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Dennis Miller

Dennis Miller

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Also Known As: Died:
Born: November 3, 1953 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA Profession: Cast ... comedian talk show host actor
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BIOGRAPHY

Decades before the term "snarky" caught on with the public, Dennis Miller embodied that snappy, smart-alecky style of humor for six seasons (1985-91) as anchorman on the "Weekend Update" segment of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" (1975- ). Miller not only became the show's first cast member since Chevy Chase to make the parody newscast his own, he launched himself as one of the top political comedians of his generation. Following "SNL" and a failed 1992 talk show, the former stand-up comic's topical news-driven "Dennis Miller Live" (1994-2002) ran for nine successful seasons on HBO. Miller's follow-up TV effort - providing colorful commentary on "Monday Night Football" (1970- ) - proved to be a severe fumble, as his signature esoteric references and wild metaphors seemed jarringly out of place during a sports broadcast. Always anti-authoritarian, the liberal-leaning Miller shifted his political views to the right following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Miller's conversion was controversial, but it propelled him into new life as a media personality. After nearly a decade of TV flops, Miller hit it big again in 2007 via talk radio with "The Dennis Miller Show," which propelled the host back to TV by way of Fox News and World Wrestling Entertainment; all of which solidified his status as one of the more important commentators on entertainment and politics.

Born in Pittsburgh, PA on Nov. 3, 1953, Miller was raised primarily by his dietitian mother, Norma Miller, in the nearby suburb Castle Shannon. After the arrivals of Miller's younger brothers James and Richard, the boys' father left the family and then died while the children were still young. His parents' break-up brought pain and sadness to Miller's early life, which otherwise might have looked very much akin, culturally, to a typical baby boomer experience. As with many comics of his generation, the dark shortcomings that belied 1950s TV sitcom family dynamics - which very directly hit home in this case - profoundly informed young Dennis Miller's general skepticism, hostility toward hypocrisy, and scathing sense of humor. He was not alone in comedy's influence. His brother James "Jimmy" Miller would grow up not to perform comedy himself, but to professionally manage A-list comedy superstars such as Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Judd Apatow, and Sacha Baron Cohen. Miller graduated from Key Stone Oakes High School in 1971. Claiming to be inspired by how sharp Robert Redford looked playing Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in "All the President's Men" (1976), he majored in journalism at downtown Pittsburgh's Point Park University. Miller also joined the Sigma Tau Gamma fraternity while at PPU, and graduated with a BA degree in 1975. After college, Miller took second place in a 1979 Playboy magazine joke-writing contest and worked in local Pittsburgh television. Throughout the early 1980s, he composed humor segments for the nightly news program "Evening Magazine" and he hosted the teen-focused "The Trolley Show," before moving to New York City to pursue stand-up comedy.

From his earliest moments on stage, Miller peppered his self-consciously laid-back delivery with winking, ironic show business clich├ęs (such as referring to individuals as "Babe" and "Cha-Cha") while making elaborate references to all manner of cultural material, thereby creating a highly stylized series of comical metaphors. A typical Miller routine at that time might have connected movie quotes, TV characters, historical milestones, classic literature, and ultra-lowbrow entertainment figures to any given punchline. While persistently working his way up the stand-up chain in both New York and Los Angeles, Miller won a slot on the syndicated TV talent contest "Star Search" (1983-95) in 1985. The comedian Sinbad defeated him after a single round, but Miller's simultaneously relaxed and acerbic technique caught the attention of "Saturday Night Live" talent scouts. That, along with Miller's rising reputation on the club circuit, prompted "SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels to catch the funnyman's live act in L.A. In November 1985, Michaels was slated to return to the helm of "SNL" after a five-year absence, starting off with a fresh cast and new energy. In Miller, he felt he found a unique comic voice for the show's pivotal "Weekend Update" feature. Originally, Jon Lovitz was set to man the anchor chair, but he proved to be too valuable a utility player in the show's ensemble. Miller, by contrast, came off strongest by sticking to his own persona, which he overwhelmingly did during his tenure on the series.

The 1985-86 edition of "Saturday Night Live" turned out to be one of the more troubled seasons in the show's history, but Miller's "Weekend Update" caught on quickly and was one of the few elements to be brought back the following fall. Audiences responded positively to Miller's sarcasm, his frequently flipped hair, and the high-pitch giggle that he interjected after jokes that either went particularly well or bombed badly. He also spawned one of the show's most enduring catchphrases when he ended each "Weekend Update" by announcing: "That's the news, and I am outta here!" Along with Lovitz and Dana Carvey, Miller figured as one of the sketch show's primary breakout stars of the mid-1980s. That trio of colleagues even embarked on a successful series of stand-up tours beginning in 1987. Unlike his zanier cohorts, however, "Weekend Update" earmarked Miller as a political comic; a persona he brought to the first of his many HBO specials, "Mr. Miller Goes to Washington" (1988), which was recorded in the District of Columbia. His follow-up special, "Dennis Miller in Black and White" (1990), further solidified the comedian's standing as an anti-authoritarian - and, in particular, an anti-conservative - cynic.

After six auspicious "Saturday Night Live" seasons, Miller left the series in 1992 to launch his own late-night talk venture. "The Dennis Miller Show" (1992-93) was a nationally syndicated, hour-long weeknight series in the classic "Tonight Show" format that attempted to capture the "alternative buzz" of the early 1990s. Actor and "National Lampoon" editor Nick Bakay served as Miller's announcer/foil, while guitarist Andy Summers of the 1980s band The Police led the house band. Aside from Miller's free-associating, the show earned further counterculture credit by booking what were daring musical guests for the time, with first-wave Lollapalooza-era rock acts such as Henry Rollins frequently performing. Unfortunately, "The Dennis Miller Show" never caught on amidst the late-night talk wars of its era, and it was cancelled before the end of its first full season.

Cable proved a better and more fruitful fit for Miller. After hosting "The 1992 MTV Movie Awards" and starring on "Live from Washington D.C.: They Shoot HBO Specials, Don't They?" (1993), the series "Dennis Miller Live" (1994-2002) debuted on April 22, 1994 as an instant hit, running on Friday nights on HBO for nine seasons. Unlike Miller's previous attempt at TV talk, "Dennis Miller Live" featured a format that seemed perfectly tailored for the host. Each episode opened with one of Miller's signature "rants" - a stream-of-consciousness-style monologue on a single topic that began with the phrase, "Now I don't want to get off on a rant here ," and concluded with the statement, " but, of course, that's just my opinion. I could be wrong." Hot off the rant, Miller would chat with a single guest (most often a show business or political figure), take viewer phone calls, and conclude with a news segment. Over the course of its run, "Dennis Miller Live" garnered five Emmy Awards for both the writing staff and the host himself, who was billed in each week's closing credits as "400 Lb. Gorilla." Print collections of the most popular "Dennis Miller Live" monologues resulted in a best-selling series of books: The Rants (1996), Ranting Again (1999), I Rant, Therefore I Am (2000), and The Rant Zone: An All-Out Blitz Against Soul-Sucking Jobs, Twisted Child Stars, Holistic Loons, and People Who Eat Their Dogs! (2001).

During the course of "Dennis Miller Live," the comedian himself expanded into other outlets, as well. He emceed "The 1994 Billboard Music Awards" and both the 1995 and 1996 editions of "The MTV Video Music Awards," plus two more HBO projects: "Citizen Arcane" (1996) and "The Millennium Special: 1,000 Years, 100 Laughs, 10 Really Good Ones" (1999). Unexpectedly for someone who rarely played a character on "Saturday Night Live," Miller also began acting in movies. Most notably, he co-starred in "The Net" (1995), "Bordello of Blood" (1996), and "Murder at 1600" (1997). Eventually, Miller turned his sights to the world of sports.

Facing its 30th season in 2000, ABC's "Monday Night Football" (1970- ) aimed to enliven its on-air chatter by recruiting a non-traditional sportscaster into its commentary booth. Harkening back to Lorne Michaels revitalizing "Weekend Update" in 1985, it was Dennis Miller who won the position, beating out top contender Rush Limbaugh to the surprise of many. The prospect of Miller on "Monday Night Football" generated copious pre-publicity, but the actual results proved semi-disastrous. Miller's flippant tone and frequently obscure metaphors confounded fans and annoyed critics. Online sites cropped up to explain and decry Miller's quips, which tended toward observations such as: "I haven't seen anyone rely on the ground game this much since the battle of Verdun," and "That field goal attempt was so far to the left it nearly decapitated Lyndon LaRouche." As a result, Miller lasted only two largely lamented seasons on "Monday Night Football." Removing some of the sting from his football fumble was Miller's well-received portrayal of a radio shock jock in the big screen David Spade farce, "Joe Dirt" (2001). However, not long after that film, the definitive somber moment of the early 21st century made a dramatic impact on Dennis Miller's sensibilities, both comedic and otherwise.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Miller experienced a political awakening that came to embody the best-known aspects of his post-"Saturday Night Live" career. He shifted from a clearly left-leaning point of view to an outlook that appeared to be more classically conservative. Publically, Miller had traditionally backed Democratic politicians but then, especially moved by New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, he became a booster of numerous Republicans and largely aimed his barbs at liberal policies and politicians. Despite general assumptions, Miller pointed out that his stances on some hot button issues diametrically opposed those of the GOP - specifically, he favored abortion rights and gay marriage. Personally, he defined himself as "a conservative libertarian." His tag as a hard-line righty, Miller said, stemmed entirely from his support of President George W. Bush in general, and the military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in particular. "I think, on most things," Miller said, "I'm liberal, except on defending ourselves and keeping half the money. Those things I'm kind of conservative on." Just 10 days after 9/11, Miller's reconfigured perspective came to light via his "Real Free Speech" commentary segment on the Fox News program, "Hannity and Colmes." Miller's angry, immigration-themed piece planted the seeds for later partnerships between Miller and the network, which billed itself as "Fair and Balanced," but which was popularly perceived as being tilted toward the right.

After upping the brashness of his new ideology on the HBO special "Raw Feed," Miller returned to cable fulltime in a CNBC solo venture simply titled "Dennis Miller" (2003-05). The live, hour-long weeknight broadcast contained a news segment titled "The Daily Rorschach" and a panel conference called "The Varsity," as well as, on occasion, a chimpanzee sidekick. After a lukewarm launch, the show was pulled from the air for retooling and came back, but never found its proper audience and was quietly cancelled. The next two Miller-headlined TV projects flopped even more severely - "The Half Hour News Hour" on Fox News and "Sports Unfiltered" (2007) on the largely hockey-focused cable network Versus. On the positive side, Miller did manage some good notices for playing himself in director Jason Reitman's cinematic send up of the cigarette industry, "Thank You for Smoking" (2006).

Still, despite what was deemed his prickly and - especially post-9/11 - even divisive persona, Miller remained a generally well-liked public figure. While ardently speaking out against mainstream Hollywood political thought, Miller reinvented himself in the public eye as a freshly effective guest on other people's programs, most notably "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." In fact, his conversion placed him in a valuable position as a sort of living counterpoint to his real-life close friend Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" (1996- ). Miller, for the right, had become the preeminent joker of the loyal opposition. As with Stewart, his masterful comic abilities proved amusing enough to entertain even those who might thoroughly disagree with him. Unlike Stewart, though, Miller had foundered for most of the 2000s while attempting to establish a proper TV outlet for his own ideas and observations. So with his conservative image firmly entrenched in the public consciousness, Miller moved to the popular medium that had proven most friendly to Republican philosophy: talk radio. Westwood One launched "The Dennis Miller Show" (2007- ) in 2007, as a live, three-hour, call-in news and political discussion program airing weekdays. Originating from Los Angeles, the show syndicated to more than 250 radio stations. In the third quarter of 2008, Talkers magazine estimated the show's audience at two million listeners daily, placing it among the most famous and successful AM-FM programs of its day.

Regardless of his daytime radio success, Miller's capabilities did not translate well to TV game shows. In 2007, he briefly hosted the quiz program "Grand Slam" on GSN. A year later, Miller's NBC game show "Amne$ia" (2008) lasted for just one month prior to disappearing from the air. Once again, to expand his cultural reach, Miller set his sights on the world of sports - at least in a very broad definition of that term. Perhaps prompted by the rough-and-tumble realm of daily political talk, Miller tossed his talents into no-holds-barred arena of professional wrestling in 2009. First, he guest-hosted World Wrestling Entertainment's "The 2009 Slammy Awards." Then Miller appeared on a 2009 edition of "WWE: Raw Is War" (1997- ). However odd Miller's wrestling adventures might have come off, it seemed somehow in keeping his other late-2009 endeavor: a Friday night commentary segment titled "Miller Time," where he cracked wise via satellite opposite verbal grappler Bill O'Reilly on the Fox News network's bombastically combative, "The O'Reilly Factor" (1996- ).

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