The Dennis Miller Show had everything working in its favor, including a popular and funny host, an impressive lineup of talented writers and a target audience ready for something new. Despite all these attributes, the late-night talk show was canceled just six months after it debuted.
Miller was riding high on the success of Saturday Night Live, where he’d been the host of Weekend Update from 1985 to 1991. His witty demeanor and classic sign off – “I am outta here! – made him a hit among fans. Despite enjoying his role, Miller was excited by the challenge of helming a late-night talk show.
Elsewhere, The Dennis Miller Show boasted an impressive roster of talent working behind the scenes, including Norm Macdonald and Bob Odenkirk, who served as writers.
The show aimed to be an alternative to the traditional late-night fare. It wasn’t aimed at the generations of TV watchers who’d tuned in to Johnny Carson for decades, but rather the new, younger audience who wanted something different than their parent’s choice.
Syndicated broadcaster Tribune Entertainment had seen the positive response to Arsenio Hall, who brought some much-needed diversity to weeknights when he premiered in 1989. It also became apparent that Jay Leno would be Carson’s Tonight Show heir, not the edgier David Letterman.
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Tribune believed they had a host in Miller who was sarcastic, fun and cool, and that was everything they felt was needed to swoop into the late-night landscape. The show’s bandleader would be Andy Summers of the Police, another nod to younger viewers at home. The program also deviated from traditional talk shows by mixing celebrity guests with newsmakers, authors and politicians.
Miller would bring his topical humor to the program, even creating a news segment virtually identical to his Weekend Update schtick. But while the host and his team were more than ready for the creative aspects of their new show, nothing prepared them for the cutthroat competition of late-night TV.
When The Dennis Miller Show premiered on Jan. 20, 1992, it boasted an impressive lineup of early guests. Tom Hanks, Christian Slater, Bonnie Raitt, Shannen Doherty, Al Gore, and Benjamin Netanyahu were among the early guests. But things started drying up, and Miller believed he knew why.
The transition to Leno had become official over at NBC. He brought longtime manager Helen Kushnick to serve as executive producer and booking agent. Kushnick was extremely loyal to Leno and fiercely competitive with anyone who challenged his success. Even before Leno’s hosting debut on May 22, 1992, she had made it clear to prospective guests everywhere: Do another late-night show and you’ll never be invited on The Tonight Show.
Watch Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd on ‘The Dennis Miller Show’
This ultimatum set up what would later be referred to as the “booking wars.” Hall had the momentum to fight such a battle, but Miller and his upstart team didn’t.
“I remember we couldn’t even get the third lead in a film because those two were going at each other, like Gamera and Godzilla,” Miller later told Campus Insiders. “I’m getting fourth lead in films. I’m getting the kid with hemophilia from Newsies or something.”
Miller tried to combat the competition by getting more eclectic, finding unique and far-reaching guests who they assumed the other shows would overlook. Even then, the competition followed.
The show “booked this aborigine drum band called Yothu Yindi. It’s like five guys in thongs with small logs beating big logs,” Miller recalled. “I get a call from Yothu Yindi’s people. … ‘They’ve been told if they appear on here, they might not get The Tonight Show.’ I called Jay, I said, ‘What the fuck are you doing? It’s Yothu Yindi!’”
Miller’s coordinating producer Carole Propp acknowledged that “there [were] two titans out there,” in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, “and they pulled us down in the undertow.”
Watch Jim Carrey on ‘The Dennis Miller Show’
Things got so bad that the host began making calls himself, pleading with guests to come on the show. Many of his former SNL castmates did, but it wasn’t enough.
“I was getting clubbed to death by the publicists in this town,” Miller frankly admitted after his show’s cancelation in July 1992. “I got on the phone myself and started calling people and saying, ‘Hey, do you want to do the show?’”
Miller remained bitter toward Leno but not Hall, whom he said operated with class even when they were competing. “Look, I don’t even know Arsenio Hall that well. I’ve met him twice,” Miller told Entertainment Weekly in 1992. “But he’s a legitimate human being who doesn’t bullshit you. He’s been nothing but classy with me. He’s now somebody I want to be better friends with.” Miller was a guest on Hall’s show after his program ended.
As for Leno, Miller was curt. “Jay and I were very good friends at one point. I don’t think I’d talk to him again, nor would he want to talk to me,” Miller concluded. “About The Tonight Show, put it this way: They want to win really badly.”
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