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January 18, 2004: A Discussion of Right-Wing Comedy.

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In an online political discussion with my friends regarding who was endorsing whom, and that Michael Moore had just endorsed Wesley Clark, the topic of other comic writer came up, specifically Dennis Miller.


One expects most comedians to be anti-establishment.  And there is Michael Moore.  You remember his acceptance speech when he won the Oscar for best documentary, Bowling for Columbine, and how he ripped into Bush.  You might know his film Roger and Me about the automobile industry and its impact on the people of Flint, Michigan, and on us all.  And you might have come across his book Stupid White Men - selling well these days.   He did write and direct one very funny film, Canadian Bacon (1995) - explained here in Brian D. Johnson's review in Macleans - a Canadian Magazine.  The film just gets better as the years pass.  Funny stuff.


Anyway, comedy is by nature, usually, a bit subversive.  (To be discussed at a later date.)  You expect comics to hold a mirror up to everything and laugh.


But there are surprises.  Not just that Moore endorsed Clark, not Dean or Kucinich.  One is surprised when a comic endorses the establishment. 


Phillip writes:


It's funny Michael Moore endorsed Clark.  Didn't see that coming, though the angle of the best bet to beat Bush has an allure.  Dennis Miller turning conservative?  Guess it appeals to his mean streak, but endorse the President?  Egad!


Regarding Dennis Miller, there was a long piece on him in the New York Times this week. 


Miller grew up in my hometown, Pittsburgh.  I remember him when he did the weather on WPXI television, years ago.  He was good at that.  I think he was the model for the character Bill Murray played in the movie "Groundhog Day" - the cynical weatherman from Pittsburgh.  Maybe not.


Whatever.  He was always sour.


See The Joke Is on Liberals, Says Dennis Miller, Host of His Own Show Again

Bernard Weinraub, The New York Times, January 15, 2004 



"Did you see the Democratic debate the other night?" he asked.  "To me Dennis Kucinich's politics are more scrambled than Rod Steiger's dream journal.  And Clark?  He's a wizard in many ways, but when I hear him speak, its almost like he's slumming.  There's a mensch discrepancy there.  At least John Edwards, who to me is a reasonably shallow guy, at least he can dog-paddle around in that park and not look out of place."


"I"ve always been a pragmatist," he said. "If two gay guys want to get married, it's none of my business.  I could care less.  More power to them.  I'm happy when people fall in love.  But if some idiot foreign terrorist wants to blow up their wedding to make a political statement, I would rather kill him before he can do it, or have my country kill him before he can do it, instead of having him do it and punishing him after the fact.  If that makes me a right-wing fanatic, I will bask in that assignation."


Mr. Miller said he remained socially liberal.  "I think abortion's wrong, but it's none of my business to tell somebody what's wrong," he said.  "So I'm pro-choice.  I want to keep my nose out of other peoples personal business.  I guess I fall into conservative when it comes to protecting the United States in a world where a lot of people hate the United States."


The Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Miller said, changed him.  "Everybody should be in the protection business now," he said.  "I can't imagine anybody not saying that.  Well, I guess on the farthest end of the left theyd say, 'That's our fault.'  And on the middle end they'd say, 'Well, there's another way to deal with it other than flat-out protecting ourselves.'   I just don't believe that.  People say we're the ones who make them hate us because of what we do.  That's garbage to me.  I think they're nuts.  And you've got to protect yourself from nuts."


Mr. Miller said his own comedic influences include Jonathan Miller, Richard Pryor, Richard Belzer and Jay Leno.  He speaks more hesitantly about the two comedians with whom he has often been compared, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce.


He said he had transcripts of some of Mr. Sahl's early shows and was amazed by them.  But then he lost interest.  Mr. Sahl, he said, became too close to the Kennedy family and was "a savage name-dropper."  Mr. Miller added, "It always reminded me to watch myself."


Surprisingly he is tougher on Lenny Bruce. "Lenny was a heroin addict, and I could care less about heroin addicts," Mr. Miller said.  "Once I hear a guy is a heroin addict, and they tell me he's a genius, I think, really?  I'm not trying to be judgmental.  But anybody whose last vision is of a tile pattern on a bathroom floor, I don't know what kind of genius they are."

What to make of this?  An "establishment" comic?


Rick Brown had the best comments:


I've never been a big Dennis Miller fan.  He's wryly funny, but to my mind, with way too much wry and not quite enough funny.


In fact, his enigmatic humor, although I guess technically "liberal," was always nasty.  See the problem?  Liberals aren't nasty; if anything, real liberals are usually way too nice.  Chances are that if you meet a very negative and nasty guy who looks down on people, he's probably a conservative.


I think of Miller as a better example of what you (Alan) said you don't like about Robin Williams: If you talk real fast and include lots of obscure references, maybe people will think you're smart.


Except that Robin Williams doesn't try to pass himself off as mean.  Even in the pose that Miller takes in the Times photo, he puts this arrogantly sourball expression on his face, like he's waiting for the photographer to leave so he can go find some kindergartener and punch out his lights.


Still, I didn't know until seeing the Times article that Miller had joined the legions of former left-wingnuts that have flipped to become right-wingnuts.  If you look closely at almost every neocon, you'll find a history of once being a Trotskyite or something - too far to the left, then waking up some morning too far to the right.


(I wonder why this is.  Some chemical imbalance that could be treated with proper medical attention?  And I wonder if there's an overall Newtonian reaction in the world that has an equal number of right wingers somewhere quietly making a shift to the far left.)


The comparison of Miller to Mort Sahl is not a bad one, except I remember Sahl's humor as slightly more clever  - still, some tart-tongued comedian on the left becomes a tart-tongued comedian on the right, and maybe also a little bit of a suck-up to the powers that be.  (California's GOP is reportedly now thinking of running Miller against Barbara Boxer.)


But just as Dennis Miller distrusts heroin addicts such as Lenny Bruce (as do I, by the way), I also have a hard time taking seriously anybody who allowed his mind to get so seriously bent by 9/11.


To wit: One paragraph in the Times article begins, "Mr. Millers metamorphosis from iconoclastic liberal to free-wheeling conservative - which he partly attributes to the Sept.11 attacks..."


Now, am I the only person in America whose political outlook went totally untouched by the events of 9/11?  I would like to hear Dennis tell us which specific stupid thoughts he had been harboring that somehow got straightened out on that fateful day.


Before the attacks, I and just about everyone I knew marveled at the fact that Osama bin Laden had not yet scored big here, but we knew that someday he would.  After 9/11, we know he finally did it, and that he probably will do it again.


But the post-9/11 Dennis Miller?  "Everybody should be in the protection business now," he said.  "I cant imagine anybody not saying that," and goes on to belittle those don't.  Excuse me, Dennis, but while you were sleeping, most of us were already in the "protection" business.


But please tell us: What's the nature of your friggin' epiphany, Dennis?   From what I gather, you were clueless enough not to be paying attention before the attacks, and now after the attacks have occurred, you're ridiculing those want to ask the questions as to why it happened?  Geez, you're doing it again!


Its not that it's wrong to change one's mind now and then, it's just that I personally can't listen with much credibility to some know-it-all who talked loudly down to us last week from one side of the argument, and this week, is doing it from the other.


Well, that's entertainment.


I just find Miller mean, snide, and simple-minded - and not particularly funny.  His comments on who we should hate and who we should kill might better be made in another context. 


But maybe Miller shouting "kill the towel-heads" in a comedy club works for some audiences.  A few doors down the street from my front door is "The Laugh Factory" - and if he appears there I will glance at the folks in line here in Hollywood and try to determine if they are the sort who are likely to listen, laugh, and leave the club looking for someone swarthy to beat to death. 


Playboy did call him "a social Darwinist with a funny bone."


Much comedy makes you think more subtlety, or get you thinking of the ironies all around and the posturing of those in power.  Some comedy, Miller's brew, has the opposite effect.