Into the Twilight Zone

updated 12/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

SADLY, DR. WILL MILLER IS SUFFERING from a classic case of Geraldo aversion complex, his comedian's need to entertain locked in conflict with his psychotherapist's need to be taken seriously. While analyzing old TV shows on Why We Watch, a series of 30-second interprogram segments on Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite, Miller, 45, a former stand-up comic, can earnestly explain that Lassie may be "unconsciously leading Timmy into disasters to keep proving she is needed." Yet the serious Miller nearly refused to host The Other Side, his new NBC daytime talk show about the paranormal, where guests have included psychics, UFO abductees and people who've had love affairs with ghosts.

"I didn't want to do it," says Miller, who not only holds multiple university degrees but is also a freelance Baptist minister. "It's very important to me to preserve my image as a legitimate professional."

To be cerebral and a clown—could Dr. Will have it both ways? Serendipitously, when NBC executives, impressed by the high ratings generated by network specials about angels and other paranormal phenomena, signed on Side as a series earlier this year, they wanted a combination sage and showman as host. Miller was their first choice, and the gamble paid off: Side, despite its late start on Oct. 17, has levitated the network's Nielsens in L.A. And Miller, despite his initial skepticism, has found himself connecting with his eccentric guests. "As a minister," he says, "I have many beliefs science can't explain. And as a therapist, I could never demean anyone's experience."

Especially with his own résumé. Miller has veered between two paths—the academic and the comedic—so many times that his life could be a soap opera called The Jung and the Restless. The second oldest of six children, Miller grew up in Brooklyn and on Long Island, the son of William, a gas-company worker, and his wife, Helen. "The whole family was funny except my father," Miller recalls. "But he'd laugh at all of us." If joking was a household ritual, Helen made sure that education was, too. At age 45, she gave up housework to earn her B.A., three master's degrees and a career as a high school principal. All her children have graduate degrees.

For Will it wasn't easy. A self-described "class clown," he says he "barely graduated" from Providence College in 1970. A year later he began working toward a doctorate in urban education at the University of Massachusetts and went on to become a state school administrator in 1975. That year he separated from his first wife, Eileen, a special-education teacher he had married in 1970. ("I was too immature," Miller explains.) Soon after the divorce became final in 1979, Miller visited a New York City comedy club. "I always loved showbiz, and I thought, 'I can do this,' " he recalls. Miller moved to the city and crafted an act in the wry observational mode of Bill Cosby. By 1982 he had a good career—a little TV, a lot of club dates—but nothing pointing to stardom.

That year Miller married a widowed high school principal named Sally Ingleman, whom he'd first met back in Massachusetts. With her she brought her children, Tamara, then 18, and Tommy, 15. ("I got them in time for adolescent rebellion and college tuition," Miller jokes.) For years, Sally, 50, admits, she was a bit reluctant to tell people her husband was a comedian. "I wanted to say, 'He's a really well-educated comedian,' " she says. "But it sounded too lame." The couple had a more serious problem—what Miller calls his fear of intimacy. "I just couldn't get close," he says. "I couldn't get intimate." He entered therapy in 1985. A lapsed Catholic, Miller was also beginning to feel "spiritually restless," he says. In 1986, drawn to the Baptist faith's emphasis on "bringing comfort and healing," Miller says he "experienced what can only be termed a call to the ministry."

He returned to school, simultaneously studying divinity at Union Theological Seminary and clinical social work at Columbia University. By 1989 he was a practicing minister, and he officiated at Tamara's wedding. Upon graduating in 1990, he began full-time work at a New Jersey therapy clinic.

Miller kept moonlighting at comedy clubs and tried to keep his religious and clinical vocations separate. But that became difficult. "Audiences were getting younger and drunker," he says. "I treat psychopaths, I don't entertain them." And constant travel was straining his marriage.

So Miller put his stand-up act on hold. In 1991 he and Sally took over a bankrupt Christian retreat in her native Indiana. There, Miller planned to start a clinic; his wife would run a crafts shop. Then the phone rang. Nickelodeon, impressed by a taped radio gig in which Miller analyzed the nascent "dysfunctions" of Beaver Cleaver's family, wanted him as its resident shrink. Will Miller, comedian, was born again.

Now in his latest incarnation, Miller says he is "having a ball and working hard" on his L.A.-based show. But he still seems to feel some ambivalence. He and his family haven't moved from their NBC-financed relocation apartment just in case Side winds up in the TV graveyard—or turns into a Frankenstein's monster. "If it comes to 'I slept with Big-foot's sister,' " he says, "I'm out of here."

JON H. BLACKMAN in North Webster, Ind.

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