Blinded by the Right
Dennis Miller's new talk show is all about his political conversion.
Dennis Miller's new talk show, Dennis Miller (CNBC, Monday-Friday, 9 p.m. ET), is still finding its way, but its titular host is clear about one thing: Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich must be brought down. In his first week on the air, Miller has mocked the Ohio representative at least once, sometimes twice, a night. In prepared material as well as asides, the comedian dressed Kucinich in a tablecloth cape as the mock superhero, "The Frown"; imagined him giving lap dances in a desperate attempt to win primary votes; and compared him to the rubber alien in the Roswell autopsy footage. One night, after noting that Kucinich looked "like Paul McCartney if the Beatles had never made it," Miller abandoned his witty, reference-laden style for simple name-calling. "What a loser!" he said in the kind of adolescent sing-song I haven't used since I could afford my own apartment.
I have no special love for Kucinich, nor am I blind to the fringe candidate's ripeness as a comedic target, but when I give my time to a professional comedian—especially to a five-time Emmy winner like Miller—I expect a sense of comic proportion. The sense and sensibility of Dennis Miller's new show, however, is all out of whack, and I suspect the cause might be the host's well-advertised political transformation. In case you haven't heard, Dennis Miller is now a conservative. The World Trade Center attacks profoundly changed him, and his underlying assumption is that this change is for the better. The New Miller acts as if he's now smarter, wiser, and more awake to what he repeatedly refers to as a "dangerous world," and while I don't doubt Miller's sincerity, a crisis of personal politics makes for awkward television. In the prologue to the first episode, Miller promised to deliver "the news as catharsis," but the only catharsis I've experienced so far has been his own.
So what does it mean to go from left-leaning, Dada-ist wisenheimer to tell-it-like-it-is, right-wing blowhard? First, you need new friends. Miller has always had an ingratiating interview style, but on his new show he kisses so much Republican ass, even the objects of Miller's newfound affection look uncomfortable. Check out Arnold Schwarzenegger's frozen grin when Miller tells the California governor that he has an "infectious" accent, or watch Rudolph Giuliani avert his eyes when Miller says the former mayor has both compassion and "balls the size of a Macy's balloon." Like a former smoker who can't pass up the opportunity to tell you that cigarettes kill, Miller is quick to remind both guest and viewer which side he's now on. Sometimes Miller's new convictions come out en passant, like when he needlessly mentions he's going to vote for Bush in November, while other times he is more insistent. For example, while talking with Newsweek investigative reporter Michael Isikoff about the fact that the administration ignored dissenting intelligence concerning the existence of WMD in Iraq, Miller broke in when he didn't like where his guest was going. "Listen," said Miller. "Guys like Cheney, quite frankly, get paid to quash dissent. In a world where it's really dangerous, he's got to make a call at some point. I want Dick Cheney on that wall. I need Dick Cheney on that wall!"
I can understand, even empathize with an increase in hawkishness, but what is remarkable about the new Dennis Miller is how far his new views extend beyond the war on terror. He's still a libertarian on issues like gay marriage—we've learned from Dr. Laura's ill-fated foray into television that it's unpopular to judge people to their face—but with most other issues it's as if in the process of switching sides, Miller has taken 20 years of conservative ideology and swallowed it rote and whole. The United Nations is weak and ineffectual; animal rights activists are hysterical; the First Amendment is a refuge for scoundrels; and when it comes to murderers, kill 'em all and let God sort them out. If only this were funny. For a comedian who used to unleash mighty comic riffs like a jazz soloist, Miller is now just another member of the pundit's chorus.
Dennis Cass writes about television for Slate.
Photograph of Dennis Miller by Jeff Christensen/Reuters.