Weeknight update: Dennis Miller debuts

January 20, 1992|By John Carman | John Carman,San Francisco Chronicle

LOS ANGELES -- Sweet as strychnine, affable as hemlock, Dennis Miller joins the swelling ranks of talk-show hosts tonight as the only one who looks like he sleeps in a coffin.

His natural audience?

"Cynical, narcoleptic people," Mr. Miller said in an interview last week.

His on-air guests?

"Heavy emphasis on mime," Mr. Miller said, heavy emphasis on sarcasm. "I also want to have Joan Van Ark on and find out how much she's jogging this week."

After Mr. Miller's six years on the Weekend Update feature of "Saturday Night Live," most people have figured out whether they'd rather applaud him or flog him.

In most cities, Mr. Miller's hourlong show will provide counterpoint to "The Tonight Show" and Arsenio Hall. (In Baltimore, he's on WBAL-Channel 11 at 12:30 a.m. and in Washington on WDCA-Channel 20 at 11 p.m.)

It's no accident that Mr. Miller's syndicator, Tribune Entertainment, is contributing to the talk-show congestion late at night.

Mr. Miller's producer, Brad Grey, admitted that the show's timing owes to the fact that "an institution was going to be leaving shortly . . . Obviously I'm talking about . . ."

"Sajak," shouted Mr. Miller.

It's Johnny Carson's retirement four months from now that's causing the stir.

Jay Leno might or might not duplicate Carson's success. And if the "Tonight" audience turns to shrapnel, it would be a pity to leave Arsenio Hall as the sole benefactor.

Mr. Miller wasn't Tribune Entertainment's first choice. The job was offered first to Garry Shandling, who turned it down and decided instead to launch a new comedy series on HBO.

Mr. Miller's niche apparently is somewhere to the left of Mr. Leno and due north of Mr. Hall. His humor is pricklier than Mr. Leno's and promises to be more cerebral than Mr. Hall's.

"I'm not saying anybody's better or worse," Mr. Miller said. "But I do think Arsenio and Jay and I are clearly delineated. I think there are some easily perceived differences. I'm not as gregarious as Arsenio."

The hope, Mr. Grey said, is that Mr. Miller, 38, will skew toward the advertiser-friendly 18-to-39-year-old audience. Or at least, Mr. Miller added, viewers in that age bracket who are "jaded to the point of suicide."

"The Dennis Miller Show" will feature an opening monologue, an in-studio band, no sidekick for the host ("I like the idea of a sidekick," Mr. Miller said, "but there's no Sancho Panza agency where I can go out and procure one") and what Mr. Grey blithely termed "a chat area."

Mr. Miller: "A chat area? Sounds like 'Playboy After Dark.' "

One carry-over from "Saturday Night Live" is planned. Friday nights, Mr. Miller said, he'll lance the news events of the week.

And don't forget visiting stars carting clips from their latest movies. Sure, it's plugola, said Mr. Miller, but that's how the TV game is played.

"I am a complete clip whore," he said.

At this point, a reporter got up and tried to slip out of the interview room. When Mr. Miller interrupted his escape, the reporter joked lamely that "I've got a one-on-one with Bob Saget."

"Maybe you could do an interview after," Mr. Miller shot back.

That, as surely as anything said over 40 minutes, is Dennis Miller. Not kind, but quick.

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