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All Ears On Dennis Miller

Dennis Miller didn't quite seem ready for the regular season. Time will tell if viewers are ready for Dennis Miller.

The comedian gave an unsteady performance in his debut with ABC's "Monday Night Football" during the preseason Hall of Fame Game between the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots, mixing in some witty remarks with on-the-job training as an announcer.

Miller was hired in June as part of a nearly complete overhaul of the show, which has seen its ratings steadily decline each of the past five years.

And he did produce what might have been expected from him and no other person with a football broadcasting job before the end of the first quarter, Miller's commentary already included references to the pope, male genitalia, and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

There were later remarks about the Socratic method, the Rosetta stone, and Sergio Leone films.

On his first outing, Miller kept his wry rants far shorter than he has on TV shows like NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and his current "Dennis Miller Live" on HBO (which play-by-play man Al Michaels, the lone on-air holdover from last season, duly plugged in the second quarter).

Much of what Miller said, in fact, sounded like scripted jokes.

He even could be heard setting one up during the second quarter of New England's 20-0 victory.

As Eric Dickerson, one of two new sideline reporters hired by producer Don Ohlmeyer, began an interview with 49ers assistant Ronnie Lott, Miller's voice awkwardly intruded with the comment, "I've got a good Lott line."

When Dickerson, who didn't try to do too much in his debut, finished, Miller delivered the line: "Ronnie Lott. Ironically, a guy named `Lott' was the guy who turned the other guys into pillars of salt."

That's OK coming from an announcer if it sounds like it's coming off the top of his head, but very little did in Miller's case during the early going.

Rather, it seemed as if he had carefully studied the team's rosters and written down riffs on names.

On Patriots Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy playing special teams: "You know lawyers they get paid by the hour."

On San Francisco's Jeff Garcia: "He's the Canadian league import with the Mexican-sounding name. A NAFTA quarterback. And trust me they'll feel free to trade him if it doesn't pan out this year."

On Garcia's backup, Giovanni "Gio" Carmazzi: "I'm surprised Carmazzi is here. I thought I heard something about a Geo recall earlier oday."

And when 49ers rookie receiver Eric Chew was involved in a play, Miller couldn't resist bringing up regurgitation.

Miller, clearly the showpiece of the new "Monday Night Football" crew, didn't appear on-camera until 6 minutes into the broadcast, as Michaels first introduced viewers to his other new cohorts Dickerson and Melissa Stark on the sidelines for the fired Lesley Visser, then new Xs-and-Os analyst Dan Fouts for the fired Boomer Esiason.

Miller, with tie knot loosened, opened by saying, "You know, Al, if there's anybody in this stadium more pumped up than me they wouldn't pass the league's standardized drug test, all right?"

Then, after a quick analysis of the Patriots during which he appeared to be looking down at notes Miller introduced himself: "As far as my personal approach to the game, well, I know a lot of you people are thinking that I won't take this seriously. But I just want you to know it is a game, but I also realize it's a game many of you take seriously.

"It's not the Vatican, but then again the pope doesn't have to go across the middle on guys like Ronnie Lott very frequently."

In the first half, Miller didn't seem sure when to talk. The 49ers' first drive passed without so much as Miller clearing his throat, but later Miller and Fouts often would jump to comment at the same time ("Go ahead, Dennis," Fouts said at one point).

They were much smoother as the game progressed.

Some other Miller observations:

"It's kind of odd to be here at Canton, the Tigris and Euphrates of football history, and look down at an artificial (turf) field, though."

"I'm not sure there's such a thing as minor groin surgery. Anyone has a sharp instrument around my genitalia, I'm thinking it's major."

Whether Miller's toned-down schtick Michaels noted in the second half there had been no need to use the censor button works with viewers will be judged by the show's ratings. This first game's Nielsen numbers should be released Tuesday.

Ohlmeyer, the "Monday Night Football" producer in its heyday with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith in the 1970s who was brought back in March, hired Miller with an eye to spicing up games just like Monday's between San Francisco and New England, two teams that finished fourth in their divisions and missed the playoffs last year.

ABC asked the NFL to move the game up an hour to 7 p.m. EDT so it would not conflict with the network's coverage of the opening night at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

Miller's next test comes at the Aug. 14 preseason game between the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans.

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