Dennis Miller sets the record straight

Comedian opens up ahead of Knoxville performance in June

Dennis Miller

Comedian Dennis Miller wants to get a couple of things straight up front before he comes to town on June 23.

Firstly: Yes, he’s been held up as a banner carrier for conservatism, even though he describes himself as a pragmatist. When you’re one of the few voices that go against the predominantly liberal tide of the vast show-business ocean, you become something of a go-to for the conservative media – hence a regular “Miller Time” segment on Fox News’s “O’Reilly Factor” before the host of that show was run off the air for sexual indiscretions.

In a way, many comedy fans who fell in love with the acerbic-tongued pundit who anchored “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live” from 1985 to 1991 felt betrayed. How could a guy who made his bones on one of the most irreverent sketch comedy shows that so often skewered the stodgy politics and politicians of the right, they wondered, turn his back on that?

He gets it, Miller says in a recent discussion with BLANK. But he also doesn’t really care all that much.

“Any time you’re having a relationship, albeit as firm as it can be in the parameters of what it can be with somebody you’ve never met, you’re crestfallen when that someone you’ve never met changes,” he says. “Everybody can come and enter and leave the tent whenever they want, and to the people who were with me but are no longer, thank you very much; there are other people who say, ‘I used to hate you, but now I like you.’ But if I think about it, I’m gonna go nuts, and I don’t like going nuts.

“I’m not saying that to score points, but I just don’t care. If you’ve seen life, you know that the top rung of show-business pain doesn’t come within vague hailing distance of real-life pain: sick kids, soldiers coming home with no legs … man, the world can be a motherf*****, and if you’re sitting there stewing that people hate you because of your jokes or beliefs, you’ve missed the point – especially if you’re a guy in your mid-60s. You don’t want to depend on the kindness of strangers; if it comes, it’s nice, but time’s too short, and if I get 84 years, I’d be happy. Why would I want to piss it away being pissed that somebody didn’t like one of my jokes?”

Of course, there’s a market for a celebrity who has a knack for interweaving pop-culture references into his wry and sarcastic commentary on the state of everything from politics to football, which is why his June 23 date at the Bijou Theatre also will serve as the taping for his next stand-up comedy special. Booking a (more-or-less) red comedian in the reddest part of a deep-red Southern state makes chances of a friendly crowd more likely, which will of course provide the perception of an enthusiastic reception. In other words, it’s about ambience.

“I think my director chose it; he said he liked the theater, that the people were nice and that it’s a nice market for me: I’m very liberal on social issues, conservative on the War on Terror and I like to keep one out of two bucks,” Miller says. “Somehow, in this culture, that paints you as a right-winger, and people get pissed at you. I just said, ‘Give me some place where people are pragmatic – cool people, a cool town – and we’ll go and do it there.’”

Not that he goes out of his way to avoid tough crowds; hecklers often have a hard time getting one over on a guy who can reference everything from the ’62 Mets to the harmonica player for the J. Geils Band and can turn the title of a Middle Eastern recipe (“baba ganoush”) into an incident of name-calling that sounds cryptically filthy. Those talents would have served him well as a print journalist, which was his first love – at least until he found out what he would get paid.

“This guy said, ‘I’ll hire you to cover high-school football,’ and I said, ‘Beautiful! I’ll do anything! What do I get paid?’” Miller recalls. “I didn’t want to look eager, but you’re loopy if you don’t ask. So then this guy fingers this three-cornered scientific ruler he had and said, ‘You get paid by the column inch,’ and that was it. ‘Check, please!’

“I couldn’t, as a grown man, go in and have my food money determined in a spatial sense. I couldn’t take a job in which measurement determines what I get paid. Although [Dana] Carvey once pointed out, ‘Unless it’s porn!’”

Around the same time, after being inspired by a backstage conversation with comedian Kelly Monteith, Miller convinced a club owner to give him a shot by promising to bring with him 50 friends who each would buy a drink; six months later, a joke form he submitted to Playboy magazine took second place in the publication’s writing competition, and he started selling jokes to comedians coming through Pittsburgh at the time.

“And then I saw a comedian on ‘The Tonight Show’ telling my jokes, and Johnny [Carson] was laughing so hard, he was pounding the desk,” Miller says. “Here I was, living in a run-down $60 apartment, watching a cat crack Carson up with my material.”

After starting out on a local Pittsburgh station, he moved to the West Coast, inspired by a couple of pals (Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld) he met in the New York comedy scene. In 1985, he was discovered by the creator/producer of “SNL,” Lorne Michaels, and the rest, as they say, is history. After leaving “SNL,” he hosted “Dennis Miller Live” for nine years on HBO, during which time he won five Emmy Awards; hosted “Dennis Miller,” a short-lived CNBC series; called plays on “Monday Night Football” for two seasons; and served as host of a Westwood One Radio talk show that carried his name for eight years.

These days, he’s moved into the podcast realm, currently hosting “The Dennis Miller Option” and “Red Circle Sports with Dennis Miller,” and he regularly amuses himself with the Twitter beefs that inevitably follow whatever commentary he offers on recent political and pop-culture kerfuffles – like the recent White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, during which comedian Michelle Wolf went to the mats with President Trump and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, among others. Miller feels that the zingers directed at Sanders were in particularly poor taste.

“I would make fun of [Nancy] Pelosi’s plastic surgery, saying something like, ‘She looks like she’s perpetually witnessing the docking of the Hindenburg,’” he says. “Look, I’m as full of s*** as most humans, but even as much ire as I have with Nancy Pelosi, if she was on an elevated dais, facing the crowd, I would have probably pulled up with the joke. Now that doesn’t make me Thomas Aquinas, but I was crestfallen for [Sanders]. I was just too sad for her. That was beyond politics.”

Which, incidentally, brings up the second thing he’d like to straighten out: As disingenuous as it may sound or seem, Miller says, he does not tote water for Trump – nor has he ever.

“I never said in public who I voted for; I just said that I was not a Hillary Clinton fan, and just because I always said the one thing does not lead to the next thing,” he clarifies. “Outside of that, nobody knows who I voted for – or even whether I did. But I can say this: I can’t wake up every day and pretend that Donald Trump is Adolph Hitler. I can’t pretend that if North Korea denuclearizes, that it’s a bad idea?

“Is he crass? He’s the definition of crass! And while I’m not a fan of politicians, I think his outer voice is indeed an accurate depiction of his inner voice, warts and all … whereas I don’t think Hillary’s outer and inner voices have ever had a cup of coffee together.”

IF YOU GO

Dennis Miller

WHEN: 7 p.m., June 23

WHERE: The Bijou Theatre, 803 S. Gay St., downtown Knoxville

HOW MUCH: $35 and $50

CALL: (865) 522-0832

ONLINE: www.facebook.com/realdennismiller

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