'Miller' trying to find its late-night niche

March 12, 1992|By Daniel Cerone | Daniel Cerone,Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD -- There have been some staff changes of late on "The Dennis Miller Show."

"Everybody's gone," Mr. Miller said from his office Monday. "I'm a complete psycho. I'm like Kurtz. There's heads strewn across the stairway."

He was kidding, of course, brandishing some of the obscure humor that has made Mr. Miller's syndicated late-night talk show popular among men 18 to 34, despite remaining a low-rated enigma to larger audiences. (Kurtz was the mad Army colonel played by Marlon Brando in "Apocalypse Now.")

But "Miller," which debuted Jan. 20, has been experiencing some shake-ups. "The atmosphere here is tense," one production source said.

In the past month, the program has replaced producer Ken Ehrlich and musical director Andy Summers while adding three new writers, led by Second City TV comedy veteran Dave Thomas.

"We're trying to broaden the comedy a little," said Mr. Miller, who is also an executive producer.

"Dennis' personality is the strong point of the show, and that's what we're going to focus more on," said Donald Hacker, president of Tribune Entertainment Co., which produces "Miller."

"We're not changing anything. I think we're just going to continue doing the show we're doing. We're perfectly happy with it," executive producer Brad Grey said.

All three, however, concur that despite soft ratings, "Miller" will remain on the air at least through the summer to give the show a fighting chance after Johnny Carson vacates his late-night throne in May.

"That has been our plan, to gear up here as we get into the summer months," Mr. Hacker said. "You have Carson retiring. But more importantly for us, there will be a flux of young kids coming home from college. If you track 'Arsenio,' you see the summer months are much stronger than the winter."

Since the show's premiere in January, Mr. Miller has received mixed critical reaction -- praised for his wit but panned for his interview skills. Tribune research has found that viewers tune in to the show primarily to see Miller and not his guests. Unless there's a big-name guest on tap, Mr. Miller's ratings generally fall off after the monologue.

The new "Miller," according to sources, will concentrate more on the edgy host and his unusual brand of humor throughout the hour. "Our emphasis is to make the show less guest-intensive," Mr. Hacker said, "and most importantly to exploit the comedy elements of Dennis himself."

Mr. Hacker added that the shift would be subtle, appearing gradually over the coming weeks.

The first sign of unrest on "Miller" occurred during the February ratings sweeps when Mr. Summers, a former band member of the Police, left the show because the daily grind was too much. He was replaced by David Goldblatt, musical director for Diana Ross' 1989 world tour. Mr. Summers, who wrote "Miller's" theme song, reportedly had a musical vision for the show that differed from Tribune's original concept of traditional rock 'n' roll. Mr. Goldblatt's mandate was to integrate more music into the program, and he started by adding a horn player and guitarist to the house band.

Then Mr. Thomas, perhaps best known as one of the McKenzie Brothers (with Rick Moranis) from "SCTV," was hired three weeks ago as a "comedy mechanic," as one staffer put it. The program's writers up to that point were mostly comics and not TV comedy writers.

"Dave is here to open up the comedy a little," Mr. Miller said. "They're looking for ways to get me off the desk and out in the crowd. We'd like to do a '90s version of what Carson does, Stump the Band, or Dave [Letterman] and his Brush With Greatness."

So far, Mr. Miller has not been able to keep pace with his syndicated counterpart, Arsenio Hall. In his first five weeks on the air, "Miller" has averaged a 1.8 rating nationally, according to the A.C. Nielsen Co., or about 1.6 million homes a night. "Arsenio" averaged a 3.4 over that same period.

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