It's Miller time!

In a weird, yet slick, move to boost ratings saggier than Howard Cosell's rug, "Monday Night Football" plays the smart-aleck card.

By Gary Kamiya

Published June 23, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

The announcement on Thursday night that ratings-challenged "Monday Night Football" had hired comedian Dennis Miller to do color commentary placed the venerable all-American institution's fate in the hands of a snarky wiseass given to expressing sympathy for women who sue over their silicone breast implants by saying, "I understand it's important to have humongous breasts in case you're ever at the same club as David Lee Roth and you don't want him to ignore you, but how could you actually think that somebody could put sandwich bags full of bathroom grout into your body without side effects?"

It was a brilliant move.

Whatever else you can say about Miller, who joins fellow newcomer Dan Fouts and silky-smooth veteran play-by-play man Al Michaels, you can't say he has a tough act to follow. Miller replaces towheaded bore Boomer Esiason, who replaced mustachioed bore Dan Dierdorf, who replaced vaguely incoherent Joe Namath, who replaced shoulder-waggling, pre-homicidal O.J. Simpson.

Some of that chronology may be wrong -- somewhere in there was an irritating Fran Tarkenton period, not to mention a cameo by the immortal Fred "The Hammer" Williamson -- but you have to go back a long way to get to Don Meredith, whose genuine warmth, down-home drawl and tradition of warbling "Turn out the liiiights, the party's over" when the game was sewn up gave a reassuring sense that a large beaker of corn mash was being dipped into before and during the broadcast.

Miller, whose trademark "rants" on his HBO talk show are filled with words and descriptions that are not suitable for the ears of impressionable youths who just want to learn about the two-deep zone, may be the wildest wild card "MNF" has played since Dandy Don -- maybe even since it loosed the Great Toupee himself, Howard Cosell, upon a gaping world.

Of course, ABC didn't know what it had in Cosell, who turned out to be a one-man train wreck whose ludicrously bombastic delivery, demented elocution and general air of neurotic |ber-drama made it impossible not to watch him. But the good old days when half-cracked, larger-than-life divas like Cosell marched in-ex-or-a-bly across the fro-zen tun-dra of broadcasting's Lam-beau Field are long gone. In a squeaky-clean world ruled by the likes of Bob Costas, a sarcastic motormouth may be the best we can do.

And even if Miller bombs, America's nonranting right-wingers owe ABC a devout, groveling "thank you" for rescuing us from the hideous fate of turning on our sets every Monday night to see the face of Rush Limbaugh -- who, incredibly, was seriously considered for the job.

That Limbaugh was even in the running boggles the mind. Is Noam Chomsky now being interviewed by CBS for the NCAA hoops tournament gig? Is there a secret Democratic plan to drive the GOP crazy by having Vladimir Putin broadcast the PGA Masters? Having George Will writing about baseball is bad enough. Stop the madness!

Of course, the persona Miller will adopt, and how he's going to work his shtick into the broadcast patter, is the $64 question. Miller told the Associated Press, "I'm going to try to stay in the background and ask questions a fan would ask," adding, "The rants are my HBO show and I won't try to re-create that."

But what kind of Everyfan will Miller be? Will his interjections be innocuous X's and O's questions? That way lies snooze city. They'll obviously have to unleash him a little bit -- perhaps ` la "Sportscenter," with its deadpan "You cannot stop him, you can only hope to contain him" and exaggeratedly rolled Latin R's "Hhome Hrruns" and "Your puny ballpark cannot withstand my power" riffs.

The leash on network TV is pretty short -- you won't hear Miller ranting, "Hey, dickwad! You were in the mosh pit at a Courtney Love concert! What did you expect, decoupage?" -- but as ratings shrink, the leash may grow longer. Presumably Miller will play a kind of likable wiseguy, the Reggie to Fouts' Archie, adding just the right amount of gnarly topspin to the proceedings -- asking why all linemen have such huge, frequently drooping derrihres, perhaps, or commenting on the number of nanoseconds the camera is allowed to linger on the upper anatomy of cheerleaders before the unseemly Caligula-ness of it all becomes too obvious. Or something.

Will it work? Curiosity and the freak-show factor will boost ratings for a game or two, but then it's all about chemistry. Fouts is a likable and pretty easygoing guy, and Michaels is a consummate pro, so there's a good chance Miller's interjections won't clang off the banter like a Shaq free throw. But just shtick, no matter how good, will start feeling intrusive after a while -- this is football, after all, and if you're a serious fan you don't want your attention constantly taken away by the verbal equivalent of those things John Madden uses to scribble on the screen.

On the other hand, if Miller doesn't crack wise, what's he there for? The challenge for Miller will be to find the delicate balance between being obnoxious and being innocuous. If Miller finds it -- and he just might -- "Monday Night Football" could become one of the hippest sports shows ever, and his own tenure as glorious, celebrated and long as a Howard Cosell vowel.

Now, if they would only get rid of Hank Williams Jr. ...

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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