Laughing at Dennis Miller

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I wrote up the disastrously received 1985-86 season of Saturday Night Live for My World of Flops not too long ago in part so that I would be able to answer the oft-asked question, “Was Dennis Miller ever actually funny?” 

The answer that I came up with after watching every episode of what is widely considered one of the late night institution’s worst and wobbliest seasons is a solid “yes.” When he had good material, Miller’s smirking, detached, smartest guy in the room smugness could be enormously amusing. It was the perfect fit for a job defined and perfected by Chevy Chase, another formerly hilarious  exemplar of wildly overcompensated straight white male glibness who is known these days for his myriad failings as a human being (I’m surprised the #MeToo movement has not caught up with him, to be honest) more than he is for his increasingly irrelevant comedy. 

Miller was an eighties kind of guy, a handsome jerk reveling in his intellectual and social superiority over the squares and dummies in the audience. He trafficked in arcane pop culture and historical references that were supposed to attain a blistering comic momentum as Miller rattled them off, one after another, in one of his signature “rants.” We were supposed to be blown away by the depth and breadth of Miller’s knowledge and frame of reference and if his references didn’t ultimately seem to make much sense, in context or out of it, surely that was our fault and not a hep cat who was quicker to fire off an Arch-Duke Ferdinand reference than anyone in the history of television. 

 There's no way Biden is coming back from a zinger like that. He's over. 

There's no way Biden is coming back from a zinger like that. He's over. 

The Weekend Update slot at Saturday Night Live suited Miller’s snarky talents so perfectly that he was lost without it. Unlike Chase, his film career was a non-starter. His starring role in Bordello of Blood failed to launch him to film stardom, or make anyone ever want to cast him in a lead role ever again. He bummed around TV and radio before a rightward shift from asshole libertarianism to full-on flag-waving, Obama-hating full-time professional Conservatism completed his long slide into total irrelevance. 

True, Miller was able to reprise the role of Zander Kelly in 2015’s Joe Dirt 2 but as far as comebacks go, it’s not exactly knocking Elvis’ 68 television special out of the number one slot, huh, cha cha? I’ve seen more impressive credits from people who only worked on one snuff film, as the unwitting and unlucky star. 

Then a little while ago something unexpected happened: Dennis Miller did something that made people laugh. And not just a little bit. We laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed. Laughing at Dennis Miller united us as a culture and as a people. Black or white, rich or poor, Conservative or Progressive, everyone enjoyed a hearty chuckle at Miller’s expense when he decided to defend the sacred white honor of professional liar Sarah Huckabee Sanders from the unthinkable brutality of professional comedians—specifically Michelle Wolf at this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner—making fun of her propensity for lying on behalf of a demented sociopath by coming up with some “really mean” jokes about Wolf over a period of several days. 

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A guy who was once the fastest mind in the building was publicly conceding that it would take anywhere from 48 to 96 hours to even begin the process of thinking up the kind of devastating insults most comedians would be able to come up with spontaneously.

But not our Dennis. He needed time. It’d be like Miller playing the Dozens, and after a competitor roasts him, demurring, “That was great, and I’ve got some devastating slams coming, I really do. I just need a few weeks, a small writing staff, mostly Harvard Lampoon-derived and a modest budget and I will come up with at least six or seven really hurtful things to say about your mother.” 

Miller never followed through with his pledge to roast Wolf publicly but he did delight Twitter all over again on the sixth of this month when he responded to Robert De Niro’s criticisms of Trump with, “Ironically, when I hear Robert De Niro talking about politics my first instinct is to look over my shoulder and say, “You talkin’ to me?” followed by a hashtag for his new podcast, DennisMillerOption, because apparently the passive-aggressive 19 year old running his operation told him that was a thing kids do these days. 

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I’m not going to lie: I found Miller’s “You talkin’ to me?” tweet fucking adorable. The dad joke content of it is off the charts. It’s exquisitely terrible. It's barely a joke and barely a pop culture reference. 

What even is the joke in Miller’s tweet? Is the joke that he does not take De Niro’s perspective or opinion seriously because he’s an actor who specialized in playing mentally ill characters? Is it that it’s so unlikely to see, um, celebrities in 2018 criticize Trump and his policies? 

Or is the joke that De Niro is famous for saying that one thing in that movie 40 years ago, so wouldn’t it be funny to bring it up in a different context? 

Miller used to trade in hipness and youth. Now he seems like the product of an illicit union between your racist grandpa, Mike Huckabee after a couple of wine coolers and a sentient MAGA hat. 

Two can play that game. Ironically, when I hear Dennis Miller talking about politics on Twitter or his podcast my first instinct is to tap his shoulder and say, “Excuse me good sir, but would you be kind enough to direct me to the nearest Bordello of Blood?” 

Then I’d ask him if he felt like he was caught in a net alongside other prominent Hollywood Conservatives since they work in an industry full of Not Ready for Prime Time Players who, full disclosure, would be overjoyed if there was a murder at the madhouse known as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, possibly during Saturday Night Live, or televised football.  

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Yes, Dennis Miller is still a rich source of laughs, only this time we’re laughing derisively at him rather than with him. The chuckles should continue when I write up Miller’s podcast in the not too distant future for the first-ever installment in “That Sounds Terrible!" a column devoted to things that sound terrible, like Dennis Miller's podcast

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