- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2007

Dennis Miller knows from “getting whacked.” That’s his catchall description of canceled television shows, an underappreciated stint as color commentator for “Monday Night Football” and, perhaps most ignominiously, losing to Sinbad on “Star Search.” The 53-year-old comedian says age and a sense of pragmatism have reconciled him to the fickleness of fame. “I don’t mind failing. I’m serious about that; I’m not trying to act like some kung fu warrior,” he says over the phone. “To me, the top rung of showbiz pain doesn’t even vaguely approach real-life pain.”

Now, Mr. Miller, whose brand of snarky erudition as “Weekend Update” anchor on “Saturday Night Live” established a template for fake-news outlets like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” is back in a chancy new venue: talk radio.

“I’m having a blast, man,” he says of “The Dennis Miller Show,” which debuted in March. Heard locally on WTNT-AM from 3 to 6 p.m., the show is syndicated to more than 100 affiliates by the Westwood One radio network.

“I’ve found that the free-associative nature of my mind fits the medium,” Mr. Miller laughs. “I’m bouncing back and forth from sports to recipes to Doris Kearns Goodwin. Then I take a phone call, then I have another guest, then I read the Drudge Report and make some comments. Next thing you know, time’s up.”

For liberal-leaning fans of Mr. Miller, the move into the ranks of talk-radio, dominated as it is by right-wing jocks such as Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, represents a sad culmination of Mr. Miller’s political evolution. Where once the comedian poked fun at the religious right and gun fanatics, now he’s a full-throated Bush apologist, they say.

“He used to be funnier,” chided blogger Michael Hood on his Web site Blatherwatch, where he monitors the talk-radio industry from a liberal perspective. “Seemingly a lefty for years, after 9/11, he turned into a multisyllabic right-wing nag.”

Panning the short-lived TV vehicle “Dennis Miller,” which ran on ratings-deprived CNBC from January 2004 until May 2005, Slate.com’s Dennis Cass jibed that Mr. Miller had degenerated from “a left-leaning, Dada-ist wisenheimer” into a “tell-it-like-it-is, right-wing blowhard.”

Just don’t call him an opportunist.

“Anybody who says that me taking this stance out here in Hollywood is for career purposes is being disingenuous. The stands I’m taking right now are not overly popular in my hometown,” says Mr. Miller.

“When I called the right on its [nonsense], I believed it. When I call the left on it, I believe it,” he continues. “I speak my mind, and I feel good about myself. I don’t feel noble … I don’t think it’s any sort of brave thing to do. It’s show business. But at least I can live with myself.”

For his part, Mr. Miller says his politics haven’t changed all that much; he describes himself as “libertarian on most things, if not downright Ayn Rand objectivist.” He’s still pro-choice on abortion and favors same-sex “marriage.”

Even his fervid defense of the war on terrorism squares with past comic riffs. In a brilliantly angry 1993 stand-up performance at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, the third of Mr. Miller’s six HBO specials, he said “there are some incredibly evil [persons] on this planet, and sometimes you’ve got to thin the herd.”

Today he says of his preferred presidential candidate, Rudolph W. Giuliani: “I’m going to continue to vote for guys who are the most prone to kill the terrorists. And I think Rudy is in his peak killing years.”

Indeed, Mr. Giuliani was one of the first guests booked on “The Dennis Miller Show,” which, like previous Miller showcases, blends amiable interview segments with a satirical take on daily news.

Mr. Miller’s fluent vocabulary and penchant for furiously obscure strings of pop culture-laden metaphors are on full display.

“I’ve got one monkey trick,” he explains. “It’s the only thing I know how to do. It fits in some places, and it doesn’t fit in others.”

That so-called monkey trick found a comfortable habitat in HBO for nine years; Mr. Miller settled there after Chicago-based Tribute Entertainment abandoned the “Dennis Miller Show,” the comedian’s stab at late-night TV, in 1992 after only one year of syndication.

HBO executive Michael J. Fuchs approached Mr. Miller soon after the cancellation. “He said, ‘Listen, I think they made a mistake; come over here when you get healed up.’ So I went over to HBO and did 215 shows, won five Emmys and bought my family a house,” says Mr. Miller.

Since then, Mr. Miller has failed to repeat that kind of sustained success.

Of his “Monday Night Football” stint, which lasted two seasons, he says ratings for the show had been in free-fall and continued to decline even after ABC replaced him and co-host Dan Fouts with John Madden in 2002.

“I’m not trying to paint it as a victory for me, but they did go down the next year — and they were paying Madden a lot more than me,” he says. “I think they should’ve stuck that out, but they didn’t. So you get on with it.”

Mr. Miller’s foray into radio faces a similar uphill battle.

Bruce Kaufman, a blogger at TalkingRadio.blogspot.com, points out that while securing 100 affiliates in two months is nothing to sneeze at, the show’s outlets “tend to be weaker stations; their signals are not at all that strong.”

In most major markets, Mr. Kaufman adds, the show is carried on low-rated stations owned by Christian-friendly Salem Communications. (Bethesda-based WTNT, incidentally, is owned by Clear Channel.)

Mr. Miller, for now, is enjoying the risk of mastering a new medium.

If radio proves a bust, he says, so be it.

“I’m like G. Gordon Liddy,” says Mr. Miller, launching into a trademark riff. “Just tell me what corner you want me on when you’re gonna whack me. I don’t want innocents getting caught in the crossfire.”

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