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Talking to Dennis Miller is like whipping around a Formula 1 race track at blinding speed. The comedian-commentator speaks stream-of-consciousness style, with rhythmically precise language laced with more pithy pop cultural references than a season of Black Mirror.
In a recent interview, he alluded – within the space of three minutes — to Mad Men, Eagles coach Doug Pederson and obscure right wing broadcaster Paul Harvey, a man whose extended dramatic pauses were nearly as theatrically effective as Miller’s. He was even a bit prescient, quoting from Tom Wolfe just days before his passing.
Some know Miller from his time behind the “Weekend Update” desk at Saturday Night Live, which he manned from 1985 and 1991 (Vulture named him the best of all SNL’s faux newsreaders).
Others found him via HBO and the highly politicized The Dennis Miller Show which ran from 1994 to 2002. Despite a difference in political bent — many of MIller’s beliefs are unabashedly neoconservative — his turns as snarky commentator and flinty faux news host basically set the template for comic news show that followed in his wake, from The Colbert Report and The John Oliver Show to The Daily Show under both Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah.
Miller still draws crowds as a stand-up comic, which is why
Your fellow SNL alums Joe Piscopo and Rob Schneider have groused about the show’s current politics. Does their stodginess surprise you, especially considering its original counter-culture stance?
[SNL producer/creator] Lorne [Michaels] never once told me during the six years I was there to go after anyone politically. It was always “us” against “them;” going after the power base. I can’t get my knickers in a twist – sorry, I married an English woman – about anyone’s political jokes, though. Trump is in power. That’s who they go after.
R. Eric Thomas recently told Billy Penn that after 12 hours or so, the stories he wishes to riff on are too old. Agree with that timing?
The fissionable material, the half-life on the cultural deuterium, is very quick. You write a joke, people seize on it, and all of a sudden, you’re the old woman in the trashcan going over the Horseshoe Falls in a whitewater churn at the bottom, getting dermabraded.
Is that the reason why you started your 60-second feature, The Miller Minute?
I did eight years of three hour-a-day broadcasts and I was fried. I was getting angry and burned out, but still loved radio. These are my notions or the headlines of the day. It’s fun. Easier listening. They’re my form of tea sandwiches.
Are you bothering to write for those, or are you just riffing?
Riffing. When I did the weekly HBO show, I had a writing staff of six to seven people. But when I’m doing small notions such as “The Miller Minute” or even my own stand-up specials, it is me and some stream of conscious thinking. There’s no editing. It’s like doing Sodoku.
That speed is your thing.
Writing a few jokes on a topic and riffing from there is something that I learned a lot of that at Saturday Night Live. Plus I have been doing it that way for a while now. I’m 64 years old and have been a comedian for 34 of those years. Why change now?
Does having a President with such an erratic nature make your job easier?
It’s funny on its own until you have to go out on a proscenium stage and keep people’s attention. Everything had better be locked down. There have been very few cats over the years that can just pull the sword from the stone – Robin Williams, Jonathan Winters – go stream-of-consciousness and have people go along with them.
The world isn’t as funny as it used to be if you really think about it. So you had better be sharp and ready for it.
Audiences though are more vocally divided than ever. How do you deal with opposing views?
I think when you see my name on the marquee that you know what you’re getting. I’m famously socially liberal and fiscally conservative. It’s not as if an audience can’t believe their ears when they hear me. Half the room is not going to go along with you, no matter what stance you take.
If you had to go on stage right now, what would you do?
I would start out the program with ‘#blessed’. People will laugh at the weird nature of our social media world from there. Then I would I say “Twitter – never have lives less lived been more chronicled.” That should get me off to a good start. There’s a fracas out there, and then there is “a man in full,” as Tom Wolfe once said.