How to Write a Dennis Miller Comedy Routine – In Just Five Minutes!
One of the rare things written for my university satirical rag that doesn’t inspire self-loathing shuddering upon rereading is a piece spotlighting the somewhat paint-by-numbers nature of Dennis Miller’s signature rants. The general reception at that time indicated that it (a) summed up his shtick accurately and (b) therefore ruined Dennis Miller for those who’d previously liked him. Fortunately, Dennis Miller himself has spent the ensuing decade and a half ruining Dennis Miller for those who’d previously liked him, thanks to an ill-advised stint commentating on Monday Night Football and a post-9/11 swing to the political right, where he was most recently spotted using his regular spot on The O’Reilly Factor to respond to Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. While this is as relevant as Miller gets these days, I’ll stretch the definition of the word in order to excuse reposting a slightly edited version of this piece on the grounds of topicality now.
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Hey, what’s up with that Dennis Miller guy?! We’ve all seen him now and then on his HBO show, shooting out obscure references and pop-culture allusions with the cocksure rapidity of a electric hot-air popcorn maker and thought, where’s my friggin’ biographical dictionary?!
Well, now you, too, can write and perform comedy routines just like Citizen Arcane himself! In pure, non-imitable Dennis style, set sail with the sentence, “Now, I don’t want to get off on a rant here, but …” Now proceed to rant about whatever topic you like (anything politically tinged is a good choice), and remember to swear every so often to indicate (a) your righteous outrage about the topic at hand and (b) that you’re on HBO. (What a liar Dennis is! He has every intention of ranting — it’s his bread and butter!)
To help set the tone and direction of your routine, keep in mind that Dennis is a libertarian, so while liberal enough in some respects, he does lean a little to the conservative side, particularly on economic and crime-and-punishment issues. So, while it’s not a big deal for the President to have smoked a little pot, in a perfect world it’d have been Ross Perot hitting the hookah.
First things first: Similes are the cornerstone of a Dennis Miller comedy routine. You can’t get away with simply saying “Rush Limbaugh is narrow-minded.” You’ve got to inject it with a little pizzazz because if Miller didn’t use legions of similes he’d really just be talking, rather than delivering a comedy routine. Let’s look at the art of the elaborate comparison as perfected by Dennis, the man who claims to have put the “smiles” back into “similes”.*
Take the simple sentence “X is good-natured.” Do a little free association: What else is good-natured? The late Mother Teresa, people in hot tubs, people with Prozac prescriptions, and Leave It to Beaver TV mom June Cleaver come to mind easily enough as potentially good-natured entities. Now put your adjective into its comparative form, and cram in as many of your free-association examples as possible. The result should be a sentence along the lines of “X is more good-natured than a Prozac-popping June Cleaver hot-tubbing with Mother Teresa.”
Another oft-used form of simile takes the form “X is so A, he/she makes Y look like Z” (where A represents a particular quality, Y is a person associated with that quality, and Z is a person who embodies the very opposite of that quality). Let’s say that A represents dim-wittedness. Free association time again: Who’s noted for this quality? Col. Klink of Hogan’s Heroes is appropriate, and also wins points not only for being a pop-culture reference, but for being a classic sitcom reference. For even more Miller points, refer to Klink by the name of the actor who portrayed him: Werner Klemperer. Now, who’s an intelligent person? Albert Einstein comes to mind — too easily, in fact. He’s not an obscure enough reference. Werner von Braun is not only smart but in fact the proverbial rocket scientist, so he’ll do fine. Now, applying our formula, we have the following sentence: “X is so dim-witted, he makes Werner Klemperer look like Werner von Braun.” Perfect!
Remember to utilize double meanings of words when constructing similes. For example, let’s say we’re talking about high university entry standards. The word “high” means not only “stringent,” but also “of elevated altitude,” and “under the influence of drugs.” Thus, “university entry standards are higher than a Sherpa jury panel at the all-Nepal hash-brownie bake-off.”
Let’s go back to our Rush Limbaugh example. Through a little free association, we can say that “Rush Limbaugh’s mind is narrower than Calista Flockhart performing an Olympic balance beam routine.” Alternatively, “Rush Limbaugh’s mind is so narrow it makes the crack in the Liberty Bell look like the Gobi desert.” Not bad at all, though either example might have been improved by referring to Charles Blondin, the French tightrope-walker who made the earliest crossing of Niagara Falls in 1859.
This ability to free-associate is key to writing a Dennis Miller comedy routine. Don’t worry about being too obscure; the audience will laugh even if they don’t get the jokes, just to avoid looking stupid. However, if you feel your general knowledge of politics, history, pop culture, and other related fields isn’t up to the task, a few well-chosen reference books will help immeasurably; even Dennis can’t possibly be making this stuff up off the top of his head, after all. In fact, Dennis has a few stock personalities he uses as the butt of jokes time and again when he gets stuck. Aside from the aforementioned obese, conservative political commentator/demagogue Rush Limbaugh, these include the following:
- Luciano Pavarotti, fat Italian tenor
- Strom Thurmond and Bob Dole, elderly American politicians
- Billy Idol, pop musician known for sexual and narcotic excesses
- Anna Nicole Smith, curvaceous, top-heavy model, bimbo, and gold-digger
- Dennis Rodman, flamboyant, gender-bending basketball rebounding champ noted for unusual hair colour
These are your crutches, direct to you from Dennis. Use them in good health.
Another thing to remember is to adapt proper nouns as verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions whenever possible. In fact, Miller’s addiction to overusing proper nouns is positively Douglas Coupland-esque.
Again, an ability to free-associate helps. If someone is stomping around in his Doc Martens in a manner reminiscent of Boris Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster, just say he’s Karloffing around. (But note that it’s never Boris Karloffing; Miller’s penchant for deliberate obscurity puts him on a first-name basis with most references — or last-name basis, as the case may be).
If something is big, it’s K2-sized (Note that it’s not Everest-sized, however; deliberate obscurity precludes the most obvious reference in favour of the runner-up).
Usage of metaphor helps greatly. If you’re referring to a “never ending parade” of something — say, accusations against the president — it’s a Möbius strip of accusations. (Miller may not like foreigners, per se, but he does like foreign words — the more obscure, the better. If you’re looking for plain English, you’ve come to the wrong place.)
To build a sense of camaraderie between yourself and your audience during your rant, periodically call them “folks,” “my friends,” or “my fellow Americans.” Hit the unfortunate targets of your ranting with a few appropriate nicknames; if you’re talking about hillbillies, for example, try “Jethro.” Occasionally throw in “Babe” or “Chi-chi”. This is just to be smug and cutesy, much like Miller’s patented smirk, preening hair-flip, and head-waggle.
At this point, you’ve got the basic rules down, so just repeat until you run out of material for your Miller pastiche, or until you’ve succeeded in getting Ross Perot elected president — whichever comes first. When you’re ready to wind up your rant, just hit ’em with your old catchphrase: “Of course, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.” You’re done! It’s that easy!
Now, let’s test all this out and see what Dennis might think of, say, Québec separatists (not much, one assumes, given his generally low opinion of the French):
Now I don’t want to get off on a rant here, but it’s obvious that this country is cleaving apart faster than Jon Bon Jovi’s split ends during the great hair conditioner embargo of ’88. Before the national-unity SWAT team brings me down, my friends, I’m gonna have to say that it’s high time la belle province and the R-O-C go see Wapner and get a Burt-and-Loni-style divorce, because there’s a rift in this nation like the Khyber Pass.
René Lévesque, an über-chainsmoker who made Mount St. Helen’s look like a Cub Scout campfire, blows onto the scene in ’70 with this sovereignty association idea, like a freshman who wants to move into his own bachelor pad but still score a care package from his parents every month. Can’t blame him, folks. Ever since, Québec has been gorging itself like Belushi in the cafeteria line in Animal House and spitting Bud the Spud back in our face, and we’ve been too scared shitless to do anything about it.
As long as the Québécois put on this show of feeling less welcome in Canada than Dennis Rodman at a Ku Klux Klan rally, they get to live off the fat of the rest of the land like Pavarotti suckling the rotisserie chicken display at an abandoned A&P deli counter.
Jean Charest, a guy who makes Harpo Marx look like Montgomery Clift, got pushed through the doors into the Sadie Hawkins dance of Québec politics and had about as much success as Edgar Winter dressed as Louis XIV at the Coppertone girl auditions. So, my fellow Canadians, now Lucien Bouchard’s Long-John-Silvering his way back into the Premier’s office, and we get the Kafka-esque status quo of a so-called “democratic” separatist government that keeps vowing to hold a sovereignty referendum only if they know they can win it.
I say let ’em go if they want to. Just drop your cash-box keys and your passport in the dish by the front door, and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out, s’il vous plait. Go ahead and put pictures of Guy Lafleur, Jean Beliveau, and the rest of the Montreal Canadiens on your new stamps and money, because you won’t be using ours any more, François. Or the name “Canadiens,” for that matter, and if you don’t like it then we’ll be paratrooping in the Mountie from Due South and the rest of the Musical Riding Disney-istas to pen you up behind chain-link fences like Swayze’s dad at the drive-in theatre in Red Dawn.
Of course, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.
Well, there you go! Writing a Dennis Miller-style comedy routine is so easy it makes playing tic-tac-toe look like breaking the Enigma code! Of course, that’s just my opinion … yadda, yadda, yadda.
* Note: Dennis Miller has never, to the author’s knowledge, actually made any such claim. He does, however, claim to have had sex with a fish (Ranting Again, p. 2.).
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