Dan Patrick shares a thermos with Dennis Miller
Comedian Dennis Miller is in his first season with ABC's Monday Night Football broadcast team. A condensed version of this interview appears in the Oct. 2 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
DP: When you do stand-up you can gauge the audience. You can see them, and if you can't see them you can certainly hear them.
DM: I remember when I started out in comedy clubs I saw audiences laughing at starving Ethiopian jokes, you know? Kids on in front of me. I used to stand in the wings and go, "What, they're my litmus test?" I do what I do. And, you know, hopefully some people come along for the ride. I've winnowed my audience down to a jaded circle.
DP: But will you gauge how Al and Dan react?
DM: How to make Al and Dan laugh? More Al right now, because Dano, I don't want him to go up in smoke -- because somebody's got to hold on and steer the damn ship.
DP: So you take great delight in seeing cool-under-fire Al Michaels...
DM: Yes. I like to get Al going. ... I do think he's the pre-eminent play-by-play man of our generation. ... Though when I first started talking to him I thought, "God, this guy's got such a wellspring of knowledge." He likes arcane stuff too, and he's got a good mind for trivia and he's very quick and he's got a great laugh. And I just remembered thinking, "You know, I can make hay if I start trying to destroy him on air when it doesn't matter." When the game is afoot, stay out of the way. When there's lulls, I think people like hearing Al kind of laughing and calling me "babe." I said listen, you've got to keep that "babe" thing up. Like the Rat Pack.
||I was (guzzling) water because it was so hot in the booth, and I thought, 'Oh, I'll just go hit a bathroom.' And they say, 'There's no bathroom on this floor.' I go, 'What, are you kidding me?' ”
DP: If you're the Rat Pack, what's that make you?
DM: Well, I always liked Dino. Al's Frank and Dano is...
DP: Is he Sammy Davis?
DM: Yes, I guess Sammy at this point. But I always liked Dino. ... People always ask what comedian you pattern yourself after. I don't really have a comedian, but I always did like the way Dean Martin was on television. He was sort of that laissez-faire thing. He used to make me laugh. And I hope to gravitate more towards that as the season goes. And I don't mean an indifference. I think right now I have to learn a lesson that less is more. ... I'm not just yakking to yak when I say that's why you do a few of these games to learn how to do it.
DP: I saw some quotes that you're going to pull back 10 to 15 percent.
DM: If I said five things, I'll try to say four. You know, it's that simple. But the tenor of it I like. ... I am reverential towards people who put their life on the line. ... People can talk about, you know, F1 drivers. It's the same thing. ... So I am reverential towards those guys. Not about their day-to-day lives. Some of them lead idiot lives, it seems to me. But on the field, I'm not going to judge their courage. ... But I'm disdainful about certain things that don't make sense to me. For example, the ground can't cause a fumble. You know, I've been accepting that for years and finally I watched a guy get creamed the other night. Just flung up into the air and he hits the ground and fumbles -- and somebody goes that can't be a fumble and you go, well, why?
DP: Yes, but you can lead the crusade now. You have the pulpit.
DM: I'd like to. That's going to be my cause. ... "The ground can't cause a fumble" is one of the stupider things I've ever heard.
DP: What else bothers you with the game?
DM: The replay. I don't like the replay. I don't think it should be perfect. I get enough perfect pain-in-the-ass things in my life. ... I don't need it calibrated. It's not a science. Yes, refs screw up. Players screw up. I screw up. I just hate it when they take four minutes over at that little booth. It just interrupts the thing. I don't watch it for perfection. I watch it for the flow. I watch it for ... the combat. I don't watch it for a guy to go over into Buckminster Ford booth and lick the protractor. You know, just make a call. ... Half the time when they go over to the booth and they come back with a decision, it shocks you even more that they didn't overturn it. ... I just want the game to flow.
Over-celebrating in the first period. That's another thing that drives me crazy. You know, I think about Robert Jones in the Super Bowl last year. ... He's a really solid pro and he seems to go about his business and I think, what if Robert Jones spends a lot of the first period of that game doing the Celine Dion thing and pounding the chest and getting all (over-excited) -- what if he just has one less British thermal unit of energy? You know, one less caloric unit to expand at the end of the game. Does Dyson beat him into the end zone? You know what I mean? Why the over-celebration if for no other pragmatic reason than to store energy units so you can use them later in the game. It seems silly to me.
||A lot of players have seen horrific things happen on the field and I assume that they're forming a prayer circle saying, 'Hey, thank you for letting me walk out of this not crippled.' ... Grim things happen out there and I guess when they're finished they want to thank God that they got out alive. ”
DP: What do you think about prayer on the field?
DM: I don't judge it. You know, I don't even notice it. The game's over -- they can set up a Tiki god out there. ... I'm not going to start questioning people. ... I look at Reggie White. He seems like a nice man to me. ... I don't quite understand some of the things he says, but I don't ever question his fervency. When they kneel down at the end of the game, I think, listen, a lot of them have seen horrific things happen on the field and I assume that they're forming a prayer circle saying, "Hey, thank you for letting me walk out of this not crippled." ... Grim things happen out there and I guess when they're finished they want to thank God that they got out alive.
DP: You don't pattern yourself after another comedian, but do you pattern yourself after other broadcasters?
DM: Not yet. I'm still trying to work my thing out. I think Madden's great. You know, I have always liked John Madden. ... He seems like an amiable bloke. You know, he's a common man who has two floors in the Dakota. I always loved that. The Everyman.
DP: Growing up you had to admire broadcasters.
DM: I liked Ray Scott. You know, he was like Hemingway to me. I liked that Morse code sort of thing because it fit the times ...and Hilgenberg. Yes, he did Packer games, but you'd hear they'd always seem to be against those guys, you know, in frozen ground and he was great. He's like Johnny Most. That's my favorite caller for when Dave Bing went over to the Celtics and he'd take the corner jumper and Most would say, "Bing-bang." He was so minimalist. He was beautiful. And I always liked Grey Scott. And I used to like Al Derigotis and Curt Gowdy.
DP: Do you have to prove anything when you do this?
DM: It's a bump in the night. I do it for a year and they'll know. If there's a little bit of ratings increase or a nicer demographic and if people don't hate me ... there's a bunch of owners out there that'll probably make a decision on me at some point. I'm going to treat this as an interesting four-months sojourn and hope I do it well -- and I think they'll keep me. And if I don't, I move on and you know, quite frankly, I have a great job at HBO.
So that kind of takes a lot of the onus off. I don't have to be great even. I just think I have to be amiable. I think I have to not screw up people's Monday nights. ... And then I have a pleasant surprise if I'm suitably reverential about the game and have a modicum of insight and an occasional witticism. They go, "I kind of like the guy." The games in the last few years seem, you know, just cut and dry. I don't ever want to say bland because, you know, it's hard to do. I'm not going to judge anybody who does it now because I see how hard it is to do. But if you can just make it a little more pleasurable than it has been, I think they'll keep you because, quite frankly ... more power to the next guy if they whack me because I want to just see him before he goes in that booth the first time. Talk about Das Booth. ... I thought this booth would be cool for some reason -- like I thought it would be expansive, but it's like a Russian boiler room. .... It's a thousand degrees, I've got eight voices in my ear and the crowd's screaming up at you.
||I think I have to not screw up people's Monday nights. ”
DP: What was the biggest adjustment of being in the booth?
DM: Peeing in the thermos jug. I was just (guzzling) water because it was so hot in the booth, and I thought, "Oh, I'll just go hit a bathroom." And they say, "There's no bathroom on this floor." I go, "What, are you kidding me?" Where are we playing here? It's a high-school stadium. They don't have a bathroom. The next thing I know I'm on the air whizzing in a thermos jug. I'm thinking, "This is so surreal." If anybody knew -- then I'm literally talking about Kevin Falk. ... I talked to Seinfeld. He said, the jokes, you know, comedians don't laugh all that much at jokes. They sort of dissect them afterwards, so Jerry said, "I think you were good, but when you would make me laugh the most is when you'd say something like, 'You've got to wrap up on him.' When you tried to talk football talk." That's when he was falling over and laughing so hard. "Wrap him up."
DP: No arm tackling.
DM: Yes. Stuff like that, when I'm trying to play Pop Warner.
DP: Did Al have a problem with the thermos? When you were peeing in the bottle?
DM: No, I don't care. He's got a lot of fish to fry.
DP: Well, he must be a professional if he didn't even -- he probably didn't notice it?
DM: He'd kind of turn around -- and it's not like I'm doing a table dance whizzing while I'm trying to announce a game, you know? But you can't leave the booth. I told him, "Give me a bigger thermos jug. What is this, target practice in here?"
DP: You need a catheter.
DP: Do you think that you'll change Al and Dan more than they'll change you?
DM: I hope to embellish them. I certainly think they'll ... teach me how to be a professional in the booth. I don't feel like a professional yet.
DP: Do you want to?
DM: Yes, a little bit. Yes, because there's going to be games where the worst sin I could commit is to not be on the train as it pulls out of the station. I love pro football ... at it's best, if you're in the middle of that throwing knock-knock jokes ... you'd better get on the train. And I want to be a pro at that point. I want to be deft, you know?
DP: Was there a part of you that was afraid to get this job?
DM: There was a part of me that was shocked. You know, it was one of those things where I thought I'd dine out on the story for awhile, and like so many things in life it sort of starts to snowball and, you know, there comes a point where you literally -- the light bulb goes off and you think, "You know, I might get this."
DP: But the ego in you wants to show you can do it, doesn't it? But then when you get it you're saying, "Oh, my God, now what did I get myself into?"
||You've got to be there (for your kids). So when they say, 'Let's make pipe bombs now, dad,' you go, 'No, we're not going to make any pipe bombs.' ”
DM: Listen, I'm still in the honeymoon stage. I still love that I've gotten it, you know? It blows my mind that I got it. I mean I can't even imagine who tried out for this.
DP: What do your kids say? Because they don't watch you on HBO.
DM: No. ... My one son only says, "Why can't I watch your HBO show?" And I say, "Because I swear." He says, "Well, you tell me not to swear. Why do you swear?" ... And I go, "You know, son, it's an edgy, opinionated show." He looks at me -- yes, you'd never realize how hollow those words are until you say them....
DP: To your kids.
DP: When you were at the Hall of Fame, from what I was told, you could name the Hall of Famers when they were coming out. You knew...
DM: I know them all.
DP: You know the game.
DM: You know what? ... I know the history of the game. I know the statistics of the game and I have a layman's grasp on the ebb and flow of the game. I don't know the game yet. I hope to know the game. I think in the meantime there's a place for me to query, to take a stab at something, to be a different voice in a booth, to make a joke. But when I talk to Danny and he starts pointing stuff out to me ... It would be like me taking Dan to the Improv and saying, "Go do a seven-minute set." I know the intricacies of that. ... Somebody told me that people were saying I gush too frequently, but I remember sitting in on a thing with Jeff Fisher in this room and he was telling us ... that there's five points used so you don't fumble a ball, and I was fascinated by that.
DP: Are you too smart for this job?
DM: No. You know, you boil my act down, you really look at it ... it's not exactly Steven Hawking over here.
DP: Are you too obtuse for the job?
DM: You never know that. You know, I'm amazed people didn't know Sylvia Plath. The furor that's caused by that. I just think...
DP: Did you read "The Bell Jar"?
DP: You just know who Sylvia...
DM: I just know the name. ... I guess maybe culturally I have my antennae set a little high because I know I make my living off it, but stuff like that just sticks in my head. It didn't seem like that out there a thing, you know. ... When I started I used to have a rhythm to my act where whenever I'd get stuck, I'd think, "indignation -- what am I? -- arcane reference." It's like my equation. My whole act at the beginning.
DP: That's your security blanket.
DM: I'd go, "What about getting cut off on the freeway. What am I? Shirley Churchill Muldowny?" You know, it was my whole act. And so I'd start logging these things in ... like I remember I heard ... somebody used the phrase "tabla rosa." It means the slate is wiped clean, and I remember thinking, "tabla" -- that's a beautiful word. I should use that somewhere.
DP: Who do you think would make a better quarterback, Gore or Bush?
DM: I'm not sure either one of them would have to wear a helmet because there's nothing to protect in there. ... I know that Gore seems like such a great guy when they showed that film about him, and Bush, I've met his father once and his father seemed like one of the most honorable men I had encountered.
Now maybe you're just blown away that you're meeting the president, but I was with him for a couple of hours that night at a dinner and I just thought, you know, this guy's cool -- and he obviously thinks the world of his son. And I look at both of them and I think they're probably great guys. Guys you want to hang out with. They've only committed one sin. They've got past the Peter Principle like art orphans on the Bonneville salt flat. That's all I'm saying. They're not presidential and so I have to poke fun at them, you know. Maybe quarterback would be about as far as they should go, you know.
||Bush and Gore are kind of like third-string quarterbacks. ”
DP: Not coach?
DM: No, they're kind of like ... third-string quarterbacks.
DP: Do NFL players have an image problem?
DM: You know, they've got a dual-pronged problem. I think that when you get that many young men in that demographic with that visibility there's going to be problems. You take any group. How many players are on a team -- 50, let's say roughly, and 31 teams. You're talking about, let's say, 1,500 men from the age of 21 and over you're going to have carousing problems. Some of those are going to lapse into serious weirdness. Some of the violent crimes we see. Let's face facts. We're all astounded on a nightly basis from all factions of life about the violence in this world. I don't know if it's the end or whatever, but you just shake your head. So, listen, I think you've got as much image problem as the globe has right now. To me, the planet's got an image problem.
DP: Where do you weigh in on the World Wrestling Federation. Do you let your kids watch?
DM: You know, I take my boys to a couple of those and ... I'm like most parents. Haven't you done things with your kids, and you think, "Oh God, I shouldn't have done this, but it's too late." So you cover his eyes, you take him out, you know. Some of it's audacious and I don't know quite what to do. ... The thing I try to remember as a parent is that you don't let the kid go in a room for eight hours alone doing his stuff. It has to be a thing that's identified with parents. You know, if your dad's right there next to you, they kind of get it, you know what I mean. I don't take them a lot but once in a while they watch wrestling and they like it. But I try to watch it with them so they know it's a sanctioned thing in a way. The danger to me seems like when your kids are spending 12 hours a day building pipe bombs in the garage and you never come down the Bat pole and say, "What's up?" You know, that's -- you've got to be there. So when they say, "Let's make pipe bombs now, dad," you go, "No, we're not going to make any pipe bombs."
DP: What would the conversation be between you and Rush Limbaugh in the booth?
DM: Well, you know, I listen to Rush Limbaugh. I find him spot on in a lot of things, and then in certain things I find him completely infuriating -- you know, when he goes on after something like Columbine. I don't know about you. I watch Columbine, and you're just like, I don't know if I can function. It's just so dispiriting and it's so sad.
DP: I was on the radio while it was unfolding and you don't want to do radio. You kind of want to go home and grab your kids and...
DM: And then I hear him not even taking an interim day or two to get off the gun thing, you know. That's why I disagree. There are certain common-sense things. I believe, like he does, that there's a certain self-determination in the world. ... I think, you know, there are people who could use a kick in the ass. I mean, you know, they always tell you that you have to discipline your children. But then when we go to discipline people in this world who seem to deserve discipline everybody says no. ... I hate people who cheat on the dole because I think they screw the people who need it. There's a whole bunch of people out there who need more than we're giving them. You know, you see the funds that people are given and you think, they have to live on that? That's wrong. And you know why it's wrong? Because there are a bunch of jerk-offs out there who are cheating just a little to take it out of the fatherless child's mouth -- and that bugs me. And when I hear Rush say that we've got to get people to be more self-determined, I think, yes, you do. This coddling of everybody in the world isn't working.
DM: I think the greatest athlete I've ever seen is Tiger Woods, and ... I often hear Ohlmeyer say, "Is it a sport or is it a knack" -- which is an interesting question (about) golf.
DP: I've heard it called a knack.
DM: Yes, I love that phrase. ... He says knack and I think, God, that really nails it -- what some people think about golf, that it's a knack. And I think that's a neat way of putting it, but having said that, I think it's a knack that seems so hard to master, there's almost like a Zen control about Tiger. You know, the ability to swing like that and stay controlled fascinates me. I think he's the greatest -- I always thought Michael Jordan was, and he replaced Roberto Clemente for me. But I think the greatest athlete I've ever seen is Tiger. I'm just blown away by what he does. And I love the way he handles himself. It's the whole package. Can you imagine going through that when you're that age? He's had so few slip-ups. You know what I mean? He's the man.
DP: He's getting advice from Jordan as well.
DM: I love that he's the only guy on the planet who can make Jordan wish he was somebody else. You know Jordan sits home, (thinking), "I wish I was that kid." Because you know he loves golf. But he's like an 80.
DP: I know. Michael keeps lying about his handicap.
DP: Dumbest sport.
DM:Curling. It's like Shirley Booth on methamphetamines. It must be a really sad day in a Canadian boy's life when they say, "You know that great, glamorous sport (hockey) that our whole culture evokes? You can't do it." The same ice that they play that exciting sexy game on, you've got to sweep it. "Do I get to wear a uniform?" Nah, kid, just sweats.