TV's Newest Mouth -- Dennis Miller Is A New Breed Of Talk-Show Host

You probably already know something about Dennis Miller's resume; now check out his references.

A partial tally since Miller's new late-night TV talk show premiered two weeks ago:

References to the Spanish film director who founded surrealist cinema: 1.

References to pop songs by Bobby Goldsboro, Right Said Fred, Wang Chung or Emerson, Lake and Palmer: 4.

References to "Bullwinkle" and other old TV shows, Ginsu knives or the German word for the satisfaction obtained from observing the troubles of others: 9.

"The Dennis Miller Show" is probably the only talk show you'd want to watch accompanied by a copy of E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s "Cultural Literacy" instead of TV Guide.

He even references his own references - part of being a postmodern, self-conscious, deconstructivist, hip kind of host. Miller is certainly that. At the end of one show he even provided a handy list of suggested reading for the next night's program, including T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land."

You may remember Eliot. Not the guy with the painted ties and a wife with cancer on "thirtysomething," but the guy you studied in English class who wrote stories and arranged them on the page like poems.

You know: "In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Johnny and Jay Leno."

Or words to that effect.

Television, as you may have noticed, is glutted with talk shows, with talk about talk shows these days squeezing out cocktail-party chatter about Michelangelo or Topo Gigio.

You probably have heard that David Letterman, who celebrates his "Late Night" 10th anniversary with a 90-minute prime-time special on NBC tonight (Channel 5, 9:30 p.m.), has been acting a bit cranky lately and might leave the network. And we all know that Johnny Carson, who owns blazers older than Dennis Miller, is abdicating his late-night throne on NBC's "The Tonight Show" this May, with Jay Leno taking over as host.

The Carson vacuum might suck late-night TV right off its axis, some programming strategists reckon. That in turn could send dazed viewers wandering off in search of a new show to keep them from getting a solid eight hours of sleep.

A show like Dennis Miller's, perhaps.

Miller has said he doesn't expect to reinvent the talk show, and he doesn't - but some pleasant tinkering is in evidence. Miller assumes the traditional talk-show host position. But his seat is a high-backed wooden swivel chair of the style favored by small-town librarians, and his desk is a swanky wood-inlaid, Frank Lloyd Wright-esque, Arts and Crafts-inspired hummer.

The show still needs some polishing, sure. Even when asking a serious question, for example, Miller sometimes sounds like he's a kid at a funeral who's barely suppressing a laugh.

He can touch that long hair of his too much, too.

"I'm thinkin' of checkin' into the Schick Get-Your-Hand-Outta-Your-Hair Center," Miller quipped after he and guest Christian Slater went to their scalps more times than would a spitball pitcher.

We hope the 12-step program won't interfere with his show. Faults and all, it's a welcome addition to the midnight hour.

With all due respect to king Carson, "The Tonight Show" castle has never looked that impenetrable to us younger viewers who enjoy a good "Lost In Space" reference more than another hoary Carnac the Magnificent routine.

As kids, we cajoled our parents to let us stay up to watch Johnny because it made us feel grown-up. We kept watching in college because it beat studying. Later, "The Tonight Show's" most useful function seemed to be as the friend who rode shotgun on a roadtrip - we hoped Johnny would keep us awake so we could stay between the white lines and make it to Letterman.

Eventually we got better jobs, learned how to program our VCRs, and started falling asleep during the local news. (Our parents, by the way, own VCRs that still flash 12:00 all day, and still enjoy Johnny's opening monologue.)

Now comes Dennis Miller, sardonic stand-up comedian and former cast member on "Saturday Night Live," where he hosted a weekly mock newscast. His new hour-long show is syndicated nationally, airing locally on KSTW (Channel 11) and KVOS (Channel 12) at 11:30 p.m.

Arsenio Hall is slick and glittery, our entre to the El-Lay in-crowd. Letterman is the Hoosier-in-Hell, spokesman for the alienated, a man chafed to the snapping point by New York City, where the uncollected garbage can grow as high as an elephant's eye. Carson's appeal is wide as a Nebraska cornfield - millions of heartlanders feel comfortable calling him by his first name.

Miller is not your father's Oldsmobile, a point that last Friday night's program drove home.

Miller was talking to his first guest, former "SNL" castmate Dana Carvey. Carvey did a few seconds of his Miller impersonation, full of hair touches and "babe" - part of the show-bizzy nouveau beatnik-speak that Miller often lapses into, where people are "cats" and good times are "a gas."

Then Carvey mimicked Carson, setting up a clip from Carvey's upcoming "Wayne's World" movie:

"For those of you who don't know what a clip is," said Dana-as-Johnny, "we take a little piece of the movie and take it out just sort of on loan. We show it on the monitors - you can watch it, and you'll have things go into your mind, you'll see images in your brain. It's a little weird, a little wild. . . "

But first, this reference to the '70s "Hardy Boys" TV series: "Lookit us together here," said Miller, catching a glimpse of himself and Carvey, both eyeing the monitor with boyish earnestness, "like Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson. . . `Did you get the license plate?! "

It was a little weird, a little wild, uh-huh.

Like seeing the past, present and future of television without having to change the channel.