From 1994 – 2002, one of HBO’s biggest programs was a Friday night talk show called Dennis Miller Live.
A forefather of shows like Real Time with Bill Maher and Last Week Tonight, it featured the acerbic Miller doing what other late night shows did – a monologue full of topical jokes and an interview with a guest – but also included a “rant” from the host and ended with the week in news being presented in photos with Miller adding jokes. The show ran for 215 episodes and was nominated for 11 Emmy Awards (winning five).
After the September 11th attacks in 2001, Dennis Miller became a staunch right-wing commentator and his show ended shortly thereafter. Some have speculated that this ideological turn was a convenient way for the previously liberal comedian to reinvent himself, but regardless of the reason, the fact is that Dennis Miller of today is a vastly different performer than the one from the HBO show.
I loved the show – even if I didn’t understand all of the obscure references – and, for me, the clear pinnacle of the show’s run was its hour-long special just before the year 2000. Billed as The Millennium Special – 1,000 Years, 100 Laughs, 10 Really Good Ones, it employed the premise that it had been on for the entirety of the millennium, highlighting ten jokes from the years 1000 – 1899, with Miller commenting on historical individuals and events such as William the Conqueror, Shakespeare, and the Boston Tea Party.
For the final century, it had the same format as the regular show, substituting weeks with decades, with Miller wearing the attire and implementing the lingo and mindset of those years (after a joke about Madame Curie winning the Nobel Prize instead of cooking her husband dinner elicited groans, Miller deadpanned, “Rather inappropriate reaction for the time, ladies“). Norm MacDonald’s appearances on the show had garnered attention because he kept referring to cock, so it’s natural that he was the guest for each era. Of course, he referenced cock every time.
Now, sixteen years later, it’s interesting to see where our culture was at the time. There are jokes that would never fly today – even on HBO – and a pre-9/11 arrogance underlies the entire affair, but there’s also just a feeling of fun. This was 1999, when the Internet was still largely an open range, without much restriction or guidance. Before triggers and smartphones and social media and the dominance of cable news.
It’s a talk show. It’s a sociopolitical show. But it’s also a hilarious comedy show. One of my favorites.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.