Career highlights can be hard to quantify, but for this reporter one stands taller than the rest.
Dennis Miller regularly invited me on both his syndicated radio show and podcast.
I’m fortunate to appear on a number of high-profile shows. Talkin’ movies with Miller, though, was different. No media appearances made me more nervous, and none offered the glee of making the host laugh quite like “The Dennis Miller Option.”
It’s like a comedian getting called over to Johnny’s couch on the old “Tonight Show,” an honor not easily forgotten.
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Miller is about to retire his “Option,” inspired partly by the dispiriting election results. Miller is no dummy. He fears Cancel Culture will intensify under a Biden-Harris administration.
He’s probably right. Heck, one would be foolish to think otherwise.
To hear him tell it, Miller has had enough of cracking wise and worrying the cancellation crowd is on line 1. It’s hard to blame him.
That honesty, and the brilliant mind behind it, is why I’ll miss Miller’s podcast.
It’s worth remembering that Miller commandeered Weekend Update like no faux anchor before, or since. His “Saturday Night Live” days weren’t filled with iconic characters or gut-busting sketches.
He was like Mariano Rivera, the “stone cold killer’ you called on to crush it in the ninth. For Miller, that meant turning Weekend Update, not the cold open, into the reason you tuned in to “SNL” each Saturday.
That hardly encompasses his own career highlights, though. His short-lived talk show deserved a far better fate. Later, HBO wisely gave him the keys and he ran with a shortened version of the format for nine seasons.
Syndicated radio proved a sweet match for his gifts, too, something that carried over to his podcast chops.
It’s the modern Miller that I’ll miss most, though.
The comedy legend boasts celebrity friendships that span years, if not decades. Said friends, from “Marty” Short to Tom Hanks, don’t vote the way Miller does. And he doesn’t care. Truly.
Their podcast conversations never got bitter, or angry. In fact, most times the banter steered clear of politics. Because once upon a time friends could do that and still remain friends.
That bipartisanship is often missing these days. Conservative talkers spit fire and brimstone to rally the base and point out glaring hypocrisies, and many times they make outstanding points. They’re an essential part of the cultural debate, no doubt.
Still, “The Option” was my oasis, a place where we could lay down our cultural swords and get a steady stream of laughs for our troubles.
Even this critic, married to a lovely lady who “Feels the Bern,” can wobble while embracing the liberal half of the country. Sometimes it hurts to even think about it.
Not the Miller we heard twice a week on “The Option.”
Sure, he’d rail against liberal inanities and marvel at how a bruising President Donald Trump got bleep done. It wasn’t his propane fuel of choice. He’d rather scratch and claw his way to a punchline, marveling at every step of the process like a sweaty open mic type.
The funny came first for Miller.
That meant “The Dennis Miller Option” didn’t always hit the bullseye. Some episodes were sharper than others, a necessary part of his comic spelunking.
There’s something else I’ll miss about Miller’s podcast, an element that’s harder to pin down. Podcasting, like radio, offers an intimacy that’s both unexpected and pure. An actor can play a role and live out the opposite truth in real life.
Bill Cosby tricked us for decades before we learned about the man behind the family-friendly yuks.
Podcasting strips away the artifice. What’s revealed is something more organic and pure.
For Miller, that meant sharing a persona at ease with show biz truths. Miller’s star doesn’t shine like it once did. HBO isn’t clamoring for more standup specials. The mainstream media doesn’t regurgitate his rants like they do with Colbert or Kimmel hot takes.
You can’t stay atop the A-list forever, unless your name is Eastwood, Streep or Nicholson. Leaning openly to the right only hurt his own cause.
Miller seems at peace with that reality. He still works, still boasts a sizable fan base, but he sounds happier hiking in the woods than snaring a cameo in the next MCU romp.
Miller, at 67, is comfortable in his own skin in a way more stars should be. Compare that to Howard Stern, the radio legend begging for media adulation with his sudden leftward tilt. That’s sad and unbecoming of an icon.
What else separates Miller from his peers? That inscrutable wit, the kind that shocked us 30-odd years ago, remains as feisty as ever. Comedians often have a short creative shelf life. They blaze brightly then spend the rest of their careers coasting on those credits.
You know some of the comedians who match that description.
Miller’s mind remains keen and alert, his knack for obscure references only part of his tool kit. He’s not a nostalgia act relying on our emotional circuits to fire on his behalf.
There’s a reason fans hit the bathroom when a classic rock troupe trots out its “new” music. It’s just not the same, and they’ll come back for the hits they adore from their youth.
Miller’s wit doesn’t need qualifiers. Calling President-Elect Joe Biden “bib adjacent” is, and will be, the funniest line spoken about Biden over the next four years.
It’s unlikely Miller will remain on the comic sidelines. He could tour, pen a new book or pop up in any number of places. I’ll still miss his “Option,” a twice-a-week reminder of what’s good and pure about entertainment … and ourselves.