After two weeks of watching comedian Dennis Miller’s new talk show The Dennis Miller Show here’s what I come up with: Miller, the former anchor of Saturday Night Live’s ”Weekend Update,” is an exceedingly intelligent, urbane, witty fellow who has unaccountably decided that his highest goal in life is to have Beverly Hills, 90210’s Shannen Doherty think he’s a Really Cool Guy.
This quality demands ambivalence — Miller is really funny and really nauseating, truly smart and truly repulsive. And he is therefore a unique new presence in the talk-show wars: What other host would refer to condoms as ”slipcovers for Satan’s tail”? Who else would ask teen-idol Richard Grieco, in discussing a movie the actor had recently completed, ”So was the director cool or was he wacked?” Watching Miller suck up to performers as various as Tom Hanks, Kenny Loggins, and Bob Saget (or, as Dennis calls him, ”Sags”) was grim work; Miller exposed his all-too-naked desire to be perceived as a big- time show-biz insider, as a dude who hangs with the stars. But the guy also has a refreshingly frank attitude: Interrupting a tedious comic song by SNL’s Victoria Jackson, Miller snapped, ”Are we anywhere near the end of this song? Is there a gas station between me and the end of this song?”
Miller’s intense self-consciousness — his fixed, ironic smirk; his tic of ruffling his long, layered hair-can be simultaneously amusing and awkward. On his debut show, after an opening-monologue joke had bombed, Miller said without pausing for breath, ”I haven’t yet mastered that Carson-slash-Houdini-like ability to extricate myself from the bad jokes.” There was almost no audience reaction; I think half the time people are so stunned at the sheer number of words that tumble out of Miller that laughing becomes irrelevant.
Miller must undoubtedly consider his first great crisis to be his opening-week interview with Doherty, who swiveled into the chair beside Miller and, after the screams and catcalls had subsided, purred, ”Your eyebrow is twitching — are you nervous?” (I ask you, are these Beverly Hills kids the cockiest little twits on the planet, or what?) For once, Mr. Silver Tongue was speechless — as the camera moved inexorably in on his face, it was obvious that his left brow was quivering like a caterpillar at the North Pole. Miller was thoroughly rattled, but continued to ask polite questions, and strove heroically to appear interested in the actress’ Beverly Hills banalities (”Luke (Perry) loves the fans, but sometimes gets very scared by it all”).
A week later, a grateful America had gotten over this ugly scene; Miller, however, was still sulking, and out for revenge. ”A lot of people,” he said, had been asking him ”why I didn’t take Shannen Doherty’s throat out when she chilled me last week.” I’d say Miller has bigger things to worry about-like the fact that even as we speak, David Letterman’s writers are probably compiling, for use in a future sketch, a collection of Miller’s Most Embarrassing Goodbyes to Guests (to comic Louie Anderson: ”Loooou-ie, man, thanks for comin’ out, boss — it’s always a gas to see you”).
The bottom line: I’ll take the obscure wit of a talk-show host who says the busy pattern on his stage set’s curtain reminds him of ”Fritz Lang’s underwear” over Arsenio’s ”Things that make you go ‘Hmmm…”’ or the puffball jokes of the kindly Jay Leno on display these days. But will anyone else? B-