Is Dennis Miller "a right-of-center populist"?greenspun.com : LUSENET : Unk's Troll-free Private Saloon : One Thread
NRO.com Feb 2-3, 2002
A comic provides pungent satire aimed at our real weaknesses.
By Peter Wood, associate provost, Boston University Dennis Miller is best known as the fast-talking acerbic comedian and current color commentator for Monday Night Football. In some of his monologues — he calls them rants — he refers to his old high school.
Mr. Miller graduated from a public high school in suburban Pittsburgh in 1971. Despite a tony-sounding name — Keystone Oaks — and a brand-new building with acres of brightly colored lockers and its own planetarium, the school was innocent of any serious educational purpose. I know, because Mr. Miller and I were classmates.
Like most schools, Keystone Oaks reflected the cultural outlook of the surrounding community, only in this case, three small towns that had pooled their resources to create one large, mediocre school. Town A, the smallest of the three, was a post-war suburb, a mix of young professionals and middle managers. The parents I knew in Town A included an orthodontist, an engineer at a nuclear power plant, and a CPA. Town B was an old streetcar suburb that had last prospered in the 1920s. The parents I knew in B included a prison guard, the owner of a pizza-box factory, and the proprietor of a Baskin-Robbins. Town C's history went back to the 18th-century immigration of Scotch-Irish farmers to western Pennsylvania, but in its more recent past, C had been a coal-mining town. The parents I knew in C included a carpenter, a bus driver, and a steelworker.
The high school that emerged from this ménage-à-trois was a lumpy mixture. Town A contributed smugness, ambition, and disappointment; B stirred in resignation, envy, and petty crime; and C added some hard-scrabble determination and an element of brutality. No doubt this is over-simplified and unfair, but it is how I remember it and probably why I find Mr. Miller's comic persona — the last reasonable man swearing a blue streak, the intellectual articulately dispensing high-brow cultural allusions while arguing blue-collar common sense — so compelling.
Mr. Miller has published four collections of his rants. The newest, The Rant Zone, comprises 49 rants, mostly from his HBO show, each ending with Mr. Miller's patented disclaimer, "That's just my opinion. I could be wrong."
Sometimes he is, but a comedian walks a tightrope of public opinion. Wrong too often about how to rant or what to rant about and Mr. Miller would plunge back into the cultural abyss of Keystone Oaks and the other netherworlds he explored before hitting the big time as the news commentator on Saturday Night Live in the mid-eighties. I say back into the abyss because he speaks as the guy who has climbed out of nowhere and remembers what it was like. He is caustic about America's materialistic emptiness but knows too much to knock his own success:
…while show business from the outside may seem like a nonstop whirlwind of gorgeous people, fabulous clothes, sparkling parties, and spectacular homes, the reality is…exactly that. Sorry folks. I wish I had some balm to soothe you, but I don't. It's f***ing awesome.
The f-expletive is one of Mr. Miller's leitmotifs. It functions in his rants as a kind of assurance of his blue-collar, angry-man-at-the-local-bar roots, despite his expensively tailored wardrobe and cultural references that would mean nothing to the average boilermaker. He delights in the incongruity:
I have upon occasion been labeled the E. B. White of the word f***, but you have to admit I went through an entire football season without saying it. Take it from a connoisseur, it should be used sparingly, like saffron in a f***ing paella.
But, in fact, obscenity is the bane of his monologues. Many of them are well-crafted crescendos of irony. But where a shrewder talent would end with a finer thrust of the needle, a deeper laugh, or a quieter irony, Mr. Miller almost always drops into high-school locker room vulgarity.
Too bad, for Mr. Miller is often perceptive about the hypocrisies of American life:
It baffles me that the same people who blast away at President Bush's selection of a religious conservative for attorney general won't give George W. any kudos for his other cabinet choices, which include blacks, Jews, Asians, Hispanics, and women. Does a fundamentalist Christian not also represent a valued strand in our collective fabric?
He balances this with an appropriate jab at Bob Jones University, but on the whole Mr. Miller comes across as a right-of-center populist. He thinks big corporations take advantage of the little guy; he disdains the insurance industry; and expresses a hatred of big government that sounds like a hyperventilated version of "The Contract with America." He is easily tolerant of all kinds of ethnic differences, but draws the line at fringe groups that "demand our approval." He is pro death penalty:
Some anti-death penalty advocates say that McVeigh's execution didn't bring closure to the survivors of the bombing. Maybe not, but it did bring closure to McVeigh's eyes and, frankly, that's all I wanted.
And derisory toward "eco-zealots":
I say we don't touch the oil reserves and just invent a car that runs on endangered species, okay?
The basic human motivations in Mr. Miller's world are sex and greed. He thinks we should accommodate human nature, but he is merciless to those who don't control their appetites.
And perhaps for that reason, Mr. Miller is an entertainment industry rarity, a Clinton-hater:
…like an infestation of cockroaches, a drunken party guest, or a super-virulent strain of antibiotic-resistant clap, the Clintons are proving almost impossible to get rid of.
Best of all, Mr. Miller derides the self-pampering psychological pieties of our age:
Americans couldn't be any more self-absorbed if they were made of equal parts water and paper towel.
He rightly names fellow comic Woody Allen for helping to "popularize the idea that going to a shrink is normal and healthy."
Just look what it's done for him and his family. You know, he and his daughter-slash-wife have never been happier.
He opines against contemporary Americans anxiously trying to rid themselves of anxiety, and even has a few good words to say in favor of old-fashioned guilt:
…guilt is what keeps our society from completely unraveling. Yet our culture is rife with politically correct apologists telling us to let go of the shame that binds us and to treat our mistakes as learning experiences that we have to "heal" from and "put behind us" as quickly as we can. That's just b*****. If you do something wrong, you should feel guilty about it.
Mr. Miller's success in making comedy out of these essentially conservative views is an excellent index of the nation's cultural health. He is providing pungent satire aimed at our real weaknesses — a Juvenal in the age of Jay Leno — and he's one of a very few comics who doesn't forgive us our trespasses.
Moreover, there is hope for a better, wiser, and funnier Mr. Miller. He no longer presents himself as a smart-alecky adolescent. He is calmer now and his wit is drier, the result perhaps of his learning to work within the restrictions of Monday Night Football. In "the longest uninterrupted nice paragraph in the history of the rants," he thanks the fans who stuck with him during his first, rocky season on the show. Forced to do without the obscenities, he hones his comic conceits to a sharpness that his uncensored monologues never achieve.
I don't think Mr. Miller has entirely taken in this irony yet — that something as anodyne as Monday Night Football has improved his comic sensibility. His HBO monologues are still wincingly full of the F-word and other vulgarities. They simply fence him off from the larger mainstream audience he deserves and that is within his reach if he could give up the one part of his vocabulary he does owe to Keystone Oaks.
Of course, it isn't necessarily easy to weigh anchor and sail out of the coal-seamed hills of suburban Pittsburgh. Nor is it so clear how to quit a cultural nullity when it is seamed with your own experience. Mr. Miller faces this when he jests about his own precocity with language:
I've always loved the flirtatious tango of consonants and vowels, the sturdy dependability of nouns and capricious whimsy of verbs, the strutting pageantry of the adjective and the flitting evanescence of the adverb, all kept safe and orderly by those reliable little policemen, punctuation marks. Wow! Think I got my ass kicked in high school?
Yes, I think he did.
This fall was our high-school class's 30th reunion. Dennis didn't show up — but then, neither did I.
-- (email@example.com), July 25, 2002
I used to hate Dennis Miller. To me, he came off as just another sneering, smart-alecky hotshot. No thanks.
But in the last year or so I have found myself catching his HBO show and enjoying it. With some pleasure I noticed that he often zinged that which I find most deserving of zinging. For example, a few weeks ago, he ridiculed the`Jimmy Carter types who make the now derigueur pilgrimage to Havana.
Then I stumbled on the above article. How long before Miller is shunned by PC show biz types?
-- (firstname.lastname@example.org), July 25, 2002.
Don't know about his politics, but he is am asshole, that's for sure.
-- (email@example.com), July 25, 2002.
Just like the idiot-king Dumbya, Dennis Miller uses big words that I can't understand. Pugs do this to try and hide their evil from me. Fortunately I have secret sunglasses that help me connect with their puny little pug minds so I can warn everyone about their evil plans.
-- (firstname.lastname@example.org), July 26, 2002.
Dennis Miller uses big words? LOL, think you got the wrong Dennis Miller there trollboy! The one Lars is referring to has a vocabulary slightly more sophisticated than Dumbya, which isn't saying much. He isn't evil like Dumbya either, but he's definitely a "major league asshole". Big time, heh-heh.
-- Dick Cheney (Dennis Miller is smarter than Dumbya @ but. who the hell isn't? *snicker-snicker*), July 26, 2002.
Two posts in a row for trollboy! Watch out Larsie, he's in love.
-- (email@example.com), July 26, 2002.
The Millers, an urban legend.
Dennis Miller and Larry Miller are two different people. The last half of thisessay by Larry Miller (starting with the paragraph "The Palestinians want their own state") has been widely circulated on the Web as being written by Debbis Miller. Wrong.
-- (firstname.lastname@example.org), July 26, 2002.
Dennis Miller, just another jewboy in whiteface. FUCK him.
-- (bwahaaaha@Arabs.uber alles), July 27, 2002.
I think Miller was raised Catholic.
-- (email@example.com), July 28, 2002.