Watching Jerry Seinfeld and Dennis Miller kick it together on Miller's lamented, long-gone late-night HBO show back in 1997 — courtesy of YouTube — there's no clue these two young comedy lions would land in such different places years later.
Hair swept back in a generationally appropriate sorta mullet, Seinfeld is the relaxed smart aleck, ribbing his host for greeting callers with a flash of chit chat. Miller, clearly enjoying the company, is urging his pal Seinfeld to riff on driving, prodding him into a half-finished complaint about signal lights.
Sixteen years later, both men appear at different Tampa Bay area theaters on the same day — prime specimens of a certain generation of standup comic, now in very different career moments, as well.
Seinfeld, 58, stepped away from one of TV's most admired sitcoms with a pile of money (Forbes estimates his wealth at $800 million), living the life of a celebrity retiree. He indulges whatever project crosses his mind, from a podcast with comedian buddies to an animated movie about bees, keeping his standup chops strong by booking shows he needs no advance publicity to sell out.
Miller, 59, works hard for his money, turning a 9/11-inspired conversion toward hardcore conservatism/libertarianism into work as a Fox News commentator, a nationally syndicated radio show, stand up appearances and a speaking tour with Fox News buddy Bill O'Reilly.
A showbiz expert might say the difference between the two men is that Seinfeld created a hugely successful sitcom and Miller did not.
But Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University who specializes in studying popular television, suggested their difference was about something else. The rerun.
"Reruns on television create legacy brands," he said. "You say the word Bob Hope to one of my students, and even though he's done lots of movies and is considered a comedy legend, they don't really know him … because he didn't go into reruns."
Seinfeld not only created one of the most successful and admired sitcoms in history, he gets to see his best work played and replayed on TV stations and cable channels across the world.
"Dennis Miller was on Saturday Night Live, which doesn't rerun well," Thompson added. "All the stuff he did went into that same territory that guys like Fred Allen, Bob Hope and even Johnny Carson went into. While they're doing it, everybody might be paying attention, but they didn't make it into that level of immortality, (which is) rerun-ability."
Some have also suggested that when Miller decided to play to conservatives, he stopped being funny.
Once he was known as a gleeful critic of George H.W. Bush and his son George W., offering this bon mot from 1988: "Now let me get this straight: (George H.W.) Bush is antiabortion, but pro-death penalty. (long pause) I guess it's all in the timing, huh?"
But in his succession of gigs on Fox News, Miller's fire has moved to other targets. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi is "stop-an-electric-fan-with-your-tongue stupid" and Democratic leader Harry Reid's speeches are so boring "I keep expecting the team from CSI to run out and draw a chalk line around the podium."
In contrast, Seinfeld works his comedy bits like a craftsman, every line carefully developed and considered. In Clearwater two years ago, the punchlines often came in a machine gun spray: Hating Facebook ("They don't make a 'get outta my Facebook,' do they?"), despising TV weathermen ("There's no five-day forecast; they're just yankin' us on that one") or certain senior citizen walking aids ("Let me just say, if you need brakes on your walker, perhaps you've been misdiagnosed.").
Thompson suggested that Seinfeld's middle of the road approach also kept him in the middle of the culture; never too hip or too stodgy. But Miller, with his grab bag of often-obscure culture references, has moved from hippest guy in the room to the old guy railing at liberals for failing the country.
"Dennis Miller is a metaphor for the human lifespan," the professor added. "You start out and you're the kid cutting through the old guy's lawn and … you become the old guy yelling at the kid. He seems to be appealing to that (baby boomer) demographic that was once considered young and hip, but is not that, anymore."
Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected]