For Talk Radio, Itís Miller Time: Dennis Miller Brings His Unique Style To Talk Radio (05/07/07)
Since his days as host of the venerable Weekend Update segment on NBCís Saturday Night Live, Dennis Miller has been known for his razor-sharp wit, biting humor, and prodigious intellect. His unique brand of comedy has carried him to great success as a stand-up comedian, talk show host on both the HBO and CNBC cable networks, and even a stint in the broadcast booth on ABCís Monday Night Football. But until now, Miller had never tried his hand at radio.
He first considered the idea of radio a few years back, but it was fatigue from years of touring with his stand-up show that finally convinced Miller it may be time to try something new. ďI remember thinking: I gotta get off the road,Ē he says, recalling an especially tough stop in one small town. ďPlus, I donít think my political views are easily encapsulated; I think theyíre an eclectic brew, and I like the wider horizon line of the radio.Ē
While Miller recalls hearing and later seeing on TV some of the mediumís earliest instigators, he says heís not interested in shock radio. ďAs a young kid I remember the blue light of the black-and-white Joe Pyne show falling on me, and I remember not really understanding that,Ē he says. ďWally George never made sense to me really; I could see that this was a three-ring circus. And I always admired Morton Downey because I knew he was a huckster and didnít have much else to sell. But, itís not something I aspire to. I donít want to cast stones, and if that was a pre-condition for staying on, Iíd be fine in not doing it.Ē
Rather, Miller hopes to blend the divergent talents that have brought him to this point into one radio mixture. ďIíd like it to lurch back and forth between arcane pop culture, pretty decent Q&A, weird and lucid phone calls, and some jokes, some laughs.Ē
RADIO INK: Why did you decide to try radio?
DENNIS MILLER: I was in Pennsylvania over the summer doing stand-up a gig; very nice town for very nice people ó but a small town. The main hotel was not even a chain hotel, it was a small, rough-around-the-edges hotel. My night table had a rotary phone on it! I was looking at it like it was a relic from days gone yore and I remember thinking: I gotta get off the road. And the best way for me to do that living in Santa Barbara is radio. Plus, I donít think my political views are easily encapsulated; I think theyíre an eclectic brew, and I like the wider horizon line of the radio.
RI: How did it all come together?
DM: I had met with Westwood One founder Norm Pattiz a couple of years ago, just putting in a feeler at that time. I like Norm; he was funny, and anybody who knows him knows he talks Lakers. I remember thinking he seemed like a cool guy to work for. So when I came back from that summer trip, I said to my manager, we gotta call that Norm guy and see if heís interested.
RI: Youíre part of a long string of people who have moved from TV to radio. What are the differences between working in TV and radio?
DM: In TV, everything is hurry up, hurry up, hurry up. In radio, itís a different rhythm. You have a little more time to explain yourself ó indeed, you have three hours a day to fill. So the rhythm is a little more restive, you can be more contemplative on radio than you are on television, where everything is reduced down to a bullet point.
RI: So you're adapting well to radio's long-form format?
DM: I find it invigorating. As a stand-up comedian, I donít get really talked to by people unless theyíre heckling me, so to just talk to people on the phone is interesting. I like interviewing people. I see things in the paper that draw my eye, and I now have a forum to express that anger. I find it cathartic, in addition to being enjoyable.
RI: What will set you apart from the many other radio hosts out there?
DM: Iím as different as my personality. Youíre not going to reinvent the wheel here, but I have a specific sense of humor. Iím as different as Dennis Miller is, but to elaborate on that gets a little tedious and self-absorbed. My sense of humor is mine specifically; some people are drawn to it, some people are repulsed by it, but it obviously differentiates me.
RI: Some say you've shifted from being a liberal to a conservative. How do you react to those claims?
DM: Iím fine. Iím a 53-year-old man, I canít really shoot my self-esteem through the prism of strangers anymore. I say what I believe; Iím a Libertarian on most things, but after 9/11 I became hawkish about the war on radical Islamic fundamental terrorism. I thought that most of the country would go that way. They havenít, but they might after the next episode. At this point, I feel a little bit further out there in confronting the issue than some people. I thought everybody would see that weíre in the war of our lives, but they havenít at this point. I canít really modify my beliefs to fit theirs, I can just say what I believe.
RI: How do you feel about how the war on terrorism is going?
DM: War always goes horribly until you win it. War is one of the horrific mistakes that you push through because you have to conquer the enemy. Itís like Rudy Giuliani says: It doesnít matter if we declare war on the terrorists, because theyíve declared it on us. I donít know what option we have other than to fight it, be indefatigable, and win.
RI: It is winnable?
DM: What is the option? Is it losable? Yes, I do think it is winnable. Iím not willing at this point in my life to say that rather than fight a war I want to willingly acquiesce to Syrian law. Maybe, to avoid a war, you would just say, "OK, let them have what they want, I just donít want war." Iím not in that camp, I think we have to win.
RI: Why is the nation so divided? What can be done to bring people together?
DM: Bush is doing his part, but if you donít have the whole country behind you, you obviously canít go into fifth gear with it. I assume there will be another terrorist incident - I think weíll probably get struck again - and I donít think Iím being a pessimist. I think Iím probably being a pragmatist. If we donít tend to terror, at some point terrorists do what they do. Itís like that old joke about the tiger that eats a person after promising he wouldnít ó well, he says, I'm a tiger, and thatís what tigers do. Iíd like to think that [Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to be our friend and that heís going to plant trees in Israel ó but I donít! I think he wants to vaporize us! Most of the country will probably be on board after the next unfortunate episode. Eventually, people will say, wow, I guess being nice to them isnít going to work. Meanwhile, Israel cannot afford the luxury we have of talking about it, because they live in the same weird cul-de-sac. I believe that the Mossad at some point will say, well, weíve talked, the UN has talked, but weíre the ones who live next door. Weíre the ones he says the Holocaust didnít happen to. Weíre the ones he said he wants to destroy so he can get into his heaven. So Israel will probably have to drop a bomb on some major junction of commerce or factory where things that are being built that enrich isotopes. Now, some people would say it is irresponsible to talk like that, but what do you expect Israel to do? Do they owe it to the peacekeepers in this world to allow themselves to be bombed? I donít think so. Iím just trying to be a pragmatist here. I donít think I could look Israel straight in the face and say, listen you gotta do the right thing and allow them to drop a bomb on you. That seems silly to me. Iíd rather they drop a bomb on the bad guys.
RI: You call yourself a pragmatist. Talk radio hosts often say they're just telling it like it is, but is there really any such thing as impartiality in Talk Radio or news? Isnít everybody colored by some form of bias?
DM: Everybody I meet in my daily life is biased, but thatís life. There is no impartiality. There are people who feign it, but they reveal it in more eloquent ways by attempting to feign it than they do if they actually pronounced it.
RI: What, then, should audiences do?
DM: Find the voice in their own head. I tried listening to Air America for a while, and it began to irk me. I wasnít as conspiracy-driven as they were. I donít think George Bush blew up the World Trade Center. I listened to that for a day or two out of curiosity and in a state of bewildered bemusement, and then after a couple of days I donít want to hear it because it seems like madness to me and I find somebody who thinks more like I do. And isnít that what you look for in a radio show? Iím going to try to be informative and interesting. Iím not going to try to ride the fence, but Iím not aspiring to be hated. If thatís a side effect, fine, Iím just speaking my mind. I donít want to cast stones.
RI: In your dream world, what do you want the show to be?
DM: A bit of chuck-a-block, eclectic hodgepodge. Iíd like it to lurch back and forth between arcane pop culture, pretty decent Q&A, weird and lucid phone calls, and some jokes, some laughs.
RI: Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update, which you hosted for years, paved the way for shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. These shows are comedy, and they're taking shots at the newsmakers rather than reporting straight news. But this is where people are getting their news. What effect is that having on the populace?
DM: Jon is much more intelligent than a lot of newscasters I see, so the effect is positive. Jonís a brilliant guy, heís a friend. If youíre asking, would you rather they get their news from him or the nightly news on the networks, I wouldnít be embarrassed to say Jon Stewart. When you watch Katie Couric, do you find that any more or less scripted than Jon Stewart? I watch Jon, and I get a pretty good take on the news. He is a little more left-leaning than I am, but he is a good truth teller. Iím encouraged that Jon Stewart has become a source for news.
RI: Can Jon be so comfortable in his shoes because everybody knows where heís coming from?
DM: I know much more about Katie Couricís politics than I do Jonís after watching her on the Today Show all these years. There are certain areas where Jon is still an enigma to me; I donít know all his beliefs. Heís got a good poker face, but I definitely know what Katie Couricís politics are. She is much further to the left than Jon Stewart. But you also canít completely tell where he stands because he rips everybody a new one, which I find endearing. I know exactly where Katie Couric stands, and I see where she is going to have to contort herself to not look like sheís to the left. That awkward straddle will probably do her in sooner than later. Theyíll support you to the max until the millisecond they decide to whack you, and then you know it comes swiftly.
RI: Letís discuss the various news outlets. What kind of job are they doing?
DM: Let's see, CNN just lost Jeff Greenfield, and I donít quite know how to perceive that because Greenfieldís a pro; you donít want to be losing guys like Jeff Greenfield. I havenít quite gleaned its exact meaning, but to lose a pro like that, somethingís amiss over there. Fox I've worked for, and I can tell you that while people say that [Fox News Channel President] Roger Ailes issues marching orders on a daily basis, it couldnít be further from the truth. Nobody at Fox has ever asked me what Iím gonna say on any given topic or put qualifiers on it. I couldnít get Roger on the phone tomorrow if I wanted to; they completely let me go. And anybody who says that OíReilly is a purveyor of right wing ideology just doesnít watch him, because he is the ultimate pragmatist. I admire Bill. To me, heís like a big Irish beat cop swinging that baton, you step out of line heís like Sean Connery in the Untouchables. "Thatís the Factor way." I like the way he kicks ass over there; Iíll tell you what, Iíve been interviewed by a lot of people in my life, and when you sit across the desk from him, he looks you right in the eye and listens to what youíre saying. Invariably, the next question is a back up question of something youíve said. A lot of guys are just in the Q&Q business, not the Q&A. Theyíre on to their next question before you even get your response out. They just want to see your lips stop so they can ask the next thing. So I think heís a great interviewer. And MSNBC seems to be on the come here a little. Listen, to me itís all fun. Itís not serious, itís not the real world, itís the news, you know what I mean? Itís sort of like rotisserie league baseball for guys in bowties.
RI: How do you prepare for your radio show?
DM: I read a lot the night before, and then itís osmosis. Iím on from 7 to 10 on the west coast. Iím not going to tell you Iím up at 4 in the morning; canít do that. I read the night before and let it settle into my head; then youíve got to hatch that first eight minutes out of the box to get you lurched into the show. I try to load it up with a couple of jokes, observations, things from my day-to-day life. After you get past the initial fear of it, the first couple of days, it goes rather quickly.
RI: Do you think there is anything missing in Talk radio right now?
DM: No. I donít think like that. If you think about it, everythingís been done in every medium almost. Do you see anybody out there whoís making you forget Van Gogh? Any songs on the radio making you forget Mozart? Itís all been done; itís all a variation on a theme. It is what it is. If you interest enough people over a three-hour period over a two-rating book time, they keep you; if you donít, they whack you. Iíd like to be proficient enough at it to attract enough sets of human ears ó and even one eared people as we go back to the Van Gogh thing ó but Iíd just like to stay on. Iíll try to be as interesting as I can, and theyíll let me know.
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