DENNIS MILLER, in case you'd forgotten or somehow failed to notice, is really smart. So smart that his quixotic run as a Monday Night Football analyst (2000--01) spawned websites that aimed to "decipher" and "demystify" Miller's on-air analogies and historical references. (Allusions to Hannibal were a bit esoteric for the average football fan, it seems.) More recently the network blurb for his weekly show, Sports Unfiltered, which began airing Nov. 6 on Versus, describes Miller as "one of the great comic minds of our generation" and declares that his wit is "unmatched."
It's all a bit much for a guy who's trying to make jokes about sports. Unfiltered follows a similar format to the sharp Dennis Miller Live, which ran on HBO from 1994 to 2002. There's a monologue, including a minirant (on steroids, say, or the NFL's Draconian rules to protect the quarterback); interviews with sports figures; a visit with a Vegas correspondent who picks (seriously) NFL games; and a feature called Ask Dennis in which Miller answers (not seriously) questions from viewers, or in one case, from Bill O'Reilly, his chum at Fox News. There's other stuff too.
Yet anyone who tunes in to Sports Unfiltered with expectations heightened by Miller's work on HBO or his inspired stint as a weekend update anchor on Saturday Night Live is in for a disappointment. Unfiltered doesn't rise above the shtick, and Miller's shtick feels increasingly forced. His analogies are often flat and strained. Sometimes they're just false. In an oft-aired promo for Unfiltered, Miller, setting up riffs on Barry Bonds and Michael Vick, says, "Reading the sports pages today is more depressing than watching Britney dance." Now Britney Spears's turn as a disoriented and arrhythmic pole dancer on MTV's Video Music Awards may be many things—fascinating, comical, embarrassing, ugly, even a source of Schadenfreude. Depressing it is not.
"I got one monkey trick," Miller told SI last month. "I do the weird references." Miller does more than that. He delivers some decent one-liners and can be an entertaining interviewer—his in-studio exchange with steroid whistle-blower Jose Canseco (below) was a highlight. And it is to Miller's credit that he continues to resist political correctness. Unfortunately, he expends that freedom on jokes that are too easy: making fun of an overweight female golfer, conflating Yi Jianlian with a Chinese takeout menu, implying that even elite Indian (or is it Pakistani? He's not clear) athletes have day jobs as tech support guys.
Miller joins a Versus programming lineup that includes college football and basketball and the NHL. Unfiltered increases the traffic of high-profile athletes on the young network—Curt Schilling and Warren Sapp (left) were guests—and Miller has a following. Bringing him in was a smart move. As a show, however, Sports Unfiltered seems not so smart at all.
EVEN FOOTBALL refs have their heroes, to whom they pay homage. During a Jets-Bills game in 1986 Ben Dreith won a permanent spot on NFL highlight reels when he flagged New York's Marty Lyons for a personal foul on Buffalo QB Jim Kelly and, while making a gouging motion, told the crowd that Lyons "was giving him the business down there." (The clip is easily found on YouTube.) It is the penalty-call equivalent of The Catch or Wide Right, and last Saturday ACC ref Ron Cherry referenced it in the Maryland--N.C. State game, declaring that Wolfpack offensive lineman Kalani Heppe had been penalized for "giving [the Terrapins' Kevin Barnes] the business." (Watch the call at SI.com/clickthis.) It was one of the few moments the home fans could smile about: N.C. State lost 37--0.
AMANDA EDWARDS/GETTY IMAGES FOR VERSUS (MILLER)
TWIG/CAL SPORT MEDIA (SAPP)
BOBBY BANK/WIREIMAGE.COM (CANSECO)
LINCOLN FINANCIAL SPORTS/RAYCOM (REFEREE)