The Strange Case of Dr. Dennis and Mr. Miller (Revisited)

dennismillerlive0

(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

March, 2009

At issue is not whether Dennis Miller, after 9/11, lost his mind and starting cheerleading for Bush, Cheney and the Iraq War (he did). It’s also not an outrage that, coincidentally or not, he is no longer near as nimble or gratifying as he was in his prime (he isn’t). What’s important to acknowledge is that, while his newer material is sorely lacking, when he was on his game, he was the baddest—and brightest—stand-up comedian in the country.

For those of us who have pined many moons, equal parts impatient and incredulous, for his inexplicably unreleased HBO comedy specials from the ‘90s; it’s time to celebrate an overdue victory. Dennis Miller: The HBO Specials is exactly what the doctor ordered for fans who remember the days when a thesaurus was a requisite part of the experience. A comic who could make you laugh and think is never something to take for granted, as they are always in woefully short supply.

Miller, from his snarky heyday as Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” anchor in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, was arguably the most consistently entertaining, and intimidating, funnyman on the scene. After admiring him in relatively small doses during the “Weekend Update” segments, it was something of a revelation to see him stretch out and hold court for a full 60-minute set. Starting with Mr. Miller Goes to Washington in 1988, Miller has made seven official specials for HBO, all of which are collected in this very reasonably priced and highly recommended set.

When Miller performed in D.C. for his first special it was more than 20 years ago, but somehow seems even longer. Impossible, almost, to recall a time when Reagan was limping out of office and Miller was not yet middle-aged. Indeed, he was young, confident and he had a hell of a head of hair. He knew it, too. At this point in his career Miller took few prisoners and no target was spared from his lacerating sarcasm. Commenting on his recent gigs in the Deep South, he sardonically observes “Talk about Darwin’s waiting room…there are guys in Alabama who are their own father.”

Later he laments “You spend your whole life stopping at red lights, then at the end there’s a cruel irony when you die: they let your funeral procession run the red lights on the way to the cemetery.” Regarding born-again Christians who insist he’s going to Hell if he’s not born again; he says “Pardon me for getting it right the first time.”

Perhaps tellingly, he has an (admirably) prescient take on terrorists, marveling at the ways horrendous acts can be justified in the name of God/religion. This is the lovably bratty Miller, a smart-ass with a heart of cubic zirconium: he was more intelligent and better-looking than you, and that was all there was to it. Chevy Chase, the first “Weekend Update” anchor, had the corner on this market for a minute, and then Miller ran with the baton for about a decade.

In 1990 he recorded Black and White which, for me, is on the short list of all-time post Lenny Bruce stand up concert recordings: it is an absolute tour de force and easily justifies the purchase of this entire set. Miller begins with a muted bang, claiming “I’d like to start off with an impression…I’d like to, but I’m genetically incapable.” For the rest of the special he is at the height of his “more loquacious than thou” phase and it’s a delight to watch how unreservedly he revels in his own brilliance.

A few highlights, taken at random: “I view the reunification of Germany in much the same way I view a possible Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis reconciliation: I haven’t really enjoyed any of their previous work and I’m not sure I need to see the new shit right now”; “I’m in therapy now, I’m so insecure I get depressed when I find out the people I hate don’t like me”; “(TV preachers) say they don’t favor any particular denomination…but I think we’ve all seen their eyes light up at tens and twenties.”

Of his father, Miller deadpans “My old man made The Great Santini look like Leo Buscaglia,” and on the then-new development of interminable automated customer service recordings, “I don’t stay on the phone that long with friends contemplating suicide.” If you’ve never seen this, you owe it to yourself.

They Shoot HBO Specials, Don’t They?, from 1994, is worthwhile just for its ingenious title, but the show is actually quite satisfactory. Speaking of the post-LA riot tensions, he says “I get pulled over by a cop in LA I don’t even fuck around; I just wind the window down and blow the guy.”

Politically, he has few kind words for Bush the Elder, and no fondness for Reagan, but he’s already dubious at the prospects of Clinton being a successful, or accepted, leader. He actually defends Hillary (!) saying, revealingly, “I think she’s a good woman…we need smart people now; maybe she can help.” And this is a crucial component of his subsequent devolution as a comic: he was never a liberal; he ridiculed pomposity and idiocy which is always abundantly represented on both sides of the political spectrum. Of course, he had a particular penchant for calling out the bullying tactics of media blowhards and the baser instincts (fear, power) that the most cynical politicians prey upon, so it’s impossible to ignore the sad irony of seeing him prostrate himself (for a paycheck?) at the fortress of Pomposity and Idiocy at Fox News.

It certainly doesn’t make his old material any less funny; it just makes it a tad bittersweet to look at, all these years later. In any event, and for the record, my favorite moment of the entire show is when Miller delivers an impassioned—and quite moving—defense of James Stockdale (remember him?), lacerating the media (and public) that found him lacking for the sole reason that “he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television”. He ends the show by predicting that the day Dan Quayle (remember him?) successfully runs for president (and he was then threatening to do)” is the day Shelley Winters runs with the bulls at Pamplona.” That’s good stuff.

By 1996 the also impeccably titled Citizen Arcane was in the can, but the first cracks in Miller’s fortress are visible. For starters, he seems a tad lethargic; it turns out the Aspen altitude is getting to him and as he reaches for an oxygen mask, a few folks in the crowd scoff at him. “Well fuck you,” he retorts. “Get a climate!” To be certain, he’s still amusing, and he is still articulate. He offers up perhaps the best summation of Bill Clinton’s frustrating legacy I’ve heard: “The chasm between his potential and his actuality is so vast…and the struggle (to find balance) sets off all his deficiencies.” It’s pretty hard to quibble with that assessment.

But when he observes “we have too many hung juries and not enough hung defendants”, one wonders what his beef is. It turns out, a little bit of everything, as he refers to the US as “one big, violent trailer park.” He is (understandably) outraged at the general inanity of the population, which results in easily duped juries. It just seems odd that for a man so obviously intelligent, he doesn’t (or doesn’t want to) connect the dots between those who are brought to justice and those who have money or influence. In other words, he seems content to scoff at how moronic our talk-show nation has become, but doesn’t seem unduly perturbed that it’s often his fellow celebrities who waltz away from prison time for very obvious—and odious—reasons.

He spends an insufferable chunk of time lambasting the ACLU and has little to say about politicians or the powerful. At one point he declares “I’m looking to make a little bread, build a wall, take care of my loved ones…and stay out of the crosshairs.” Die-hard Dennis Miller fans may have to Windex off their LCD screens after that one.

Miller’s HBO feature for the end of the century, 1999’s The Millennium Special: 1,000 Years, 100 Laughs, 10 Really Good Ones is a terrific idea that is pulled off with aplomb. Miller focuses on the 1900’s and breaks the century into 20-odd year chunks. He does “the news” (relaying the popular stories of the times with his trademark “Weekend Update” shtick): it is clever and mostly funny. There is a trace of a creeping jingoism that would reach its apotheosis in short order.

Miller takes potshots at a few predictable targets: Russia, Germany and (sigh) France; while it’s an exercise of shooting fish in a rather safe barrel; it’s fair to say that the blood, gore and comedy of the last century provide bountiful material. One of the better moments features the famous picture of Elvis shaking hands with Nixon with Miller remarking “And here we see two of the greatest recording artists of the 20th Century.” This one is the last feature likely to prompt repeat viewings.

Flash forward to 2003: we all know what happened in the three years since his last special. The Raw Feed starts off promisingly enough. Miller laments that he does not masturbate as much these days because his expanding waistline obliges him to slip himself the date-rape drug. Later he says “I was raised Catholic: I went to confession the other day and said (to the priest) ‘You first’.”

He retains some spin on his curveball and it is obvious he still belongs in the big leagues. But then he starts in on the Middle East, and things begin to derail as the stand-up turns into an occasionally ugly right-wing rant. As America was about to deploy forces to Iraq Miller, like many like-minded citizens of the time, is blasé to the point of cockiness. He not only returns to the hackneyed ad hominem toward the French, he boasts that once we’ve “won” in Iraq (quickly and decisively, obviously) the French will be sorry that they blew their chance at the spoils. It’s embarrassing.

Then he lays into Sean Penn with the snide pronouncement “Dead Career Walking”. Of course, two Academy Awards later, Miller was about as accurate with that assessment as he was about the course of our overseas adventures. Lest any of this sound like piling on, I’m saving the best for last: Miller actually pauses mid-performance to utter the words “I’d like to thank George Bush for allowing me to respect the American presidency again.” It is, as they say, to laugh—even if it’s for the wrong reasons.

Finally, in 2006 Miller went to Vegas to perform the show recorded as All In. It’s not terrible; Miller is simply too intelligent, too witty and too observant to flop onstage. But one might think he would feel obliged (for the sake of his comedy, for the sake of his integrity) to reign in the rhetoric. Then again, not for nothing is the special is called All In. It takes less than five minutes for Miller to lay into the cowardice of the French.

The rest of the show teeters between Miller’s patented perspicacity and his unfortunate, newly acquired nationalism. Funny bits about being able to access Internet porn anywhere and the plethora of erectile dysfunction commercials give way to longer rants about the dubious science behind global warming, and the benefits of aggressive drilling in Alaska (drill baby drill?). To paraphrase a younger, shrewder Miller, he doesn’t favor any particular political affiliation, but I think we’ve all seen his eyes light up at Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean.

Bottom line: despite his curious and regrettable turn toward the unfunny, Dennis Miller still looms large as one of the five best stand-up comedians of the past 20 years. This egregiously overdue purging of the HBO vaults should come as a welcome relief to fans who remember watching these specials in real time.

Worst case scenario, the first three (and superior) features are all contained on one disc: if you feel obliged to burn after viewing, retain that first disc and put it in the time capsule. The younger generation might be refreshed to see a less bellicose and more beguiling Dennis Miller, and many decades from now, when Miller’s awkward repartee with Bill O’Reilly is a footnote in unintentional comedic history, his greatest work will be remembered, and justly venerated.

http://www.popmatters.com/review/71771-the-strange-case-of-dr.-dennis-and-mr.-miller/

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Murphy’s Law, Vol. One: A Primer

M LAW cover

In this collection of essays, reviews and ruminations, best-selling author Sean Murphy attempts to tackle the world in writing, one topic at a time. Selecting a sampling of his most popular pieces as well as some personal favorites, Murphy ranges from music to movies, literature to politics, sports to tributes for the departed. At his blog, Murphy’s Law, and as a columnist for PopMatters and contributing editor for The Weeklings, Murphy has combined enthusiasm and proficiency in the service of short and extended analyses. Throughout this compilation he shifts seamlessly between culture, the arts and an ongoing interrogation of American society.

Why is Robert Johnson the most influential American musician of the 20th Century? How—and why—did Dennis Miller go from being one of the better comedians in the world to a humorless hack? Why are even the most gifted novelists unable to write convincing sex scenes in their fiction? Was the first round of Hagler vs. Hearns in 1985 the most exciting three minutes in sporting history? Is it reasonable to suggest that Chinatown is the only perfect American film ever made? What does it mean to declare Stephen King the Paul Bunyan of letters? Is it possible we don’t adequately celebrate either Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby? Why should everyone consider cancelling their subscription to The Washington Post? Does nostalgia play a defensible, even necessary role in one’s art or life?

Equal parts reporter and raconteur, Murphy brings an informed acumen to essays mercifully free from academic jargon and pretension. His subjects cover so-called high and lowbrow and just about anything in between, and it’s obvious throughout that his only agenda is to celebrate, or castigate, or cross-examine his own impulses and predispositions. By turns studious, confrontational, hilarious and philosophical, Murphy’s Law, Vol. One will leave readers better informed, provoked and, hopefully, inspired to discover the work of some geniuses who’ve fallen outside the lower frequencies.

***AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK AND KINDLE FRIDAY, APRIL 29***

MORE INFO, AS ALWAYS, HERE!

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Joy Division and the Genius of Humanity

Transmission 4x.

Original:From the excellent movie Control:Playmobil Stop Motion:Caribbean steel-band:What else is there to say?

(Here is some of what I said last November):

If you are a Joy Division fan you probably caught Control when it first hit the screens (and streets) in 2007; if you still have not seen it, you should. If you are not a Joy Division fan, you should be. If you don’t believe me, believe this and this and especially this.

If you are still not convinced, try this:

Having just written in some detail about the sad, redemptory and mostly inscrutable life of Syd Barrett, it was impossible not to make several connections between these two extremely brilliant and deeply sensitive souls. Each of them gave us a lifetime of work in the most abbreviated artistic lives, and each was gone from the scene before most folks ever had a chance to catch up to them. Arguably, many folks are still struggling to keep pace with what they did more than thirty and forty years ago, respectively. And while there is no question that a cult of personality is inevitable when charismatic rock stars die early (Hendrix, Joplin, Holly and Stevie Ray), particularly if they die by their own hand (Cobain, Curtis and, to varying extents, Morrison, Moon and Bonham), there is still a difference between the ones who left too soon and those who may have changed the world –even more than they already did– had they managed to stick it out. Therefore, envisioning what Ian Curtis may have offered in the ’80s and beyond is…difficult. Far be it from me to fan the facile flames of myth-making, but Ian Curtis has more in common with Syd Barrett than a handful of albums that continue to influence musicians today.

Think about it: what would Syd’s music have sounded like in the ’70s? (And after?) I’m not suggesting or implying it wouldn’t have sounded incredible, but I also wonder. And I don’t think his enigmatic end justified the means, but I’m content not only with the handful of documents he did leave behind, but the import they accrue considering a would-be career cut off so bluntly. Likewise, was there anything else for Ian Curtis to prove? Changing the face of music (listen to these songs: even if you have never listened to a Joy Division song, if you were alive in the ’80s and have had ears the last two decades you’ve heard them channeled through the myriad acts who’ve absorbed them like oxygen) was, arguably, enough and quite well done for a two-year tenure. If Piper At The Gates of Dawn and Unknown Pleasures are not on the short list of all-time great debut albums nobody else belongs in the debate.

Considering the legacy of Syd Barrett, I suggested the following:

There was so much more for Syd to achieve… or was there? Do we dare ask for or expect more from any artist who gave so much? Is it both selfish and short-sighted to wonder what he may have achieved in the ‘70s and beyond when we consider what he’d already done? Did Syd pay the ultimate price for fame and artistic immortality?

I could have said the exact same thing about Ian Curtis. Watching the movie (and I also strongly encourage anyone who is interested in Joy Division, or that era in general, to check out the magnificent 24 Hour Party People, featuring the incomparable Steve Coogan), I mostly felt a tremendous sadness. Before he was an artist he was a father, a husband and a human being. On all of those levels, even (or especially) the prospects of fortune and fame could not quell the desperate gloom he struggled to keep at bay. (His offstage and onstage epileptic seizures are the stuff of Dostoyevesky, figuratively and literally.) It makes your heart hurt, and then the music helps heal you; if only it could have healed them.

Finally, I want to resist the urge, but since I also just wrote at some length about Bill Hicks, I can’t help myself. Comparing and contrasting the lives and careers of Ian Curtis and Dennis Miller on the same day goes beyond cheap irony and seems to suggest a sardonic reiteration of artistic inequity, as it’s tended to play out past and present: the great ones are too often hampered (and/or inspired) by their fragility and are inexorably broken by the world, their pieces an ineffable legacy we are left to ponder; the hacks thrive once they suicide their souls and feed their flesh, growing old and obscene by eating their unjust desserts, applauded all the way by the unreflective Hoi polloi.

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A Dose Of Dennis Miller With An Ian Curtis Chaser

I saw something the other night that really depressed me. It concerns a genius who, for a variety of reasons, could not maintain control. His implosion can be attributed to many of the usual ailments: self-doubt, self-loathing, self-aggrandizement, solipsism, projection, and a latent condition that medicine did little to ameliorate. Oh, and the presumptive intake of questionable substances probably didn’t help either. After some remarkable highs and a steady series of lows bordering on flatlines, he flamed out, career cut tragically and nonsensically short. It was incredibly tough viewing, but I hung in there and (barely) made it through.

And when Dennis Miller’s latest HBO special was over, I watched a movie about Ian Curtis.

More on that in a moment. First, let me attempt to articulate why I found myself –for the first and hopefully last time– actually giving my TV the finger. Boy has Dennis Miller left his lofty perch as one of the premier comedians (and minds) of his generation and careened down to the earth as a shambling cliché of craven opportunism, cynical hackery and anti-intellectualism the dishonesty of which is only exceeded by his shamelessness. And this is coming from a writer who already raised an R.I.P. on his career almost two years ago, begging the question: how much lower can you go than D.O.A.? The answer, alas, is: pretty fucking far. His latest routine, while having its moments (you would know –and be correct to– not take me seriously if I did not happily concede that the man is still capable of displaying wit and invoking laughs; he has a perspicacity that does not dissipate overnight; he is not quite the post-lobotomized Randall P. McMurphy from Cuckoo’s Nest but damn is he headed there at twice the speed of sense), is so bogged down by misplaced bile and blame-the-victim banality, the bright spots are sufficiently shit-stained that you just want to look away, after covering your nose and checking the soles of your shoes.

Remember This Guy? Neither Does Dennis Miller

When I wrote my review of his then-recent collection of HBO specials (in early 2009), I figured Miller had gone about as low as a once-sentient citizen could go, and perhaps once the economy revealed itself to be the bad hairpiece it was, even a suspiciously hirsute fellow like Dennis would see the error of his ways and maybe, maybe even offer up a mea culpa of sorts. Not a chance. He has double…no, tripled down, and he not only has no regrets about the Dubya debacle, it’s quite clear that he misses the man whose boots he used to lick on Fox News. Perhaps I should not be surprised by this (and I reckon I wasn’t) but it’s a testament to how much I once respected Miller that I can’t help being disappointed.

Here is how on-target his present-day political acumen is: he ridicules the health care legislation (“Obamacare” apparently is the agreed-upon G.O.P. code-word to denigrate the initiative) by suggesting that with young adults (some may still call them kids) allowed to remain on their parents’ health plans for a few more years (while they are busy looking for the jobs that don’t exist), we are turning this country into a bunch of medical marijuana smoking slackers. Aside from the inanity of this observation, I wanted to tell Miller it was still a tad too soon to be auditioning for Andy Rooney’s role as out-of-touch-asshole Emeritus. His riff on Guantanamo (“what’s the problem? it works!”), aside from being factually wrong, morally repugnant and farcical on purely logical levels, is on par with the Fox News ethos: hold your breath, put potato chips in your ears and, well godamnit, GO U.S.A.!

He continues to ridicule global warming (“hey, this means I can play golf in December”, etc.) and shrugs off the national debt (which, obviously, Obamacare and neither voodoo economics nor those moderately expensive –and, naturally unmentioned– wars has wrought) by saying “Hey, we’re America: let’s just not pay it!” For a man who is ostensibly concerned about the next generation being a bunch of Bill and Ted’s on a government-sponsored not-so-excellent adventure, he sure sounds like a man whose mind has been hijacked by Keanu Reeves. In a particularly grotesque bit of starstruck sycophancy disguised as an anecdote, he rambles on about getting to meet the great Frank Sinatra. Ironically, this is in many ways as revealing as the political shtick: at this point in time even the most sentimental saps who love the Old Blue Eyes legend –as well as his music– can acknowledge that the man himself was a bigoted, bullying shmuck. What then does it say about someone who is already famous drooling over the opportunity to spend time with the then-senile and increasingly misanthropic crooner? Maybe they had the same scalp surgeon. Or perhaps it has something to do with getting old and washed up and increasingly falling back on jingoism and nostalgia for the good old days when white bread was what you ate and who you ate with.

Remember This Guy? Neither Does Dennis Miller

Here is a Cliffs Notes overview of my lengthy, aforementioned assessment from two years ago:

Miller was never a liberal; he ridiculed pomposity and idiocy which is always abundantly represented on both sides of the political spectrum. Of course, he had a particular penchant for calling out the bullying tactics of media blowhards and the baser instincts (fear, power) that the most cynical politicians prey upon, so it’s impossible to ignore the sad irony of seeing him prostrate himself (for a paycheck?) at the fortress of Pomposity and Idiocy at Fox News. It certainly doesn’t make his old material any less funny; it just makes it a tad bittersweet to look at, all these years later.

The devolution was slow and increasingly brutal: by the time an HBO special from ’96 rolls around, he spends an insufferable chunk of time lambasting the ACLU and has little to say about politicians or the powerful. At one point he declares “I’m looking to make a little bread, build a wall, take care of my loved ones…and stay out of the crosshairs.” Die-hard Dennis Miller fans may have to Windex off their LCD screens (if they ever see) that one. By 2003 it was all-ugly all-the time: (when) he starts in on the Middle East…things begin to derail as the stand-up turns into an occasionally ugly right-wing rant. As America was about to deploy forces to Iraq Miller, like many like-minded citizens of the time, is blasé to the point of cockiness. He not only returns to the hackneyed ad hominem toward the French, he boasts that once we’ve “won” in Iraq (quickly and decisively, obviously) the French will be sorry that they blew their chance at the spoils. It’s embarrassing. Miller actually pauses mid-performance to utter the words “I’d like to thank George Bush for allowing me to respect the American presidency again.” It is, as they say, to laugh—even if it’s for the wrong reasons.

Bottom line: at issue is not whether Dennis Miller, after 9/11, lost his mind and starting cheerleading for Bush, Cheney and the Iraq War (he did). It’s also not an outrage that, coincidentally or not, he is no longer near as nimble or gratifying as he was in his prime (he isn’t). What’s important to acknowledge is that, while his newer material is sorely lacking, when he was on his game, he was among the baddest—and brightest—stand-up comedians in the country.

All of which has to be the oddest segue ever into a discussion of Ian Curtis. If you are a Joy Division fan you probably caught Control when it first hit the screens (and streets) in 2007; if you still have not seen it, you should. If you are not a Joy Division fan, you should be. If you don’t believe me, believe this and this and especially this. 

If you are still not convinced, try this:

If you’re still not convinced, isn’t there a Dennis Miller special you should be watching?

Having just written in some detail about the sad, redemptory and mostly inscrutable life of Syd Barrett, it was impossible not to make several connections between these two extremely brilliant and deeply sensitive souls. Each of them gave us a lifetime of work in the most abbreviated artistic lives, and each was gone from the scene before most folks ever had a chance to catch up to them. Arguably, many folks are still struggling to keep pace with what they did more than thirty and forty years ago, respectively. And while there is no question that a cult of personality is inevitable when charismatic rock stars die early (Hendrix, Joplin, Holly and Stevie Ray), particularly if they die by their own hand (Cobain, Curtis and, to varying extents, Morrison, Moon and Bonham), there is still a difference between the ones who left too soon and those who may have changed the world –even more than they already did– had they managed to stick it out. Therefore, envisioning what Ian Curtis may have offered in the ’80s and beyond is…difficult. Far be it from me to fan the facile flames of myth-making, but Ian Curtis has more in common with Syd Barrett than a handful of albums that continue to influence musicians today.

Think about it: what would Syd’s music have sounded like in the ’70s? (And after?) I’m not suggesting or implying it wouldn’t have sounded incredible, but I also wonder. And I don’t think his enigmatic end justified the means, but I’m content not only with the handful of documents he did leave behind, but the import they accrue considering a would-be career cut off so bluntly. Likewise, was there anything else for Ian Curtis to prove? Changing the face of music (listen to these songs: even if you have never listened to a Joy Division song, if you were alive in the ’80s and have had ears the last two decades you’ve heard them channeled through the myriad acts who’ve absorbed them like oxygen) was, arguably, enough and quite well done for a two-year tenure. If Piper At The Gates of Dawn and Unknown Pleasures are not on the short list of all-time great debut albums nobody else belongs in the debate.

Considering the legacy of Syd Barrett, I suggested the following:

There was so much more for Syd to achieve… or was there? Do we dare ask for or expect more from any artist who gave so much? Is it both selfish and short-sighted to wonder what he may have achieved in the ‘70s and beyond when we consider what he’d already done? Did Syd pay the ultimate price for fame and artistic immortality?

I could have said the exact same thing about Ian Curtis. Watching the movie (and I also strongly encourage anyone who is interested in Joy Division, or that era in general, to check out the magnificent 24 Hour Party People, featuring the incomparable Steve Coogan), I mostly felt a tremendous sadness. Before he was an artist he was a father, a husband and a human being. On all of those levels, even (or especially) the prospects of fortune and fame could not quell the desperate gloom he struggled to keep at bay. (His offstage and onstage epileptic seizures are the stuff of Dostoyevesky, figuratively and literally.) It makes your heart hurt, and then the music helps heal you; if only it could have healed them.

Finally, I want to resist the urge, but since I also just wrote at some length about Bill Hicks, I can’t help myself. Comparing and contrasting the lives and careers of Ian Curtis and Dennis Miller on the same day goes beyond cheap irony and seems to suggest a sardonic reiteration of artistic inequity, as it’s tended to play out past and present: the great ones are too often hampered (and/or inspired) by their fragility and are inexorably broken by the world, their pieces an ineffable legacy we are left to ponder; the hacks thrive once they suicide their souls and feed their flesh, growing old and obscene by eating their unjust desserts, applauded all the way by the unreflective Hoi polloi.

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The Strange Case of Dr. Dennis and Mr. Miller

Dennis Miller: The HBO Comedy Specials: Review from PopMatters 3/31/09: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/71771-the-strange-case-of-dr.-dennis-and-mr.-miller/

At issue is not whether Dennis Miller, after 9/11, lost his mind and starting cheerleading for Bush, Cheney and the Iraq War (he did). It’s also not an outrage that, coincidentally or not, he is no longer near as nimble or gratifying as he was in his prime (he isn’t). What’s important to acknowledge is that, while his newer material is sorely lacking, when he was on his game, he was the baddest—and brightest—stand-up comedian in the country.

For those of us who have pined many moons, equal parts impatient and incredulous, for his inexplicably unreleased HBO comedy specials from the ‘90s; it’s time to celebrate an overdue victory. Dennis Miller: The HBO Specials is exactly what the doctor ordered for fans who remember the days when a thesaurus was a requisite part of the experience. A comic who could make you laugh and think is never something to take for granted, as they are always in woefully short supply.

Miller, from his snarky heyday as Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” anchor in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, was arguably the most consistently entertaining, and intimidating, funnyman on the scene. After admiring him in relatively small doses during the “Weekend Update” segments, it was something of a revelation to see him stretch out and hold court for a full 60-minute set. Starting with Mr. Miller Goes to Washington in 1988, Miller has made seven official specials for HBO, all of which are collected in this very reasonably priced and highly recommended set.

When Miller performed in D.C. for his first special it was more than 20 years ago, but somehow seems even longer. Impossible, almost, to recall a time when Reagan was limping out of office and Miller was not yet middle-aged. Indeed, he was young, confident and he had a hell of a head of hair. He knew it, too. At this point in his career Miller took few prisoners and no target was spared from his lacerating sarcasm. Commenting on his recent gigs in the Deep South, he sardonically observes “Talk about Darwin’s waiting room…there are guys in Alabama who are their own father.”

Later he laments “You spend your whole life stopping at red lights, then at the end there’s a cruel irony when you die: they let your funeral procession run the red lights on the way to the cemetery.” Regarding born-again Christians who insist he’s going to Hell if he’s not born again; he says “Pardon me for getting it right the first time.”

Perhaps tellingly, he has an (admirably) prescient take on terrorists, marveling at the ways horrendous acts can be justified in the name of God/religion. This is the lovably bratty Miller, a smart-ass with a heart of cubic zirconium: he was more intelligent and better-looking than you, and that was all there was to it. Chevy Chase, the first “Weekend Update” anchor, had the corner on this market for a minute, and then Miller ran with the baton for about a decade.

In 1990 he recorded Black and White which, for me, is on the short list of all-time post Lenny Bruce stand up concert recordings: it is an absolute tour de force and easily justifies the purchase of this entire set. Miller begins with a muted bang, claiming “I’d like to start off with an impression…I’d like to, but I’m genetically incapable.” For the rest of the special he is at the height of his “more loquacious than thou” phase and it’s a delight to watch how unreservedly he revels in his own brilliance.

A few highlights, taken at random: “I view the reunification of Germany in much the same way I view a possible Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis reconciliation: I haven’t really enjoyed any of their previous work and I’m not sure I need to see the new shit right now”; “I’m in therapy now, I’m so insecure I get depressed when I find out the people I hate don’t like me”; “(TV preachers) say they don’t favor any particular denomination…but I think we’ve all seen their eyes light up at tens and twenties.”

Of his father, Miller deadpans “My old man made The Great Santini look like Leo Buscaglia,” and on the then-new development of interminable automated customer service recordings, “I don’t stay on the phone that long with friends contemplating suicide.” If you’ve never seen this, you owe it to yourself.

They Shoot HBO Specials, Don’t They?, from 1994, is worthwhile just for its ingenious title, but the show is actually quite satisfactory. Speaking of the post-LA riot tensions, he says “I get pulled over by a cop in LA I don’t even fuck around; I just wind the window down and blow the guy.”

Politically, he has few kind words for Bush the Elder, and no fondness for Reagan, but he’s already dubious at the prospects of Clinton being a successful, or accepted, leader. He actually defends Hillary (!) saying, revealingly, “I think she’s a good woman…we need smart people now; maybe she can help.” And this is a crucial component of his subsequent devolution as a comic: he was never a liberal; he ridiculed pomposity and idiocy which is always abundantly represented on both sides of the political spectrum. Of course, he had a particular penchant for calling out the bullying tactics of media blowhards and the baser instincts (fear, power) that the most cynical politicians prey upon, so it’s impossible to ignore the sad irony of seeing him prostrate himself (for a paycheck?) at the fortress of Pomposity and Idiocy at Fox News.

It certainly doesn’t make his old material any less funny; it just makes it a tad bittersweet to look at, all these years later. In any event, and for the record, my favorite moment of the entire show is when Miller delivers an impassioned—and quite moving—defense of James Stockdale (remember him?), lacerating the media (and public) that found him lacking for the sole reason that “he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television”. He ends the show by predicting that the day Dan Quayle (remember him?) successfully runs for president (and he was then threatening to do)” is the day Shelley Winters runs with the bulls at Pamplona.” That’s good stuff.

By 1996 the also impeccably titled Citizen Arcane was in the can, but the first cracks in Miller’s fortress are visible. For starters, he seems a tad lethargic; it turns out the Aspen altitude is getting to him and as he reaches for an oxygen mask, a few folks in the crowd scoff at him. “Well fuck you,” he retorts. “Get a climate!” To be certain, he’s still amusing, and he is still articulate. He offers up perhaps the best summation of Bill Clinton’s frustrating legacy I’ve heard: “The chasm between his potential and his actuality is so vast…and the struggle (to find balance) sets off all his deficiencies.” It’s pretty hard to quibble with that assessment.

But when he observes “we have too many hung juries and not enough hung defendants”, one wonders what his beef is. It turns out, a little bit of everything, as he refers to the US as “one big, violent trailer park.” He is (understandably) outraged at the general inanity of the population, which results in easily duped juries. It just seems odd that for a man so obviously intelligent, he doesn’t (or doesn’t want to) connect the dots between those who are brought to justice and those who have money or influence. In other words, he seems content to scoff at how moronic our talk-show nation has become, but doesn’t seem unduly perturbed that it’s often his fellow celebrities who waltz away from prison time for very obvious—and odious—reasons.

He spends an insufferable chunk of time lambasting the ACLU and has little to say about politicians or the powerful. At one point he declares “I’m looking to make a little bread, build a wall, take care of my loved ones…and stay out of the crosshairs.” Die-hard Dennis Miller fans may have to Windex off their LCD screens after that one.

Miller’s HBO feature for the end of the century, 1999’s The Millennium Special: 1,000 Years, 100 Laughs, 10 Really Good Ones is a terrific idea that is pulled off with aplomb. Miller focuses on the 1900’s and breaks the century into 20-odd year chunks. He does “the news” (relaying the popular stories of the times with his trademark “Weekend Update” shtick): it is clever and mostly funny. There is a trace of a creeping jingoism that would reach its apotheosis in short order.

Miller takes potshots at a few predictable targets: Russia, Germany and (sigh) France; while it’s an exercise of shooting fish in a rather safe barrel; it’s fair to say that the blood, gore and comedy of the last century provide bountiful material. One of the better moments features the famous picture of Elvis shaking hands with Nixon with Miller remarking “And here we see two of the greatest recording artists of the 20th Century.” This one is the last feature likely to prompt repeat viewings.

Flash forward to 2003: we all know what happened in the three years since his last special. The Raw Feed starts off promisingly enough. Miller laments that he does not masturbate as much these days because his expanding waistline obliges him to slip himself the date-rape drug. Later he says “I was raised Catholic: I went to confession the other day and said (to the priest) ‘You first’.”

He retains some spin on his curveball and it is obvious he still belongs in the big leagues. But then he starts in on the Middle East, and things begin to derail as the stand-up turns into an occasionally ugly right-wing rant. As America was about to deploy forces to Iraq Miller, like many like-minded citizens of the time, is blasé to the point of cockiness. He not only returns to the hackneyed ad hominem toward the French, he boasts that once we’ve “won” in Iraq (quickly and decisively, obviously) the French will be sorry that they blew their chance at the spoils. It’s embarrassing.

Then he lays into Sean Penn with the snide pronouncement “Dead Career Walking”. Of course, two Academy Awards later, Miller was about as accurate with that assessment as he was about the course of our overseas adventures. Lest any of this sound like piling on, I’m saving the best for last: Miller actually pauses mid-performance to utter the words “I’d like to thank George Bush for allowing me to respect the American presidency again.” It is, as they say, to laugh—even if it’s for the wrong reasons.

Finally, in 2006 Miller went to Vegas to perform the show recorded as All In. It’s not terrible; Miller is simply too intelligent, too witty and too observant to flop onstage. But one might think he would feel obliged (for the sake of his comedy, for the sake of his integrity) to reign in the rhetoric. Then again, not for nothing is the special is called All In. It takes less than five minutes for Miller to lay into the cowardice of the French.

The rest of the show teeters between Miller’s patented perspicacity and his unfortunate, newly acquired nationalism.  Funny bits about being able to access Internet porn anywhere and the plethora of erectile dysfunction commercials give way to longer rants about the dubious science behind global warming, and the benefits of aggressive drilling in Alaska (drill baby drill?). To paraphrase a younger, shrewder Miller, he doesn’t favor any particular political affiliation, but I think we’ve all seen his eyes light up at Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean.

Bottom line: despite his curious and regrettable turn toward the unfunny, Dennis Miller still looms large as one of the five best stand-up comedians of the past 20 years. This egregiously overdue purging of the HBO vaults should come as a welcome relief to fans who remember watching these specials in real time.

Worst case scenario, the first three (and superior) features are all contained on one disc: if you feel obliged to burn after viewing, retain that first disc and put it in the time capsule. The younger generation might be refreshed to see a less bellicose and more beguiling Dennis Miller, and many decades from now, when Miller’s awkward repartee with Bill O’Reilly is a footnote in unintentional comedic history, his greatest work will be remembered, and justly venerated.

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Meet the New Dross

Smug? Check.

A face you have an irrepressible compulsion to punch? Check.

Ambitious as he is talentless? Yup.

Able to convey vapidity with almost artistic effortlessness? You betcha.

Give this man a talk show!

Full disclosure: I have no legitimate gripe with this guy; I haven’t watched Saturday Night Live since Dennis Miller stopped doing Weekend Update (you know, back in the days when he was still funny, before his body was invaded by aliens that transformed him into an unfunny Republican prick who appears on Fox News grovelling at the fetid altar of Bill O’Reilly). So I honestly can’t comment on whether Fallon was worthwhile on SNL, or if any of his movies are worth a shit. I mean, I can’t say conclusively but I’m willing to go out on a limb and take a guess…

(Of course, being a Red Sox fan, he didn’t do himself any favors with me by starring in what looked like an insufferable, sappy, distinctly unamusing film called Fever Pitch (itself a typically bungled Hollywood bastardization of a great idea: Nick Hornby’s novel of the same name…which kind of made sense as a brilliant play on words, a soccer (i.e. football) field being called a pitch which, of course, does not translate into American, or baseball). Consider Ben Affleck: Red Sox fans, and Bostonians need no assistance in further caricaturizing themselves (ever been here? Wow. I’ve been there, and I like going there. I want them on that hill; I need them on that hill…but I can safely declare that when it comes to websites dedicated to discussing inordinately unimportant issues like sports teams, let me channel Woody Allen via Groucho Marx and maintain that I would never join a club that would have me as a member). Frankly, the world is split up into three groups when it comes to the Red Sox: people who love them, people who hate them, and people who could give a fuck. Fortunately for us all, the latter group comprises the overwhelming majority of the human race. In any event, this is ground exhaustively, and inimitably, covered by Bill Simmons, to whom I happily defer. But one last thought: I can’t recall where I read this, but I’m quite certain that it wasn’t a nightmare and I’m correct in remembering that Fallon, in a moment that revealed the considerable depths of his fatuous imbecility, actually remarked, while promoting Fever Pitch, that although he grew up in NYC and was, of course, a die-hard Yankees fan, he also considered himself a Red Sox fan. Seriously. Inexcusable, either as the blatant act of red-carpet pandering that it was, or–even worse–a genuinely felt sentiment, thus negating his status forever as credible sports fan or dude.)

Of course, all of this bile is coming from a guy who takes pictures like this:

 

So, to summarize: I have no skin in this game. Since I don’t watch late night TV, it won’t matter to me whether he succeeds or fails. Let’s just say I suspect that we’re about to witness history repeating itself vis-a-vis another former Weekend Update anchor who ventured haplessly into the deep and dangerous prime-time waters:

I’m glad I found this clip from the subsequent SNL skit wherein Chevy Chase lampoons that unfortunate time when he was unintentionally (and painfully) amusing. Wait, this is an actual clip from his incredibly short-lived show? No, really. Is it possible that its reality was even worse than we remember? No chance. Really?

As always: all hail YouTube. And, wow. Wow!

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