In this series, I’m looking at some of the most famous comedy specials of all time to see how they hold up today. Some I’ve seen and will be rewatching; others will be new to me. But they have to have survived to become classics.
This week I’m looking at Dennis Miller’s 1990 HBO special Black And White. Like most comedy fans, I knew Miller from his snarky Weekend Update hosting duties on Saturday Night Live (1985-1991). And I was surprised with the hard right turn his comedy took in later years, particularly in his spots on Fox News.
So it was fascinating to watch Miller before that transformation happened, in a one-hour show filmed in black and white at a club in Tempe, Arizona. The highly-regarded special was recommended by a couple of people on Twitter, and I’m glad I watched it. For one thing, the dapper-looking Miller proves he’s a very knowledgeable guy; his reference level is off the charts—it’s hard to imagine a contemporary comic attempting all that today and pulling it off. And the precise way he constructs his jokes means there’s absolutely no room for error; there’s something audacious and admirable about that.
In fact, “admirable” sums up my feelings. I admire his skill, and marvel at his cocky delivery, but nothing about his act makes me warm to him or his material. He’s not aloof, he’s just cool—in the good and bad senses of the word.
Black And White, the one-hour 1990 special he taped for HBO at Tempe, Arizona. It’s not available on any streaming sites, but you can currently find it on YouTube.
Best known for
The black and white video separates this special from others. It’s about 50 percent political material, with a few shots at pop culture figures of the day (Drew Barrymore, New Kids on the Block). There’s also an extended rant about flight attendants (called “stewardesses”) that would be funnier if it wasn’t shot through with misogyny.
By 1990, Miller was ending his tenure at SNL, where he had redefined the role of Weekend Update host with his snarky, mean-spirited delivery of the news. If you pay attention, you’ll see the seeds of his future conservatism in his analysis of anti-fur activists and critics of the comic Andrew Dice Clay.
You can see Miller’s influence on many TV talk show hosts who aren’t afraid of stirring up the political pot, like Bill Maher and John Oliver.
What doesn’t hold up well today
For political junkies, Black And White provides a fascinating snapshot of the global political landscape at the time. The Berlin Wall had recently come down, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had been executed, and Beirut was still a war zone. Miller addresses all of them in fresh ways, but if you’re not interested in world history, these references might seem dated. Ditto about American politicians like former V.P. Dan Quayle and Marion Barry, the crack-smoking mayor who came before our own.
Any comic who repeatedly references pop culture runs the risk of having that material seem obscure later on. Miller jokes about everything from the character of Potsie from Happy Days to Bugle Boy jeans, which might have seemed topical three decades ago but feel like deep cuts now.
Other bits that don’t hold up addresses “stewardesses” (as in, “When did stewardesses in this country get so fucking cranky?”) and “Oriental” experts on late-night infomercials.
What holds up well today
Perhaps in reference to his special’s title, Miller pulls out a brilliant joke that illustrates the difference between how black couples and white couples dance. What makes this bit work so well is that white men are the targets; in other words, his meanness is pointed at himself, not others. Plus, Miller lets loose physically onstage, which almost makes him endearing.
From today’s perspective, the most intriguing part of this special is seeing how Miller handles what he calls “the liberal intelligentsia.” He knows his fellow stand-up Andrew Dice Clay isn’t the classiest comic—surely, he wouldn’t reference Moby-Dick or the crop-dusting scene from North By Northwest the way Miller himself does. But nevertheless he’s willing to defend Clay against knee-jerk criticism. And he takes on anti-fur activists with a vengeance, quipping that fur farms should be reserved for social activists.
There’s no denying Miller’s intelligence, and his nasally voice and cocky delivery feel authentic. Late in the special he refers to his father, saying he made the Great Santini look like Leo Buscaglia (two more dated references). It’s a small detail, but it provides a glimpse into his own psychological makeup that makes his act seem a little less chilly and a little more human. It’s a shame he never dug deeper.