D. Miller kicks off for laughs

Comic tries his lines with MNF tonight

July 31, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

Dennis Miller wants a doubting nation to know he has plenty of experience as a sportscaster - namely, three decades of sitting on the couch in his underwear, watching games and barking commentary at his TV.

But seriously, folks ...

Tonight, the hipster comic will make his debut on "Monday Night Football" in what qualifies as either a) another bold experiment from the network that gave the world Howard Cosell or b) an awful mistake.

ABC is gambling that a comedic presence in the booth will rejuvenate its seminal game of the week, adding a twist to the coverage by veteran play-by-play man Al Michaels and former quarterback Dan Fouts.

Chatting outside a recent network function, Miller mixed football with jokes and references that spun from the Marlboro man to the Greek orator Demosthenes.

All of this coincides with the Miller most of America knows, the newscaster from "Saturday Night Live" and the talk-show host whose rants can last for breathless minutes.

"I'll bet there are a lot of people thinking this is the weirdest hire," he said with a characteristic, high-pitched laugh. "They're thinking, `What could this guy know about football?' "

At the very least, curiosity has made tonight's Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, one of the most-anticipated preseason games in NFL history.

But friends and colleagues expect Miller to be more than a novelty. They expect that viewers will see another facet of the man, a private side that might just make him a capable - though quirky - sportscaster.

In the early 1990s, a familiar voice popped up on local sports talk radio - Miller had moved to Los Angeles after a stint on "Saturday Night Live."

Forget the ultra-hip act. Forget the smirk.

Miller wanted to talk about the latest San Diego Padres trade or give his pick for the French Open. He was a stats geek who could name every player on the 1967-68 Pittsburgh Pipers of the American Basketball Association.

"Everyone wonders what the hell does he know about sports," said Steve Hartman, co-host of the "Loose Cannons" show on San Diego radio station XTRA. "Well, he's a die-hard fan. He can cover them all."

On the set of his cable show, executive producer Jeff Cesario would say, "How's it going?" and Miller would respond, "Can you believe what the Islanders did with their fourth line?"

Get Miller started on football and the 46-year-old sounds like he's back on the couch, yapping at the television.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers? "If you're looking to play in the Super Bowl, I don't know if you can let a guy like Hardy Nickerson walk out the door. He's a great veteran linebacker, and you need guys like that, especially if you're built on defense."

What about his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers? Miller plays it straight.

"I guess I'm not supposed to say," he said. "I don't want to cut into my Ed Murrow chops."

While the reference to Murrow - the late, famed journalist - might sail over some heads, Cesario says Miller is "someone who is bright and quick but, at the same time, can hang with a bar full of guys watching the Kansas City-Denver game."

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