Dennis Miller's new talk show got off to a slightly confusing start when, seated next to a large chimpanzee called Ellie, he delivered an impassioned sermon on how 9/11 had turned him into a supporter of George W. Bush, homeland security and the war on terror. As for Ellie, we were informed that she was going to be a "consultant" on the program. Her presence suggested a desire on Miller's part to create a comedy-news show that would function both as a serious forum for discussion and as an opportunity for zany right-wing comedy. "I may be a Republican," he was saying in effect, "but that doesn't mean I've lost my sense of humor."
Maybe not, but he has lost Ellie, who was retired after a handful of appearances, perhaps because she pressed the Howard Dean "scream" button on Miller's desk one too many times. Mo, a smaller, more amiable chimp, has replaced her, and can occasionally be seen swinging across the studio on a rope, nuzzling up to the host while he delivers a monologue, or turning somersaults on a sofa while attempting to read Variety. Strangely, Miller seems to derive some comfort from having Mo to hang out with on camera. Perhaps the chimp's warm, simian personality makes up for all the bad reviews he's been getting from cold, nasty critics.
Miller hasn't had much luck with his timing. His openly pro-Bush show debuted just as John Kerry became the Democratic front-runner and the president's poll numbers went into a nosedive. No WMD in Iraq, an out-of-control budget and widespread revulsion at the tough-talking cowboy in the White House. You could hardly pick a worse time to declare yourself for the president and hope to get good ratings. In fact, Miller's ratings did start out well, with 746,000 people (a huge figure by CNBC standards) tuning in to the first episode, in which he interviewed his pal Arnold Schwarzenegger, but they've slipped down to the 300,000 range since then.
Now compare that to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, the gold standard for television news-comedy, which has attracted as many as 1.9 million viewers on Comedy Central at 11 p.m., more than serious news shows on Fox, CNN and MSNBC can summon in the same time slot. Stewart, who was recently on the cover of Newsweek, is now so esteemed that many people consider his "faux" news show to be a more valuable source of information than tired old establishment warhorses like World News Tonight, and in some ways, they're correct.
Ably abetted by the analyses and reports of hilariously self-important "correspondents" like Stephen Colbert, Stewart has managed to turn the traditional news show on its head while delivering a bracingly strong shot of Onion-esque "alternative" news at the same time. And he's done it with such elegance and panache as to make his rivals -- Bill Maher, Colin Quinn and now Miller -- look like inebriated peasants trying out a few dance moves while standing next to Fred Astaire.
Or, even worse, like "angry white men" -- a label that Maher, who glares at his guests when he disagrees with them and is apt to complain bitterly about feminists, sometimes gets stuck with. Quinn, whose Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn (Comedy Central) revels in its ability to deliver more racial insults in half an hour than any other show on television, is actually too good-humored to be called angry, but he does like to shock. On one program, he suggested that our Middle East problems could be easily solved if we just threw the Jews to the Arabs. "What?" a fellow comedian responded, outraged. "The Jews would understand," Quinn replied equably. "We'd go to them and say, 'Hey, it's just business.'" Miller, who's attempting to be serious, angry and funny all at the same time, is closer to the Maher camp. He has promised to be "an ombudsman" who will tell it like it is and become "incensed" on the viewer's behalf, even if, etymologically speaking, an ombudsman is supposed to be a cucumber-cool Swede rather than an irate California comedian.
Stewart, an instinctive ironist, is way too savvy to pose as a "truth-teller" or anything else. He deals in the coin of irony. Nor would anyone ever mistake him for an angry white man, except when he's getting angry at other white men, which doesn't count: That's called being a sensible white man. He cried on-air after 9/11, and if something like that ever happens again, he'll probably turn in a repeat performance. But in the meantime, he'll carry on making fun of Tom Ridge and Bush and WMD and so forth not just because they're easy satirical targets but also because comedically that's the safe thing to do.
When satirizing the media, The Daily Show is brilliant, but when it comes to Osama bin Laden et al., Stewart just can't wrap his head around the idea of an enemy, particularly a Third World one. Simply thinking about it makes him queasy, uncomfortable, and challenges his most deeply held belief, which is that it's unseemly to get ticked off at anyone who isn't rich, Caucasian and, hopefully, Republican. The municipal authorities of his own city may be working around the clock to prepare for the possibility of a nuclear attack, but Stewart can't find it in his heart to resent the people who make those preparations necessary. Deep down, he'd prefer to think it's all Dick Cheney's fault: If we hadn't invaded Iraq, 9/11 would never have happened.
Which is where Miller comes in. Not only is he comfortable with the idea of enemies and war, he doesn't even have a problem with the elusive Cheney. In an interview with Newsweek investigative reporter Michael Isikoff about David Kay's WMD report, Miller argued that today's CIA is ineffectual because of legislation that prevented the agency from getting down and dirty with the world's bad guys. "Isn't that the problem over there, that we got out of the dirty-people business?" Miller asked.
"Certainly, if you're Dick Cheney, that would be the analysis," Isikoff conceded.
"Well, I am Dick Cheney!" Miller replied, pretending to pull off a facemask and cracking himself up in the process.
Miller begins each episode of his program with "The Daily Rorschach," a segment in which he sits at a desk and delivers wordy -- some would say laborious -- riffs on the news, much as he once did on Saturday Night Live and Dennis Miller Live on HBO. (Sample jokes: "A new poll shows that Senator Kerry's support in the South is strongest among blacks. Kerry's appeal to Southern blacks is obvious: He's a white man who lives far, far away. Kerry's campaign is also gaining support among women. However, Kucinich is still tops among post-op trannies.") This part of the program, at least, could benefit mightily from a live audience, because without some laughter to feed off, Miller the comedian can seem a little lost, even with crew members providing some consolation chuckles off-screen.
But could he even attract a studio audience four days a week, particularly one that would laugh at his jokes? Studio audiences in L.A. and New York will howl at any anti-Bush joke, and cheer any anti-Bush remark, no matter how lame. How would they react to the jokes of an openly Republican comedian, even one who's laid-back on the cultural issues and is down with gay marriage? We'll soon find out. Mo was recently seen holding up a sign with a toll-free telephone number, and when the show returns from a 10-day hiatus on March 9, it will be with a nightclub-style audience of 100 or so in attendance -- as well as former Early Show and Today guru Steve Friedman as consulting producer.
After he gets through with the jokes, Miller generally interviews somebody who can illuminate a particular issue -- Congressman Barney Frank on gay marriage, former U.N. inspector Scott Ritter on the missing WMD, historian Victor Davis Hanson on immigration. The second half of the show is then mostly taken up by the "Varsity Panel," when Miller and three guests discuss topics from the day's news. Contributors have included Naomi Wolf, David Horowitz, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Lawrence O'Donnell, Mickey Kaus, Jill Stewart, Martin Short, Mark Cuban, Kellyanne Conway, David Denby and others. Here Miller acts less like a host than a fellow conversationalist, and seems as happy to listen as to interrupt. But he does get in a few wisecracks.
When Gates, the chair of Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department, mildly reproved his fellow (all white) panelists for never reading Ebony or Jet, Miller quipped: "I read the Cliffs Notes to Jet." Later in the same episode, Gates predicted that Al Sharpton would get 15 to 25 percent of the vote in the South Carolina primary. "Isn't that one of the signs of Armageddon?" Miller asked innocently.
The nice thing about the "Varsity Panel" (depending on his guests) is the relatively relaxed and straightforward attitude that Miller brings to it. Although he worked briefly as a commentator for Hannity and Colmes on Fox, he's far from being a Murdochian attack dog, and he often sits there and sucks it up while people tell him just how awful the administration of his beloved commander-in-chief really is. (Naomi Wolfe almost went into meltdown mode as she assailed John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act.) Miller, it turns out, is considerably more interested in "diversity" than some of his liberal counterparts.
On a recent episode of Topic A With Tina Brown (CNBC), there were, by my count, seven guests who were Democrats, two Brits who would almost certainly vote Labour (Brown herself and Greg Dyke, the ousted head of the BBC), along with one lone Republican, Betsy McCaughey, who was more or less told to shut up by Nora Ephron. A typical Miller panel, on the other hand, will be 50-50, meaning one Republican guest, two Democrats and Miller himself to balance things out.
Miller may be up front about his own political affiliation, even to the point of shilling for the Republicans, but despite his increasingly aggressive America-first humor, he is unusually evenhanded in his selection of guests. "When it comes to protecting our country," he said a couple of weeks ago, launching into a characteristic Ugly American rant, "I'll call a guy who does his talking in a universal language all terrorist punks understand -- big MOABs dropped right on their heads that say KABOOM for five city blocks. And we know who that is, don't we?"
And then Miller introduced (by video screen) not, as you might expect, Ollie North or Attila the Hun, but the former U.S. secretary of labor under Clinton, Robert Reich, who proceeded to deliver an elegant editorial on the true meaning of the word patriotism. This boiled down -- "I'm going to be accused of class warfare," Reich warned -- to a convincing argument for why, contra Miller's beloved president, the rich should pay higher taxes. Somehow, I can't imagine the Michael Moores and Al Frankens of this world -- not even the Jon Stewarts -- being quite so generous toward their adversaries.
There was a little coda, though. After Reich had finished, we rejoined Miller, who was hanging out with the chimp. "What's that, Mo?" he asked, bending down as if to catch something the little critter was saying. "I know! He's trying to instigate class warfare!"
So that's why Miller likes Mo -- he's a Republican.