You might now know Dennis Miller as “that insufferable, smart-ass conservative who keeps showing up despite the fact that nobody finds him funny anymore.” But once upon a time he was “that sufferable, smart-ass cultural critic who many people find funny.”
Miller’s always been too smart for his own good, but before he became known for being the token conservative comedian in Hollywood after 2001, he was one of the wittiest comedians on the stand-up circuit. He was also known for hosting Dennis Miller Live on HBO for about seven years, but that wasn’t his first foray into talk—that would be his unheralded and quickly cancelled syndicated show The Dennis Miller Show, and it deserves far more attention than the passing Wikipedia mention it has right now.
And yes, I am going to go on a rant here.
How it started
Miller became a household name on SNL, where he was best known as the Weekend Update anchor from 1985 to 1991. Both Jon Lovitz and Dennis Miller auditioned for SNL at the same time, and Lovitz was hired while Miller didn’t make the cut. Lovitz was tapped to host Update, but he was in too many sketches to do it, so Miller was hired and SNL benefited greatly from his intelligence, dry wit, and verbal acumen.
In early 1991, Tribune Entertainment was looking to start a syndicated talk show. They originally tried to court Garry Shandling, offering him a blank check to work for them. When Shandling turned them down because he was busy exploring Hollywood, they offered the part to Dennis Miller. His check was, uh, decidedly not blank, but still substantial. Miller openly stated that he was happy on SNL and would miss doing Update, but he was prompted to move on for personal reasons—primarily his year-old son Holden, whose “birth reacquainted this urge in me to strive for things.” While he admitted that he was scared, he opted to take the gig because it was a rare opportunity.
The logic behind giving Miller his own show based on his success as Weekend Update host is nearly unimpeachable. It’s a big reason that Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers were given their own late night shows, and what got Amy Poehler considered to succeed Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. (Yes, it may have also played a role in getting Chevy Chase his own show – notice I said “almost.”)
From Tribune’s perspective, it made sense to jump into the late night talk show fray. Carson was set to leave The Tonight Show in May of 1992. In the event that Carson faithfuls jumped ship when Leno took over, Miller would be in a good place to pick up some of the viewership. Miller’s biggest competitor in the market was Arsenio Hall, but Miller figured that they wouldn’t attract the same audience as either Hall or Leno.
In the leadup to the show’s premiere, the phrase “a kinder, gentler Dennis” was nearly unavoidable, but he made sure to remind people the sarcasm wasn’t going anywhere. The show also would give him a chance to show off his vulnerability, an important part of success in the late night sphere. “I can coexist with my fellow man,” he assured, “or at least feign co-existence.”
Not long before his show started, Miller appeared as a guest on Tonight. Carson gave him advice, telling Miller that “you only compete with yourself” and not to “worry about what the other guy is doing” before tacking on “at least, wait four months [until I’m retired] and then worry.” Miller was thrilled.
The Dennis Miller Show debuted on January 20th, 1992. It was carried on over 130 stations—except, for some inexplicable reason, Miller’s hometown of Pittsburgh. KDKA, who was at one time his employer, played Inside Edition instead.
What it was like
The Dennis Miller Show itself was built around the familiar talk show format—opening monologue, guests, musical performances. What made it unique was the angle at which it approached them. The show was hailed as having “the smartest monologue on television,” filled with the obscure references and dry wit that made Miller a household name. The writing staff contained some of the smarter writers of the era, including Norm Macdonald and Bob Odenkirk. An Update-like news feature was also incorporated into the show.
Andy Summers of The Police led the house band, but quit after roughly a month—”He just didn’t like doing it,” according to Miller – and was replaced by keyboardist David Goldblatt. The show’s producer was fired in the first month for unspecified reasons but it doesn’t seem to have affected the show.
The Dennis Miller Show was noted for taking risks in the booking department, in particular how they showcased diverse musical talent that shows like Tonight weren’t likely to touch. Indeed, record labels were some of the saddest to see him go when he was cancelled. Primus, the Violent Femmes, Toad the Wet Sprocket, guitar legends Les Paul and Nigel Tufnel, and Mick Fleetwood’s Zoo were some of the many musical acts booked.
I could show you any of those—most of those hyperlink to their performances, but I’m going to give you something crazier: Mariachi Sol De Mexico performing “New York, New York.” Because what’s more New York than an unexpected mariachi band?
Guests went beyond just actors promoting their movies or TV shows—he booked some of the more cerebral and unusual guests out there. A prime example: on his second show, he had Israeli Then-Deputy Foreign Minister and Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The variety of guests was wide—he was just as likely to have Dave Coulier as he was Vincent Bugliosi.
Reviews were mixed, but tended to reflect the viewing audience. Entertainment Weekly praised Miller’s intelligence and wit, but worried that he’d have too much of a niche appeal to succeed. The Dallas Observer appreciated Miller’s obscure references, noting that understanding them made the viewer feel “clued-in” and “pretty boss about it.” The Chicago Tribune found that the talk show format made Miller on average more accessible but less interesting, but they were willing to see how things would go. Other reviewers referred to him as a good alternative programming, and noted that while he was a bit verbose he was some of the smartest comedy on TV. Young reviewers in particular were fond of him—Kit Boss, a journalist who would go on to have a solid career in television, raved about Miller and his potential appeal to younger viewers.
Despite the mixed reviews, Miller had a strong hold on the 18-49 demographic that advertisers covet.
Notable moments include:
– Noted actress and Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery made her first talk show appearance since 1970. She discussed her concern for African wildlife conservation and was well received by the crowd.
– A young Rob Liefeld showed up to promote Youngblood and his new publishing company, Image. Liefeld makes some cogent points about Superman. Miller mostly just lists comic books. (Related: I’m always amazed that Liefeld isn’t some muscled-up Brock Lesnar type who looks more like he’s about to help Walt and Jesse pull off a train heist.)
– Then-Senator Al Gore appeared on the show. Gore had previously admitted to using marijuana in his youth, so Miller asked Gore whether he or his wife Tipper “rolled the tighter joint.” Gore responded that “they told me you were going to be trouble.”
– Lori Loughlin from Full House went on the show and got an on-air phone call from Bob Saget. Not Danny Tanner – blue humor dick joke Bob Saget.
– Performance artist Karen Finley appeared on the show to talk about how the National Endowment for the Arts refused to fund her work. Her entire segment was edited out after she went on a ten-minute tirade about abortion, which Tribune deemed unfit to air. While the exact text of what she said has not been released, the LA Times reported that her performance “characterizes abortion as pouring Drano down a woman’s vagina, and expresses her desire to ‘feminize the planet to overthrow this male control of our lives.'” While Miller interviewed her after the performance and defended it, the stunned audience did not applaud. When she found out about the editing, she complained that she had been censored and that she thought “Dennis Miller is just as bad as Jesse Helms.” Now there’s a reference only nineties kids will remember.
– This Godfather parody where he addresses the guest booking wars between talk shows. Some brilliant references in here, especially for Letterman.
– Bill Hicks. Just…Bill Hicks. Shout out to the Denis Leary slam at the end.
– Phil Hartman doing impressions. We miss you, Phil, and it’s comforting to know there’s probably an alternate universe where you voiced Zapp Branigan as intended.
– Finally, uh, whatever this is. Some Vermin Supreme-looking man interrupting Miller’s interview with Judy Tenuta, only for Miller to yell back with his own megaphone. It’s clearly planned (why else would Miller have a megaphone ready?) but… weird.
Why it ended
As per usual, ratings.
Despite the mixed reviews, he had “acceptable” ratings through February, but they slipped. After Carson left in May, Tribune hoped he’d be able to pick up a combination of Carson’s old audience and college students home for the summer, but the ratings never budged. The show was cancelled in late July, with reruns to air until September 11th. The crew weren’t particularly shocked the show was cancelled, but they’d expected to stay on through the summer.
Miller launched a 900 number for people to call in and save the show. His staff logged more than 150,000 calls and raised $40-$50,000, all of which was donated to the Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
Miller noted that he had the misfortune of going against two established shows—Tonight and Arsenio—unlike previous late night hosts, who typically faced one. Double the ratings competition, double the trouble booking guests.
The show had a hard time getting notable guests, and much of that was blamed on The Tonight Show‘s aggressive tactics. Miller said that he had problems with the way they booked guests, and referred to them as “not very tactful.” Specifically at fault was Tonight‘s truculent executive producer, Helen Kushnick, whose belligerence went well beyond the borders of acceptable even for show business and who managed to alienate everyone on TV.
Rumors of her strong-arm tactics in booking guests spread within weeks and eventually those rumors were confirmed—she was banning potential guests for appearing on competing shows, blacklisted acts for refusing to cancel already scheduled performances on other shows, and would bump acts because other performers with the same publicist spurned her. Kusnick was fired not long into Leno’s run, to the relief of everyone.
The show’s cancellation was announced in a five page, single-spaced press release that gushed praise but glossed over finances.
His final guests were The Allman Brothers, who played off the show with “Melissa.”
Miller didn’t deny he was hurt, but he took the cancellation relatively well. His now two-year-old son helped him deal with the pain; Miller said “the kid’s beautiful…this is why when you get a show canceled, you can’t take it too seriously.” He felt that Tribune pulled the plug on him too early, and that he always got the sense they weren’t fans of his in the first place.
Arsenio Hall—ostensibly Miller’s competition—was one of the many people who expressed support after the show’s cancellation. Hall said in no uncertain terms that “[Miller] should be staying, and that punk-ass Leno should be going.”
Not long after the show was cancelled, Miller appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show. He admitted that while it was upsetting, he considered himself lucky that he had his stand-up gig to fall back on.
The show’s cancellation in the grand scheme of things helped his career; he went on to host award shows, tour prolifically, and create comedy specials. The belief that he got shafted by Tribune helped his image and propelled him higher.
In 1994, Miller was recruited by HBO to host a new talk show: the famous Dennis Miller Live, which ran from 1994 to 2002.
In May of 1995, Miller called Leno to end their feud because “life is too short.” The proverbial hatchet was buried and the two appeared on each others’ shows the next week. Miller went on to be a fairly regular Tonight Show guest, and was one of the people who Leno wheeled out to tell Michael Jackson jokes in 2005 when Leno’s gag order was in place.
He also spent time as a football commentator. Encyclopedia Britannica made annotations for all of his references. No, really. We don’t talk about that.
The mention of Miller’s name may roll eyes now (rightfully so), but for a period of time he was on top of the world, and he has a cancelled talk show to thank.