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Hall of Fame debut

Miller works in NFL announcing debut

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Latest: Tuesday August 01, 2000 11:24 AM

  Although the Patriots and 49ers kicked off the new season of Monday Night Football, the majority of attention was focused on the booth for Dennis Miller's debut. AP

By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated

CANTON, Ohio -- This was big. Bigger than Weekend Update. Way bigger than mere HBO.

This was Monday Night Football. This was Dennis Miller. This was the coming-out party for the oddest pairing in show biz since Julia Roberts' fling with Lyle Lovett.

Pity the poor San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots, who were forced to carry on with their meaningless little exhibition opener while they secretly longed to know what Miller was ranting about in the booth.

Would the notorious fast-talker stumble and choke on his words as Al Michaels' ego sucked all the oxygen from the air in the booth? Would he foolishly try to match beards with lumberjack Dan Fouts and come up more than a few whiskers short?

You have to admit, ever since ABC producer Don Ohlmeyer rolled the dice and went with the Sultan of Snide, believing Miller had the best chance to make Monday Night Football fun again, we've all been harboring the same curiosity:

What would it sound like? What would it look like? As a genre, how would his wise-ass schtick play to a national TV audience conditioned in recent years to the geriatric ramblings of Frank Gifford, the bombast of Dan Dierdorf or the mostly innocuous banter of Boomer "I fought The Al and The Al won" Esiason?

The knee-jerk reaction before July is even gone?

It's Miller's time. I don't want to get started on a rant here, but the guy was good. Monday nights suddenly have a chance to be a lot less mundane.

Personally, I started out skeptical. I wondered about the confinement issue. Give Miller a chair on wheels, a pencil and paper as props, and a ersatz news desk to station himself behind and his brand of slightly hyper, can't-sit-still energy kept things bouncy on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update.

Give him his own stage to roam, a navy blue double-breasted blazer, plenty of pockets to thrust his hands in and out of, and a trusty TelePrompTer and Miller's shtick on HBO made for a peppy half-hour.

But three-plus hours in a booth with Al and Dan? When it's 37-10? And he can't even bail himself out with a well-placed curse word?

What's a comic to do?

Taking away Miller's on-screen ability to shrug his shoulders, wag his head and scrunch his face up into a smirk, all of which set up that now-famous cackle, is like tying one comedic arm behind his back.

Won't work, babe. Or at least I thought. Miller had staying power.

Instinctively, I found myself rooting for Miller on Monday night. The same way you develop sympathy for the freak in the freak show. No, he's not the purist choice for the Monday Night booth. But face it, Monday Night Football left the purist behind in favor of entertainment decades ago.

There's nothing harder in the world than being funny on command, with no prepared material, and for that reason I wanted Miller to hit all the right buttons in his debut. Take that Rush Limbaugh fans. Your guy, as it turns out, was too safe.

It's not really fair to offer instant analysis on the guy who's giving instant analysis for the first time, but Miller was on his game. He set just the right tone early on, telling viewers in the pregame chatter that he'll stay flippant, but within bounds.

"I know a lot of you people think I won't take this seriously," Miller said. "But I just want you to know it is a game, but I also realize it's a game many of you take seriously. It's not the Vatican, but then again, the pope doesn't have to go across the middle on guys like Ronnie Lott very frequently."

Miller also scored with lines that sounded like they were right out of his stand-up act. San Francisco quarterback Jeff Garcia was "the NAFTA quarterback. A Canadian import with a Mexican-sounding name." Mentioning Patriots running back J.R. Redmond's absence due to "minor groin surgery," Miller did not disappoint.

"I'm not sure there's such a thing as minor groin surgery," Miller said. "Anyone has a sharp instrument around my genitalia, I'm thinking it's major."

And on the stripped-down 49ers defense, which ranked last in the league in 1999: "If you want to put somebody in the federal witness protection program, you might put them on the 49ers defense right now."

After the game Ohlmeyer said that he liked his new product.

"We had some rough spots, but overall it was a good start," he said. "I was really pleased with our announcers for the first game. I thought Eric and Melissa had a nice debut, and the trio in the booth has a chance to be something special."

Michaels noted in the second half there had been no need to use the censor button. Whether Miller's MNF schtick -- toned down in terms of language and pace, but still obscure at times -- works with viewers will be judged by the show's ratings. This first game's Nielsen numbers should be released Tuesday.

Miller, whose next test comes at the Aug. 14 preseason game between the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans, even unveiled what he said could be used as a wrapup line when a game's outcome is no longer in doubt.

"Start blow-drying Teddy Koppel's hair, 'cause this one's done," Miller said, referring to the host of ABC's Nightline. After laughs from Fouts and Michaels, Miller continued, "Actually, I used the Ouija board on that one. ... He hasn't been called Teddy since he was an embryo."

Michaels summed the broadcast up a few seconds later, addressing Miller with, "It's like you won a prize to a fantasy announcing camp, isn't it?"

Miller had some typical opening-night blunders. But most were associated with timing and getting used to the ebb and flow of a telecast. He verbally stepped on his booth-mates at times, talked over referee Johnny Grier's open mike, and got caught in mid-sentence as Michaels was throwing it to sideline reporter Melissa Stark.

He credited Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe with 55 sacks "last night" when he meant last season, and said New England coach Bill Belichick was "wrapped tighter than an expectant father's watch" when he probably meant wound tighter.

But we quibble. On the whole, Miller's observations were wry, on target and very well-informed in terms of football-ese. When he mused that there was something inherently wrong about Canton's Fawcett Stadium not having grass, given the city being identified as the birthplace of football, it rang true.

But in an unscientific pregame poll of about three Hall of Fame Game fans, Miller's arrival on the Monday Night Football scene was greeted with mixed reviews.

"I think it's a cool way for them to maybe get some new viewers," said Ron Quinn, of Canton. "But let's see what he does. I know they've got a lot of money bet on how he does. Face it, they're still trying to replace Howard [Cosell]."

True enough. Cosell's love-him-or-loathe-him quality has never been replaced in the MNF booth, and Miller just might have a shot to be such a lightening rod. With any luck.

"Monday Night Football's going downhill and they're trying to save it by putting a clown in there to boost the ratings," said Earl Fry, of southern Ohio. "But I don't like it. I don't like the way he cusses unnecessarily. I figure some Monday night he's going to use some word he shouldn't. They probably should have a seven-second delay for him."

Now when's the last time anyone said that about Frank Gifford?

Related information
"Monday Night Football" announcers
The Hot Button: Gambling on Monday Night Football
Life of Reilly: Let the Rants Begin
ABC's Miller to make long-anticipated debut
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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