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He's Brainy, Funny--and Frightened? : To many, Dennis Miller of 'SNL' is too smug; could it be he's just insecure?

June 11, 1989|DUNCAN STRAUSS

At a time when many comedians are little more than interchangeable parts--the same look, the same pedestrian language, the same toothless set of premises, sometimes even the same toothless jokes, like the gags about Barbara Bush's appearance that pass for political commentary--Dennis Miller can be a blast of fresh air.

His stand-up act offers bright, substantive observations to chew on, often involving truly topical matters and newsmakers, put forth with an eminently articulate delivery.

All of which may come as a huge surprise to those only familiar with Miller as anchor of Weekend Update on "Saturday Night Live."

Hardly the only showcase for his comedic talents, "SNL" is far from his best one. Take his recent work on non-network television: Despite the yearly flood of cable-comedy specials, Miller's HBO show, "Mr. Miller Goes to Washington," won an ACE award, the cable equivalent of an Emmy, for the best such special of 1988.

Meanwhile, Miller's sharp, brainy "The Off-White Album" has won its own kudos and continues to establish him as a masterful stand-up writer. Indeed, if you spend much time around aspiring comics, it turns out that some are helping themselves get a fix on joke writing by listening to "The Off-White Album" the way aspiring comedians used to (and still) study Woody Allen records.

However, even some of the most serious comedy fans might not know--or care--about such multi-media achievements or about Miller's stellar stand-up act because they've been so repelled by his manner on "Saturday Night Live."

The opinion voiced most frequently by regular viewers--even those who like Miller--is that he's smug. Most of these people probably haven't contemplated the possibility that his smugness is merely his way of coping with insecurity and fear.

"Hey, I am as idiosyncratic and as frightened--and, therefore, maybe smug to some people--as anybody in this business," asserts Miller, who will appear Friday at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim, the first of two Orange County dates this summer.

"This is a frightening business. Anyone who doesn't cop to that is full of (baloney). It's the keys to the kingdom, and it's very tenuous, 'cause you realize they can take them back at any moment--and you're back to real life.

"Any sort of attitude is usually generated from fear. My whole life, I was afraid to be on that stage. So what did I do? As a compensatory gesture, I got up there and just acted like the guy I always wanted to be to get through it. (Performing stand-up), my hands don't come out of my pockets; whenever they think I might be digging the laugh, I make it a point to adjust my cuffs, so I don't look like I need it that much.

"I analyze this stuff; I know what I'm about up there. It's a part of me, but it's not the real me. It's the frightened guy, acting like the guy he wanted to be, to shepherd him through all this stuff. But watch my tics. . . .

"So you have to do what you have to do. And I've decided to adopt this sort of hipper-than-thou thing. But, man, anybody who really watches my act knows I shoot holes in it every 10 minutes, too. I alternate between being completely insouciant and blowing the bridge the next minute."

Insouciant ? Yeah, insouciant.

It's the kind of word that pops up frequently in Miller's everyday speech. Several such words popped up during a nearly two-hour interview at his manager's West Hollywood office: avarice , self-aggrandizing , alacrity , ribald .

He's uncommonly well-spoken onstage, too; his stand-up act is distinguished by extraordinary word choice and command of language that puts him in a rarefied group with Jerry Seinfeld and precious few others.

Unlike most top stand-up wordsmiths--who tend to work PG-clean--Miller is not averse to lacing some of his routines with profanity. But even then, he's not after shock value so much as the most effective use of language .

"I always figured about (the f-word) in your act, if you're going to say it, say it, and mix in enough bright words where they don't think 'Well, this guy doesn't have a sense of vocabulary.'

"I think that sometimes confuses people about me. They think, 'Well, this guy is reasonably well-spoken, yet he chooses to say (the f-word) a lot.' To me, that's unimportant.

"It's a good word--it's a good comedy word. It's got that 'k' in it. A lot of my act is built on aggression and articulating some sort of angst , and it seems to be a good rhythm word for me. I try not to be gratuitous with it, but when I'm on a rant about something, I don't mind putting it in."

A native of Pittsburgh, Miller decided he wanted to try his hand at stand-up there, which meant the usual first step of performing at an open-mike night, but he quickly found . . .

("My whole life, I was afraid to be on that stage. ")

. . . that it was much easier decided than done.

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