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Miller's Crossing 

Can a pro-Bush comedian get laughs?

Thursday, Mar 4 2004

Dennis Miller’s new talk show got off to a slightly confusing start when, seated next to a large chimpanzee called Ellie, he delivered an impassioned sermon how 9/11 had turned him into a supporter of George W. Bush, homeland security and the war on terror. As for Ellie, we were informed that she was going to be a “consultant” on the program. Her presence suggested a desire on Miller’s part to create a comedy-news show that would function both as a serious forum for discussion and as an opportunity for zany right-wing comedy. “I may be a Republican,” he was saying in effect, “but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my sense of humor.”

Maybe not, but he has lost Ellie, who was retired after a handful of appearances, perhaps because she pressed the Howard Dean “scream” button on Miller’s desk one too many times. Mo, a smaller, more amiable chimp, has replaced her, and can occasionally be seen swinging across the studio on a rope, nuzzling up to the host while he delivers a monologue, or turning somersaults on a sofa while attempting to read Variety. Strangely, Miller seems to derive some comfort from having Mo to hang out with on camera. Perhaps the chimp’s warm, simian personality makes up for all the bad reviews he’s been getting from cold, nasty critics.

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Miller hasn’t had much luck with his timing. His openly pro-Bush show debuted just as John Kerry became the Democratic front-runner and the president’s poll numbers went into a nosedive. No WMD in Iraq, an out-of-control budget and widespread revulsion at the tough-talking cowboy in the White House. You could hardly pick a worse time to declare yourself for the president and hope to get good ratings. In fact, Miller’s ratings did start out well, with 746,000 people (a huge figure by CNBC standards) tuning in to the first episode, in which he interviewed his pal Arnold Schwarzenegger, but they’ve slipped down to the 300,000 range since then.

Now compare that to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, the gold standard for television news-comedy, which has attracted as many as 1.9 million viewers on Comedy Central at 11 p.m., more than serious news shows on Fox, CNN and MSNBC can summon in the same time slot. Stewart, who was recently on the cover of Newsweek, is now so esteemed that a lot of people consider his “faux” news show to be a more valuable source of information than tired old establishment warhorses like World News Tonight, and in some ways they’re correct.

Ably abetted by the analyses and reports of hilariously self-important “correspondents” like Stephen Colbert, Stewart has managed to turn the traditional news show on its head while delivering a bracingly strong shot of Onion-esque “alternative” news at the same time. And he’s done it with such elegance and panache as to make his rivals — Bill Maher, Colin Quinn and now Miller — look like inebriated peasants trying out a few dance moves while standing next to Fred Astaire.

Or, even worse, like “angry white men” — a label that Maher, who glares at his guests when he disagrees with them and is apt to complain bitterly about feminists, sometimes gets stuck with. Quinn, whose Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn (Comedy Central) revels in its ability to deliver more racial insults in half an hour than any other show on television, is actually too good-humored to be called angry, but he does like to shock. On one program he suggested that our Middle East problems could be easily solved if we just threw the Jews to the Arabs. “What?” a fellow comedian responded, outraged. “The Jews would understand,” Quinn replied equably. “We’d go to them and say, ‘Hey, it’s just business.’” Miller, who’s attempting to be serious, angry and funny all at the same time, is closer to the Maher camp. He has promised to be “an ombudsman” who will tell it like it is and become “incensed” on the viewer’s behalf, even if, etymologically speaking, an ombudsman is supposed to be a cucumber-cool Swede rather than an irate California comedian.

Stewart, an instinctive ironist, is way too savvy to pose as a “truth-teller” or anything else. He deals in the coin of irony. Nor would anyone ever mistake him for an angry white man, except when he’s getting angry at other white men, which doesn’t count: That’s called being a sensible white man. He cried on-air after 9/11, and if something like that ever happens again, he’ll probably turn in a repeat performance. But in the meantime he’ll carry on making fun of Tom Ridge and Bush and WMD and so forth not just because they’re easy satirical targets but because comedically that’s the safe thing to do.

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