Dennis Miller has been a force on the comedy scene ever since anchoring Weekend Update news segments during his Saturday Night Live stint from 1985 to 1991. After SNL, Miller moved on to a number of different gigs — hosting shows on HBO and CNBC, sitting in the announcer’s box as a Monday Night Football commentator and, since last year, taking over the (mostly) AM airwaves where he covers culture, current events and politics on a talk radio show for three hours every day.
Miller has become increasingly political on stage since Sept. 11, 2001, and has also incorporated his conservative streak into his public image, making him a favorite on the GOP’s rubber chicken circuit as well as on the Fox News Channel, where he appears frequently on controversial commentator Bill O’Reilly’s top-rated program. (Full disclosure: Miller often has Politico reporters and editors on his radio show as guests; however, this writer has never personally spoken with him before.)
How would you describe your political beliefs: Republican? Independent? Libertarian?
Well, I’d say it’s eclectic pragmatism at some point. I’m a moderate in some degree because I have wildly swinging opinions but through some sort of ideological feng shui they end up in the middle. Some swing far to the left, others to the far right. I’m for the war, but I’m also for gay marriage. I don’t care if two folks with the same genitalia want to get hitched, I just don’t want some a—hole from another country coming over here and blowing up their wedding to make a political statement.
A lot of popular comedians seem to be conservative: Drew Carey, Adam Sandler. And SNL creator Lorne Michaels has contributed to the McCain campaign. Why do you think many comics tilt this way, while liberals seem to dominate the film and TV business?
We’ve been heckled. And I view terrorists as really aggressive hecklers that we occasionally have to shut up. For the good of the show, they have to be silenced [laughs], dispatched with extreme prejudice, as we say in the trade. There’s pragmatism in stand-up comedy — it’s really darwinian, it’s the Serengeti Plain, you exist from moment to moment, living from joke to joke. If you’re an impressionist you can turn around and nobody is really going to boo; singers have the trappings of the song. Comedians are out there foraging for the truffle that is the laugh and it makes us pragmatic.
How would you describe support for John McCain in Hollywood?
It’s broader than you think. Listen, John McCain, by putting his name at the other end of a hyphen from Russ Feingold, has at least tried to reach across the aisle. Barack Obama is located nowhere near the end of the aisle — he’s way far out on the left. He makes Bernie Sanders look like Curtis LeMay. So I think this time around, at least, it’s much more easier to come out as a conservative or a moderate or at least pragmatic because otherwise the guy you’d have to vote for has the most liberal voting record in the Senate. And some people aren’t for that right now. He’s a 47-year-old nice enough guy who is reflexively liberal and wants to get Chatty Cathy with bad guys.
In just the past few minutes you’ve referenced obscure figures ranging from a '60s-era general to a vintage talking doll. Given your audience on conservative talk radio, are you too hip for the room?
I never signed up for anything called “conservative talk radio.” I’m on Westwood One, and my boss Norm Pattiz is a liberal. I’m just on talk radio. I don’t think I’m too hip for the room at all. I’ve got 114 stations after just 16 months, which I’m told is good, and my mind is boggled at just how wise and funny my callers have been. On occasion I’ll get someone who is off the grid and I’ll feel like I’m on the phone with [Ted] Kaczynski, but for the most part it’s a pretty urbane crowd. I don’t think I’m too hip for the room. People always say ‘it’s so eclectic,’ but I’m making references to the Jetsons’ robot maid — not exactly Ted Cooley or Bucky Fuller.
Who’s your biggest radio influence: Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern?
I love Limbaugh. I don’t agree with him on everything. There are days when something gets shot up and he’s on with gun rights [advocates] and it seems awkward to me. But his broadcasting skills are Garroway-esque. Now that I do a show and see the formatics involved, I’m enamored of him. I don’t listen to Howard. I’m usually on the air in the morning and, when I wasn’t, my job had me working at night and I would often sleep in. I did Howard’s show a few times several years ago, but I don’t listen to it.
It seems as though conservatives are starting to make more inroads in Hollywood. David Zucker has a right-wing comedy coming out soon, then there’s that group called “Friends of Abe” that meets to discuss politics. ...
I called [actor Gary] Sinese yesterday and asked him to please get me an invite to the next Friends of Abe thing. It sounds like the new Algonquin Club to me. The idea of closeted conservatives in Hollywood ... . It might be funny to see who’s over there. I’m surprised that [producer Jerry] Bruckheimer put his name on a John McCain fundraiser [invitation], not because McCain is that radical, but when you’re in the ticket-selling business it does take some balls [to come out as a conservative], so good for him.
Have your political beliefs caused any rifts among your friends or colleagues?
People think the D or the R after your name tells you everything nowadays; I think it tells you a minimal amount. How many times do you go to the movies with a loved one or a dear friend and you walk out shocked at their reaction to the film: they loved it and you hated it, or vice versa. That’s politics. I just see it one way and they see it another. If occasionally I have to hear Rob Reiner call me ‘naïve,’ well, somehow you soldier on, put one foot in front of the other, tuck it into the small of Tenzing Norgay III’s back and keep moving to the summit.
On your Internet Movie Data Base profile page, there’s a photo of you with George Clooney. Are you guys friends?
Oh, I’ve met George backstage at a couple of awards shows and that’s the extent of it. I find him to be a hail-fellow-well-met and I liked his director chops. I’m not one of those people who thought re-telling that story ["Good Night and Good Luck," about the blacklist and Edward R. Murrow] is brave. To go against Roy Cohn and [Joseph] McCarthy — that’s like T-ball to me. But I thought it was well made and I loved the look of it. I loved his [Chuck] Barris film [“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"]. And he’s an amiable bloke when you’re with him. That said, I don’t think we agree on much but he seems like a cool guy.
What do you think about the direction the McCain campaign is taking now: the whole ‘celebrity’ attack and the ad comparing Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears?
That ad played better for me without the two insert shots of the girls. When they come up on the first shot of the girl, the narrator says ‘He is a worldwide celebrity’ so the editing seemed clunky to me. I’ll be honest with you — I thought the ad seemed a little square. It seemed like an old guy trying to hip it up and that can be dangerous — the next thing you know, you’re Ted Danson coming out of the cab in blackface at the Friar’s Club lunch.
You’re still a strong supporter of President Bush. If he’s such a great president, why are his popularity ratings so low and the “wrong track” numbers for America so high?
I don’t know, and he doesn’t know, either. I’m enamored with him because he doesn’t pay attention to that stuff. Put it this way: if Barack Obama becomes our next president, I’m not going to stand at the shore and start crying that it’s the end of the world. He’ll be my guy, and I think it’s a tough, brutal job right now. All I know is that Bush is up above 2,500 days since there’s been a terror attack on domestic soil. I think that’s an appreciable achievement and some people won’t even give him that. If the next guy continues that string, I’ll be in their corner.
Was there ever a point in your life when you considered running for office?
No. George Allen called me once when he was in charge of Senate procurement something or other and wanted me to run against Barbara Boxer. I remembered when I was in grade school there was always one kid who, two minutes before the end of class when no homework had been assigned, would always raise their hand and remind the teacher. That kid always bugged me. And when I look at Capitol Hill, I see 535 of those kids. I have no interest in joining them.