-watched TV stage in sports.

Man, that's more circuitous than the color-coded belt system around Pittsburgh.

First stop: Puberty

Maybe it was a shell-shedding period or some sort of inner mechanism, but little Denny grew into a teen scream.

His first room was the dining room, and the young man was more manic about working it than the Three Stooges on Paul Shannon's "Adventure Time."

Sure, he did the kid stuff: played street football around Castle Shannon, played baseball in buddies' backyards, played hoops at St. Anne, watched too much television, all that rot. Everyone knew by high school, though, that this Miller boy loved laughs.

"He was funny, believe me," said Pauline Wasik, whose son, Ted, was best friends with young Denny and whose home and husband were always open to him and brother Rich. The eldest Miller boy, who once said his own father "moved on when I was very young," called Ted Wasik Sr. by Herc. And the father, Pauline Wasik continued, "used to treat Dennis like one of his own. If he deserved hell, he got it." Nothing riled Herc like a Miller meal show.

"At the dinner table -- my husband used to want to throw him out, because everybody was laughing instead of eating.

"That's where the comedy came in, I guess."

Miller and Wasik remained friends even after the former transferred from tuition-costly St. Anne before his freshman year and went to Keystone Oaks High.

"He was quite the character then," said Tom O'Malley Jr., insurance salesman and former classmate who played on the St. Anne 15- to 16-year-old CYO basketball team when Denny Miller was its manager. Sort of. "He was more the general manager than the manager. He wasn't picking up any towels, he was telling us what to do. But he was just as funny and topical and probably, for us, too intelligent."

"Just your average, nice, high-school kid who had a gleam in his eye when it came to the devious or skullduggery," added Joe Perry, a Keystone Oaks physical-education teacher then and athletic director now. "It may have [gotten him sent to the principal's office] once or twice. I don't recall it was ever anything serious. More just, 'Dennis, you can't do this anymore.'"

Dennis the Menace spent a year on the Keystone Oaks Physical Fitness Club, a senior year on the Keynote newspaper and on student council. He ran for senior-class president against Richard Yount -- politics? Dennis Miller? -- and lost. No one will ever know if it was a Nixon-McGovern '72 landslide kind of thing because they never officially tallied the votes. But, said Yount, a Baldwin High teacher, "Look how much better I have done. I'm a school teacher. He's only on 'Monday Night Football.' It shows you what high-school politics will do for you."

The levity was put to good use that senior year, the new school's second year of existence. Miller was the co-master of ceremonies for the Keystone Oaks May Pageant, entitled "Once Upon A Rumble Seat." His face adorned pages all over the '71 yearbook, Torch, starting with a second-page picture: Miller mugging with a drama teacher aptly named Joan Crawford. Yet he was still essentially reserved and lacking in self-confidence, an unknown quantity hidden under a cover of comedy. As one schoolmate put it, everybody knew him, but nobody really knew him.

After graduating in 1971, he moved on to Point Park College with the idea of becoming a sports writer.

No joke.

From bylines to punch lines

Miller began writing for the South Hills Record the fall of his senior year, and you're darned right he used humor. He waxed about offensive linemen playing as if there was Sominex in their water container. He dissected the South Hills Catholic team, authoring the line that its offense scored about as often as "Fred Rogers in a single's bar."

"Fred Rogers waited outside by my car," Miller said with that trademark cackle a quarter-century later. "Sixth-degree black [belt], tae kwon do. What was I thinking?"

Back then, he apparently sat around the newspaper office singing the words to the cartoon "Go Speed Racer Go" theme, but soon after, he did go.

"I literally remember them saying they were going to pay us by the column inch," Miller recalled. "It was like an eighth of a penny. 'You're going to pay me what? I am so out of here, man.'"

He was graduated from Point Park in 1976, promptly taking that journalism and communications degree to careers in janitorial engineering and driving a flower truck. He scooped ice cream at the Village Dairy, where he unpleasantly remembers being 21 and serving the prettiest girl from Keystone Oaks from five years before. He worked in Point Park's basement running the Rec Room.

Underneath Lawrence Hall, he oversaw the video games, the bowling alley and the air-hockey league. Air-hockey zealots such as current Penguins Vice President Tom McMillan nicknamed him "Clarence," after then-NHL Commissioner Clarence Campbell, and "Commish" (brother Jimmy, another Point Parker, was "Commush").

"Dennis would show up and sit on the pool tables and crack wise and do all the things that he's going to get a million bucks for now," said Bob Gretz, a reporter for the Kansas City Chiefs' radio network. "That was the only place for the commuters to hang out, the Rec Room. All through school, it was the era of the Super Steelers, and the whole time we were down there we were always talking about football."

"He always has been a huge sports fan," added McMillan, "so he can speak the fans' language."

Miller watched Robin Williams on HBO and decided, around 1979, to try to speak comedy-fans' language.

He earnestly practiced the craft at the Oak Lounge in Castle Shannon and the Giant Eagle in Kennedy, where he was probably the most entertaining deli clerk in the Western Hemisphere. He lived car-less and poor in Oakland. He hitched rides -- grocery co-workers recall a bitter winter night when they dressed him in rubber deli gloves and plastic wrap because he insisted on starting down Steuben Street on foot -- and rode buses and joked around. From one-night stand-ups in Oakland and Brandy's in the Strip District, he scraped together $1,000 and attempted to catapult to, gulp, New York for a year. "Got my ass kicked," he said.

It was back in Pittsburgh, at Brandy's , where KDKA-TV stumbled across the sight-gag comic from Castle Shannon while shooting an August 1980 piece for "Evening Magazine." By the end of 1980, the same year that no less a fount of journalism as Hustler magazine selected him as one of "The 10 Funniest People in America You'll Never See on TV," Miller was warming up KDKA's "Pittsburgh 2Day" afternoon audiences. Then he began taping pieces for "Evening Magazine," one week as a hairdresser, the next as a policeman, the next as a master chef. Then, in 1983, he was made the host of a Saturday-morning teen-agers' show titled "Punch Line," in which a clean-cut, jeans-wearing, hands-in-pockets performer interviewed comedians such as Pat Paulsen and segued from the weekly musical vignette with such quips as, "Flock of Seagulls -- not your average polka band."

"Everybody starts in broadcasting somewhere," he said in retrospect. "What, they're not going to hand you the keys to the kingdom you're first gig out. I was just pleased to be in front of a camera."

"He was fabulous," said Patrice King Brown, the KDKA news anchor who toiled as co-host of "Pittsburgh 2Day" and remains close to Miller. "I always tease him that I'm easy to entertain, but he always cracked me up. Still does. I think he's a very smart wit, although he loses some people."

A funny-man epiphany came while Miller once watched a New York show by Richard Belzer, the longtime comic now acting on NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." He saw Belzer bark at a crowd instead of embracing it. He saw someone be cutting instead of cute. He figured there was a place after all for paranoid, angry, rapier-hip wit.

An acquaintance from Pittsburgh tour stops scrounged up an apartment in Los Angeles and a debut at The Improv comedy club for Miller, luring him to the Left Coast in March 1984. The acquaintance's name: Jay Leno.

The star was sort of a mentor, a rabbi, to aspiring comedians back then. They used to gather at his house, holding late-night laugh fests of their own.

"It was the Socratic method -- sitting at his knee, querying Yoda," Miller said. "Sit there in our own little, cynical Star Chamber. Leno has a really acid sense of humor. It's so funny to watch him now, Dr. Feelgood. Trust me, behind that veneer, he's a pisser. I don't mean that in a bad way, either.

"If you had a TV shot back then, if you were paneling on something bad, Jay had a copy of it. [Whistles.] 'Yeah, hey, Mr. Miiillllllller, appearing with a prosthetic device this week.' All of the sudden, you're watching yourself at your worst. The sucker tapes everything."

Oh, no, not Miller losing "Star Search" to an oddly named, then-unknown comedian: Sinbad.

The Improv, a.k.a. Millersville

In a strange way, Budd Friedman was a father figure to the Miller boys. Leno brought Dennis into Friedman's famed Improv on Hollywood's Melrose Avenue, and basically turned over the brothers to the club founder.

"Dennis Miller. . . ?" joked Friedman, who has Western Pennsylvania experience: a month working for Troutman's department store in Greensburg. "Oh, Jimmy's brother."

Rich and Jimmy Miller, younger by two and four years, joined their big brother at The Improv. They worked the door -- Rich, being muscular and mop-headed, striking a little more fear into punch-line-drunk patrons than the slim, balding Jimmy. They booked acts. Friedman sounds as if he liked them as much as their big brother, if not more.

Jimmy grew into the uberagent with Gold Miller, representing Carrey and Jennifer Lopez, to name-drop two. Rich grew into a fellow who runs his own RCM Entertainment and books comedians around Minneapolis and elswehere.

And Dennis. . . ?

"Dennis was, in the beginning, always too hip for the room," said Mark Lonow, co-owner of the Improv with Friedman. "He was too erudite. His references were so 'in' . . . people were like, 'Where did that come from?' But when you first saw him, you could see the brightness. You couldn't tell if he was going to be a star, because you didn't know the business hunger. But a very smart comic."

Lorne Michaels caught Miller's LA act at The Comedy Store and plunked him down on the "Saturday Night Live" Weekend Update desk in 1985. Miller stayed there, scuffling every Friday for the next night's madcap recap, then whisking a pen across the script while closing: That's the news, and I'm outta here. By 1991, he was.

Then came the ill-fated, six-month, syndicated "The Dennis Miller Show," which wasn't even carried in his hometown -- his former employer KDKA, for one, instead aired "Inside Edition" at 11:30 p.m. weeknights. That was a trying period Leno's booking agents forced guests to steer clear of Miller's show, a situation that estranged the old friends for a time.

During he entire "Saturday Night Live" and 1992 talk-show period, Miller returned to Pittsburgh to make people laugh, work a room. It's just that the rooms got bigger: a new Funny Bone, Star Lake, college shows. He asked the same, former 20-year-old comedian who used to work with him at Brandy's and Portfolio to open for him.

"Even when we were kids," began Jimmy Krenn of WDVE-FM, "he was always a genius."

Too smart? HBO didn't think so. After propping him up in a couple of specials, the cable network signed him to an exclusive deal. It began airing in 1994 a "Dennis Miller Live" show that continues to win awards for its witty writing, its raving rants. Those diatribes have been published as three books -- New York Times Bestsellers "The Rant" and "Ranting Again," followed this year by "I Rant, Therefore I Am."

Slipping into movies, he appeared in a handful ranging from "The Net" with Sandra Bullock to "Murder at 1600" with Wesley Snipes, "Disclosure" to "Never Talk to Strangers," and, uh, finally, "Bordello of Blood." "Did you see my last movie, about vampire hookers?" Miller said. "I'm out of that business."

Slipping into commercials, he vamped most recently for a long-distance telephone service. "I am a roast; baste me," he told a TV critic at the Summer Press Tour a fortnight ago, when asked about future advertising roles. "If you've got a product that you want to pay me to pitch, as long as it's not something that I think is bad for the world at large, I'm there baby. I might even do an ad for your newspaper, if you paid me enough."

He no longer plays Pittsburgh because, well, he only appears on HBO and in Nevada occasionally. It's a question of size and geography. "Listen, after 15 years in the business, if you can't get more than 300 people [at a show], you're in bad shape," he said with a chortle. "I don't play many places anymore, except Vegas."

He has a home in a Santa Barbara suburb where the mountains meet the Pacific Ocean beach some 100 miles north of L.A. He has a second wife, Ali, and two elementary-school age sons, Holden and Marlon. The self-described "butthole," the guy whose second credit on his HBO show reads "400 lb. Gorilla: Dennis Miller," has so seized fatherhood and found a home with a nuclear family that he bills his company as "Happy Family Productions."

Some Pittsburghers wonder why he doesn't come here more often or promote his birthplace or attend his high-school reunions, like Michael Keaton of Montour High. But Miller only has a sister left living here and does return to visit her -- this despite an outlook on airplanes that falls somewhere between fear and loathing.

"No, there's no rift or a problem. I love Pittsburgh," Miller said. "I love to come back there. I wish [the Steelers] had a game this year. Unfortunately, they gotta throw together a 10-6 or 11-5 . . . and hope that I get hired back for next year."

Detour: Football

As KDKA's King Brown put it, "I don't think Dennis was running around saying, 'I want to be on 'Monday Night Football.'" Yet he was a football guy. A Steelers fan. A subscriber to insiders-only "Pro Football Weekly" for too long. A sports fanatic known to get into such a lather that he dialed up sports-radio talk shows around L.A. and across the country.

But TV sports nights live?

The idea so intrigued him that Fox got an inquiry from a representative when it landed the NFC broadcasting rights in 1994: Would you be interested in Dennis Miller as a football announcer?

The idea intrigued him anew this summer. Word reached "Monday Night Football" producer Don Ohlmeyer that Miller was interested in a spot in the under-reconstruction ABC broadcast, television's No. 4 show in 1999 despite earning its lowest ratings in 30 years. Next thing anyone knew, after a blew-them-away tryout over a tape of the Buffalo-Tennessee AFC playoff first-half ("Wade Phillips. . . he's no Bum"), the franchise show was announcing its new lineup of incumbent Al Michaels, new analyst Dan Fouts, and a Castle Shannon comic by way of Giant Eagle, the Rec Room, dining rooms, small clubs and NBC and HBO.

"I didn't have any sword-from-the-stone moment," Miller said. "I've always sat at home like anybody, watched football, done the 'Mystery Science Theater 3000' overview with my friends, and thought that would be fun to try. And I thought football might be an entree for me to speak to a wider audience to some extent."

He hears the caterwaul. He knows purists are upset and some media outlets -- from TV Guide to The Sporting News -- are panning the ABC move. As if people haven't doubted or dissed him before.

Yet he has studied media guides and films sent to him by NFL Films' Steve Sabol and worked test tapes in an Ohlmeyer studio "boot camp" the past two weeks. He is ready to take this new stage tomorrow night. Now, as the New York Post headline phrased it the morning after the stunning announcement five and a half weeks ago: Are You Ready For Some Goofball?

By the way, about his made-for-cable mouth: He said whenever you hear him break into a Jim Nabors/"Gomer Pyle" Golllly, it's a self-censored substitute for his favorite four-letter word.

Let's give him the mike and cut him loose:

On starting tomorrow night opposite the Republican National Convention on other channels and preceding it on ABC with a two-hours-earlier-than-normal kick off: "We should get great viewership. Who wants to see the coronation of George W. Bush? The guy thinks Croatia is the show on after Moesha."

On being a longtime Steelers fan: "I've got to cool that. It'll detract from my [legendary TV reporter] Edward R. Murrow chops."

On working in a trio: "I've been doing standup alone for years. It's really a loner job. It'll be fun to work with other guys. Get to learn the social graces again."

On working this football job: "It's a great place to score. A nice place to show your wares. I don't think I'm the most savvy guy about doing a football broadcast, but I know if you got a game that's cooking, the last thing you want to hear is a guy looking to score humor points. They will crucify you for that. Yeah, 38-6, beginning of the fourth quarter, everyone going to bed -- I'll pull out my act and work on it like it was The Improv. If I do well, they will rehire me. If I do it poorly, they'll fire me. I'm at peace with that."

On viewers hating him: "A few years ago, I got this insight that it was good that a lot of people disliked me. I thought, if everybody likes me, then I'm not mining the small niche in show business that I've been able to mine, which is being alternatingly aggravating and a catharsis to some people's innermost thoughts. I guess I'm going to have the sort of career where some people dislike me. As long as they come into the tent to actually dislike me each week and register a Nielsen rating, I'm happy."

On being too hip: "I've never gone down that Jay Leno, Lonesome-Road mainstream thing. It's not like I'm working with Lenny [Bruce] in the West Village. I've made a pretty good living. Enough people seem to get it. Christ, I'm doing Jetson references. How deep does it run?"

The latest foray on the goofy tour through Dennis Miller's life begins tomorrow night, on the road, inside a small ABC room that plays to 40 million people a week.

Try the veal. He'll be here all season.



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