Dennis Miller’s Bad Air Day: “I Lapsed Into Rude”

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1 On Wednesday, March 17, CNBC talk-show host Dennis Miller tried out a bewildering new trick on his audience: He stopped hosting the show while on the air.

Others have done it. Usually it follows long years on the air, after great tension and exhaustion, as when Jack Paar walked off, or great frustration, as when Regis Philbin quit on the air with his boss, Joey Bishop. But Mr. Miller has only been on his CNBC gig for a little over eight weeks. Nevertheless, last Wednesday night, the MSNBC left-wing political commentator Eric Alterman came on to critique the war in Iraq. Mr. Miller, seemingly at a loss for words, or having a very bad day, didn’t even try to argue. At first, he made a halfhearted and strangely unfunny attempt at mocking Mr. Alterman-and then just melted down entirely.

“Oh, just finish the fucking segment,” he said, visibly frustrated, slumping over in his chair, face propped up in his hand.

“This is your mode of argument?” asked a confused Mr. Alterman. “This is the best you can do?”

“Yeah,” said Mr. Miller forlornly, sinking deeper in his chair. It may have been midlife crisis, or something private. Things seemed to go sour less than a minute into the interview, but not for any reason that was visible onscreen. Considering that Mr. Alterman can be as smug and arrogant as Mr. Miller, they probably seemed like a great matchup on paper, a kind of minor-league Gore Vidal–Norman Mailer nose-to-nose, a bantamweight bout of self-congratulatory self-confidence. But Mr. Alterman was unusually well-behaved, laying out his arguments on autopilot. Mr. Miller, however, was getting a different read.

“You look so pissed off,” said Mr. Miller.

“What do you mean, I look pissed off?” asked Mr. Alterman.

“I don’t even know what to say. You’re looking at me like-you’re just sitting there.” Mr. Miller did an impersonation of what looked like a drunken, mentally disabled guy passing out. “Give me a question and I’ll ask you a question. What do you want to talk about?”

Mr. Alterman laughed nervously.

“Well,” he said, “we could talk a little bit more about the way he misled the country.” (Meaning George W. Bush.)

Said Mr. Miller: “This is what I’m looking at, here, like this.”

He pretended to be asleep.

When Mr. Alterman finished his spiel, Mr. Miller went bolt upright and snapped at the camera: “All right, you’ve been great. Come back anytime.”

Mr. Alterman left stunned.

“I was totally unprepared for what he did,” Mr. Alterman told NYTV. “Obviously, something is going very wrong with the guy. But it’s not my problem.”

Over the next two days, however, Mr. Alterman ruthlessly flogged the segment on his blog, offering a link to some video, publishing a handful of the 400 e-mails he said he received on the incident-including those that called him an “asshole,” Mr. Alterman noted, for balance, we guess-and characterizing Mr. Miller’s ratings as “not just in the toilet” but “all the way to the septic tank. And as we all know, they need to pay audience members to show up.”

Mr. Alterman said that Mr. Miller was unprepared for his line of argument. “I don’t know if he’s ever encountered a guest who would be able to argue with him and know more about what I was talking about than he did,” he said. “He seemed to be profoundly underprepared for the interview, and that’s how he chose to respond to it. I really couldn’t believe it.”

Mr. Alterman said that staffers for the CNBC show offered their apologies afterward, calling Mr. Miller’s behavior “deeply unprofessional.” “They also sent an apology to my publicist,” he said.

By Friday afternoon, Mr. Alterman had a new report. He told his blog readers that “Dennis Miller called my cell to apologize and to say that he was in the wrong and he is sorry. I accepted his apology.”

Mr. Alterman told NYTV: “He started to say, ‘I just think we’re both a couple of contentious guys.’ I don’t think the fact that we’re two contentious guys had anything to do with it.”

Reached for comment, Mr. Miller was indeed contrite, if curt. “If you’re on TV enough, occasionally you butt heads with somebody,” said Mr. Miller. “I thought it was rude. I think anytime we run into each other, we’ll bump heads, but in that case I lapsed into rude.”

But was everything O.K. at the office?

“Great. I couldn’t be happier. I feel great.”

Mr. Miller said it wasn’t until afterward that he decided maybe things hadn’t gone well.

“I looked at that interview and I just felt like I had crossed over the line, from right to wrong.”

But he didn’t really want to explore it beyond that: “Do I owe you an apology?”

Mr. Miller’s show has undergone a few upgrades since it began. In February, CNBC hired a consultant to kick some life into things, mainly by adding a studio audience. The show gets about 280,000 viewers a night. Mr. Miller said he didn’t get any special “energy” from the addition of a larger audience.

“I’m not mystical about show business,” he said. “I used to have 10 people watching, and I got laughs off them.” NBC president Jeff Zucker, he said, “is the boss, and he wanted a crowd, and I’m more than happy to have obliged. I’m proud of it.”

He said he was happy as could be. “I’m not being overly ebullient when I say I was happy with the show and I’m happy with it now,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do-paw the ground?”

Had Mr. Miller learned something from his talk-show experience?

“How fond I am of the monkey,” he said, loosening up. “I thought he would act as my comedic right-hand man, but I’ve grown fond of him. I’m ready to do a Road picture.” Maybe a remake of those 1970’s Clint Eastwood–orangutan movies? Or a Midnight Run kind of deal, with Mr. Miller and Mr. Alterman as De Niro and Grodin? “We’re dissimilar men,” said Mr. Miller of Mr. Alterman. “We will probably always be dissimilar.”

Tonight, Mr. Miller gets to face more dissimilar people. If he gets in trouble, he’s always got the monkey on his side. [CNBC, 15, 9 p.m.]

THURS. March 25

& On Sunday, March 21, 60 Minutes ‘ Lesley Stahl squeezed news from former White House terror czar Richard Clarke like he was a bucket of oranges. Mmmm, news. Over at ABC News, special correspondent John McWethy had the task of profiling Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a man best known for his ability to lower his body temperature to that of granite. Anyway, Mr. McWethy, a veteran national-security correspondent, asked all the tough questions on Iraq for the one-hour Rumsfeld’s Rules of War , but said he couldn’t crack Rummy’s façade on issues relating to the war, even though he had plenty of access.

“I spent time with him in Taos, N.M., at his ranch,” he said. “I went to private dinners at his house. He did the dishes. I have a sense of this man. Do I have a straight answer to anything? I don’t know. I have answers. It’s never black-and-white.”

Will there at least be footage of Mr. Rumsfeld doing the dishes?

“He would not allow me to have a camera in that house,” he said.

Tonight, Mr. Rumsfeld is confronted with a talking doll made in his own likeness. Mr. McWethy asks Mr. Rumsfeld if he’d like to hold it, Mr. Rumsfeld looks at Mr. McWethy like he’s some kind of a perv: “No, thank you,” he says, “I’ll pass.” [WABC, 7, 8 p.m.]

FRI. March 26

% Nowadays, there’s nothing quite like massive critical praise to kill a poor little network TV show dead. Case in point: Wonderfalls , the latest well-reviewed comedic drama on Fox. Everyone just loved it, except the viewers. Only two episodes in, Fox has scheduled it for Friday night, where TV shows typically go to die.

“We’ve had a lot of tremendous buzz on the show from critics who, by and large, loved the show and were as depressed as we were that it was dumped into Friday night,” said executive producer Tim Minear.

Mr. Minear, a former writer for The X-Files , has been on a grass-roots crusade to roust up viewers on the Web, pleading with the sci-fi minions to sit on the couch on Fridays and check it out. He sent out a memo on Friday, saying: “If you can give a hand here, you might be keeping us afloat long enough for us to catch the tide. Worth a shot, anyway.”

Sorry to put another screw in the coffin, but NYTV considers this show the brightest and most fetching thing on network TV this season. Odd, engaging, sophisticated and full of hairpin plot twists, it revolves around a jaded twentysomething shop girl named Jaye who starts receiving nagging secret messages from inanimate animal tchotchkes on the shelves of the Niagara Falls gift shop where she works.

She’s reluctantly prodded by a toy lion and a brass monkey into mystical, serendipitous misadventures that manage to chip away at her jaundiced view of life on the Canadian border. Sounds pretty cute, sure, but the revelation here is that extreme fantasy turns out to be the best route to reality: She’s also a Brown graduate with a philosophy degree living in a trailer home, a victim of a recession-era economy and her own Gen-Y malaise. In a world where Nick and Jessica are cultural signposts, talking animals are the least of her troubles.

Mr. Minear said the show’s creators, Bryan Fuller and Todd Holland, combined elements of the Joan of Arc story, the French sleeper hit Amélie and Buffy the Vampire Slayer . But it plays more like Ally McBeal as directed by David Lynch, with Dave Eggers doing uncredited doctoring. Mr. Minear said even if Fox pulled the plug, all 13 episodes would eventually find life on DVD.

Tonight: “It’s the story of Jaye being told by the muses to basically restore a nun’s faith,” said Mr. Minear. “And, in the process, she sees a way to possibly relieve herself of these voices she’s hearing. In other words, she asks for an exorcism.”

TV, heal thyself. [Fox, 5, 9 p.m.]

SAT. March 27

!5 Every Saturday night, the ABC-owned cable channel Soap Net airs the late 1970’s episodes of Dallas as part of its “Dysfunctional Family Night.” Discover how this great, slow, melodramatic, sloth-like drama with entirely implausible plot lines and asinine caricatures of Texas oil guys and dolls upends everything our jump-cut reality-TV era holds dear. Hurts so good.

The real showstopper, of course, was John Ross (Jock) Ewing Sr., the leathery, white-haired patriarchal stud played by old western character actor Jim Davis, who died in 1981. Don’t believe the hype about the post-Jock “Who Shot J.R.?” period. Tonight’s episode is from season one, 1978. Jimmy Carter was still President. You can see the incipient yearning for Ronald Reagan. [Soap, 119, 8 p.m.]

SUN. March 28

@ Originally aired in the year A.D. 2000, Jesus is back on TV. Gary Oldman plays Pontius Pilate. Too bad he didn’t wear the eye patch like he did in The Fifth Element . [WCBS, 2, 9 p.m.]

MON. March 29

@ Tonight on the Late Show , David Letterman attempts to bring closure to our national boob-flashing trauma with an exclusive interview with Janet Jackson. Drew Barrymore … Courtney Love … Janet! Complete the cycle. [WCBS, 2, 11:35 p.m.]

TUES. March 30

6 In a series of prerecorded interviews, MTV News’ Gideon Yago, the bespectacled Doogie Howser, M.D., of TV news, introduces the 50 Cent demo to Senator John Kerry.

“We’re bringing him kids’ questions that we’ve picked up on the campaign trail,” he told NYTV. For example: What would the 19-year-old war-protesting John Kerry say to the 50-year-old John Kerry who voted to go to war? And then some hardballs, too, “like ‘Are you cool? If so, why?'” added Mr. Yago.

Mr. Kerry looked like Count Dooku on that snowboard last week. Is he going to embarrass the kids?

“It can always be like your dad giving a speech at the bar mitzvah,” Mr. Yago said, “woefully painful and difficult to watch.”

But MTV News is a serious news organization for serious times, so they just want to feed the kids the castor oil. Maybe it’ll take. “Let’s be honest, man: It’s politics, it’s not cool,” said Mr. Yago. “But it’s important and it matters. You don’t have to dress it up like something it’s not.”

For the love of God, let’s hope Mr. Kerry keeps his old electric-guitar solos from the Electras on old LP’s on eBay, where they belong. [MTV, 20, 10:30 p.m.]

Dennis Miller’s Bad Air Day: “I Lapsed Into Rude”