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AND HE’S OUTTA THERE! : Dennis Miller Still Misses Late-Night TV, but There Are Other Arenas for His Wit

<i> Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

So, after seven months of the daily grind of hosting a television talk show, is Dennis Miller happy to come back to the relative freedom of the comedy stage?

Well, no.

“I preferred the (TV) show,” Miller admitted in a phone interview last week, and it was easy to imagine a shoulder shrug at the other end of the line. “People lose their jobs every day,” he added. “I feel lucky to have something to go to.”

If Miller’s disappointment at losing his steady TV gig sounds like a lack of enthusiasm for the stage, well, that may just be a product of his sober nature in interviews, in which he tends to be both understated and direct. The fact is, as anyone who has seen Miller in concert or in his excellent HBO specials can attest, he is one of the sharpest, most articulate and most astute comics working.

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Those qualities often came through in his nightly monologues on the “Dennis Miller Show,” but it wasn’t enough to save the syndicated show from cancellation in mid-July. The “Saturday Night Live” alumnus scored well with at least one demographically correct segment of the population (males, ages 18 to 34), but didn’t do well enough overall to survive the late-night talk show wars.

Miller raised eyebrows when, like a political candidate withdrawing from the race and throwing his support to a former opponent, he urged his viewers to tune into the “Arsenio Hall Show.” Miller and Hall had been among the first to publicly complain about the aggressive booking practices at the “Tonight Show” under Jay Leno’s reign, helping to touch off a controversy that came to a head with the recent firing of “Tonight Show” executive producer Helen Kushnick.

For Miller, 38, the firing came as something of a vindication. When he and Hall first complained, Miller said, “in some corners of the world, we were thought of as whiners.” While he doesn’t tag the difficulties of vying for talent as the reason for his show’s demise, the booking wars did make things “extremely difficult,” he said.

In one example, acerbic political writer P.J. O’Rourke abruptly canceled a scheduled appearance on Miller’s show to instead do the “Tonight Show,” for which Miller took O’Rourke to task on the air.

“The hour itself was fun in every way,” Miller said. “The attendant stuff was a bit difficult.”

Since the show’s cancellation, Miller, who has homes in New York and the Valley, has performed in Vancouver, Atlantic City and Richmond, Va., and he comes to the Irvine Bowl in Laguna Beach on Saturday in an intriguing bill that pairs him with Brazilian jazz superstar Milton Nascimento. The show is a benefit for the Laguna Canyon Foundation, which is attempting to buy private property within Laguna Canyon to preserve it as open space.

While Miller said he didn’t particularly miss concert performances while doing the TV show (he did face a live audience every night, after all) he said he is finding the stage “fun to go back to.” The concerts are helping him work out new material for an HBO special to be taped in February.

His new material repeats the blend of political commentary and social observation that has always marked his stage work, Miller said. He can be biting, but he was downright kind when asked for his view of Ross Perot’s re-entry into the presidential race.

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“I was one of the first persons who said they were going to vote for him,” Miller said. Although he believes Perot no longer has a chance of being elected, after his earlier abrupt decision to drop from the race, Miller still likes the idea of a third political party.

“I thought a third party would be good for this country. . . . I think we need to see what a change can do,” he said. As for Perot, “I think he’s a decent enough chap,” Miller said, “a bit of a crotchety old guy, but I think he’s a good American.”

Who: Dennis Miller.

When: Saturday, Oct. 10, at 7:30 p.m. With Milton Nascimento.

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Where: Irvine Bowl, 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

Whereabouts: From the San Diego (405) Freeway, take Laguna Canyon Road south for several miles; the Irvine Bowl (site of the Pageant of the Masters) will be on the right as you enter Laguna Beach.

Wherewithal: $15 to $22.50 (VIP tickets are $50).

Where to call: (714) 496-8930.

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