At a time when many comedians are little more than interchangeable parts--the same look, the same pedestrian language, the same toothless set of premises, sometimes even the same toothless jokes, like the gags about Barbara Bush's appearance that pass for political commentary--Dennis Miller can be a blast of fresh air.
His stand-up act offers bright, substantive observations to chew on, often involving truly topical matters and newsmakers, put forth with an eminently articulate delivery.
All of which may come as a huge surprise to those only familiar with Miller as anchor of Weekend Update on "Saturday Night Live."
Hardly the only showcase for his comedic talents, "SNL" is far from his best one. Take his recent work on non-network television: Despite the yearly flood of cable-comedy specials, Miller's HBO show, "Mr. Miller Goes to Washington," won an ACE award, the cable equivalent of an Emmy, for the best such special of 1988.
Meanwhile, Miller's sharp, brainy "The Off-White Album" has won its own kudos and continues to establish him as a masterful stand-up writer. Indeed, if you spend much time around aspiring comics, it turns out that some are helping themselves get a fix on joke writing by listening to "The Off-White Album" the way aspiring comedians used to (and still) study Woody Allen records.
However, even some of the most serious comedy fans might not know--or care--about such multi-media achievements or about Miller's stellar stand-up act because they've been so repelled by his manner on "Saturday Night Live."
The opinion voiced most frequently by regular viewers--even those who like Miller--is that he's smug. Most of these people probably haven't contemplated the possibility that his smugness is merely his way of coping with insecurity and fear.
"Hey, I am as idiosyncratic and as frightened--and, therefore, maybe smug to some people--as anybody in this business," asserts Miller, who will appear Friday at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim, the first of two Orange County dates this summer.
"This is a frightening business. Anyone who doesn't cop to that is full of (baloney). It's the keys to the kingdom, and it's very tenuous, 'cause you realize they can take them back at any moment--and you're back to real life.
"Any sort of attitude is usually generated from fear. My whole life, I was afraid to be on that stage. So what did I do? As a compensatory gesture, I got up there and just acted like the guy I always wanted to be to get through it. (Performing stand-up), my hands don't come out of my pockets; whenever they think I might be digging the laugh, I make it a point to adjust my cuffs, so I don't look like I need it that much.
"I analyze this stuff; I know what I'm about up there. It's a part of me, but it's not the real me. It's the frightened guy, acting like the guy he wanted to be, to shepherd him through all this stuff. But watch my tics. . . .
"So you have to do what you have to do. And I've decided to adopt this sort of hipper-than-thou thing. But, man, anybody who really watches my act knows I shoot holes in it every 10 minutes, too. I alternate between being completely insouciant and blowing the bridge the next minute."
Insouciant ? Yeah, insouciant.
It's the kind of word that pops up frequently in Miller's everyday speech. Several such words popped up during a nearly two-hour interview at his manager's West Hollywood office: avarice , self-aggrandizing , alacrity , ribald .
He's uncommonly well-spoken onstage, too; his stand-up act is distinguished by extraordinary word choice and command of language that puts him in a rarefied group with Jerry Seinfeld and precious few others.
Unlike most top stand-up wordsmiths--who tend to work PG-clean--Miller is not averse to lacing some of his routines with profanity. But even then, he's not after shock value so much as the most effective use of language .
"I always figured about (the f-word) in your act, if you're going to say it, say it, and mix in enough bright words where they don't think 'Well, this guy doesn't have a sense of vocabulary.'
"I think that sometimes confuses people about me. They think, 'Well, this guy is reasonably well-spoken, yet he chooses to say (the f-word) a lot.' To me, that's unimportant.
"It's a good word--it's a good comedy word. It's got that 'k' in it. A lot of my act is built on aggression and articulating some sort of angst , and it seems to be a good rhythm word for me. I try not to be gratuitous with it, but when I'm on a rant about something, I don't mind putting it in."
A native of Pittsburgh, Miller decided he wanted to try his hand at stand-up there, which meant the usual first step of performing at an open-mike night, but he quickly found . . .
("My whole life, I was afraid to be on that stage. ")
. . . that it was much easier decided than done.
"I left before I could get up (on stage)," Miller recalls. "I left the first two open mikes I went to--I couldn't do it. They got to the guy before me and I blew. I was petrified, and angry that I had to do it."
Angry that you decided to leave, or angry that you had to go up?
'Angry that I had to go up," he replied. He acknowledged that no one was exactly forcing him on stage at gunpoint. "But," he added, "I think comedians haven't gotten completely what they needed (emotionally) early in their lives.
"I try not to get too analytical about this--and there are (comics) who shoot holes in the whole theory. So it's not across-the-board. But I can say a lot didn't get something because when you start putting your esteem in the hands of 300 drunk strangers, you're definitely walking into the fire.
"I mean, there is some reason you're doing that and I think subliminally when you see comedians (attacking) people (from the) stage, you say 'Where's that anger coming from?' At some point, I think they're displeased with the fact that they have to do this dance for things that they should have gotten, unqualifiedly, earlier in life: approval, love, whatever. It's worse with some, better with others.
"My parents loved me--I'm not saying that. But I was one of those completely unnoticed little boys. I got no notice from anybody, sitting there with the same ideas I get now. But nobody noticed me, 'cause I wasn't particularly handsome, bright, gregarious, good with women--you know, just kind of this little guy, thinking 'I'll get it someday. I don't know how I'll get, but I'll get it.' "
After finally making it through a couple of open mikes in Pittsburgh, he moved to New York and entered a 1978 Playboy magazine humor writing contest that he says fielded 15,000 entries.
"I finished second in the country, had my picture in Playboy, and while it certainly wasn't this huge pulling of the sword from the stone, at least there was a moment of illumination where I thought 'Numerically, second out of 15,000 is in the 99th percentile as far as ideas go. Let's start pushing yourself up there more.' "
He started working harder on writing and performing. For the first year and a half of his career, he relied heavily on props. It didn't take long for him to recognize the limitations of prop comedy. "This Peter Principles you out of the game early on," Miller remembers thinking. "Put it into words, start using your language more."
So he dropped the props. (It's semi-interesting to note how many comedians say they've been urged by Miller to avoid using props or gimmicks. Among them: Allan Havey, one of the best young comics around, who used a flashlight in his act until Miller persuaded him to stop.)
Now strictly a monologuist, Miller continued honing his material and his act in New York and at various clubs across the country. Then he returned to Pittsburgh to acquire some local TV experience for a couple of years. After that, he relocated to Los Angeles as a skillful, broadly experienced performer. He hooked up with a powerful management firm, which secured him an audition for "Saturday Night Live."
Despite the turbulence and fear that studded his road to Weekend Update--and even though some people respond more favorably to other things he does--it appears that Miller couldn't be happier or more at peace now that he's arrived there. "Yeah," he concurs, "I love that job.
"There are nights I'm sitting in that office alone, like on a Thursday night reading the paper. I just have one light on at my desk, with my feet up. I'll look out at the skyline and see it's snowing and I'll get an idea and write it on a little scratch pad for the next day.
'And I'll look around and say 'Hey, I have everything I ever wanted. I'm blessed'--and really mean it!"
Dennis Miller and Louie Anderson perform Friday at the Celebrity Theatre, 201 E. Broadway, Anaheim. Showtime: 8 p.m. Tickets: $20. Information: (714) 999-9536. Miller also will perform Aug. 1 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Show time: 8 p.m. Tickets: $17.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.