Dennis Millers 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 Millers 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 doesnt mean Ive 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 Millers 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 chimps warm, simian personality makes up for all the bad reviews hes been getting from cold, nasty critics.
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Miller hasnt had much luck with his timing. His openly pro-Bush show debuted just as John Kerry became the Democratic front-runner and the presidents 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, Millers 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 theyve 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 theyre 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 hes 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. Wed go to them and say, Hey, its just business. Miller, whos 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 viewers 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 hes getting angry at other white men, which doesnt count: Thats called being a sensible white man. He cried on-air after 9/11, and if something like that ever happens again, hell probably turn in a repeat performance. But in the meantime hell carry on making fun of Tom Ridge and Bush and WMD and so forth not just because theyre easy satirical targets but because comedically thats the safe thing to do.
When satirizing the media, The Daily Show is brilliant, but when it comes to Osama bin Laden et al., Stewart just cant wrap his head around the idea of an enemy, particularly a Third World one. Simply thinking about it makes him queasy, uncomfortable, and challenges his most deeply held belief, which is that its unseemly to get ticked off at anyone who isnt rich, Caucasian and, hopefully, Republican. The municipal authorities of his own city may be working around the clock to prepare for the possibility of a nuclear attack, but Stewart cant find it in his heart to resent the people who make those preparations necessary. Deep down, hed prefer to think its all Dick Cheneys fault: If we hadnt invaded Iraq, 9/11 would never have happened.
Which is where Miller comes in. Not only is he comfortable with the idea of enemies and war, he doesnt even have a problem with the elusive Cheney. In an interview with Newsweek investigative reporter Michael Isikoff about David Kays WMD report, Miller argued that todays CIA is ineffectual because of legislation that prevented the agency from getting down and dirty with the worlds bad guys. Isnt that the problem over there, that we got out of the dirty-people business? Miller asked.
Certainly, if youre Dick Cheney, that would be the analysis, Isikoff conceded.
Well, I am Dick Cheney! Miller replied, pretending to pull off a facemask and cracking himself up in the process.
Miller begins each episode of his program with The Daily Rorschach, a segment in which he sits at a desk and delivers wordy some would say laborious riffs on the news, much as he once did on Saturday Night Live and Dennis Miller Live on HBO. (Sample jokes: A new poll shows that Senator Kerrys support in the South is strongest among blacks. Kerrys appeal to Southern blacks is obvious: Hes a white man who lives far, far away. Kerrys campaign is also gaining support among women. However, Kucinich is still tops among post-op trannies.) This part of the program, at least, could benefit mightily from a live audience, because without some laughter to feed off, Miller the comedian can seem a little lost, even with crew members providing some consolation chuckles offscreen.
But could he even attract a studio audience four days a week, particularly one that would laugh at his jokes? Studio audiences in L.A. and New York will howl at any anti-Bush joke, and cheer any anti-Bush remark, no matter how lame. How would they react to the jokes of an openly Republican comedian, even one whos laid-back on the cultural issues and is down with gay marriage? Well soon find out. Mo was recently seen holding up a sign with a toll-free telephone number, and when the show returns from a 10-day hiatus on March 9, it will be with a nightclub-style audience of 100 or so in attendance as well as former Early Show and Today guru Steve Friedman as consulting producer.
After he gets through with the jokes, Miller generally interviews somebody who can illuminate a particular issue Congressman Barney Frank on gay marriage, former U.N. inspector Scott Ritter on the missing WMD, historian Victor Davis Hanson on immigration. The second half of the show is then mostly taken up by the Varsity Panel, when Miller and three guests discuss topics from the days news. Contributors have included Naomi Wolf, David Horowitz, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Lawrence ODonnell, Mickey Kaus, Jill Stewart, Martin Short, Mark Cuban, Kellyanne Conway, David Denby and others. Here Miller acts less like a host than a fellow conversationalist, and seems as happy to listen as to interrupt. But he does get in a few wisecracks.
When Gates, the chair of Harvards Afro-American Studies Department, mildly reproved his fellow (all white) panelists for never reading Ebony or Jet, Miller quipped: I read the Cliffs Notes to Jet. Later in the same episode, Gates predicted that Al Sharpton would get 15 to 25 percent of the vote in the South Carolina primary. Isnt that one of the signs of Armageddon? Miller asked innocently.
The nice thing about the Varsity Panel (depending on his guests) is the relatively relaxed and straightforward attitude that Miller brings to it. Although he worked briefly as a commentator for Hannity and Colmes on Fox, hes far from being a Murdochian attack dog, and he often sits there and sucks it up while people tell him just how awful the administration of his beloved commander-in-chief really is. (Naomi Wolfe almost went into meltdown mode as she assailed John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act.) Miller, it turns out, is considerably more interested in diversity than some of his liberal counterparts.
On a recent episode of Topic A With Tina Brown (CNBC), there were, by my count, seven guests who were Democrats, two Brits who would almost certainly vote Labour (Brown herself and Greg Dyke, the ousted head of the BBC), along with one lone Republican, Betsy McCaughey, who was more or less told to shut up by Nora Ephron. A typical Miller panel, on the other hand, will be 50-50, meaning one Republican guest, two Democrats, and Miller himself to balance things out.
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Miller may be up front about his own political affiliation, even to the point of shilling for the Republicans, but despite his increasingly aggressive America-first humor, he is unusually evenhanded in his selection of guests. When it comes to protecting our country, he said a couple of weeks ago, launching into a characteristic Ugly American rant, Ill call a guy who does his talking in a universal language all terrorist punks understand big MOABs dropped right on their heads that say KABOOM for five city blocks. And we know who that is, dont we?
And then Miller introduced (by video screen) not, as you might expect, Ollie North or Attila the Hun, but the former U.S. secretary of labor under Clinton, Robert Reich, who proceeded to deliver an elegant editorial on the true meaning of the word patriotism. This boiled down Im going to be accused of class warfare, Reich warned to a convincing argument for why, contra Millers beloved president, the rich should pay higher taxes. Somehow I cant imagine the Michael Moores and Al Frankens of this world not even the Jon Stewarts being quite so generous toward their adversaries.
There was a little coda, though. After Reich had finished, we rejoined Miller, who was hanging out with the chimp. Whats that, Mo? he asked, bending down as if to catch something the little critter was saying. I know! Hes trying to instigate class warfare!
So thats why Miller likes Mo hes a Republican.