Five miles away, on the second floor of the massive CBS television complex in Hollywood, another funny man in flannel shirt and jeans stares at me across a desk. But Dennis Miller, the cerebral edge-meister who made a name for himself as the caustic newsman on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” is clearly a man of irony, not love.
“Did you see the sign on the door?” he chuckles when I bring up the name Morey Amsterdam. He walks me back to the entrance and points out the name he had installed there.
I retake my seat wondering if this is blasphemy or reverence. Or, knowing Miller’s caustic style, both.
Ward has sent me here. He is pals with a guy named Kevin Rooney, a former stand-up comic who is head writer for Miller’s brand-new HBO show, “Dennis Miller Live.” He, in turn, got me in to see Miller who, after “SNL,” tried a late-night talk show, but it died. In the past two years he’s grown a beard and honed his irreverent attitude.
“How is this show going to be different?” he grinned to the audience in the opening monologue of his first show for HBO. “Let me count the f— ways.”
Now, he resettles himself behind his desk and listens as I grope painfully for the meaning of comedy. He can’t believe my first question.
“Why is somebody funny?” he grimaces. “I mean why is somebody blond? Why is Joe Montana a genius quarterback?”
I rally with a probing question about the f-word approach to comedy that Morey so vehemently dislikes. He half laughs.
“Comedy is an ‘I’ll-take-you-there art,’ ” he says. “I like it when somebody grabs me and leads me along for an hour by the scruff of my neck.”
He means it literally. A dozen years ago in his early days as a stand-up comedian in New York, when he held a day job as a rental-car clerk, he had to play a comedy club at 4:30 one morning. The entire audience consisted of a lone guy at a front table. The sadistic club owner insisted Miller go on anyway, and kept peeking through the door from the adjacent barroom to make sure he was on stage.
“Halfway through the act I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ ” Miller says. “So I get the guy to go along with me, and I get a butter knife and I put it to his throat. I drag him out into the bar and I shout, ‘Don’t anybody move or I’ll kill the audience.’ ” He then prodded the man into a cab at knife point and the two of them rode off, laughing like crazy.
“I think you’re kind of an animal up there,” he says. “It’s very primal. I mean, I was a shy boy. I was like everykid. And it’s very liberating up there. I’m sort of a wise ass-up there, but a wise-ass who looks like he’s in control of being a wise-ass. A quirk of my mind allows me to mix up arcane references with colorful language and some sort of angry, cathartic point of view. And the blend works for our time.”
He catches himself. “No, it doesn’t work across the board, but when people pull up to my pump, they know what octane it’s gonna be,” he says. “I mean it’s comedy. How dare they tell me I can’t say f– in my act. If somebody gets hung up on that . . . I mean, it’s Morey Amsterdam. He’s a sweet guy, I’ve met him. But, in all aspects, our culture has taken its tuxedos off.”