Dennis Miller

When Dennis Miller first arrived in Montecito, he was more locally active than he is now. He served as auctioneer and/or emcee at memorable events such as the Catholic Charities fundraiser where he and Larry Crandell swapped barbs both onstage and out to an audience that included Michael Douglas and other Hollywood luminaries. Miller tag-teamed with actor Rob Lowe for a Laguna Blanca School auction at the Biltmore once, then served as emcee again at the Biltmore when Kirk Douglas was honored as “Philanthropist of the Year” after donating $600,000 to purchase the re-named “Douglas Family Preserve.” The event, among the best that I’ve attended over the past twenty years, featured a teary-eyed Karl Malden reminiscing about the good old days when he and longtime pal Kirk shared an apartment in New York City as then-struggling actors. In the front table was not only Kirk Douglas, his wife, Ann, two sons Michael and Peter, but also Michael’s new bride, a radiant Catherine Zeta Jones. Michael had co-starred with Malden in TV’s “The Streets of San Francisco,” prompting Malden to remark, looking directly at Kirk, “He [Michael] may be your son, but he’ll always be my boy.”

Dennis has been a little less visible since, although he did host a fundraiser at Santa Barbara Junior High School with Gary Sinise for wounded soldiers a couple of years ago. Miller lives in a large 19th-century home that he and his wife, Ali, have spent the better part of a decade renovating. They have two boys, Holden and Marion.

The following conversation took place on a Saturday morning, by telephone.

MJ Managing Editor Guillaume Doane, in the office with me, asked Miller whether it was his “esoteric” comments during an on-air stint with Monday Night Football, which he did for two seasons, that got him finally canned. Miller says his ouster wasn’t personal; it was strictly business. “When John Madden left Fox,” he says, he felt his job was threatened, that he was going “to get whacked.” He observed that, “Madden is loose on the tundra and if he wants our jobs they’re his.” He did; they were.

Miller says, however, that he was ready to quit. Being in the booths was okay, polarizing fans was alright too. But more importantly, he had a growing family. “The travel got to be a bit of a drag,” he admits, explaining that with two sons he felt he was missing watching them grow up by being away so often. He would leave every Saturday during the television football season around noon and not return until the following Tuesday. “That part of it began to wear me down,” he says.

He would fly to wherever the game was being held on Saturday, meet with coaches of one team and then meet with coaches of the other team on Sunday. Mondays were mostly production meetings, prep, and getting to the stadium early. “Then, the game itself and if you’re lucky enough, you can get out of there that night; sometimes you’ve got to wait until the next morning and fly across the country. It ends up where you’re four days on the road. At age fifty-two, with kids, I don’t know if I’m that interested in that any more,” he groans.

Lest anyone believe that his increasingly conservative political viewpoint has hurt his career, Miller admits to no harm having been done. As for his backing of President Bush and the war in Iraq, Miller’s support seems as strong as ever.

“Historically,” he muses, “I think it’ll turn out to be [the right move]. I imagined it would be arduous while we were there, so it doesn’t surprise me that it is. I’ve visited these troops and it’s the heartbreak of war, but sometimes it’s necessary,” he concludes. “I’ve always said what I wanted,” he continues. “There were times that was pro-Democrat and times that were pro the current administration.”

He deserves credit for never having whined about being attacked for his political positions. “Some people love it; some people hate it. What’re you going to do? It’s showbiz, right?” he asks resignedly.

The Death Of Campus Curiosity

Miller warms up to the subject of college campuses after being asked whether he has been banned or rejected at any since embracing what are unpopular views. “Campuses have become the most closed-minded places in America to work,” he says. “I and other comedians kind of stay away from them if we can.” He observes that “Minds there are closed down,” and describes the college world as “a politically correct universe where everybody is watching every syllable to see if they’re being maligned, or I guess the current jargon is ‘disrespected.’

“Kids are a touchy bunch,” he continues, “so I do a few colleges. When I was young, we had to go there because it was a bastion of open-mindedness. Today, at least on liberal campuses, they’ve gotten a little less understanding of the meaning of the word joke.

“Look what happened to Larry Summers,” he notes. Summers, former president of Harvard, was forced to quit his position after a vote of “no-confidence” by faculty, brought about by a few ill-chosen remarks during a conference meant to examine why Harvard had not been able to attract more women to its science and engineering program. When Miller read Summers’ comment – that one of the reasons there are so few women in science and engineering may possibly be innate – he remembers thinking that provocative statements were what college was once about.’ “Now,” he quips, “it’s more about where the villagers get the torches and chase Summers out.”

He says he understands where the women at Harvard might have disagreed with Summers’ statement, but has trouble with their reported reactions of becoming physically sick and having to be helped out of the room. “I thought, ‘It’s a college; it’s a speech; people have differing views.’ To be led out of the room and waved on because you’ve got the vapors? What the hell is going on?” he wonders.

The rest of our conversation follows:

Q. When comedian Bill Cosby – who coincidentally played the Chumash not long ago – speaks at college commencements and such, he puts aside his act and gets serious (see “Ward Connerly” in this issue on page 34). Do you ever give commencement speeches where you’ll put aside the jokes and get serious?

A. No. I’m a comedian.

Well, that ends that line of questioning!

I’m very admiring of what Cosby is doing because I do think he puts himself in harm’s way, but at some point, if the halls of academia can no longer be a forum for ideas, that’s their fault. I admire any commencement speaker who really speaks his mind, on the left or the right. Cosby’s got some ideas on what it’s going to take. I’m reading a brilliant book right now by Shelby Steele (“White Guilt”). He catches heat [for voicing those opinions], but I admire his courage.

I think Cosby is at a point where he thinks he wants education to work. I believe he thinks it’s not working now and he’s going to voice the reasons he thinks it’s not working and some people are going to say, ‘Oh, he shouldn’t say stuff like that, but he goes full speed ahead. I admire him for that.

Will the Chumash audience be different from what you are accustomed to? I never put that much thought into the audience. You’ve got to do what you think is funny and your audience seems to find you. When I did comedy clubs, people would come to see that and stumble on me and either like me or not, but here nobody’s getting up out of their easy chair and driving out to the Chumash Casino unless they kind of want to see me.

So, this will be the same act, say, as one you’d do in Las Vegas; you don’t tailor it for a particular audience?

I do whatever act I’m working on at the time, and I try to turn the act over regularly. I’ve had seven one-hour HBO specials, so that’s at least seven new one-hour acts. You embellish it here and there, but I think you’d be giving more credit for being a renaissance man than most of us comedians are if we were really able to tailor our act for each show. It’s your perspective on things and hopefully you have enough people who like it.

Do you ever find yourself in a position where your material is not working? And if so, are you able to shift to other stuff?

I do think you can do things like… Here’s a for-instance: I was doing a Letterman show and I remember having a twelve- or fifteen-joke performance. On joke three, when it was starting to get strong, I stumbled and kind of screwed up the joke. On joke four, which was a pretty strong joke – not as strong as joke three but it fell right behind it so it would accrue some of the benefit laughs of joke three – I just blew it. Now I’m in trouble. I remember having to go down to joke eight and nine, which were the two best jokes. I grabbed them and scurried back to joke five and put them in there and shifted everything back down after I had righted the shift.

For a one-hour show, like the Chumash, the material plays itself, but when doing the Carson, Leno, or Letterman show, they are very important. They determine the pecking order. You really have to stay on your toes out there. Anytime you do one of those shows, you’re on DefCon Two.

When I first started with Carson, I’d get about six minutes and then if I was really good, I’d get two or three minutes on the couch and would be later in the show. Now that I’m with Jay [Leno], and I’ve been doing it long enough, I know I’m the first guest and I probably go on somewhere around two minutes to twelve; it’s that specific. The first set straddles the midnight hour, so I probably have to do seven minutes the first set and seven minutes the second set, a total of fourteen minutes.

That’s a considerable amount of time.

Yeah. Fourteen… You can’t turn those out every couple days. In four minutes, you might be able to get by with three jokes and get sort of a crowd laugh, but fourteen minutes you better have it organized.

Speaking of television. Regarding your CNBC show, towards the end I thought it had some real staying power. What happened?

I thought we were getting better at it… but I don’t have some ‘Dennis Miller Master Plan.’ I gave it a try, but did remember thinking ‘Hmm. Comedy-Variety-Political show, cooking segments… I don’t know about this.’ I gave it a shot but when they tapped me on the shoulder, I didn’t whine about it. I understand.

You always seemed a little uncomfortable in that suit. You were a sports jacket and jeans kind of guy. Why the suit?

They wanted that. I was an employee; they wanted a business suit and a tie. I’m not one of these egocentric champions who’d say, ‘I do it this way or I walk.’ I come from Pittsburgh, a union town. Maybe deep in my hard drive there is this reaction to bosses. The guy paying my check said ‘I want you to wear a suit and a tie.’ I did say, ‘You know, I usually don’t dress like that,’ but they said it’s a stock market channel and they wanted me to do it.

Do you have any observation that might help explain why President Bush is so inarticulate?

It’s a tricky one because I’ve met him and he’s very funny. He is articulate. I try not to fight that battle for him and he doesn’t seem to care to fight it. I think he thinks it’s a waste of time. All I can tell you is that I’ve met a couple of presidents and he’s the funniest and quickest of them. I never met Clinton, so I can’t really comment; he looked like he was a real brainy man from afar. All I know is that President Bush has a pretty amazing deprecating sense of humor that I always found endearing about him. And, at least in my chats with him, was pretty quick on the uptake. That’s all you can go on is your personal experience. On top of that, guys who are glib with a sound bite? I’ve got to put that down around twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth on my list of what I’m looking for in a president to begin with.

Sometimes, I don’t mind a guy who does things where he knows he’s going to be hated and history might serve him well. I find that an admirable thing in a president. Be it Harry Truman or whoever, I just like guys who take a stand, go ‘Here’s what I believe right now. You elected me. I’ve got to try it. Let it shake out in history.’ In that regard, I think [President Bush] is exceedingly articulate.

Our last question: Describe if you would a perfect day in Montecito.

A good day in Montecito is when the alarm clock goes off. I just came back from a beautiful place, Bhutan, in the Himalayas. It’s a kingdom that’s relatively poor and as I walked around there, it just reminded me that we all hit the mother lode. We get plunked down in the right place we should hit our knees and thank God for that. They’ve got a beautiful place too, but it’s not as well off, so I try not to get too specific about what I need in a day. I’m kind of happy I’m in the United States.

Dennis Miller will appear in two shows at the Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez on Thursday, June 22 at 7 pm and 9 pm; tickets (from $25 to $65 per person) are available at the Chumash Casino Box Office, or by calling 800-585-3737. You can also go online at www.chumashcasino.com to reserve tickets.