Who is Dennis Miller?

The commentator and comic insists he is not a journalist

November 13, 2003|By Verne Gay | Verne Gay,NEWSDAY

Everyone who follows TV knows well the "what" of Dennis Miller, as in what he's done over the past decade or so - and it's quite the laundry list: Saturday Night Live; a syndicated talk show; an Emmy Award-winning program for HBO; Monday Night Football commentator; Fox News Channel essayist; bit acting parts here and there (including a current cameo on Fox's fast-fading Boston Public).

And, starting in January, a four-night-a-week talk-show gig on CNBC, which will probably air at 9 p.m.

What everyone does not know particularly well is the "who" of Miller. As in: Who really is this amusing fellow with the hydrochloric acid wit? Liberal or conservative? Democrat or Republican? Funny or serious?

But as one of the great moving-target acts in American show business, Miller (who turned 50 last week) is not in an entirely obliging mood on these questions. He is not - he explained emphatically in a recent interview - a journalist, even though he studied to be one in college and his new show putatively deals with the news.

He recalls talking to a prospective boss at some newspaper "who told me he'd pay me by the column inch. He saw a Road Runner column of dust."

Nor will he admit to either a right or left political tilt, even though some in California (he lives in Santa Barbara) have decided he is a confirmed rightie who may make a run as a Republican next year for the Senate seat currently occupied by Democrat Barbara Boxer. That will not happen: His deal with CNBC is a "multi-year" one, and unless it meets a quick end, he can't do both.

In his now-standard response to the question of personal politics, he explains: "I'm conservative on a couple of things - you should be able to keep one out of every two dollars you make, and I'd like us to pre-emptively croak bad guys before they come here and kill us. Other than that, I'm pretty liberal."

He's also a "big Bush fan. He's my president and I'm proud of him. ... I don't want my guy to be neurotic about protecting us."

At least for prospective guests of his new show, there's a pragmatic reason for knowing Miller's political stripe. The reason is, he's toying with the idea of a split screen, in which his face occupies one side and an interview subject the other half. Those he agrees with will fill their entire half of the screen. Those he does not agree with will be shrunk - steadily, presumably until their head becomes a dot, and then disappears from the screen altogether.

As he puts it, "if you make a cogent point, I will blow you up a little ... I'll also have a dimmer."

Dimmers and politics aside, the advent of Millertime on CNBC is one of the more intriguing media developments in recent months. Foremost, the tentatively titled News Starring Dennis Miller (think an hourlong SNL Weekend Update with a few dashes of The Daily Show) is a departure for CNBC. While some might argue that Kudlow & Cramer (which airs at 8 p.m. and will remain on the air) is a comedy hour, Miller promises comedy and invective, satire and assault.

The show, he also explains, "will not be fair and balanced. If I disagree with someone, I can be unfair and unbalanced. ... In America, we're so interested in keeping things balanced that we've lost our minds."

Miller's abrupt departure from Fox News, where he had provided weekly essays for Hannity & Colmes, also was a dangerous move - for Miller, that is. Fox has never been particularly shy about blasting defectors, and when Miller called late one afternoon last month to say he had accepted the CNBC offer, Fox executives were stunned. They quickly iced the last seven essays he was under contract to write (Miller says there were only three left), and neither party has spoken since.

"Frankly, when we deal with talent we usually have better conversations before someone leaves," says Kevin Magee, Fox's vice president of programming. "I don't think he'll have as many viewers as he had on Hannity & Colmes, but we'll figure out some way to fill those three minutes and move on."

Miller, too, is eager to move on and make up. He said he took the CNBC offer (which originated from NBC Entertainment chief Jeff Zucker) because he had "never heard" from Fox about whether the network wanted to keep him beyond this year. "I figured there was no interest there."

Of Fox News' famously feisty boss, Roger Ailes, Miller says dryly: "I like Roger. He makes me laugh."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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