Comedian Dennis Miller is back -- with a chimp

He makes no secret of his politics -- in fact, he may want you to hate him

January 25, 2004|By Noel Holston

Dennis Miller may not be the most imaginative title for the comedian's new CNBC current affairs-talk series, premiering tomorrow night at 9, but it is informational, and it will fit neatly into one of those tiny rectangles in the TV-listings grids. Besides, The Last Angry Man and Me and the Chimp, catchier and more apt, had already been used.

Chimp? There's a chimp?

Yes, there is -- in part to balance out Miller's vitriolic tendencies and remind viewers that he isn't taking politics or most any other topic besides war too seriously, even if he sounds as if he does. Mugsy, hired through "an Ebola-free monkey employment agency," according to Miller, is also an homage to J. Fred Muggs, the simian cut-up who was a regular on the old Today show.

"I thought, 'If I ever have a news show, I'm going to have a monkey,' " Miller says. Not every night, however. "The monkey costs more than humans," he said.

As Miller's man in the White House, President George W. Bush, might say, the CNBC series brings the comic commentator around half-circle. His credits extend from Saturday Night Live, where he was a sarcastic "Weekend Update" anchor from 1985 to 1991, to a recent two-year stint on Monday Night Football.

'Dangerous times'

In his SNL days, Miller had hair like Jon Bon Jovi. His coif isn't all that has changed over time. His Emmy-winning rants for HBO and his appearances on Fox News have been characterized by a steady shift to the right politically, although he insists he's more of a libertarian than a conservative.

"There's certain things I'm liberal on, certain things I'm conservative on," Miller said. "As far as homeland protection, I am to the right. I'll be honest with you, 9 / 11 changed me. I'm shocked it didn't change everybody as much as it changed me.

"In dangerous times, I think this country has to cover its [back]," he continued. "You know, the simple fact is that we are simultaneously now the world's most beloved, hated, feared and admired nation. In short, we're Frank Sinatra. And you know something? The Chairman didn't make his bones lying down for punks outside the Fontainebleau."

Miller voted for Bush in 2000. He plans to do so again this year, and he doesn't mind if John Kerry, John Edwards or anybody else knows. Far better to be up front about his preferences than to pretend, as he sees it, to be objective like a Peter Jennings. If leading Democrats don't want to appear on his show, the major component of CNBC's prime-time makeover, hey, there's always the monkey.

Miller's game plan is to spend about 15 minutes on the day's main story, drawing on NBC, CNBC and MSNBC reporters, then move on to "The Daily Rorschach," an irreverent "Weekend Update"-style round-up. The second half-hour will feature two panel segments, and he'll finish up with a guest essayist, viewer mail and "a little surprise." He expects presidential politics will be its bread and butter for the near future.

'At the 50th percentile'

"I think it's a great time to come on the air because, quite frankly, the political discourse in this country is as polarized as it's been since the Vietnam War," Miller said. "The red and blue states are out there, and they want their whims catered to. So I'm more than willing to give my opinions and let the chips fall where they may."

It's not that Miller doesn't care what anybody thinks. He just doesn't care what everybody thinks.

"I've learned over the years that there's a great career to be had right at the 50th percentile," he says. "It's not about getting everybody to like you, it's about getting the half that like you to really like you and the half that hate you to really hate you."

Miller's show is part of electronic journalism's growth niche, news with attitude, which includes shows ranging from Bill O'Reilly's The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News Channel to Jon Stewart's The Daily Show on Comedy Central.

Does the fact that many people, especially young adults, are getting much of their news from such sources surprise or trouble him?

"I don't think kids even vaguely connect to guys like Jennings and Dan Rather," he said. "If you're an 18-year-old kid, who are you going to trust to give you the facts? Dan Rather ... or are you going to listen to, you know, Jon Stewart? Of course you're going to listen to Jon."

And what about Dennis Miller? Should kids -- or anybody else -- trust him?

"No," he said. "I'm a comedian, for God's sake."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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