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DENNIS MILLER, MAKING HIS DEBUT TONIGHT IN THE ABC BROADCAST BOOTH IS ...

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dennis Miller wants a doubting nation to know he has plenty of experience as a sportscaster. Namely, three decades of sitting on the couch in his underwear, watching games and barking commentary at the television screen.

But seriously, folks . . .

Tonight, the hipster comic makes his debut on “Monday Night Football” in what qualifies as either a) another bold experiment from the network that gave the world Howard Cosell or b) an awful mistake.

ABC is gambling that a comedic presence in the booth will rejuvenate its seminal game of the week, adding a twist to veteran play-by-play man Al Michaels and former quarterback Dan Fouts.

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Chatting outside a recent network function, Miller mixed football with jokes and references that spun from the Marlboro man to the Greek orator Demosthenes. He shifted from Jim Brown to George W. Bush: “God, the man thinks Croatia is the show that’s on after ‘Moesha.’ ”

All of this coincides with the Miller most of America knows, the newscaster from “Saturday Night Live” and the talk-show host whose rants can last for breathless minutes.

“I’ll bet there are a lot of people thinking this is the weirdest hire,” he said with a characteristic, high-pitched laugh. “They’re thinking, ‘What could this guy know about football?’ ”

At the very least, curiosity has made tonight’s Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, one of the most-anticipated exhibition games in NFL history.

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But friends and colleagues expect Miller to be more than a novelty. They expect viewers will see another facet of the man, a private side that might just make him a capable--if quirky--sportscaster.

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In the early 1990s a familiar voice popped up on local sports talk radio--Dennis Miller had moved to Los Angeles after a stint on “Saturday Night Live.”

Forget the ultra-hip act. Forget the smirk.

Miller wanted to talk about the latest San Diego Padre trade or give his pick for the French Open. He was a stats geek who could name every player on the 1967-68 Pittsburgh Pipers of the American Basketball Assn.

“Everyone wonders what the hell does he know about sports,” said Steve Hartman, host of the “Loose Cannons” show on XTRA (690). “Well, he’s a die-hard fan. He can cover them all.”

On the set of his cable show, executive producer Jeff Cesario would say, “How’s it going?” and Miller would respond, “Can you believe what the Islanders did with their fourth line?”

“We could kill hours just reading the sports section,” said Cesario, a former stand-up comic who left the show to write screenplays. “People know Dennis as an iconoclast, but he’s really one of the guys sitting around, watching the game.”

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Get Miller started on football and the 46-year-old sounds as if he’s back on the couch, yapping at the television.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers? “If you’re looking to play in the Super Bowl, I don’t know if you can let a guy like Hardy Nickerson walk out the door. He’s a great veteran linebacker and you need guys like that, especially if you’re built on defense.”

The Dallas Cowboys and owner Jerry Jones? “He makes a mistake when he goes into the draft room and commandeers that situation. I don’t think his picks over the years have proven he’s as astute a judge of talent as he is a judge of finances.”

What about his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers? Miller plays it straight.

“I guess I’m not supposed to say,” he said. “I don’t want to cut into my Ed Murrow chops.”

While the reference to Murrow--the late, famed journalist--might sail over some heads, Cesario says Miller is “someone who is bright and quick but, at the same time, can hang with a bar full of guys watching the Kansas City-Denver game.”

It’s in his upbringing.

“That’s what happens when you come from a hard-core, blue-collar town,” Cesario said.

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Growing up in Pittsburgh meant a steady diet of the Steelers and Pirates. Miller still refers to Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente as “Bobby,” just like the late announcer Bob Prince did.

Not much of an athlete, Miller studied journalism at Point Park College because, he said, it seemed like an easy major. After graduation, a newspaper interviewed him for a job that paid by the column inch.

The comedy circuit seemed more appealing. Miller worked his way across country in the early 1970s before returning to Pittsburgh to appear on a PM magazine show and a Saturday program for teens. Back in the comedy clubs, he was spotted by “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels.

For the next six years, Miller anchored the “Weekend Update” segment, gleaning tidbits from newspapers and magazines in much the same way he will now prepare for games by poring over scouting reports. While on the show, he met his wife, Ali.

“He loves to talk about how he spotted her on the streets of New York,” Hartman said. “He just walked right up to her.”

The radio host describes Miller as “pretty normal . . . not a Hollywood guy by any stretch of the imagination.” The kind of guy who wears a blazer on screen but prefers denim shirts at home. The kind who chides Hartman for wearing stylish clothes.

His “Saturday Night Live” persona was not as folksy. Miller carved out what he calls “a somewhat sardonic, misanthropic little niche,” coloring his political and social commentary with a hipper-than-thou attitude.

Some viewers loved him. Others bridled at his condescending tone, that giggle and the way he ran his hand through a flop of dark hair.

“I guess I’m always going to have the sort of career where some people dislike me,” he said. “I’m not hurt by that.”

Figuring he had a core of loyal viewers, Miller left “Saturday Night Live” and started a syndicated talk show in 1992. But the reviews were mixed and the audience never grew beyond cultish.

With the show canceled after six months, his career bottomed out. That was when HBO called and offered him a half-hour each week.

Time enough for quick hits.

What can you say about Hillary Clinton that hasn’t already been muttered under somebody else’s breath?

Time enough for free-flowing, free-associating, pop-culture rants.

Western religions tend to imagine God as either a burning bush or Wilford Brimley with a beard and dreadlocks. In the East, you get a little more leeway: One God is a bare-breasted woman with six arms, another is a man with the head of an elephant. There is no doubt in my mind as to who has the better weed.

“He’s not really a verbose man,” Cesario said. “But what [HBO] liked about Dennis was that he could stack three, four, five jokes and metaphors together.

“And Dennis loved it.”

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“Dennis Miller Live” has won a handful of Emmys and spawned numerous cable specials and books. Still, Miller found himself desirous of a larger, more mainstream audience.

Apparently he wasn’t satisfied by a string of commercials for beer, restaurants and automobiles. Or by his film career.

“Did you see my last movie about vampire hookers?” he asked. “I’m out of that business.”

Coincidentally, “Monday Night Football” wanted a change after ratings slipped last season. Out was analyst Boomer Esiason. In was Don Ohlmeyer, who produced the show during its 1970s heyday.

As ABC reviewed candidates, Miller called in to “Loose Cannons” and Hartman urged him to apply. “I don’t think he took me all that seriously,” the host said.

Miller must have reconsidered because, a few weeks later, his agent called ABC. It turned out Ohlmeyer was already thinking of the comedian, albeit for a lesser role.

Last month, Miller and Michaels went into a Los Angeles studio for a mock broadcast of the 1999 playoff game between the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills, the one that ended with Tennessee scoring a touchdown on a kickoff return.

“I kept thinking I’d better have something hatched about this kickoff,” Miller recalled. But Ohlmeyer “threw me a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. . . . He goes, ‘OK, we’re going to do the first quarter.’ ”

Ohlmeyer was equally off-guard. Would the comedian launch into a rant? Would his multilayered references jibe with multiple formations?

That’s what fans are wondering now. But people who have worked with Miller say he is too savvy to try his cable act in the broadcast booth.

“Dennis knows how to write little tiny jewels and he knows that is what this gig requires,” Cesario said. “If you break down those rants, they’re really just a combination of smaller jokes.”

Jokes that might fit neatly between plays. Other comedians sound envious.

“It could become a trend,” said Kevin Nealon, a former co-star on “Saturday Night Live.” “Soon comedians will be playing football. We’ll have Steven Wright as a tight end and Drew Carey at linebacker.”

When Garry Shandling ran into Miller recently, they talked about football as a straight man. A live telecast. Plenty of spots for jokes.

As Miller said, “A great place to score.”

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The last few weeks, all sorts of people have asked the same question: How did he get that job?

Nealon heard it from golfers at a celebrity tournament in Lake Tahoe. Eric Dickerson, hired as a sideline reporter on the telecast, heard it from players around the league.

Miller has tried to lay low. He declined to have his picture taken for the cover of a national magazine, saying he was part of a team and did not want attention focused solely on him.

The magazine ran a file photograph and added eye-black.

“Obviously Dennis has stolen the show,” said Melissa Stark, who joins the cast as a second sideline reporter.

At the recent network gathering, in the ballroom of a Pasadena hotel, journalists crowded around Miller, who patiently stayed afterward to answer questions.

“Kudos to Don Ohlmeyer,” Cesario said. “He’s already achieved a great measure of what he was after because people are talking about ‘Monday Night Football.’ I mean, you ain’t doing a story on Boomer Esiason.”

The trick will be to keep the buzz going beyond tonight’s game between the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots. Ohlmeyer believes it will take more than laughs. He hopes Miller can provide a brand of analysis that falls somewhere between Michaels’ smooth play-by-play and Fouts’ insider knowledge.

“The viewer is smart, the viewer is demanding, and the viewer has seen an awful lot of the same,” Ohlmeyer said. “Dennis gives us something closer to a fan’s point of view than there’s ever been on television.”

Miller, for his part, sees the new job as a grand and amusing experiment. If it doesn’t pan out, he still has his cable show, his wife and two young sons, Holden and Marlon.

But for the next 20 or so Mondays, as Miller notes, “I’m not at home in my undies anymore.”

He will walk a tightrope, balancing the comedian that most people know with the sports fanatic that, until now, only friends have seen.

“I know when you have a game that’s cooking, the last thing you want to be is the guy who’s trying to score humor points,” he said. “But 38-6 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, everybody’s going to bed. . . .”

Cue the high-pitched laughter. Make way for a rant.

“Maybe that’s when I can try my act.”


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