Dennis Miller Opens On MNF

Tuesday, August 1st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Dennis Miller produced what was expected — and wouldn't be from anyone else with a football broadcasting job.

By the end of the first quarter of his debut on ``Monday Night Football,'' the comedian already had made references to the Vatican and male genitalia — though not, thankfully, in the same sentence.

There were also remarks about the Socratic method, the Rosetta stone and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Sergio Leone got a mention, too.

Miller gave an uneven performance during the preseason Hall of Fame Game between the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots, mixing witty non-sequiturs with on-the-job training.

Play-by-play announcer Al Michaels, the lone holdover on an otherwise overhauled cast, summed up the broadcast in the closing seconds of New England's 20-0 victory, saying to Miller, ``It's like you won a prize to a fantasy announcing camp, isn't it?''

Miller was hired in June as ABC Sports tried to perk up a program that has seen ratings decline for five straight seasons. Nielsen numbers for Miller's first outing were expected Tuesday.

Miller kept his wry rants far shorter, and cleaner, than he does on HBO's ``Dennis Miller Live'' (which Michaels duly plugged in the second quarter).

Much of what Miller said early on sounded like scripted jokes. He even could be heard setting one up during the second quarter.

As Eric Dickerson, one of two new sideline reporters hired by producer Don Ohlmeyer, began an interview with 49ers assistant Ronnie Lott, Miller's voice awkwardly intruded with the comment, ``I've got a good Lott line.''

When Dickerson finished, Miller delivered the line: ``Ironically, a guy named `Lott' was the guy who turned the other guys into pillars of salt.''

That's OK coming from an announcer if it sounds like it's off the top of his head, but very little did in Miller's case during the first half.

Rather, it was as if he had carefully studied the team's rosters and written down riffs on names.

On Patriots Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy playing special teams: ``You know lawyers — they get paid by the hour.''

On San Francisco's Jeff Garcia: ``He's the Canadian league import with the Mexican-sounding name. A NAFTA quarterback. And, trust me, they'll feel free to trade him if it doesn't pan out this year.''

And when 49ers rookie receiver Eric Chew was involved in a play, Miller couldn't resist mentioning regurgitation.

As the show progressed, though, Miller did gel better with Michaels and the other announcer in the booth, Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts.

Miller, clearly the showpiece of the new ``Monday Night Football'' crew, didn't appear on-camera until 6 minutes into the broadcast, as Michaels first introduced viewers to his other new cohorts — Dickerson and Melissa Stark on the sidelines (replacing Lesley Visser), then new Xs-and-Os analyst Fouts (replacing Boomer Esiason).

When Miller, with tie knot loosened, finally spoke, he served up what many were waiting for: ``As far as my personal approach to the game, well, I know a lot of you people are thinking that I won't take this seriously. But I just want you to know it is a game, but I also realize it's a game many of you take seriously.

``It's not the Vatican, but then again the pope doesn't have to go across the middle on guys like Ronnie Lott very frequently.''

Ohlmeyer liked his new product.

``We had some rough spots, but overall it was a good start,'' the producer said. ``I was really pleased with our announcers for the first game. I thought Eric and Melissa had a nice debut, and the trio in the booth has a chance to be something special.''

Some other observations from the irreverent and irony-loving Miller:

— ``It's kind of odd to be here at Canton, the Tigris and Euphrates of football history, and look down at an artificial (turf) field, though.''

— ``I'm not sure there's such a thing as minor groin surgery. Anyone has a sharp instrument around my genitalia, I'm thinking it's major.''

— On Patriots coach Bill Belichick: ``He blinks about as frequently as Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone film.''

— On the experimental ``Umpcam,'' a camera the size of lipstick affixed to the bill of the umpire's cap: ``The angle looked lower. I think that's the new 'Cupcam.'''

Michaels noted there had been no need to use the censor button. That was a measure of success for Miller, but it remains to be seen if his ``Monday Night Football'' shtick — toned down from his HBO persona in terms of language and pace, but still obscure at times — will work with viewers over the long haul.

Miller, whose next test comes at the Aug. 14 preseason game between the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans, even unveiled what he said could be used as a wrapup line when a game's outcome is no longer in doubt.

``Start blow-drying Teddy Koppel's hair, 'cause this one's done,'' Miller said, referring to the host of ABC's ``Nightline.'' After chuckling from Fouts and Michaels, Miller continued, ``Actually, I used the Ouija board on that one. ... He hasn't been called Teddy since he was an embryo.''