AT PIER SIX: TWO KINDS OF COMEDY Sardonic Dennis Miller employs verbal humor to comment on society


To Dennis Miller, America is a pretty uptight place. People all want you to think like they do, says the inherently cynical comic.

"Yeah, it just seems to me to be a place where the oft-used phrase is 'politically cor ect,' " Mr. Miller said in a telephone interview last week from Vancouver, British Columbia, where he was vacationing with his wife, model Ali Espley, his 13-month-old son Holden and his in-laws. "There's a politically correct way to think, and if you deviate from that then, it's not quite McCarthyism, but . . ."

You can probably count on the former "Saturday Night Live Weekend Update" anchorman to find plenty of examples of this uptightness Thursday night when he appears with Howie Mandel at the Pier Six Concert Pavilion, a show he classifies as "180 degrees of comedy."

"Between the two of us, we've got all the bases covered," said the comedian. "I'm a little more sardonic than Howie, a little less crowd-oriented and a little more verbally inclinated. Howie is more physical than me."

So how did the two come to work together?

"He's a nice guy," the comedian said, "and as you get older you look for somebody nice to travel with. He's a pleasant chap and we're pretty different in our approaches to comedy."

The Dennis Miller you'll find on stage Thursday, though, will be the same smarmy jerk who hated everybody while on "Weekend Update" and the same stylish, overly self-confident quipster you saw on his two HBO comedy specials.

"I think with the 'Weekend Update' position, I could have been a nice guy. Then I probably would have been off the air in a year. I saw enough nice guys get taken out, so I try to be a bit of a cynic up there," he said.

(But, Dennis, didn't you say Howie is a nice guy?)

Anyway, Mr. Miller said the jokes he tends toward are ones that are verbal, with a lot of intricate wording. "The primal directive is funny. I don't like to tell jokes that are 'think pieces' too much; I like to make people laugh."

Primal directive?

This intricate wording is as much a trademark for Dennis Miller as his smugness. An avid reader of everything, especially non-fiction, like magazines and newspapers, he is never at a loss for just the right word to get the job done.

And if you ask him what one word describes him right now, he'll answer, "Terrified."

That's because the comedian, having left his cushy position on "SNL," is preparing for the new challenge of hosting the "Dennis Miller Show," his syndicated late-night talk show to air in January.

For the veteran comic, who originated his career in his native Pittsburgh, it's something like that summer of nervous apprehension between high school graduation and the first year of college.

"I'm scared s---less," Mr. Miller said, laughing. He said that the new show will be faithful to the standard format for television talk shows -- he'll have a desk, maybe a sidekick, three or four guests a night and a monologue that will probably be akin to the "Weekend Updates."

As a host, Mr. Miller said he's going to try to relax to the point where he can be entirely himself. "Johnny [Carson] is textbook, but I hope not to be influenced by anybody. I've got to be true to my own self.

But he said he's also thrilled by the challenge. "I've been [at 'SNL'] for a long time, I had a great gig and this came up. It seemed like an opportunity that doesn't present itself too frequently in your life, so I opted to take it. It doesn't reflect any disillusionment with 'SNL'; I loved it there, but I guess I'm 38 now and it's time to move on."

"At some point, man is like a striving creature," he added. "I wanted to see what other talents I had, so I decided this was the shot."

In the meantime, he's doing what he does best -- stand-up comedy. Besides working with Mr. Mandel, later this year he'll probably tape another HBO special and do some dates with deadpan comedian Stephen Wright.

But even though he may write "comedian" on his tax forms, he's quick to point out that it's just a job, and when he goes on vacation, he really goes on vacation.

"Well, to be honest, when I get off for the summer, I don't read the news that much," explained the performer, whose material is mostly topical. "I mean, I wrote that thing ['Weekend Update'] every week, and it got pretty draining; you have to really submerse yourself in the news for nine months of the year. I'm just like everybody else in the off-season -- I just read USA Today."

What else do you do?

"I like to travel, play bad golf, play bad tennis, watch movies." What? Dennis Miller is a regular guy with a job.

"I don't find showbiz that important in the overall scheme of things," he said. "It's a nice job, and I'm appreciative that I'm in it, but, really, does anybody completely define themselves through their jobs? I don't. I'd rather be a good dad."

Miller, Mandel at Pier Six

Comedians Howie Mandel and Dennis Miller will be appearing at the Pier Six Concert Pavilion at 8 p.m. Thursday. Tickets are $25 for reserved seats and $19.50 for the lawn. Call 625-1400 to charge tickets or 625-4230 for more information.

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