Photo courtesy of Spuffy Productions
Long before Jon Stewart ascended the throne of comic news commentary, there was Dennis Miller. Miller's smirking delivery and trademark rants on current affairs are today most familiar to viewers of his "Miller Time" segments on The O'Reilly Factor, although Miller honed his craft on Saturday Night Live' s "Weekend Update" from 1985 to 1991.
Now Miller and Bill O'Reilly are on the road and bringing their Bolder and Fresher tour to the Landmark Theater on Nov. 25. Ahead of their arrival, Richmond magazine got a few minutes with Miller to hear his take on the comedy of politics — and why he's now in the business of endorsing presidential candidates.
RM: So, 30 years ago when you were competing on Star Search against Sinbad, did you ever imagine today you'd be touring on the big anniversary tour of America's most popular news network as sidekick to the Sinbad of conservative talk jocks?
DM: That was the prize on Star Search. Touring with O'Reilly was first prize on Star Search.
RM: Your stint in the anchor chair on Saturday Night Live, from a historical perspective, was similar to the first Ming dynasty of news comedy, majestic in its own right, but really only a foreshadowing of the glut of comic news commentary that has become a far-flung empire. Do you feel at all fatherly about where it's all gone?
DM: Nah, Chevy [Chase] invented it. I supposed Steve Allen did a little of it, but Chevy invented it. I didn't have anything to do with it; I was just a comic making a buck for six years.
RM: But it seems like you refined it and took the genre a bit further.
DM: Listen, I was Dennis Miller, for God's sake. Maybe that was a different lilt. But that was it. I was just the lucky guy who got that chair for six years.
RM: On Saturday Night Live, your political commentary was general consumption, often in tune with the shared zeitgeist rather than that of the Left or the Right. What's changed?
DM: I always tear presidents a new a--hole. It seems to go with the job. I find it interesting that this is the one guy the left would have you not tear a new asshole. But isn't that what comics do to presidents?
When I was on SNL, Reagan was president. I poked fun at him. I liked [George W.] Bush the most, so I poked fun of him the least, but if you go back you'll see jokes about him. He's smart enough to know he's not that smart, so he surrounds himself with smart people, much the way a hole surrounds itself with a doughnut. I mean, that's a pretty good joke about Bush. But as far as acquitting the war goes, I thought he was a man for history, so I admired him.
The right or left thing, I don't know when that started — probably when the left started making fun of James Stockdale when he ran as Ross Perot's vice president. I thought he was an honorable man, a great American, and I think we would have been privileged to have him as a vice president — a president, no less — and when they started making fun of him for being bad on TV, I remember thinking, well, this room's getting a little bit too hip for me.
RM: So Stockdale jokes were over the line?
DM: What do I care if he was bad on cable TV? We're talking about a man who's lived a life, who's stayed alive in the Hanoi Hilton, kept other boys alive by inventing a Morse code system tapped out on the pipes when they would lose their spirit or become beleaguered. All of a sudden he's being poked fun of by pundits on the left? F--- 'em. I was out the door.
RM: How about your avid support for George W. Bush? Ever reconsidered?
DM: No. I think I think that we're on a long car ride in history, and radical Islamic fundamentalism had been making a lot of noise in the back seat, and presidents for years had been threatening to stop the car — "Don't make me come back there!" I like the way that Bush stopped the car and went back there.
I would find it hard to believe an argument that would tell me right now that if we hadn't interceded in that part of the world that things would be better.
RM: You've got some experience with game shows [as a host], so let's play a quick one. Give me a quick summary of each of these Republican politicians: Herman Cain
DM: My guy. I've endorsed him.
RM: Mitt Romney
DM: A good man. I just like the underdog.
RM: Michele Bachmann
DM: Seems like a nice woman. Too many gaffes. Probably ruined her brand at this point.
RM: Sarah Palin
DM: I like Palin a lot. Glad she's not running. If I was her, I'd make $10 million a year, buy a big seaplane and fish for big fish.
RM: Chris Christie
DM: Mr. Smith & Wollensky goes to Washington.
RM: Jon Huntsman
DM: Endorsed by Ed Schultz [of MSNBC's liberal The Ed Show ]. Don't need to know any more.
RM: Ron Paul
DM: Gollum in a power tie
RM: Rick Perry
DM: Don't know much about him. I'd say Romney's Bart Maverick and Perry's Bret Maverick [of TV's Maverick fame], and he's got his gun stuck in his holster.
RM: Rick Santorum
DM: I don't know, pretty good in the debates so far, but might be a little too fervent for me.
RM: Newt Gingrich
DM: Smart guy. Can't vote for him. Named after the centaur in the Hercules cartoon.
RM: Libertarianism seems to have become very fashionable with the Tea Party's embrace of Ron and Rand Paul. Does it worry you — a longtime libertarian — that the Tea Party often leans toward injecting more rather than less "Big Brother" into religious and values-based issues?
DM: I never even quite know what a libertarian is. I'd say I'm closer to an objectivist, embracing Ayn Rand, except for the craziness where she gets a little too specific on the train going through a tunnel and starts saying why people probably deserve to die. Obviously that was her insanity. But I do like accountability. I like the Tea Party; they seem like nice people. All I know is I'm a simple man, and when the Tea Party's [events] are over, the grounds are cleaner than when they [arrived]. To me that's the clearest difference between Occupy Wall Street [and the Tea Party] is that the Tea Party cleans up after itself, and the Occupy Wall Street don't because it was an entire generation that never got hit in the balls with a dodgeball.
RM: And I'm sure their rooms are a mess, too.
DM: [ Laughs ] Probably!
RM: So, Bill O'Reilly is not very funny — even when he's working it with Jon Stewart. What's your backstage relationship like?
DM: He's a good friend and very funny backstage. I always tell him he always reminds me of that big Irish beat cop I used to have when I was a kid — walking the beat, swinging the baton and cracking a--holes in the head — and he follows me on this tour we're doing … and he kills right after me. He mixes humor and stories and his upbringing and his political beliefs all together — the guy's a seamless public speaker. Oh, he's not a stand-up comedian, but then again, I'm not the host of the No. 1 rated [cable news] show for 12 years. So everybody's got their quirks.