You could call the comedy of Dennis Miller "comedary." For "Saturday Night Live's" resident news anchorman fits within the tradition of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin as ......TC serious social commentator who happens to use humor.
In his second special for the HBO premium service premiering tonight at 10, the targets of Miller's caustic observations are all over the place. Among many, they include other comedians, Washington's Marion Barry, anti-fur activists, President Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, the reunited Germany, the New Kids on the Block, West Virginia and Louisiana, white men who try to fast dance, TV evangelists and other video advertisers, and NASA.
This is comedy that's about something.
His language and subject matter are sometimes crude and explicit, but usually not gratuitously so in the manner, say, of Andrew "Dice" Clay. Indeed, Miller dismisses the furor over Clay by suggesting parents who worry such crudity will affect their children aren't doing their jobs as parents.
"Don't we look for things to bother ourselves with?" he asks, as part of a passionate sequence in which he contends the real national pastime in America is "speaking for others," as illustrated by anti-fur activists and evangelists.
Saying even former Sen. Joseph McCarthy "would be a little squeamish" about the current repressive climate, he contends "the number one endangered species in this country is somebody who retains their freedom of choice."
As usual, Miller's material here is also densely packed with literate cultural references ranging from books to TV trivia. In one short stretch, by actual note-taking, these include: the book "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," Queequeg from "Moby Dick," Capt. Pike from "Star Trek," Capt. Eveready from commercials, Jimmy Stewart in "Vertigo," the film "Other Side of the Mountain" (about a handicapped skier) and actress Linda Kelsey from "The Lou Grant Show."
After that, Miller himself pauses to gasp, "stop me before I sub-reference again."
Sometimes you must be especially alert to identify the reference, such as when he stiffly describes the white male's dance style, standing there squeakily saying, "oil can, oil can." It's tin man Ray Bolger's first line, of course, from "The Wizard of Oz."
MEET WHITNEY, SORT OF -- On the strength now of three editions, it seems safe to say that the "VH-1 to One" series, apparently designed to profile top pop stars, doesn't quite satisfy.
The latest edition, featuring singer Whitney Houston, premieres at 4 p.m. Sunday on the basic cable video service and follows earlier installments we've seen on Harry Connick Jr. and Daniel Lanois.
The trouble is, the show is neither a real interview nor a presentation of the stars' music. Instead, clips from videos or performances compete for attention with clips from interviews with the star and others commenting about the star. Tune in for the music and you don't hear enough. Tune in for an interesting conversation and you don't get that either.
In this weekend's piece on Houston, for example, none of the segments from interviews with her lasts longer than about 30 seconds. They're like news sound bites, interrupted by quick clips from videos or other pieces of tape.
Indeed, it is somewhat reminiscent of Madonna's recent appearance on ABC's "Nightline" to talk about her controversial "Justify My Love" video -- except there, we saw the whole video and heard both the questions and her responses long enough to actually absorb them and think about the matter.