- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2000

The NFL survived the contrived debut of Dennis Miller on Monday night.

The fraternity house comic tried hard. Give him that. It was only his first night on the job, and it was only a preseason game, and not an entertaining one at that, and in the weeks and months ahead, he undoubtedly will refine his shtick and perhaps add genuine bite to it.

Miller apparently carried a bagful of jokes into the broadcasting booth, so sometimes his comments came across as scripted.

Of a camera placed in an official's cap, Miller said, "That angle looked low. Maybe it's the new cup cam."

He made a number of arcane references, for which he is known. He mentioned the sword of Damocles and the Rosetta stone, as if to highlight the strain, and it was a strain both on the field and in the broadcast booth.

Producer Don Ohlmeyer is trying to reinvent the wheel, or at least the magic that was Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford in the '70s.

Unfortunately, that was the horse-and-buggy days of sports television, when ABC's "Monday Night Football" truly was an event, if only because the viewing options were so few.

In the era of cable television, satellite dishes and the Internet, Ohlmeyer is hoping the oddity of Miller can stem the shrinking audience of his pet project.

The Miller hire has generated a good amount of buzz, the first part of the restoration project. Sustaining the buzz is another matter.

Miller's quips, whether you find them funny or not, are the electronic version of pabulum. They either tickle the funny bone or don't. They don't inspire passion. They don't polarize the masses.

That was Cosell's gift, and to be fair to Miller, that is not his role, although the hiring raises the comparison.

You either loved Cosell or hated him, but either way, you just had to watch to hear what the self-important blowhard would say next.

Miller does not have that pull or power, if his show on HBO is any indication. He takes his shots there, often political ones, but he does so in a safe and predictable manner, as if you are in on the fun with him.

That doesn't make him dangerous. That makes him one of the crowd. His humor is mainstream, although he pretends to be an outsider.

He loves the F-word, and if the word is ever retired from the English language, it should be done so in his honor. Otherwise, his distinctiveness flows from his ability to reach way out there and pull an obscure reference into his rants.

Miller may be bent, slightly different, but in a polished, presentable way.

Canton, Ohio, he said, is at the "confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates of professional football."

Cute. Nice. But hardly contentious stuff.

Miller never has played the game. The same thing was said of Cosell. That can be a strength, especially if you have ex-quarterback Dan Fouts at your side to break down the game's intricacies.

Cosell made his everlasting mark with his sky-is-falling proclamations on sports. He wasn't always right, but that didn't matter. His tell-it-like-it-is forays begged reaction.

Miller is only begging to be one of the guys. He is the football fanatic who lives next door and who, in a dream come true, wakes up one night in ABC's broadcast booth. He wants to do well while retaining his sense of self.

He can play off players' names with the best, and he can get a laugh off male genitalia.

If there's something about Mary, there's something about Dennis, too.

"The name Mirer is apropos, because he's stuck there," Miller said at one point during the telecast.

Miller's material was not necessarily bad or out of place, considering the alternative, which was the Patriots 20, 49ers 0.

But it failed to meet the hype, as perhaps was inevitable.

Miller flashed Meredith's aw-shucks silliness but none of Cosell's verve.

"Turn out the lights, the party's over," Meredith used to sing near the end of the game.

Miller tried his own sign-off.

"Start blow-drying Teddy Koppel's hair, because this one is over," he said.

That was a 3-yard gain from someone hired to be a game breaker.

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