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FUN AND GAMES READY OR NOT, DENNIS MILLER IS NOW A PRIME-TIME PLAYER IN THE MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL BOOTH.

Byline: TOM HOFFARTH The Media

He's compared the hair piece of Titans owner Bud Adams to ``artificial turf,'' warned that Dolphins kicker Olindo Mare was going to be ``raising his leg more frequently this year than a Chihuahua with a bad bladder'' and complained that the per diem at ABC was less than what the people got on ``Survivor.''

He's made references to Beowulf, the Pope, the ``sequin mines'' in Nashville, the Tigris and Euphrates, Mesopotamia, genitalia, NAFTA, Sylvia Plath, Godot, the Curse of the Bambino and, maybe worst, the thought of USA Today columnist Rudy Martzke leaping off his couch in his undies.

From TV Guide to Time magazine, The Christian Science Monitor to the Drudge Report, everyone's chimed in with reviews. All of which probably helped him land an $800,000 book deal from the crush of attention.

But Monday, the real show begins.

Is Dennis Miller a ready-for-prime-time NFL broadcaster? Or will America just not get it?

Heck, do most of the TV critics who don't know whether Miller just said ``loutish'' or ``loudish'' even get it?

``To define the perimeters, you gotta find out where the fence line is, and that's what I've been doing,'' said the shiny-new third wheel on the ``Monday Night Football'' telecast that begins the regular season with Monday's sparkling Denver-St. Louis matchup.

``I feel like I've gotten to a point where I can be judged in a clear perspective. I have expectations of myself and I'll start calibrating and dialing it in and put demands on myself.

``I'm not pleased with myself at this point, but I'm infrequently pleased when I've done something only three times. Hopefully, sometime this fall, I'll get to where I feel my bike is balanced. I feel a few times I've been up for a few seconds.''

``(By the end of the season), if I'm good, it'll be a nonstory; if I'm bad, it'll be time to weigh in like a wildebeest on the Serengeti and it'll be a fall feed.''

At a time when the art of sportscasting can be so measured, repetitive and free of personality, Miller's presence in the booth jolts the profession's foundation. If he succeeds, he'll be copied. If he doesn't, he'll be a footnote.

This could easily be the beginning of a new era, almost like how David Letterman shook up the way late-night TV talk was delivered with an ironic twist against the establishment more than 10 years ago.

Funny, but Miller also went down this road once before. As a syndicated talk-show host not long after he left ``Saturday Night Live,'' Miller bombed. Of course, he made a comeback - on HBO, where no language restrictions made a difference with his arcane reference material.

If anything this past month, Miller has quickly shown he's a knowledgeable fan who, like anyone, can get bored watching bad football - pretty much what any exhibition game turns into by halftime.

Although that experience will come in handy when the regular-season games become lopsided, they've been no real gauge of how smoothly he'll fit in with Al Michaels and Dan Fouts once the games become more important to the players and coaches - and viewers, who have the final say with the remote controls.

Critics opposed to the concept from the beginning watch with baited notepads, ready to see if he slips up on a rule interpretation or they think he mispronounces a name - especially one like referee Phil Luckett.

Miller, who goes into the game with a list of one-liners on notecards and says he preps about 30 hours a week, isn't apt to change his ways. But he already says he's learned the art of pulling back. He doesn't think it'll be a problem.

Nor does Michaels.

``We rehearsed a lot of different games - close games, blowouts, times when a player was injured and we had 15 minutes to fill,'' said Michaels, entering his 15th year as the ``MNF'' play-by-play caller. ``I can only go by what we did with (last season's) Super Bowl in the fourth quarter - Dennis laid out.

``He's very smart, extremely observant and he gets it. If he has something to say where the game develops its own frenzy, unless it's something pertinent, he'll back off. I'm confident if we get to that point in a game, he'll back off.''

Producer Don Ohlmeyer, supposedly never afraid to rock the establishment, wants to somehow hold onto the concept that ``MNF'' isn't so much about being a freak show as it is delivering a game in an entertaining fashion. Even with that fairly inaccurate depiction, he continues to think Miller will be the right fit.

``I think the publicity for Dennis has centered on his whimsical lines, but he's had some real astute observations and generated questions that have led to very interesting conversations,'' Ohlmeyer said. ``There's a lot more substance there than just whimsy.''

Adds Fouts, the Hall of Fame quarterback whose father, Bob, was a longtime play-by-play man for the San Francisco 49ers: ``I appreciate the way he prepares. He knows what he's talking about. He's like inviting a fan to your house to watch a game and finding out he knows more than you thought.

``But a lot of times, he slays me. One time, I had to take the headset off I was laughing so hard.''

TV numbers make no sense anyway, but particularly pay no attention to the fact the three ``MNF'' exhibition telecasts supposedly drew a 7.2 rating and 13 share, down 24 percent from 9.5/16 from a year ago. Two 4 p.m. West Coast starts because of network convention coverage didn't help.

Plus, people realize these ridiculous excuses for a contest aren't worth watching, even for mindless athletic viewing.

Monday's rating will be the first measurement in TV Land, but even then, it'll come with an asterisk. It's Labor Day, when many are away from home.

Regardless, the digits will be dissected every which way. And Miller will incorrectly either be given the credit or blame.

Ohlmeyer continues to remind everyone that it's a work in progress, not everyone will be pleased, but then, you can't please everyone.

In fact, if you really miss Boomer Esiason that much, he'll be on the radio broadcast with Howard David and Matt Millen. Knock yourself out.

``I'm cautiously optimistic this will be successful,'' said Ohlmeyer.

Or, if it's not, you can tune into the telecast where Miller draws a big swooping circle on the Telestrator and puts a twist on his classic ``Weekend Update'' sendoff: ``That's the game, and I am outta here.''

THE 5 KEYS TO DENNIS MILLER'S SUCCESS:

1--A rant without a face: We're used to seeing that wild look in his eyes as he delivers the punchline, the head bobbing, the smirk developing as he shakes the water bottle as his prop. Will a voice coming out of a box have the same impact?

2--Miller's ego: As he gets more comfortable with the concept and wants to jump in more with nonhumorous observation, Miller can't start pouting when he's not the center of attention and the spotlight shifts to the game. Will he be a team player?

3--Al Michaels' ego: He went from a two-man booth where he had full control the last two years. Can he grab the reins again? How much will he want to start matching barbs with Miller?

4--Don Ohlmeyer's reputation: Can he protect Miller from the NFL establishment or will he let Miller twist in the wind like golf's Gary McCord after the first big complaint from the league higher-ups?

5--Drunken fans: A big chunk of the audience will be in loud sports bars. Do they care more about what's on the screen and the pretzel bowl in front of their face instead of dissecting what's being said?

CAPTION(S):

photo, box

Photo: (color) no caption (Dennis Miller)

Illustration by Knight Ridder

Box: THE FIVE KEYS TO DENNIS MILLER'S SUCCESS (see text)
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 1, 2000
Words:1327
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