Dennis Miller always knew what was wrong. In a short film that he showed on his syndicated talk show, Miller did a Godfather parody in which he played the Don, trying to work things out with Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall look-alikes. The source of discontent: the bloody booking wars, where each host ruthlessly competed for the same guests. In the spoof, Miller won out. In reality, his show now sleeps with the fishes.
It was so much easier in the old days. Johnny Carson took the older guests; Arsenio went for the younger ones. But with Leno, Arsenio, and Miller all scrambling to book the same hot young things, the fledgling, seven-month-old Dennis Miller Show took the fall. ”There are two titans out there,” says Miller coordinating producer Carole Propp, ”and they pulled us down in the undertow.”
The war and death imagery is not hyperbole. The small world of late-night talk shows has become a battle zone where bookers demand exclusivity, lie about their competitors, and, if all else fails, try to steal guests, big and small. According to a Miller insider, the aboriginal group Yothu Yindi, not exactly a chart buster, was nevertheless wooed by Leno’s people to break its date with Miller. The band stayed; writer P.J. O’Rourke (Give War a Chance) didn’t. After six months of negotiating, he canceled his Miller appearance and jumped to Leno. Miller denounced O’Rourke on the air. Miller even pleaded for guests on the air, giving out the show’s office number. To no avail. ”This is a numbers game,” says Kevin Slattery, producer of the low-rated Miller. ”We were never in a position to dictate to people.”