Though you may know T. J. Miller best for his role as the overweening wannabe tech guru Erlich Bachman on HBO’s Silicon Valley — a show he recently exited and about which he vented some sour feelings in a widely read interview with The Hollywood Reporter — he’d rather, as he tells me (multiple times), you consider him a nihilist, an absurdist, a provocateur. “People need a villain, and I’m occupying that space,” says Miller with, I assume, mock profundity while seated at a table in a grim, grass-free park in Tribeca. It’s a cloudy summer day. The rumpled Miller, dressed in a red warm-up jacket and wearing a gaudy gold chain, has arrayed a bottle of Mucinex, a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, three small bottles of water, and some sort of facial misting spray on the table before him. “After the election, I realized that there was a gap,” he says in response to what I thought was a straightforward question about why, in that THR interview, he spoke poorly of Silicon Valley showrunner Alec Berg and detailed the boredom he felt working on the critically acclaimed show. “Nobody right now is publicly the Lindsay Lohan–train wreck–but–not–quite person. If I’d just said it was an honor to work on Silicon Valley and was thankful to Alec Berg, I would have disappeared. Instead, by being just a little authentic, I infected the news cycle.” He spritzes his face and clarifies further. “It’s more important to be polarizing than neutralizing. That’s my position.”
As it turns out, Miller — tall, scruffy, and slightly antic — has positions on a great many things, most of which skew villainous or maybe just honest. He admires the comedians Pete Holmes and Patton Oswalt, but of Louis C.K., he says: “He doesn’t say anything surprising anymore.” On Aziz Ansari: “He’s very good at what he does … like Dane Cook.” And on why, in his view, women aren’t as funny as men: “They’re taught to suppress their sense of humor during their formative years.” He also, should you care to know, has positions on Nietzschean moral relativism (“Frustrating, because it’s so dangerous”) and Hollywood kingmaker Ari Emanuel (“He only cares about money, collecting chips. That’s why I defected from him and WME [William Morris Endeavor]”). And don’t forget New York City, where he and his wife, mixed-media artist Kate Gorney, just relocated from Los Angeles: “It can be very lonely,” he says, but it does have “transcendent pizza.” After a brief digression on the Stoic philosophers, Miller turns to his publicist, whose presence at the table was a condition of his doing this interview, and asks, “It’s entirely inappropriate to smoke marijuana, right?” She says it is. He frowns, then face-spritzes. I ask what the spray is, and he says, “It’s embarrassing for you that you don’t know.” (It is, according to the bottle, Evian Natural Mineral Water spray.)
Watch T.J. Miller discuss his bizarre pre-show comedy rituals.
Just for context — though what is context really, since according to Miller we live in a “post-meaning society” and his words have “no teleological destination” — it helps to know that the current line on the 36-year-old Denver native, whose absurdist (sure, we can call it that) HBO stand-up special Meticulously Ridiculous premiered in June and who voices the lead character in the upcoming animated film The Emoji Movie, is that he’s either launching toward bigger stardom or he’s burning up in the atmosphere. Though his recent career has been atypical, Miller had a fairly typical route to Silicon Valley. After graduating from George Washington University, this child of an attorney and a psychologist moved to Chicago to pursue comedy, eventually hooking up with Second City’s touring troupe. From there, it was a relatively quick ride to Hollywood, where he worked steadily in film (Cloverfield, Yogi Bear) and TV (sitcoms like Carpoolers and The Goodwin Games) before Silicon Valley provided the ideal outlet for his Rabelaisian-stoner persona.
Then, earlier this year, he and the show’s creators parted ways. (As for the character of Erlich, he was last seen on the show in a semi-permanent induced opium stupor.) “I know it’s hard for people to understand, but I don’t really care about movies or TV,” Miller says. “Stand-up is always going to be the foundation of what I do. If Hollywood fired me tomorrow, I would be like, ‘Finally, I can relax.’ ” Then why not quit? Miller rolls his eyes. “Contradiction,” he says, “is something to pursue rather than avoid.”
It was easy to read that THR interview — in it, he also insinuated that his co-star Thomas Middleditch angled for more and funnier lines — as a middle finger raised as someone backs out the door. (HBO declined to make Berg or Silicon Valley co-creator Mike Judge available for comment.) But despite that, and despite odd extracurricular activities like being arrested for an alleged fight with an Uber driver after an argument about Donald Trump (Miller says the driver lied and there was no fight) and a testy hosting gig at the 2015 TechCrunch awards ceremony (during which he called an audience member a “bitch”), Miller isn’t exactly contrite. “Her organization,” he says, in the direction of his publicist, “told me, ‘You don’t want to have a reputation as someone who trashes producers.’ Well, talk to every other producer I’ve worked with. All I have a reputation for is being kind and grateful and” — face-spritz — “possibly a loose cannon that’s uninsurable.”
No one seems to have been scared off yet. Miller is signed on to reprise his role as Weasel in Deadpool 2, and he’ll soon co-star as a bounty hunter in the Steven Spielberg–directed sci-fi film Ready Player One. Also forthcoming is a role alongside Kristen Stewart in the action-thriller Underwater, in addition to his stand-up career and his Comedy Central series The Gorburger Show, in which Miller voices the title character, a big blue alien puppet monster who hosts a probing talk show.
Miller views his busy schedule as evidence that, contrary to what others might think, leaving a show like Silicon Valley, as acclaimed as it was, and a role, like Erlich, that seemed tailor-made for him, remains the right decision. “My goal,” he says, “is to distract people from the tragedy of the impermanence of everyday life. And I can do that best by oversaturating the market. Statistically, I give people a better chance of laughing if I do film, stand-up, improv, podcasts, TV, advertising” — he’s currently a pitchman for Mucinex and Slim Jims — “than if I just say ‘What’s a bigger TV show I can be on?’ I’m not making things for wannabe intellectual hipsters complaining on Reddit. I’m doing The Emoji Movie and Deadpool 2 for people en masse.” He finishes a bottle of water and then crushes the plastic empty in his hand. “In the American Zeitgeist,” he says, “you have to recognize that there is no Zeitgeist.” He nods solemnly to me. “Use that.”
After talking for, well, not that long, Miller gets antsy. He interrupts when I start another Silicon Valley question. “Where are you from?” he asks, then makes small talk about my life for a few minutes, only to abruptly conclude by saying, “That was a trick. If you ask somebody about themself in the middle of them asking about you, then they’re flattered and ask you nicer questions during the interview.” Then, this time in the middle of a question about the risk of being relegated to the bland Hollywood roles that burly, force-of-nature comedians tend to get slotted into, he interrupts again. “Do you think you’re good at your job?” he asks. I don’t think I’m great at it, I say. “I agree,” he says, finishing another bottle of water and again crushing the empty. “That was another trick. By my asking that, you thought, Is he playing a trick right now? And that made you feel like you were ahead of the game.” He leans back in his chair, surveys the park, and says, “I wish we were doing the interview in a bar and not a gravel pit.” At this point, so do I, and I suggest switching locations. “No,” he says. “You don’t seem like the kind of guy who knows where the bars are.”
Miller empties and squashes a third bottle of water. The maxims are coming fast. “There’s no point in moderation … Every American’s job in this capitalist society is to consume content … If nothing means anything, then anything can mean everything.” Suddenly, Miller produces five dice from his pocket. “Do you like to gamble?”
I don’t, but after he agrees to stake me 20 bucks, we play a game of chance called Ship, Captain, Crew. “Never, ever,” Miller says after I win, “trust someone who brings their own dice to the table.” He explains that this was another trick; his dice were loaded and he would’ve made sure to win once I was in for enough money. As it stands, he owes me $40.
Miller, who twice tells me he studied persuasion theory in college, reaches for his wallet. He doesn’t have the cash. “Do you have $40?” he asks his publicist. She doesn’t. “Well, you’ve brought absolutely nothing to the table!” he says. We get up to go. As we walk, a young businessman with slicked-back hair passes us and yells “Erlich!” Miller mutters, “That’s why I had to quit Silicon Valley.” When we reach my office building, Miller spins in the revolving door a few times with an intentionally dumb smile on his face. Then he exits. “I appreciate that you didn’t ask a ton of questions about Silicon Valley,” he says before disappearing, presumably off to continue his campaign of polarization, into a waiting SUV.
Photographed at the James Hotel, New York.
*This article appears in the July 24, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.