Wednesday, July 19, 2000

Miller brings fan's view to football booth

Comedian can mix humor with knowledge on 'Monday Night'

        PASADENA, Calif. — If comedian Dennis Miller knows as much about football as I do about baseball, then ABC's Monday Night Football will be OK.

        Apparently he does.

        Mr. Miller, 46, grew up in Pittsburgh as a hard-core fan of the NFL Steelers long before the famous “Steel Curtain” Super Bowl championships of the 1970s — much the same as I was a total Cincinnati Reds fan before the Big Red Machine days.

        He knows the game. He talks back to the TV announcers during the telecast. Just like the rest of us.

        “I've always sat at home like anybody and watched football and done the Mystery Science Theater 3000 (running commentary) overview with my friends, and thought it would be fun to try,” Mr. Miller said during an ABC press conference at the Television Critics Association summer press tour with broadcast partners Al Michaels and Dan Fouts.

        He's a football geek. I'm a baseball junkie. He has subscribed to Football Weekly for years.

        “I watch football as much as anybody. I can comment on a team and tell them what I think is my (idea of their) strengths and weaknesses,” said Mr. Miller, who debuts July 31 at the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio.

        “I don't want to convey that I'm going to be the court jester out there. These people don't want me to be some manic jokesmith out there. I'm going to talk about football.

        “If I see a chance for a humorous shot, I'm going to take it here and there, but my prime directive is to be an integral member of a three-man group talking about a football game. And I think I can do that.”

        Standing around with him after the standing-room-only press meeting was like talking sports with somebody at a bar. I was impressed with his passion for the details of each club, from draft picks to defensive schemes. That's why executive producer Don Ohlmeyer hired him.

        “We got from him some of the most perceptive analysis of the game itself that I ever heard,” Mr. Michaels said. “We knew that we had something extraordinary.”

        He passed my test too. I asked him if the Bengals would be on Monday Night Football again in his lifetime.

        “Not unless Mike Brown gets a little less under the (salary) cap. He's got to start paying the cash,” he said about the NFL franchise with the worst record in the 1990s.

        “You keep letting guys like (Corey) Dillon walk out. I'm not saying he's Jim Brown, but he's certainly a nice back. Mike Brown is going to have to pay people eventually,” he said.

        For years, I've heard people say networks should put a fan in the booth instead of just another ex-jock. That's what ABC did.

        “Dennis gives us much closer to a fan's point of view than there's ever been on television,” said Mr. Ohlmeyer, the former Monday Night Football producer (1972-77) who was brought back to overhaul the stagnant franchise.

        “Dennis made some observations in some of the games that the professionals didn't see. And they didn't see it because they were too close to it. They take it for granted,” Mr. Ohlmeyer said.

        But the former Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” news anchor isn't just any fan. His HBO Dennis Miller Live (11:30 p.m. Friday) rants have been littered with references ranging from Greek mythology and Shakespeare to Al Gore and gangsta rap. Could he be too hip for the booth?

        “Enough people seem to get it,” he said. “I don't think I'm (too) hip. I'm doing Jetsons references. How deep does that run?”

        He promised to stick to the game, to pass on the sarcastic political commentary that has been his trademark since SNL. Ironically, ABC's preseason football will kick off against the Republican National Convention in two weeks.

        “We should get great viewership,” he said. “Who wants to see the coronation of George W. Bush? The guy thinks Croatia is the show on after Moesha.

        I was surprised to hear this Dennis the menace say he had no problem reading the endless ABC promotions for fall TV shows during the game.

        “I'm a good employee. I'm not that much of an iconoclast that I don't like to make a living,” said Mr. Miller, who lives in Southern California with his wife and two children.

        “If somebody who pays me says they want me to promo . . . whatever is on this year, Charlie Sheen on Spin City, believe me, I'm Demosthenes,” he said, referring to the ancient Greek orator. “The pebbles are in my mouth and I'm reading it.”

        I admit I was shocked by his hiring at ABC. Everyone was. He wasn't.

        “It is an odd hire, but I think I'm up to the job. I don't want to do that mock humble thing. I'm going to try to do a good job. I'm glad they hired me. But it was a quirky hire.

        “If I do well, they will rehire me. If I do it poorly, they'll fire me. I'm at peace with that.”

        Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football, the longest-running prime-time sports franchise? TV's No. 4 program last season?

        Yeah, I'm at peace with that. Now, are you ready for some football?

TV Critic John Kiesewetter is reporting from the summer press tour. Write him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202.