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Are you ready for some Dennis Miller?

Outrageous, yes. Funny? That's up to you. Ready or not, MNF gambles on the comedian.

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


A sports broadcast team unique in the history of network television makes it debut tonight on ABC.

Adding Dennis Miller to the Monday Night Football crew achieves that even before he hits the airwaves with on-air partners Al Michaels and Dan Fouts. People can draw comparisons with the MNF heyday when Howard Cosell and Don Meredith traded fire and Frank Gifford played peacekeeper, but Miller's choice is even more distinctive.

Like Cosell, Miller has never played football, but he'll try to end the comparisons there by bringing his own style to the show.

"I've never played the game, but certainly it's not like ... I'm on the medical channel with Denton Cooley," Miller told television critics in Pasadena, Calif., last week. "I can comment on a football game. You know, if somebody at home goes, "He never played,' well you know, a lot of people don't play the game. I watch football as much as anybody. I can comment on a team and tell them what I think are their strengths and weaknesses."

But when has there ever been a bona fide comedian in the broadcast booth? John Madden might say something to make you laugh, but he was never a regular on Saturday Night Live. Sure, maybe someone with Miller's wit made a guest appearance for a quarter or two, and ESPN experimented with various celebrities on Sunday Night Football one season. But this is entirely different. Miller will be on board for 18 games counting the playoffs.

Look at it this way: Before today, had you ever read a preview story on the broadcast of the Hall of Fame Game? Clearly, ABC's attempt to distinguish itself from all the other football broadcasts has worked, at least for now.

"You need to recognize that the viewer is smart, that the viewer is demanding and that the viewer has seen an awful lot of the same," producer Don Ohlmeyer said. "You've got to try to give him something that he will enjoy."

Is different better? That's the question we will try to answer this season. When referee Phil Luckett makes a bad call and Miller says, "Coach is thinking of a phrase that rhymes with Luckett," will we laugh or turn the sound down? When he makes a crack about the hairstyle of a player's wife, will we chuckle or chuck the remote at the TV?

The occasional barb will be part of Miller's approach, but Miller insists we can expect a lot more than just comic stylings.

"I just don't want to convey that I'm going to be the court jester out there," Miller said. "Because, indeed, football is ... a different arena. These people don't want me to be some manic jokesmith out there. I'm going to talk football.

"If I see a chance for a humorous shot, I'm going to take it here and there, but my prime directive is to be an integral member of a three-man group talking about a football game. I think I can do that."

Ohlmeyer is saying all the right things about tonight's production. It's a work in progress, it's the preseason, etc. But the truth is a lot of people will make up their mind about Miller and company right now. That's not fair, but that's reality.

What should the critical eye look for tonight? Miller has to begin building credibility. If he calls the New England quarterback Drew Brees instead of Drew Bledsoe, or wonders out loud "Why did Coach Carroll make that call?" he will instantly be on the slippery slope.

Second, he has to mesh with his colleagues, and vice versa. Not only is Miller trying to find a comfort level, but new sideline reporters Eric Dickerson and Melissa Stark are searching for a way to fit in. Whether it's Dennis Miller or Dennis the Menance, blending so many voices together will be no easy task. Everyone will have to be concise.

Finally, in the case of this predictable preseason snoozer, the focus has to stay on the game for at least the first half. The crew can't let Miller lead them too far afield. Ohlmeyer doesn't think that will happen.

"What we've tried to assemble is a group of people who have different skills, different life experiences," Ohlmeyer said. "(We've got) two Hall of Famers, we've got, I think, the best play-by-play announcer in the business.

"I think people will be surprised at (Dennis') knowledgeability in terms of football, and also what Dennis brings is he looks at life a little bit askew and he looks at football a little bit askew, and in Melissa we have a very experienced reporter. So we're trying to meld a team here. The five of them will add levity and fun to the telecast, but we're basically there to talk about football."

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