Dennis Miller is probably the only comedian who can refer to the Gadsden Purchase in a joke about bad drivers. He’s also about the only Hollywood celebrity you’ll ever see declaring himself a “Bush fan” on national television.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Miller has emerged as Tinseltown’s leading patriotic funnyman. He has consistently used his distinctive brand of humor to endorse the Bush administration’s policies in fighting terrorism. During appearances on The Tonight Show, he has also advocated profiling at airports and oil-drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Most significantly, Miller has repeatedly expressed his support for the U.S.-led war to topple Saddam Hussein. He has concurrently attacked France’s diplomatic perfidy, and he recently penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece satirizing Norman Mailer’s inane ravings about America’s going to war “to boost the white male ego.” (A typical Miller line: “The Great Mailer is currently more out of the loupe than a jeweler with conjunctivitis.”)
Once considered a cynical, irreverent lefty who saved his harshest comedic diatribes for Republicans and Rush Limbaugh, Miller has ostensibly become a hawkish conservative. Many liberals, no doubt unhappy with his outspoken position on the Iraq war, now regard him as a full-fledged right-winger. Conservatives, meanwhile, have welcomed and even cheered the comedian’s unabashed patriotism and endorsement of President Bush’s foreign — and, in certain cases, domestic — policy. However, some commentators on the right have gone overboard, proclaiming the acid-tongued comic a new icon of conservative politics.
When Miller appeared on the Fox News Channel’s Hannity and Colmes in early May, co-host Sean Hannity said, “I got to tell you: You have become the hero of conservative America, and I think you know that by now, because of your very strong stance . . .” — at which point Miller quickly corrected him. “All my stances aren’t conservative,” he explained. “I am just in a place right now where we’re in the middle of a war and it made me feel very patriotic. But I would not call myself an across-the-board conservative.”
Miller is, in fact, set to join Hannity and Colmes as a weekly contributor starting Friday, June 27. (He will also be making regular appearances on Tony Snow’s weekend shows on FOX. Check your local listings for when these two NRO favorites team up.) But he is not as conservative as many liberals — or conservatives — seem to think. For that matter, he was never as liberal as many conservatives — or liberals — used to think.
When his old HBO show, Dennis Miller Live, first aired in 1994, critics couldn’t make up their minds as to where Miller’s politics lay. An article in the Orange County Register reported that “many fans from Miller’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ days were astounded that he sounded so politically conservative” on HBO. Yet others pointed out that the overwhelming majority of his topical jokes came at the expense of Newt Gingrich and the GOP. (A columnist for the Rocky Mountain News wrote in November 1996, “The meat of his humor comes almost exclusively off the bones of Republicans and conservatives.”)
Indeed, Miller was especially merciless in bashing Gingrich. Many of his anti-Newt quips compared the House Speaker to Adolf Hitler — and, by extension, portrayed the GOP Congress as a sinister collection of would-be brownshirts. For example, in his opening monologue on December 23, 1994, Miller joked that Gingrich’s forthcoming book would “be available through the Mein Kampf of the Month Club.” A few weeks later, he announced the post-election transfer of power on Capitol Hill as follows: “Gingrich and the Republicans took over Congress this week. This is actually Gingrich’s second attempt to seize power, the first, of course, being the ill-fated Beer Hall Putsch.”
Miller was equally scathing about the Religious Right, labeling Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Oliver North a group of “modern-day Torquemadas” who “can’t wait to seize the reins and begin slaughtering the nonbelievers.” He also defended Joycelyn Elders when she was fired as surgeon general after arguing that masturbation should be “taught” in public schools. “America, let’s grow up about sex,” he implored. “Let’s realize that a surgeon general who speaks her mind about sex education, teen pregnancy, and preventative health care doesn’t deserve to be surgeon general . . . she deserves to be the f***ing president of the United States.”
As that quote indicates, his “rants,” as he called them, were filled with vulgarity, another aspect of Dennis Miller Live that many conservatives found objectionable. In the summer of 1995, Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center named Miller’s show the third worst program on TV: “worst” meaning most liberal, or most biased against conservatives and conservative ideas.
But Miller never seemed comfortable with being dubbed a liberal. In a July 1995 interview with USA Today, he acknowledged that “I might be profane and opinionated, but underneath all that are some pretty conservative feelings. On most issues, between Clinton and Newt (Gingrich), I’d choose Newt in a second, even though he is a bit too exclusionary.”
What’s more, in a 1996 Playboy interview, Miller identified himself as “a conservative libertarian.” His libertarian bent did reveal itself at various times during his HBO career — for example, he devoted one November 1994 “rant” to advocating the legalization of drugs and prostitution — yet by and large, he was still much harder on conservative Republicans than he was on liberal Democrats.
Of course, he made his fair share of Clinton jokes, but until the “Pardongate” scandals in January 2001, even those were only half-hearted jibes. They focused mainly on the president’s marital transgressions, weakness for fast food, and aw-shucks mannerisms. His other main Democratic target, Sen. Ted Kennedy, was likewise pilloried not for his politics, but for his personal failings. Miller’s caricatures of the two were simple: Clinton as the horny hillbilly; Kennedy as the sloppy drunk. In contrast, his jokes about Republicans had a much sharper tip, and usually involved specific denunciations of conservative policies such as welfare reform. He customarily presented Republicans as mean-spirited, demented right-wingers. As late as May 1998, Miller was characterizing Gingrich’s ‘94 Republican class as a “band of fascist elves.”
Still, throughout the run of his HBO show, Miller consistently stressed the need for tough law-and-order policies, and also emphasized the importance of personal responsibility. His commentary always contained a streak of right-wing populism, as Peter Wood has previously noted on NRO. For example, in one rant he called for a strengthening of U.S. border security and decried the problem of illegal immigration. And here is Miller on America’s prison system, from a 1996 rant: “There’s a big brouhaha over bringing back chain gangs. The ACLU says chain gangs violate the human rights of prisoners. Oh yeah? Where was the ACLU when the prisoner was violating the human rights of the guy whose head he cut off with an ax? . . . You know, the problem with liberal prison-reform advocates is they confuse ‘tough’ with ‘inhumane.’”
In regard to smokers’ suing the big tobacco companies, Miller quipped: “If you’re saying you didn’t know cigarettes were bad for you, you’re lying through the hole in your trachea.” Frivolous litigation has been a regular target of his comedic ire.
And perhaps most surprisingly, Miller has never wavered in his support for the death penalty and his opposition to affirmative action — quite remarkable for someone in the entertainment industry.
Of course, even if he wasn’t as liberal as some made him out to be before Sept. 11, the comedian has clearly become more conservative in the aftermath of the attacks. In particular, he has moved to the right on issues of foreign policy and homeland security, as have many Americans. His contemptuous and derisive put-downs of the Bush administration — which were in vogue pre-Sept. 11 — have been replaced by genuine praise and admiration for the president’s leadership and prosecution of the war on terror.
In addition, the man who once described himself as a “lifelong Democrat” has become disillusioned with Bush’s political opponents. Of the Democratic presidential hopefuls, Miller recently joked, “I haven’t seen a starting nine like that since the ‘62 Mets.” Meanwhile, here’s his take on the president’s carping critics: “The Democrats continue to snipe at Bush. They’ll never give it up to him. You know Teddy Kennedy and Tom Daschle pick more nits than a father and son spider-monkey team who know they’re being followed by a National Geographic film crew.” (He has also, incidentally, referred to veteran Democratic senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia as a “moron.”)
Modern American comedy is generally designed to play well in New York and Los Angeles — hence, its tendency to skew leftward politically. At a time when Jon Stewart (on Comedy Central) and Bill Maher (in Miller’s old time slot on HBO) have late-night shows that habitually lambaste the Bush administration, it will be refreshing to have someone like Miller on TV during prime time.
Conservatives should still refrain from calling him one of theirs, or promoting him as an ideological soulmate. Nevertheless, we on the right should be grateful for Dennis Miller. It doesn’t matter that he’s not a movement conservative or a Rush Limbaugh “dittohead.” His has become a hilarious brand of commonsense, patriotic political humor — and in Hollywood, that makes Miller a rare and valuable commodity indeed.
— Duncan Currie is a Harvard senior-to-be and NR intern.