Tavis: Pleased to welcome Dennis Miller to this program. The Emmy-winning comedian, commentator and former “SNL -“
Dennis Miller: Dr. Smiley (unintelligible).
Tavis: Yeah, yeah – and former “SNL” star is back on HBO starting this Friday night with a new comedy special. It’s called “Dennis Miller: The Big Speech.” Here now, a preview of “Dennis Miller: The Big Speech.”
Miller: It was a simpler time when Bill Clinton was at the helm. (Laughter)
Tavis: Is Obama not as good source material as Clinton was?
Miller: Well, listen, Clinton was a treasure trove (laughter) because he walked around in a perpetual state of al dente for 10 years in front of us, so you always knew what was on his mind. At least Barack looks like he’s loyal to the old lady. Bill was a treasure trove because he was – and you know what?
I actually have grown fond of Hillary over the years because I sometimes look at Barack and he’s a little soft on war issues for me, but I look at Hillary and I think, oh, she’s so (blank) off at Bill she might project some of that onto the terrorists, because Hillary’s (blank) because she knows that we know she’s been cheated on more frequently than a blind woman playing Scrabble with Gypsies. (Laughter) So she’s always cranky.
Tavis: Could I at least get out the gate?
Miller: Go ahead, man. (Laughter) I’m sorry; I was just trying to segue in.
Tavis: Yeah, you’re starting so soon. (Laughter) I was in a conversation the other day and I’m curious as to whether you have a take on this this – in a conversation the other day about whether or not the fact that Obama is an African American has caused comedians in any way, shape or form to kind of back off a little bit.
Miller: Nah, not me. I only disagree with his White half, though.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Miller: I don’t know, man. Presidents – comedians are in the – it’s the very business, it’s time – the beginning is you make fun of the people in power. He just happens to be the cat in power and I don’t have an axe to grind with him. He seems like a nice enough guy.
He’s cool. I dig the image it cuts for our country, and I was teasing earlier about the war thing but actually I think he’s surprised me on his war stance. He’s reinvigorated the battle to some degree. The use of drones from the sky. There’s a lot I like about him. There’s a lot I don’t, though, and I’ve got to make fun of him, and I can’t be worried about if people think I’m being a racist making fun.
I’m not being a racist. He’s the president. He sets himself up, as all presidents do, to be made fun of. What, do I want to get him in there and treat him like a Faberge egg because he’s Black? (Laughter) I’m not going to do that.
Tavis: So you’re not anti-Obama?
Miller: Listen –
Tavis: There are a lot of folk on Fox who are, in fact, anti-Obama, I get the sense.
Miller: Well, is it you get the sense or – see, what I demand from somebody who goes off on Fox is – and you’re not going off, but I’m saying people who disagree with it, I can’t tell you, Tavis, how many times I say, “Well, who do you watch? Do you watch it?” They go, “I wouldn’t give them the benefit of the doubt of watching it,” and that conversation’s over for me.
They at least have to watch it. There’s guys I disagree with on the left. I watch them once in a while to know if I still disagree with them. As far as Obama goes, listen, I’m telling you, it means something to me that the cat is as charismatic and that and has never cheated on his old lady. That means something.
I was teasing earlier about Clinton. You know in the 24/7 news cycle we live, where everything’s out in the open, you know if this cat had ran around we would have found out about it.
I like the way he is with his wife, I like the way he is with his kids. He seems like a sweet man. Like I said, I think he’s acquitted the war on terror more than I thought he would. (Unintelligible) what I was worried about. He’s kind of held true to the blueprint.
I don’t dig the spending, man. We’re spending crazy amounts of money, and I don’t care who’s in there, I wouldn’t agree with them spending that much. We’ve got to just stop spending for a little bit.
Tavis: Since we’re talking presidents, so President Bush’s book is out. Have you had a chance to peruse it as yet?
Miller: No, I’m not – when I read I like to read –
Tavis: Now, come on, there’s source material. That guy – he’s got to be far better than Clinton was for material.
Miller: Well, listen, Bush to me, I didn’t get all of it, but I got that to me, Bush – here’s terror. We’re driving for terror for years and the father keeps saying, “Don’t make me come back there.” (Laughter) “If I stop this car and come back there, I tell you.” For years, we’ve been – the kids are bouncing, those terrorist kids are bouncing off the walls, just shooting stuff out their nose and everything.
All of a sudden, Bush stopped the car and said, “I told you not to make me come back there.” That’s what I dig about Bush. I think somebody had to flatten somebody somewhere along the way, and he did. (Laughter) It’s not a perfect world, but occasionally you’ve got to flatten somebody.
Tavis: But Dennis, the reason he said we were going to flatten them –
Miller: I know.
Tavis: – never quite worked out. We never quite found those WMDs.
Miller: That was never the reason for me. It was just about getting their attention.
Tavis: That’s what he told us, though.
Miller: That’s his business. (Laughter) I live in a different world where I just –
Tavis: He’s only the president, Bill.
Miller: I remember sitting there at home, going, “Boy -” after 9/11, I said, “Did I just see that plane going into that building? Somebody’s got to get their (blank) kicked.” That’s what I remember thinking. And they got – listen, Saddam Hussein and his kids just happened to be unlucky enough to be first up on the Wonka line. They drew the ticket, man. (Laughter) Some bad guy was going to get croaked after that. He can say WMDs all he wants. That was never a big ticket for me.
Tavis: So there’s been all this drama with Keith Olbermann lately on MS, and of course Fox has had their turn at this as well, where their commentators or hosts get caught up into this. Seriously, we got Fox spinning one way, MSNBC spinning another way. What’s happened to our media? What happened to right down the middle?
Miller: Well, listen, Tavis, first off, has it ever been down the middle? Who’s judged to be the most –
Tavis: Walter Cronkite was down the middle.
Miller: That’s exactly what they say, and I always say I thought Cronkite was the beginning of the end of non-opinionated journalism. When a man like Uncle Walter Cronkite goes on the news one night and says, “In the eyes of this reporter, the war is lost. This war is unwinnable.” That is the beginning of all this balkanization of the news factions at this point.
Walter Cronkite said he thought the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. That’s a big moment. That’s when all this opinion starts, in my book. So whenever they whip Walter Cronkite out on me and say, well, he was the Obi-Wan Kenobi and he never varied, I always go, what do you mean? The man came out and called a guy out on a war.
So that’s a pretty big opinion. Now, as far as Fox goes, let’s take the most recent night that we can compare the two. On election night, I don’t know if you watched any MSNBC but it was a pretty contentious little panel over there. They actually had Michelle Bachmann on and as they’re on stage, Chris is saying, “Are you hypnotized?” and they’re laughing at her.
I’m thinking, this is pretty tough. I go over to Fox, where Dana Millbank and “The Washington Post” insist there was only token liberal there, there was, like, seven people on that night, really. Throughout the night they had a whole bunch of people – Kiersten Powers, people from the other side of it, and there was, to my way of thinking, five or six people.
Are there certain guys on Fox who tilt to the right? Yeah, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t tell you. But I’m with O’Reilly once a week for two years now and every time I think I’ve got him pegged he says something that makes me think, well, I wouldn’t have known that about Bill O’Reilly.
The thing I demand the most is like when that girl on MSNBC says she hates Fox – it’s the Maddow girl – and you say, “Well, what do you hate about it?” and she goes, “I wouldn’t watch it,” and you going, well, what –
Tavis: (Laughter) Well, what do you hate?
Miller: Well, you’ve got to – listen, I don’t mind hating it. You’ve got to say, “I watched this, and this bugged me.” But she says, “I didn’t watch it,” so until you watch it, I don’t know.
Tavis: How did you, how did Dennis Miller end up developing his own world view, his own sense of things? I ask that in part because as you know, in this town there aren’t a whole lot of folk who are of your ilk politically.
Miller: I think it’s pragmatism. I’m from Pittsburgh. Listen, as far – here’s my world view. If two human beings with similar genitals want to get married because they love each other, can I tell you how I’m happy for them, and I could care less. (Laughter)
If some nut overseas wants to blow their wedding up to make a statement, I want our guys to kill their nuts first. And as far as money goes, I think you should keep half of all your money, at least half, between state, local, all that stuff in.
So this is what passes for far right now. I want the bad guys to get their (blank) kicked and I’d like to keep half my money. Anything else, I don’t even notice. People can do what they want; it’s none of my business, for God sakes. (Laughter) But I would like to keep half my money, and they go, “Well, why do you want to keep half, are you a pig?”
I go, “What do you mean? I’m keeping one for every one I’m giving to strangers. What’s so wrong about that?” (Laughter) Then they talk about the inheritance tax. They go, “Why, do you want to pass it on and spoil your kids?” I go, “Why do I want to spoil your kids? I don’t even know your kids.” (Laughter) “Why don’t I spoil my kids, okay? Can you introduce me to your kid before I give him half?”
It just seems like basics to me. We’re over-thinking this stuff. And they can tell me all they want that I’m mistreating terrorism and its connection – its tenuous connection to the radical Islamic world. I’m sorry, baby, when you’re strapping bombs on your kids, that gets my attention.
When I hear that, I go, “What?” Because throughout history there’s been crazy people, but if you went up to crazy people and said, “Do you want to strap a bomb on your own kid?” they’d go, “What? Come on, I’m just crazy, I’m not that crazy.”
So when I see that I go okay, it’s on right now. We’ve got a savage enemy and we have turned into a mincing leviathan of political correctness, and I think that is a dangerous confluence.
These people are primitives, radical Islam. I have a friend who works in Tehran for a realtor called Century 4, and he told me that the only reason we’re not all getting decapitated is because we’ve got our head up our (blank) about terrorism. There is no realtor called Century 4. It was a joke. I went through it too quickly. (Laughter) Century 21 here, Century 4 in Tehran.
Tavis: I’ve been listening to all these pundits pontificate about what the midterms really were all about and what the takeaway really is, and I’ve been waiting for you to sit in this chair so you can really school me on what these midterms are really all about.
Miller: I think the midterms are about the fact that they watched the State of the Union for two years and they think Pelosi’s bat (blank) crazy over his shoulder. You watch that woman back there and – have you ever seen that much thought into somebody doing nothing?
She sits there and her eyes are twitching like a Yul Brenner robot on a rainy day at West World. Then she goes deadeye for a second like the shark eating Robert Shaw’s nether regions in “Jaws,” and all of a sudden she’s twitching away again. A hummingbird’s wings look glacial compared next.
What is the deal with that woman? (Laughter) I think they look and they go, “What do I have to do to get her out? Because she looks bat (blank) crazy to me. She looks sleep-upside-down crazy to me.
Tavis: And yet this woman who you admire, obviously, so much has just said that she, in fact, is going to run, and all –
Miller: Do you know how orgasmic I am that that’s going to be the face of the Democratic Party for the next two years?
Tavis: You like this.
Miller: Please, run that thing of her coming up there with the pepper mill. Remember – or whatever that big thing was that she’s walking up with. I’m thinking, baby, you are making some people cranky doing that. (Laughter) People understand that in our elections there are winners and losers, but you don’t rub it in their face, walking up with that big Fred Flintstone hammer, right up the steps, and that big smile. I remember thinking, you’re doing yourself in here, doll.
Tavis: Well, you know, you’ve seen these numbers as I have seen. Since these Blue Dogs and these centrists got run out of Congress, interestingly, the Democratic caucus is more liberal now than it was even prior to these elections.
Miller: Well, although I heard this morning the Schuler kid might run against her, although it’s a bit of a suicide mission.
Tavis: He ain’t got a chance, yeah.
Miller: But you could see him thinking, I’m getting croaked here anyway. If this is going to get more liberal, I’m about to get croaked. I might as well go out on my shield and at least look manly.
Because for two years those guys – that guy played in the NFL for two years. Now he’s got to sit there and have Pelosi call him, and she’s constantly – it looks like she’s witnessing the Hindenburg docking. She’s got to call him in and tear him a new one every day.
At least he’s going to step up now and take it like a man. Listen, I hope they go further to the left. I’ve been liberal in my life; I’ve been conservative in my life. It’s getting too liberal that way, and it doesn’t make sense anymore.
Tavis: I asked earlier where your world view came from. I want to ask something different now, given the point you’ve just made now, Dennis, which is where the switch came. You’re not the first person I’ve talked to over the years who was once liberal and became –
Miller: Admiral Stockdale. Admiral Stockdale. I remember watching that guy out there –
Tavis: Ross Perot’s running mate.
Miller: Yeah, vice presidential candidate. And I thought, “Well, who is this guy? I should read about this.” It was a moment where my light switch went off and I thought I should start reading about these things and informing myself, because due to the fractious nature of the dialogue I don’t think I’m getting the story anymore.
So I read about Stockdale and the Hanoi Hilton establishing a code to keep young prisoners alive who wanted to die, in other words. He would tap on the pipes at night and hold sort of therapeutic sessions to keep them alive. John McCain saying he’s the bravest man he had ever met in his life.
I thought, for God sakes, is that what it’s come to in this country, is that a man steps up there and says, “I don’t even know what I’m doing here,” because he’s uncomfortable on TV because he’s actually led a life and not learned all these little dog and pony tricks that we do in this culture to look like you’re avuncular.
A man who’s actually done something in his life is now being (blank) on by the left in this country because he didn’t have it together on TV? I remember thinking this room might be getting a little too hip for me. I never liked it when comedians would do that thing where they’d tell a joke, you wouldn’t get it, and they’d go whoosh, like you were the idiot.
I wanted to go, no, no, baby, that hit me right here. I just didn’t dig the joke. That’s what it was like with the left. I started to think why are you being so mean to that guy? That bothers me. So I stood up for him in an HBO special and it felt cathartic for me. I felt like I had – I just remember thinking at that point I’m going to read everything I can about all these issues, because I don’t think anybody is vested in telling me anything but their side.
Then 9/11 – listen, that was a big moment for me. It didn’t change me completely. I’ve always been a bit of a pragmatist. If you’d asked me 20 years if I cared about gay people getting married I would have said, “No, I’m happy when people get married.”
If you’d asked me about abortion 20 years ago I’d have said, “Listen, it’s a convoluted subject. Everybody’s got to go their own way on that. If it’s wrong, guess what? Your God’s going to have a talk with you somewhere down the road. If it isn’t wrong, you’ll get off. But that’s on you, that’s not on me, so I’m for choice.”
But as far as certain things, like I said, fiscal issues, I don’t believe you spend all that much and in war, I think once you go to war it’s like Lincoln’s admonition to Sherman – you’ve got to go Roman. You’ve got to find the enemy wherever you can and croak him.
Tavis: By my account now – by my count – you have used the word “pragmatist” at least three, I may have missed one; maybe four times. I love talking to you, but I just don’t know anybody on the right, not anybody who’s leading things in Washington, who I would ever used the word pragmatist to describe their politics.
If they were pragmatists I could talk to them and get along with them, maybe, on more issues.
Miller: What about that Pawlenty guy?
Tavis: I’m saying there may be a couple, maybe one – I’m just talking about sheer numbers here – one or two, and maybe that’s the problem, that there aren’t enough pragmatists on the right. They’re all ideologues.
Miller: There’s bound to be, baby, because this whole thing’s going to crash and then they’re going to start – pragmatists have been – you ever see that arcade game called Whack-A-Mole, where the mole sticks his head up and you hit it in the head with a hammer? They’ve been kind of laying low down the whole three years, but finally there’s a movement that way because we’ve got to figure out some common sense, Norman Rockwell lithograph approaches to some of these problems.
Tavis: But that ain’t what Mitch McConnell said. He said job number one is to make sure that Obama does not get a second term. That don’t sound like pragmatism to me.
Miller: Well, I can’t speak for McConnell. That’s his words, not mine. If Barack Obama would make some decisions tomorrow that made sense to me, would I want him to work? Yeah, I’d want him to work. He’s my president, for God sakes. I’ve got a lot vested in this country.
I want it to work, but I’m telling you if my man thinks that the way he’s going right now is going to work, it isn’t, and you can’t take the 70 percent of the people who disagree with you on any given issue – and the last I heard 70 percent of the people say, “I’ve got some problems with Obama. Can we dial this in a little more?”
Once you start saying those 70 percent don’t get it, come on, man. We’re seven out of 10. Give us the time of day over here.
Tavis: I want to go back to something you said a moment ago, but I was processing it as you said it. You were making the comment about comedians who would tell a joke, go over the audience’s head, and they would think the audience was stupid – I’m paraphrasing the way you –
Miller: I think they would like to believe the audience is stupid. Somewhere deep down I think they knew that they weren’t doing their job, which is –
Tavis: To your point now, I’m not accusing you of ever thinking that the audience was stupid, but some of that criticism was leveled at you when you did the Monday night football thing. That you were just so over the head of those of us who watched football that we couldn’t follow you. But you didn’t think we were stupid, though, did you?
Miller: No, here, let me give you my candor on Monday Night Football.” I did a pretty good audition for Don Holeyer, who liked the idea of trying to recreate the Dandy Don Meredith thing. So he gave me the roll of the dice. In retrospect, I had a good two years there which I enjoyed. Half the country hated my guts, and probably at the beginning even more than that hated my guts. I got it to around half and half by the end of the second year.
Tavis: It’s America, that’s all you can ask for – half. (Laughter)
Miller: Well, listen, that’s the mean line, baby. I’ve been making a living in the mean line for – I’m never shooting for 100. (Laughter) To me, you’ve gone psychotic if you’re at 100. I was shooting for around half, but I got it back to around there. But the simple fact is I don’t even think a three-man booth works. In the times we live, and this is a key thing and I’ve never said this in public, when they start talking about notching down from 40 seconds between plays to 35, guess what? You’ve just drummed the third guy out.
Al Michaels is the best play-by-play man, along with Ray Scott and Summer all, who I’ve ever seen. He’s going to wrap that play up; it’s going to take 15 seconds or so. He’s going to throw it over to Foots, who’s a Hall of Fame quarterback. He’s going to take 10 to replay it and show you what happened. You got around six seconds, they throw it over to me, and I make a joke about somebody looking like Uncle Fester from “The Addams Family,” (laughter). Then it’s back to Al.
At that point even I’m thinking, what am I doing here? I’m just sitting there waiting to flick the jab, and then sometimes the jab’s not there. But I had a good two years. I had fun there. It’s just to me it seemed like an awkward fit, and I remember when Madden left Fox, I called Footie that morning and I said, “Man, we’re dead later this afternoon.” Fontsie said, “You think so?” (Laughter) I said, “You think the fat man’s left Fox to sit around the Dakota all day and have coffee with the old lady?” (Laughter) “Of course he hasn’t. He’s in a bus; he’s out on the road eating brisket. Of course we’re whacked. This is the last place left to eat brisket.” We were gone later that afternoon. I called Fouts and I said, “I told you the (unintelligible) is going to feed.”
Tavis: How did you know that this was your thing, this was your gift, to be able to stand up and to make us laugh and think at the same time, because that ain’t easy to do.
Miller: Well, I remember the first night it happened to me is I’d sold a joke to a kid who was on “The Tonight Show.” I was in Pittsburgh and I had some dreams and aspirations, but I was pretty anxiety-ridden about performing.
So I remember a cat came through and he liked one of my jokes. I was opening for him. I sold it to him. He went on “The Tonight Show,” it was the best thing that could have ever happened. I sold it for 25 bucks.
He goes on “The Tonight Show,” and it’s a fair exchange, that’s all I asked for, that’s all he gave me. He kills Carson with it. He’s sitting at the desk and he kills Carson. I’m sitting at home in my underwear with a can of weenie-beanies, just leading the loser’s life of all time, thinking, are you kidding me?
My man just put Carson down with one of my thoughts. I said, “I don’t care how much of a puss you are about this, you’ve got to go out and learn to tell these jokes yourself, because this is going to put you in an insane asylum.
Tavis: What was your anxiety about about getting on stage? Was it stage fright or something?
Miller: Listen, I got a key lesson from Richard Belzer one night – you know the comedian?
Miller: I saw Belz one night at Caroline’s and I had this road to Damascus moment where I thought, he didn’t even care if they liked him. He knew they wanted him to be adept, and in some way that was even sexier to them if he was reasonably insouciant about his exchange with them. He wasn’t needy of them.
I was too needy of them at the beginning, and therefore, if they rejected it, it became too much of a personal interchange. You’ve got to get to the point. It’s a pretty presumptuous act, stand-up. If you’re going to stand up there in front of a crowd and say, “Here, I’m going to talk for an hour and you’re going to dig it,” you’d better have your game face on.
I was going up there simpering, sort of, and that’s why it was feeding back on me, and they sensed I had too much of a sake in them. This is pretty convoluted stuff but it’s like watching “The Dating Game” when a guy gave a bad answer. And you weren’t even on the show but you’re saying, “Oh, my God, that guy represents me. I got a penis, too. I’ve got to get out of the room. What’s this freak doing?” (Laughter)
It was like I had too much of a stake in it and I couldn’t settle in up there. When I saw Belzer that night I remember thinking oh, I get it. They don’t want you to be a (blank) kisser, they want you to be good at it. Shut up and get good at it.
Tavis: Well, when you see “The Big Speech” it’s clear – we get reminded that you got over that a long time ago.
Miller: Well, you know what, Tavis, I’m doing radio now during the days, and I must say –
Tavis: Three hours.
Miller: Yeah, but I –
Tavis: That’s a lot of talking.
Miller: You know what? I find it so easy and nerveless that I can see as I get older I flinch quicker in a gunfight. I feel like Jimmy Arness on “Gunsmoke.” (Laughter) You’ve got every stud in town coming in for 20 years and all of a sudden it’s getting hung up on the holster and you’re shooting your foot.
I started flinching on TV. It’s just a little flinch, it’s a little hiccup, but when I get in stand-up it becomes a whole different thing. I go back to some basic mode where I feel like a killer out there. But in the interview thing I’m a little flinchier than I used to be.
Tavis: You still love the stand-up thing?
Tavis: It comes across like you still dig it.
Miller: Yeah, I dig it because it’s action, man. At some point, don’t you dig the action of this, the fact that it can go wrong? If everybody said to me here’s the dance steps, they’re down on the floor, it’s never going to go wrong, you might as well be teaching the cha-cha at Arthur Murray. I like the fact that when you’re out here in front it can go kind of wrong. So you’ve got to – I dig that juice.
Tavis: I want to close something I said earlier because – see, it’s going wrong now, I’m stumbling. You set me up for this to make it go wrong.
Miller: Oh, I’m sorry.
Tavis: No, that’s okay. I want to go back to something I said earlier because what I –
Miller: What’s that under the seats? It’s the WMDs! (Laughter)
Tavis: I want to close by saying what I have always loved about you is what I referenced earlier in this conversation – that it is very, very difficult, I think, to empower an audience with information and entertain them at the same time, and you do that (unintelligible).
Miller: Well, that’s sweet of you, Tavis, but at the end of the day if you start buying your own B.S. about making a dent on them, you’re dead in my business. You’d better get an unconscious laugh out of them every 20 to 30 seconds in my business or you end up being one of these cats whose – you’re Lenny Bruce at The Village Gate, reading your court transcripts on stage, and everybody’s saying, “What happened to Lenny? What is this about?” (Laughter)
You can’t take yourself that seriously. I dig being a court jester. I remember Seinfeld telling me once – Seinfeld, for God sakes – he said that the sitcom was like a day job, an odd left-hand turn. I’m a stand-up comedian, and that always stuck with me.
If Jerry Seinfeld, who has the biggest TV show in the history of the medium, felt that it was sort of like a cottage industry and he was really a stand-up, I remember thinking the same thing. I dig it because it’s a right-stuff club. Not everybody can get in because at some point you’ve got to step outside that curtain and potentially eat it in front of other human beings.
And you can have agents, managers; you can have all the counsel in the world. I notice they stop when you get to the edge of that curtain, because they’re like, “Man, I don’t know if I want to buy in like that.” (Laughter) So that’s what I dig about it.
Tavis: And that’s why I dig this guy, Dennis Miller. The new piece is called “The Big Speech” on HBO. Dennis, I love having you on the show, man.
Miller: Oh, thank you, Tavis, you’re a good cat, man. I appreciate you.
Tavis: Oh, it’s my pleasure. I’m glad to have you.
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