Where have you gone, Dennis Miller?

“I’ve never had a big approval rating . . . half the people like me, half hate me,” he said. “Listen, I’ve got a small list of monkey tricks. All I can do is do them, and hope to get paid.”

Published October 5, 2006

Dennis Miller in 1988: “Now let me get this straight: (George H.W.) Bush is anti-abortion, but pro-death penalty. I guess it’s all in the timing, huh?”

Dennis Miller in 2006: “If Bill Clinton were any more low rent, he’d be a spring break destination. . . . Asking (him) to write an honest book is like asking Ashlee Simpson to sing a cappella.”

For a longtime fanboy like yours truly, meeting Dennis Miller at this stage in

Dennis Miller appears at 8 tonight at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, $39-$75. He also appears at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Van Wetzel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota, $49-$59.

his career is a little like meeting an old college friend you haven’t seen in a decade or so.

Somewhere in there is the guy you used to like ferociously. But there sure is a lot of troubling stuff piled on top.
That reaction isn’t new to Miller, who says the fury of conservative critics is nothing compared with the drubbing he has taken from liberals for his post Sept. 11, 2001, support of George W. Bush and the Iraq war.

“The left gets much more (upset) than the right gets . . . they get crankier and angrier,” said Miller, who recently jumped back into providing weekly commentaries for Fox News Channel’s Hannity & Colmes show after a three-year break. “When I came out and said I was for our troops and our president, that really rankled some people. But what was I supposed to do? I’m 52 — am I supposed to go on TV and lie so I can stay in Rob Reiner’s party?”

Count me among the cranky. Like a lot of liberal fans, I fell hard for Miller’s oddball mix of intellectual references and street-wise patter, first as an up-and-coming stand-up comic in the ’80s and later as host  of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update news parody and his own acerbic talk show on HBO.

Best of all was the sense that he might take on any target at any time. Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich was just as fair game as Democratic President Clinton; hypocrisy was an enemy Miller skewered wherever it lay.
But these days, during his stand-up comedy tours, Miller’s barbs seem aimed mostly at one end of the political spectrum. Democratic strategist James Carville has “more nervous ticks than a Belfast parking valet,” while Democratic leader Harry Reid’s speeches are so boring “I keep expecting the team from CSI to run out and draw a chalk line around the podium.”

President Bush? Well, he mispronounces “nuclear” a lot.

“The beautiful thing about Bush is that you always know where you can find him,” Miller said. “That approval rating could go up to 70 or go down to zero, and he ain’t changing. . . . We’re in a war on terror, he knows it, and he’s willing to let everybody hate him, but he’s going to do what he feels he has to do.”

Miller’s new shtick was born of his fears after the terror attacks of 9/11. Convinced that a strong hand was needed to counter the terrorist threat, the comic became an unabashed Bush supporter and has stuck to his guns through the rising death toll in Iraq, the secret CIA prisons abroad and other controversial measures undertaken to prosecute the war on terror.

For Miller, questions about civil liberties and tactics are a sign of weakness America can no longer afford (a question from me about sinking to the terrorists’ level earns the rejoinder, “What are we going to do — make you secretary of defense?”).

“If you really think terrorism is out to drop a nuclear dime on us, you’d better get behind the guy who is most prone to stop that,” he said. “We’re in a fight now; we have to kill them where we can, when we can. The option of us getting killed is worse news to me than anything else.”

Perhaps the truest measure of Miller’s talent is his ability to make such topics seem funny from the stage. And, just like his hero in the Oval Office, he is willing to lose a few fans in the process.

“I’ve never had a big approval rating . . . half the people like me, half hate me,” he said. “Listen, I’ve got a small list of monkey tricks. All I can do is do them, and hope to get paid.”

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.