This review was corrected on August 1, 2000.
The sword of Damocles, the biblical story of Lot and a fumble involving a player named Chew — yes, he regurgitated the ball — made their way into Dennis Miller’s color commentary as the standup comedian began his reign of humor in the Monday Night Football announcing booth. Fellow “MNF” newcomer Dan Fouts, who had been a stiff and low-key announcer calling regional Sunday games, was stunningly effusive and articulate. As a trio, they’ll need the pre-season to sharpen this return to the three-man announcing team, but for now, Fouts has a good chance to be Al Michaels’ best partner yet.
Miller’s introduction was saved for last, as Michaels handed over the microphone to new sideline reporters Eric Dickerson and Melissa Stark and then Fouts for some pre-game analysis. Miller entered, after the first commercial break, with his tie askew and hair unkempt, announcing to the world that, to him, “it’s a game,” but he realizes viewers “take it serious.” His boothmates, though, seem to have little interest in joking with him or cutting some of the tension; they are among those who take the game seriously.
Daunted yet freewheeling with the one-liners, Miller’s jokes littered the telecast like many of the 49ers errant passes, hitting on about one good line per quarter. After discussing one player’s injury, he suggested, “I’m not sure there’s such a thing as minor groin surgery.” Later on, he took a shot at ABC for a low per diem (“I had to buy a BLT with fur pelts today”). Comparing the bewildered look of George W. Bush to the Niners’ feeble QB Gino Carmazzi, however, was genius.
Like any first-timer, Miller tried too hard at times — “(Patriots coach) Bill Belichick is wrapped tighter than an expectant father’s watch” and then later observed “he blinks as often as Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone movie.”
By calling a game with two teams that had sub-par seasons in 1999, it made it easy for Miller to throw more than a fair share of cliched “ifs” about what needs to happen for them to improve in 2000. Unfortunately, as the game wore on, Miller had less and less to say, choosing to bask in obscure players’ glow and offer color comments that certainly must have made viewers cringe coast to coast.
When he was hired, “MNF” producer Don Ohlmeyer lauded Miller’s football knowledge — but what that was seemed questionable, starting with a comment that several players had “comparable” statistics to Jerry Rice (?!).
Fouts, by contrast, speaks with a commanding authority, which makes Miller’s facts ‘n’ stats-based comments suffer by comparison. Fouts, too, went into the game extraordinarily prepared, and thoroughly explained what made plays work or fail.
When the conversation required an observation or prediction from Miller — he was handed the ball, for example when the discussion turned to the anticipated return of 49er running back Garrison Hearst — his tone turned unsteady and cautious. He has a long way to go before he’ll sound confident delivering football data.
At halftime, “MNF” really missed an opportunity by having Al Michaels interview Peter Jennings at the GOP’s convention rather than the acerbic Miller. Hasn’t political humor been his bread and butter for two decades?
Now in its 31st year, “MNF” continues to be expertly produced even at a remote site such as Canton, where the annual Hall of Fame game is played on a high school field. On-field microphone was up a bit too high in the mix, drowning out some of the play-by-play, but the footage supplied by the camera on a referee’s hat was stellar.
“Blow dry Teddy Koppell’s hair,” Miller said with less than 90 seconds to play, attempting to develop a sign-off that will indicate the game’s over. Who knows how long it took him to come up with that one, but it suggested he can mix the scripted with the impromptu and make it all feel natural. Check back on Sept. 4, Rams vs. Broncos, when the real season opens.