Standup Rewind: Remember When Dennis Miller Was Funny?
ANDREW: God, are we gonna be like our parents?
CLAIRE: Not me. Ever.
ALLISON: It’s unavoidable, it just happens.
CLAIRE: What happens?
ALLISON: When you grow up, your heart dies.
In 1985, five disillusioned high school students formed the Breakfast Club, a defiant clan that told the grown-ups they were “crazy” to think they’d conform to their rules and hypocrisies.
Coincidentally, 1985 was also the year Dennis Miller made his hair-flipping debut on Saturday Night Live. Miller represented a hipster intellectual with attitude, thumbing his nose at The Man with comedy that promised to defy conventional norms. With his syncopated cadence and ironic Rat Pack, phraseology, cha-cha, Miller represented What Comes Next.
Spoiler alert: Miller grew up and his heart died.
Or was he a regressive libertarian all along? In 1990, Miller filmed Black and White, his second HBO stand-up special, and, we’re pretty sure, the only one he filmed in black and white. (Why? Because it’s… classy?) Politics aside, this is the funny Miller at the peak of his comedy powers, far enough into his SNL career to have established his boho bona fides but not so far that audiences had gotten tired of his referential jive.
Interestingly, it’s not Miller’s ostentatious writing that impresses so much as his flawless delivery. Black and White is an extremely tight 55 minutes with no crowd work and no ad-libs, just intricate, rapid-fire joke-telling that would tie the tongue of a lesser man. The comedy subject matter is mundane enough that it borders on hacky — women drivers, airline travel, the difference between white people dancing and Black people dancing (turns out, white people are lame), nagging wives. But every comic thought is played out in extended run-on sentences that require precise articulation lest the whole thing falls flat on its face. The manner in which Miller can breathlessly deliver these comic soliloquies is almost athletic. It’s hard to imagine another comic who could pull it off.
This isn’t to say the writing isn’t essential. For a time there, Miller’s reliance on pseudo-intellectual name-drops was definitely amusing and even seemed smart-ish. He doesn’t disappoint in Black and White, asking early on if it was “too soon for such an arcane reference?” before hitting us with (deep breath) the crop-dusting scene in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, The Grapes of Wrath, Jack Kerouac, the Parthenon, the Bataan death march, the Yul Brenner robot from Westworld, stockbrokers on Thorazine, Valhalla, Boo Radley, Sigmund Freud, Sylvia Plath, Hester Prynne and the good king Nebuchadnezzar. Yep, somebody took AP English!
One good thing about those academic references: They don’t date as easily as the 1990 pop-culture pickings. Bits about the New Kids on the Block, the Contras, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” the Clapper and the Sports Illustrated Sneaker Phone will likely be lost on anyone under the age of 40. You’ll need Wikipedia to get jokes like “My old man made the Great Santini look like Leo Buscaglia.”
At one point, Miller begs the audience, “Stop me before I subreference again.” But it’s a good thing that they don’t. The weird references are the jokes. At some point, you realize you’re laughing at Miller calling out Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Alice reruns on the TBS Superstation in the same sentence. That’s an out-of-the-blue combination! But if you stop and think about it, what exactly is Miller trying to say other than “don’t these two things sound weird in juxtaposition?”
Politically, Black and White might surprise if you aren't familiar with 20th-century Miller. There are funny lines about world politics that are neither liberal nor conservative, like when he compares the reunification of Germany to a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis reunion: “I didn’t really enjoy their previous work so I don’t need to see the new shit right now.” And the frequent Fox News commentator saves his sharpest pokes in the eye for Republicans. He discusses a proposal to carve Ronald Reagan into Mt. Rushmore, but he “isn’t sure if granite is a dense enough material to portray the ex-president’s head.” He chides the newly elected George Bush Sr. for being both anti-abortion and pro-death penalty: “It’s all in the timing, eh George?” And there’s not much good to say about Bush’s vice president, who is dubbed, in characteristic Millerspeak, “the Quaylemeister.”
Democratic candidate (and loser) Michael Dukakis, on the other hand, gets Miller’s approval as a good man, caring father and sensitive husband. Unfortunately, Dukakis “lacked the shallow charisma we look for in our leaders.”
Based on these relatively mild political jokes, one would assume 1990 Miller is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, right? Er, not quite. If anything, Black and White reveals those libertarian stripes. When it comes to guns, abortion or the right to wear a mink coat, “I am pro-choice across the board!” he says to thunderous applause. (The show is in Arizona, so do the math.) It turns out who Miller really hates is the liberal intelligentsia who need to impose their intelligence on everyone. Coming from the guy dropping all the esoteric scholarly references, that bit gets an unintended laugh. He’s downright angry about protesters around things like animal rights, declaring “animal traps should be reserved for social activists.” Hey, this sounds like modern-day Miller after all!
Politics aside, most of Black and White sounds like an extended late-night Johnny Carson monologue. What’s in the news today? Andrew Dice Clay? Born-again Christians? Dockers pants? Three one-liners and move on, rat-a-tat-tat.
Throughout, we don’t get to know much about Dennis Miller the man. That is, until we’re about five minutes from the end when he gets unexpectedly personal. Although he claims to be speaking for all men, it’s pretty clear who Miller is referring to here: “Some things never change sexually, though. Men love and probably need to be in control sexually. I have a theory this is why men love to make love from behind. It’s an amazingly powerful moment for a young man when the woman gives that Audra Barkley hair flip and looks back over her shoulder like Emma Peel during the opening credits for The Avengers. The guy’s hanging on to her hips. In that moment, he realizes he’s undeniably at the helm of the bobsled.”
Miller likes to be in charge in the sack! Okay, got it. It’s an odd, out-of-nowhere, bit but at least it’s one little peek inside the psyche of a man who once dunked on Reagan and Bush, but ended up with a regular segment on The O’Reilly Factor.
A lot can happen to a comic over the course of 30 years. 9/11, Miller says, shook him to his core. Did that event transform a lefty liberal into just another version of our parents, as the Breakfast Club predicted? Or, as Al Franken observed, “Nothing happened to Dennis. He's the same Dennis. He's always had a conservative streak on certain issues.” (Including dominant sexual positions, apparently.)
Maybe, like Principal Vernon, imagining Dennis Miller as an ideological sellout is reductive. Seeing him in the simplest terms. In the most convenient definitions. Instead of a Bill O’Reilly wannabe, maybe Miller is a brain and a basket case and a liberal and a conservative. But somewhere in there, we wish he could rediscover his inner funny comic.