Tell Us What You Really Think, Dennis

It's Saturday night, and Citizen Arcane, as he's titled himself for this occasion, is on a theater stage in Aspen, Colo.

With a movie-screen-sized image of Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane looming in the background, he's doing his live comedy special for HBO, playing to America and the locals who turned out to see him. He's bleeping mad about this, bleeping outraged about that. He's cracking jokes about orgasms and masturbation. He's alternating swigs of Evian water with nervous chuckles and rants about subjects ranging from the ACLU to Branson, Mo. ("Vegas for people without teeth.")

He's finding Americans "as skittish as Blanche Dubois on a 12-hour Sudafed," their anger "as unsettling as a chauffeur in a neck brace." He's watching the years fly "like Rod Taylor sitting outside that dress shop in 'The Time Machine.' " He's speaking of "straddling a multicultural harbor like Lori Singer between two pickup trucks," and of every second guy he meets as being "an emotional Krakatoa Ninja wannabe who thinks he's fulfilling a Nostradamas prophecy by taking out the entire pharmaceutical department at the local Sav-On, sitting down in his basement using heavy hands, watching 'Enter the Dragon' on a perpetual loop, bracing himself for the holy battle to come."

This is Dennis Miller, his own comedy, his own writing. Miller, wearing his obscure references like a tinhorn dictator's chest full of medals.

Can he help it if he's hipper than the universe? Those who regularly catch his weekly late-night show on HBO absorb the full measure of his wisdom. As when during the marathon O.J. Simpson trial he complained, "This thing is going slower than Jimmy Stewart reciting the 'Mahabharata' on the back of an arthritic tortoise that's munching a Quaalude Sunday afternoon in a hammock between two trees in the intensified gravity of the planet Jupiter."

His studio audience whooped it up, meaning either that he had an exceptionally literate group that night (the "Mahabharata" is two Indian epics said to have been written in Sanskrit about 200 BC) or a dim one--as primed to hee-haw at hot air as the toothless yahoos Miller loves to insult.

As for Citizen Arcane himself, despite generating heat, he's usually less amusing than a Lithuanian dentist looking like a Komodo dragon playing Richard II in front of an audience of three-fingered Smurfs on a day so cold that icicles form on the noses of Aleutian accountants having lunch at a cafe whose electric dishwasher works only when you kick it three times and pray in Italian for seven consecutive days of sunshine in Topeka, Kan.

Last Saturday night's televised hour of stand-up was unusual for Miller, who regularly haunts Friday nights, heading "Dennis Miller Live" on HBO. Each half-hour ties his opening monologue and subsequent chat with a celebrity to a theme. After some call-ins from viewers (close cousins of the Frisbees who phone Howard Stern), the show wraps with Miller's big, looping signature, his comic voice-overs with photos of news figures along the lines of the "Weekend Update" he anchored from behind a desk on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" from 1985 to 1990. It's the most consistently funny element of his show, which has won two writing Emmys since premiering in 1994 after his brief syndicated talk series had bombed two years earlier.

At a point during each monologue on his present series, the lights dim dramatically behind Miller as he says, "Now I don't want to get off on a rant here," a signal that he's about to get off on a rant here. Either this happens by design or he's on something that kicks in at precisely the same moment every show.

"How's about everybody getting their nose outta everybody's affairs and minding their own business?" Miller demanded on his series last season. He insisted he was doing that on his most recent installment, when his guest was James Cromwell, the actor whose wonderful performance in "Babe"--"That'll do, pig" is the measured praise he gives when his little barnyard hero wins a sheep-herding contest--earned him an Oscar nomination.

"I always assume that my feelings cut off here at the end of my fingers, and I should never try to even inform another human being because I don't think humans change, by and large," Miller told Cromwell. "I am a comedian first. I would never ever do a show where I pontificate to the point where I forsake laughter."

Where was a rim shot when you needed one? These may have been Miller's funniest lines ever, coming only minutes after his delivery of a lengthy, lacerating diatribe against animals and advocates for animals in his monologue. And funny also because he is surely the most pontifical comic of his time, a regular raging machine. Is it possible to pump such invective energy without hoping to influence?

On the Cromwell episode, he preceded his guest with a wacko tirade remarkable for its ferocity and stunning ignorance, arguing that humans earn rights by obeying "a commonly accepted set of rules," while "all you have to do is go to the zoo and watch the monkeys spend their entire day [masturbating] in front of you to know that they just don't play by our rules." Which he learned by spending an entire day watching?

He ridiculed the notion that humans should exist in harmony with animals. "Yeah, and I'm sure if I was wandering naked across the Serengeti plain and happened to come across a pride of lions who were feeling peckish that day, they'd show me the same f---ing courtesy, right!"

Using goofy zoo stories and predatory behavior in the wild to justify savaging animals was exotic reasoning even for Citizen Arcane. Yet credit Miller at least for accommodating dissent by later allowing Cromwell to respond almost at will in a thoughtful encounter rare for talk shows headed by comedians. Miller appeared unswayed, but at least he listened.

Much more often, though, he's doing the speaking. Here was his snarling exclamation point on a monologue targeting Simpson: "He's guilty! You know it! I know it! We all know it! So wait for sweeps weeks, schedule the jury's decision after 'Seinfeld,' announce he's guilty and throw away the f---ing key!" Now Miller was exploding. "You're a punk, O.J., a bad guy. GO TO HELL!!!"

And that was before the defense put on its case.

Feelings cut off at his fingertips? How patronizing he sounded on one show when scolding females after a negative response in the studio to a sex joke targeting Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Sen. Edward Kennedy and former Sen. Robert Packwood: "Now there's one thing I don't understand about women. Women always boo those jokes. Those guys are bad to you. You've gotta dislike them. Don't stick up for them. We've drummed that into your heads too much. You should take a stand. F--- these guys! They're bad guys!"

The book of knowledge enlightens the unknowing.

Miller is at his best when not impassioned, at his insufferable worst when he is. As he was at times in Aspen last Saturday when ranting one-liners on such topics as the legal system: "We have got far too many hung juries and not enough hung defendants." And on daytime television: "Why is this culture so quick to exalt the banal and so begrudging of the truly consequential?"

It didn't take much imagination to determine under which category he placed himself.

That'll never do, Dennis.

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