Today is Dennis Miller’s 61st birthday, and chances are, if you’ve seen him lately, it’s on Fox News, where he agrees with whatever Bill O’Reiily just said, while adding an obscure reference just to make sure we realize that he is, in fact, still Dennis Miller. These days, Miller — both on Fox News and on his radio show — mostly spouts right wing talking points. And while Miller saying things I may not agree with is not a major concern, what’s disappointing about the right-wing Miller of the present day is that he’s lost the objectivity — and the willingness to viciously skewer both sides — that made him so hilarious in the first place. Let’s look at just how Dennis Miller turned into a full-blown conservative.
Miller has claimed that his move to the right happened after 9/11, when the shock of the attacks changed his views on military policy, arguing that “everybody should be in the protection business now” in a 2004 New York Times article. Miller going all the way right really started with his eponymous CNBC show in 2004. Before it even aired he promised that he wouldn’t make fun of then-President George W. Bush on the show. Miller’s comedy was headed in a dangerous new direction. In the past, Miller had made fun of everyone and everything in politics, never placing his personal ideology ahead of a good joke. Now this same guy was publicly stating that he’d be giving the president a pass!
While Miller has certainly become more conservative over the years, the notion he was once liberal is highly dubious. Al Franken has said that while he worked with him on Saturday Night Live, Miller was conservative on many issues. And if you look back at some of his old clips from Dennis Miller Live, they hardly paint a picture of a bleeding heart leftist. Consider his rant about anti-smoking laws in the late ’90s:
This would seem to be a libertarian position more than anything else, as Miller argues not only that smokers were being judged too harshly, but that the lawsuits filed against tobacco companies at the time were excessive. If that doesn’t convince you, consider his rant against political correctness:
This was in the ’90s, when the “PC” movement had a major influence in society. Miller railing against it as he does here is hardly something one would expect from a liberal. Admittedly, comedians of all political persuasions tend be in favor of being able to joke about whatever they like, but Miller’s argument that jokes at the expense of homosexuals are ultimately not harmful is hardly something you’d expect a virulent left-winger to claim. Clearly, reports of Miller’s liberalism were greatly exaggerated.
But if Dennis Miler was never a liberal, how did we get the idea that he was one in the first place? That can likely be explained as a simple matter of timing. America first became acquainted with Miller’s sardonic humor as the anchor of SNL‘s Weekend Update segment, a position he held from 1985 to 1991. Think about those years for a second; what do they have in common? A Republican was in the White House for all of them. Miller anchored Update during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Naturally, this meant he made fun of them. A big part of comedy — especially political comedy — is to always go after those in power.
For the first six years that Miller was in the public eye, the country was run by Republicans, so he did his duty as a comic and poked fun at them. This didn’t necessarily mean he vehemently disagreed with their policies — long time SNL writer James Downey is a well-known Republican and that never stopped him from poking fun at the right — it simply meant that he was going to make fun of whoever was in charge. If we had gotten to know Miller during a time when the democrats were in charge, the notion that Miller was a liberal might have never existed in the first place.
This isn’t to say Miller hasn’t changed at all. What he’s lost over the years is nuance. In the past, regardless of Miller’s ideology, he mocked all aspects of politics with an equal of amount of vigor. These days, though, Miller mostly just parrots right wing talking points. 9/11 not only turned him into a warhawk, it also seemingly removed his righteous cynicism, which was a huge part of what made him so popular in the first place. Rather than looking at all sides of the political spectrum with equal skepticism, he accepts whatever the Fox News crowd is spewing in a given week as fact, and his comedy has suffered dearly for it. Today, on his birthday, I choose to remember Miller as the ultra-snarky host of Weekend Update and Dennis Miller Live, rather than the neutered “satirist” we know today.