Judge Clark Douglas used to be really funny, but now he's just a cranky pundit.
"Born again? No, I'm not. Excuse me for getting it right the first time."
As the title implies, Dennis Miller: The HBO Specials collects the seven stand-up comedy specials Miller turned in for HBO over the course of the past two decades. How well do they hold up? Let's take a look.
Mr. Miller Goes to Washington (1988): The earliest of these specials
is something of a mixed bag. Miller seems to be exceptionally low-key here, and
at times almost seems as if he wishes he weren't being forced to do the stand-up
comedy special (there's even a sketch at the beginning in which Miller complains
about being contractually forced to do the special). The first forty minutes or
so essentially features Miller complaining about a variety of things that annoy
him: The fact that the International House of Pancakes isn't remotely
international, the general lack of intelligence in southern states, the ways
that people on airplanes tend to be particularly annoying, and the ways the
happy Christians tend to be particularly annoying. Miller then veers into an
extended segment filled with a variety of sex-related jokes, which almost feels
like an obligatory attempt to spice things up. The final portion of the routine
is the weakest, in which Miller uses underwritten humor to unleash his
thinly-veiled contempt for criminals, terrorists, and psychopaths in general.
This should have been funnier or angrier, but the passive-aggressive approach
just doesn't work. Additionally, this special feels rather dated at times, as
Miller tosses out jokes about Fame, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Sylvester
Stallone, Let's Make a Deal, Ronald Reagan, and a whole host of
television commercials from the 1980s. Still, there's enough smart humor here to
prevent the special from being a waste of time.
Black and White (1990): As the title implies, this set is filmed in
black and white. No, there's not much of an emphasis of the humorous ways that
black people and white people are different (though there is a bit focusing on
the fact that white people can't dance). In many ways, this routine feels like a
successful re-tooling of Mr. Miller Goes to Washington. A lot of similar
ground is covered, but the basic material is smarter, funnier, and more
entertaining than it was during the previous go-round. Miller gets going on a
strong note, with a very amusing criticism of stand-up comedians who
unimaginatively work Jack Nicholson impersonations into their routine. After
this opening bit, Miller dryly runs through some fairly typical stand-up
subjects: marriage, traffic, annoying airline stewardesses, and so on. After
establishing a comfortable rapport with his audience, Miller starts to take a
few risks and tackle some political subjects. His routine on fur, animals, and
fur-lovers is darkly funny, but Miller's real feat is managing to make some
sharp political statements on abortion (Miller has claimed to be pro-life
personally, yet pro-choice politically) while also keeping his routine afloat
and vibrant. An impressive feat, to say the least. I greatly enjoyed Miller's
attack on parents who blame rock music for the bad decisions their children
make: "Look, if your kid goes over the edge because of something Gene
Simmons said in a song, then you're just not doing your job as a parent."
Once again, the routine feels a bit dated (why does Miller have such fondness
for making fun of every popular television commercial?), but this time the dated
material holds up a little better. Miller's attack on the trend of movie sequels
seems even more relevant today than it must have back then. Overall, a very
strong outing for the comedian.
Live from Washington, D.C. (1993): This
is one of my favorite specials, as Miller provides an hour of bitterly funny
material that takes him to the next level as a comedian. It begins as a much
bigger affair, with smoke machines signaling Miller's arrival. The comedian
responds by grabbing his crotch, Michael Jackson style. Miller still seems to be
coping with the loss of his television show, and blames the weak intelligence of
the viewing audience for the show's demise. Miller seems a bit aggressive and
hostile here, jeeringly and brilliantly tossing out marvelously clever film
references and wonderful variations on the English language that seem
intentionally designed to fly right over the heads of most viewers. It's as if
Miller is saying, "Look at this, I'm being absolutely brilliant up here and
most of you people have no idea whatsoever." At one point, Miller even
resorts to mocking the audience: "I like to throw out a few literary
references to get a feeler for how bright the crowd is. Guess I'm gonna tell
knock-knock jokes the rest of the night." I'm not generally a fan of
mean-spirited comedy, but here Miller has the brains and the wit to back up his
bile. The tone seems appropriate in this case, because Miller is building to a
very sharp attack on the general brainlessness of American society. The comedy
routine turns into an angry, funny sermon during the second half, as Miller
marvels over America's ability to put petty nonsense and trivial distractions
ahead of genuinely important issues. Miller was still considering a left-leaning
libertarian at this stage of his career, and provides a nice balancing act
politically that doesn't let anyone off the hook easily. He mercilessly attacks
Ted Kennedy, the NRA and pro-gun advocates, pro-life advocates, Bill Clinton and
Dan Quayle (though he does sing the praises of Ross Perot). This is strong
stuff, and Miller is at his absolute prime. A resonant classic.
Citizen Arcane (1996): As the title implies, this special features
Miller at his most esoteric. Surprisingly, the audience-insulting technique
feels just a bit less smart and effective this time around, as Miller resorts to
telling variations on old jokes. Perhaps it would play a lot better to someone
who hadn't just seen Miller's three previous stand-up specials, but I found it a
little redundant. Even so, Miller is sharp and clever here, if not as funny as
he was the previous time around. This stand-up special marks the halfway point
in this set, and also seems to mark a certain halfway point in Miller's
politics. Many claim that Miller didn't turn conservative until 9/11, but if you
listen carefully, you can hear the sound of Miller slowly shifting towards the
right from special to special. That certainly seems to be the case here, with
some harsh digs at Bill Clinton and liberal politicians in general. He also
makes a very stern argument about the necessity of the death penalty, and he
suggests that the legal system needs to be much harsher and less forgiving.
The Millennium Special (1999): Far and away the most unique special
in this set, this unusual hour of stand-up comedy features Miller pretending to
be a stand-up comic in a wide variety of era. The year 1000 to 1899 are covered
in a five-minute montage, while chunks of the 20th century are covered in 10-11
minute segments. Miller opens each segment with a introduction using all kinds
of dated slang from the era he is focusing on, then proceeds to make goofy
"Weekend Update"-style jokes about everyone from The Wright Brothers
to Michael Jackson. The jokes are followed by a rant in which Miller complains
about various aspects of society ("Curse those commie Russians!").
It's cute, but rarely laugh-out-loud funny. The whole thing feels like an
intriguing experiment that never quite gels. The funniest segments are
deliriously goofy video interviews between Miller and Norm McDonald, all of
which end up employing the word "cock" on numerous occasions. These
fall into the "so dumb it's hilarious" category. A failed if
The Raw Feed (2003): Enter
Dennis Miller, full-blown conservative and George W. Bush apologist. This
special has dated rather poorly, and I wonder if even Miller cringes just a
little when he goes back and watches it. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but this
2003 becomes unintentionally hilarious when one considers what has happened in
the years since. For instance, Miller speaks with pride and enthusiasm about the
invasion of Iraq, and boldly declares that we are going to go in there and kick
some serious butt, ending the problems in the Middle East within a matter of
months. He endorses the idea of threatening other countries with nuclear
weapons, spends far too much time insulting the French in a savagely
mean-spirited manner ("I'd call the French scumbags, but that would be an
insult to bags filled with scum,"), and generally praises Dubya for
everything he had done and everything he is going to do. Miller wholeheartedly
endorses racial profiling, and suggests that Islamic people have brought
strip-searches on themselves by being part of a culture that endorses terrorism.
It's a nasty special, so ferociously right-wing that it may even make some
conservatives uncomfortable, but I have to admit…it's kind of funny. I
disagree sharply with most of Miller's political views, but at least he makes
his points with a bit entertaining humor here. Still, the generally nasty spirit
of the special ultimately sinks it.
All In (2006): Miller is still
in full-blown conservative mode, but he's a bit more sheepish and less
aggressive this time around. Instead of, "George Bush is incredibly awesome
and totally kicks butt," the attitude is more along the lines of,
"Well, George may not be perfect, but at least he's better than (insert
name of Godless Liberal here)." Miller has always kept political topics at
the center of his routine, but here he manages to score some points on some less
heated cultural topics. The thing that saddens me a bit about Miller's recent
comedy is that he's set aside that brilliant wit in favor of more
straightforward preaching in many cases. That said, he's a good deal more
likable here than he was in The Raw Feed, playing up his "cranky
middle-aged man" persona rather effectively. There's also a strong moment
in which Miller turns the tables on his enthusiastic ultra-conservative audience
by offering an enthusiastic endorsement of gay marriage. The statement is met
with boos and hisses (along with a bit of quiet applause), and Miller shrugs and
grins slyly, relishing an opportunity to actually piss his fans off a little.
Using the pro-gay marriage monologue as the capper to an otherwise
ultraconservative standup routine is a pretty bold decision, and it grants
All In an edgy aftertaste. A respectable finish to the set.
The video and audio quality isn't particularly important on a set like this, but I must say that I found the video quality very underwhelming. That being said, I did receive screener versions of all three discs in the set, so perhaps the official version will look better. The stereo sound is perfectly adequate on all seven outings. No extras of any sort are included on the discs.
You may not like his politics (liberals during the recent stuff, conservatives during the early years), but Dennis Miller is an undeniably talented comic who has had some very high points over the course of his career. This 3-disc set offers an affordable opportunity to see a step-by-step of Miller's career and comedy style, and stand-up fans should consider giving it a shot.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: SRO Entertainment
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