The changing of the zeroes seems a topic tailor-made for Dennis Miller’s ironic wit, since the hype is so disproportionate to the event’s significance. But maybe the Y2K bug and the corresponding apocalyptic panic is too easy a target for Miller; or, then again, maybe he’s just saving the best stuff for his weekly show. Instead of skewering the current millennial craze, with its “best of” litanies, Miller provides his own essential guide to the past thousand years. But while his fifth HBO comedy spec — “Dennis Miller: The Millennium Special — 1,000 Years, 100 Laughs, 10 Really Good Ones” — provokes some knowing yucks, it seems a little underwhelming for the occasion.
Miller sums up the first 900 years of the millennium in just a few minutes, fast-forwarding through the centuries with some strong quips about the Magna Carta, the Crusades — “It’s such a shame when folks start out to massacre people with different religious beliefs and they end up getting involved with a bad cause instead” — the burning of Joan of Arc, the launching of Columbus’ voyage, etc. He then hones in on the 20th century, placing himself in different eras and taking the audience on a tour with his trademark rants and news of the day.
With one of the more eloquent writing staffs on the tube, Miller’s show is strongest when he isn’t spewing one-liners. He begins each segment with a traditional “I almost didn’t make it here tonight” riff, changing the story to accommodate the lingo of the times he’s covering. For the early part of the century, he talks of “doing the Charleston at a speakeasy with F. Scott and Zelda” when “a Wobbly does a Dempsey on my kisser.” Later, he does the jitterbug at a juke-joint and hangs with the beatniks down on Bleeker Street.
As he moves forward in time, his material becomes more familiar — he takes on O.J. and Michael Jackson, as usual, this time using the benefit of hindsight to achieve the laugh. But his best stuff comes early. Wearing a tux appropriate for the year 1915, Miller rants about technology, referring to the “iceberg of total disaster (that) looms menacingly ahead of us like a vast, over-extended metaphor” and sarcastically arguing that humans need to replace horses with automobiles because otherwise the equine gases will cause global warming.
Miller’s work has a softer edge than it used to, and when he smiles at his own jokes it seems less out of arrogance than out of a pleasure in making people laugh. When his jokes fall flat — as they do occasionally — he shrugs them off like Johnny Carson would, turning them to his advantage by making us share in his failed efforts as much as in his successful zingers.
Miller is still the master of the sardonic, but he’s taking himself a lot less seriously. If the work isn’t as pithy as before, it’s certainly always easy to digest.