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Chris Haston/NBC/AP

Evolving humor

Video | DVD shows the growth of funnyman Dennis Miller

Issue: "2009 Books Issue," July 4, 2009

In May, scientists unveiled "Ida," a fossil that they claimed was the evolutionary "missing link" between primates and humans based on its lack of a grooming claw, certain fused teeth, and a femur-like talus bone. Still, it was difficult to recognize in the photos of Ida's fossils much if any resemblance to homo sapiens.

What's much easier to recognize, thanks to the recent release of the three-DVD set Dennis Miller: The HBO Specials (SRO), is the evolution of Dennis Miller from a relatively typical late-20th-century stand-up comic fresh from Saturday Night Live into a refreshingly atypical 21st-century sit-down radio talk-show host with the courage of his libertarian-conservative convictions.

Miller filmed seven hour-long HBO specials from 1988 to 2006. Halfway between 1999's The Millennium Special and 2003's The Raw Feed, al-Qaeda brought down the Twin Towers, and Miller's comedy took on a right-wing tone resulting from his belief that the threat posed by Islamic terrorists required preemptive military action.

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It's no surprise therefore that he eventually become a hit on FOX News (most notably in his weekly "Miller Time" segment on The O'Reilly Factor) and on talk radio, where his comic instincts and genuine engagement with the issues serve him (and his 2 million listeners) well.

From a political point of view, the most interesting revelation contained in The HBO Specials is that Miller's anti-terrorism antennae were intact and aquiver long before 2001. In 1988's Mr. Miller Goes to Washington, for instance, he got laughs and applause by presciently advocating the same hardball, tit-for-tat retaliation that, two decades later, would make opponents of waterboarding irate. "Sociologists will tell you if we do that we lower ourselves to their level and [the terrorists] win," he quipped. "All right, maybe they do win. But it's nice to know a couple of their boys won't be at the trophy ceremony." It was a theme Miller updated as current events required. By The Raw Feed, he was waxing clever about both suicide bombers ("I have no idea what makes the Palestinians tick") and racial profiling ("When 15 out of 19 people are from one country and you happen to notice that, that's not profiling-that's minimally observant").

And once his homeland-security taste buds had been aroused, he made tasty burgers of other liberal sacred cows as well, including environmentalist extremism in general and global warming and drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in particular ("I think we oughta run a couple of pipes into Alaska and suck it drier than Noel Coward's memoirs"). And, in a culture where only conservatives are fair game, it's certainly refreshing to witness Miller's comic skewering of the likes of Barbra Streisand, James Carville, Robert Byrd, and the ACLU.

One element of Miller's onstage persona that hasn't evolved nearly as much as his conservative fans would prefer is his over-reliance on expletives, a trait especially glaring given his extensive "legitimate" vocabulary. As anyone who has heard his radio show (or who heard him during his two-year stint in the Monday Night Football announcer's booth) knows, he can be uncommonly hilarious and thought provoking, often simultaneously, working clean in the moment.

Yet, like Ida's tail or her skull's primate proportions, the gratuitous "F-bombs" that riddle Miller's routines (especially the earlier ones) link him to an earlier, less-intelligent form of life (call it Lenny Bruce Man) and make the HBO Miller a missing link indeed.

"We're losing jobs like a children's party clown with Tourette syndrome," he joked about California under Gray Davis. Sometimes the oversized Bozo shoe fits Miller as well.

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