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Too Smart for the Room

I come neither to bury Dennis Miller nor to praise him. True, I have repeatedly defended Miller when my colleague Matthew Robinson has seen fit to attack him and his startling selection as the third man in the Monday Night Football booth. I've considered Miller to be one of my favorite comedians and broadcasters for years.

But even I admit that the Miller/MNF experiment is just that -- a wacky experiment hatched by Don Ohlmeyer in an attempt to get people talking about ABC's once-landmark sports franchise. And even this late in the season, there's no clear consensus on whether Miller is really a good fit for the booth. I think he's improving as the season goes along (he was in fine form during this week's meaningless Chiefs-Patriots game, and seems to really have livened up Al Michaels and Dan Fouts), but at times he still seems overprepared and simply trying too hard.

Far more troubling, however, is the whole controversy that surrounds Miller -- especially as it appeared when he was first selected for the job. It's not because I'm a Miller fan or because I love to see broadcaster selections that run against TV's sports-broadcasting jockocracy. (A term beloved by Miller's forerunner in the MNF booth, Howard Cosell.) No, I'm bothered because the controversy has revealed what a bunch of snotty, elitist pricks the members of the media are, be they TV critics or sportswriters.

You can tell a lot by the initial reactions to Miller's hiring. People can proclaim he's simply not funny -- here's looking at you, Robinson -- and I'll chalk that one up to a matter of taste. But that wasn't the reaction when Ohlmeyer brought in Captain Hairdo to save Monday nights for the Alphabet network.

No, the reaction of TV critics and sportswriters from across the country was this: That Dennis Miller makes lots of references that require knowledge, depth, and some level of intellect. And as we know, football fans have none of those qualities! Or, put another way: Miller was a bad choice for Monday Night Football because his references will sail right over the head of the Cro-Magnons who make up the vast majority of the football-watching audience.

I am a 30-year-old male, married, a homeowner with a graduate degree and a professional job. And not only do I watch NFL football every Sunday, I have paid the couple hundred bucks to receive this year's NFL Sunday Ticket on my satellite dish, meaning I receive every single game broadcast on Sundays, with the exception of the always-blacked-out-locally Oakland Raiders. I also own four season tickets to a nearby Division I college football team.

And, having asked several of my friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and even my wife for confirmation -- just to be sure I'm not deluding myself -- I have to report to you that I am not an idiot. And neither is my wife, nor are my co-workers, nor are my friends, many of whom (if not most) are also football fans.

TV critics, being a grumpy lot in general, might be forgiven for their cynicism. They may be likely to pigeonhole football fans as being among the dimmer bulbs of the TV landscape (but what about wrestling fans?), given that the TV critic must also review programs targeted for geniuses... like, say, the entire PBS line-up.

But sportswriters? Who knew that sportswriters consider their audience to be the Great Unwashed? Sportswriters can be full of pretension, convinced that they're the heirs to the journalistic traditions of H.L. Mencken, A.J. Liebling, and various other two-initialed hacks, when in fact they're spending their time interviewing spoiled millionaires about meaningless regular-season games where nobody goes all out for fear of getting hurt before playoff time. And yet before Dennis Miller came on the scene, I had no idea how many of them felt that football fans were dumb as a bag of Tony Danza pilots.

Football is the United States' most popular sport for a reason: it's accessible. The average guy off the boat from Myanmar can appreciate it in an instant, because it's pretty easy to understand: watch the ball move down the field. But it's not shallow. It's not as deep, I'll grant you, as some other sports -- baseball's a lot deeper, but a lot harder to appreciate when you're recently arrived from Rangoon -- but it's still got a lot to it. Anyone who's carefully watched John Madden's mad telestration of a screen pass or what happens when you pull a guard knows that -- and if you've heard Matt Millen try to explain about shifting stunts in the defensive line, you know that there's still such a thing as too much technical detail.

But what's that, Dennis? Hadrian's Wall? The Thunderbirds? Señor Wences? Oh, my head is hurting! I'm tired out because of all this thinking! Someone call a doctor!

We live in an anti-intellectual society. Smart kids are mocked at school, and try to blend in -- code talk for act dumb -- so they don't get singled out. Smart people are eggheads, people without lives. And yet we are still a country full of smart people. Granted, some of us are not so bright -- Two Guys and a Girl is still on the air, to name just one case against the American mind. But lots of us have a few brain cells to rub together.

And yet, when Dennis Miller arrives, he's attacked on two fronts. First, football fans are a bunch of ignorant hayseeds. Uh-huh. Second, Miller's too smart -- and worse yet, he shows off his knowledge by actually making references to cultural and historical events that every seventh grader should know. (Not to get off on a rant, but it's not like Dennis Miller is some kind of freakin' Einstein. A lot of his references don't, to be honest, hit dead center. Sometimes he knows a name but not the nuance; sometimes he's just plain wrong. You want the good and the bad, visit brittanica.com's surreal Annotated Dennis Miller.)

It's ridiculous. Look, dislike Dennis Miller for any number of reasons. Dislike him for reading jokes from a script when he should be talking extemporaneously, because he's funnier that way. Dislike his faux-hipster attitude. Dislike that he refers to Fouts as Dan-O and Joe Montana as Joey. Dislike that some of his references are painfully forced. Dislike that he's taking time away from Al Michaels and Fouts.

But don't dislike Dennis Miller because he talks smart. Because he's not that smart. He's just about as smart as the average football fan. Which, considering your attitude, makes him smarter than you.


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