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Miller's debut not bad

[AP photo]
Dennis Miller's debut on Monday Night Football may not win over the American public right away, but it was a start.


Revised August 9, 2000

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 1, 2000

The night's best news was the willingness of my kids to turn off the Cartoon Network so I could watch the debut of the new Monday Night Football crew.

The second-best news was the kids left the room before Dennis Miller used the word genitalia at 7:11. After quickly determining I didn't have to go into an hourlong explanation, I laughed at the reference to New England running back J.R. Redmond's groin surgery because it was genuine.

Such real moments of humor comprised the best parts of ABC's grand experiment with Miller, who joined play-by-play man Al Michaels and Dan Fouts to broadcast the New England-San Francisco NHL preseason game from Canton, Ohio. In a production littered with technical gaffes and inauspicious efforts by sideline reporters Eric Dickerson and Melissa Stark, Miller came off as credible.

And that had to be the goal on this premiere.

There were times when his jokes seemed too rehearsed, his statistical references too stiff. But when his delivery was natural and his observations well-placed, you could envision Miller being part of the ABC crew for a long time.

For now, I'm not convinced having a comedian serve as an analyst is better than having an analyst who can cull humor from the game. But at the same time, Miller did not turn in an abominable performance that doomed his chances of winning over the American public.

Yes, the genitalia reference was a little too adult, and his description of Canton as "the Tigris and Euphrates" of football was just one of many times he was too cerebral. Miller also used "collegial" and "Socratic."

Honey, where's the dictionary?

But Miller did display a decent grasp of the game. He erred when he said New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe had been sacked 54 times "last night" instead of last season. But his praise of Patriots running back Kevin Faulk rang true when Faulk scored the night's first touchdown on a dynamic catch and run.

Later, Miller's insistence that the Patriots need to get quarterback Michael Bishop on the field on a regular basis proved valid when he scored on an athletic option keeper.

Miller was at his best, however, with laugh-out-loud jewels that made this broadcast unlike any NFL network production.

Miller opened by saying that if anyone at the game was more pumped up than him they would be in violation of the league's drug policy.

When Michaels asked in the first quarter: "What in the world is Lawyer Milloy doing playing on special teams on July 31?" Miller retorted: "You know lawyers, they're getting paid by the hour."

In a political reference to convention coverage, Miller described the Republicans and Democrats as two 4-12 teams.

Miller struck again when going into the second half he said he had scripted his first 15 comments just like the 49ers coaches script their first 15 plays. I also didn't mind hearing him call the Budweiser blimp the HindenBud.

What was just as good as Miller's humor was the way Fouts and Michaels played off his comments. Both provided just the right touch, laughing when compelled or adding to Miller's initial observations with greater detail. Most important, you sensed they like Miller and have respect from what ABC is trying to accomplish.

If you don't think it's important for the announcers to get along, just ask former MNF analyst Boomer Esiason, who struggled to mesh with Dan Dierdorf and ultimately saw his prime-time gig end because he couldn't jell with Michaels.

For Miller to avoid a similar fate, he needs to hone a few things about his approach.

In the coming weeks, it would be nice if Miller stops talking about how awed he is by the speed of the game. We know Miller never played, but he doesn't have to wear that on his sleeve with golly-gee spiels.

Hidden in Miller's observation about scripting jokes is the essence of what he needs to be successful. Miller has to avoid the preplanned comments. Oh, he needs to prepare and make sure he's familiar with the teams, but if his knowledge is solid, his observations will surface without sounding like he stayed up all night practicing .

Honestly, how many hours of sleep did he lose figuring out how to turn Jeff Garcia's Canadian Football League days into a joke about NAFTA? Here's a hint: double-entendre jokes about names of players are going to fall flat.

His humor is best when it's snappy, direct and off the cuff. If Miller can capture that and maintain a reasonable understanding of the game, the new crew may prove to be at least a critical, if not a ratings, success.

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