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Miller says he's more comfortable with 'Monday Night' role

Sunday, July 29, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- After a year on the job, Castle Shannon native Dennis Miller is willing to 'fess up: Before joining ABC's "Monday Night Football" broadcast team last summer, he'd been to only one NFL game. And that was when he was 7.

(Illustrated by Ted Crow, Post-Gazette)

"I figured I better not drop that nugget on ABC," Miller said at a press conference during the Television Critics Association summer press tour. "I think I was at a game at Pitt Stadium where Jim Bakken [of the St. Louis Cardinals] kicked seven field goals to beat the Steelers. I have some vague memory of him being like a Radio City Rockette out there."

Last season was Miller's first as an analyst alongside Dan Fouts and commentator Al Michaels, and the trio expressed satisfaction with their efforts.

"Not only did it get better as the year went along, but it started out at a higher level and finished at a higher level than I would have anticipated," Michaels said. "There's always going to be a little bit of difficulty when you blend new voices together. People are going to step on each other."

Miller said he grew more comfortable as the season progressed.

"By the end of the year, I can honestly say I savored showing up for the game," he said. "I was excited, I wasn't nervous. It's like anything, except you're learning in front of I don't know how many millions of people. But it's a tough gig. It's like air traffic control at O'Hare on Christmas Eve."

Miller learned how to avoid stepping on his colleague's lines by watching Michaels' body language.

"He doesn't mind if I do anything goofy when the game is crap," Miller said. "His hands stay down at his sides and I know that's when it's safe to talk. But when the [expletive] hits the fan, he has this Arthur Conan Doyle mind. It works like a trap. And the hands come up, and that means: shut up with the mindless jive."

Michaels said the quality of the "Monday Night Football" games last season kept the trio from having to concentrate on entertaining banter.

"For years we'd have four or five consecutive weeks of 20 to nothing at the half, of games that were not compelling, of games that fell apart early," Michaels said. "All of a sudden it became the most intense series of games in the history of 'Monday Night Football.' God willing, they should be half as good this year."

"This year at our first blow-out, we're all going to start reading different sections of Thomas Pynchon's 'Gravity's Rainbow,' " Miller joked.

New "Monday Night Football" producer Fred Gaudelli said he'll work to improve the broadcast without making any significant changes.

"Last year was a bold experiment that worked pretty much across the board." Gaudelli said. "What we really want to do now is [make it] more seamless and conversational and entertaining."

Though not all "Monday Night Football" fans cotton to Miller's style, he said he wasn't worried.

"I'm 47 years old," he said. "If you go back to your narcissistic middle 30s and really care what people think about you, you're a nutcase. ... I'm on 'Monday Night Football' and I'll do my best, and they'll either whack me or keep me. And they kept me."

Miller's only bit of self-critical analysis was an acknowledgment that he occasionally talked too much. But on the whole, he enjoyed acquainting viewers with his offbeat style of verbal gymnastics and cultural references.

Still, not everyone understood all of his lines, which explains why Britannica.com took up the task of explicating his commentary each week.

"What I tell people is don't worry about the ones you don't get," Fouts said. "Enjoy the ones you do. And remember, there's a game going on."

Fouts said NFL players get star-struck around Miller, frequently asking for introductions.

"And then they bully me for my lunch money," Miller quipped.

Over the course of the season, Miller said he began to feel accepted by players and coaches.

"Once you prove to them you're just going to try to do your job and treat them with the proper amount of respect and question them if something is amiss, but at least be fair about it, they let you in. But I think it takes a guy like [Tampa Bay defensive tackle] Warren Sapp almost, one of those guys, to give you the stamp of imprimatur."

Miller said he reached that threshold when Denver coach Mike Shanahan gave him a compliment.

"He carries a lot of weight in that league," Miller said, pausing before the punchline. "And eventually I was at Sunday night toga parties with a lot of the players."

Miller said he's looking forward to broadcasting from Heinz Field when "Monday Night Football" telecasts the Steelers against the Tennessee Titans on Oct. 29.

"You see it periodically when they show the new baseball stadium and then show the one next door. It looks beautiful."

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