comics talk to comics

Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch and T.J. Miller Talk the Show, Success, and Time Travel

Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller. Photo: Ben Cohen/HBO

At the center of Silicon Valley is the friendship between Pied Piper’s Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs — Richard and Erlich. Part of why it’s been so great to watch is that the actors playing those roles, T.J. Miller and Thomas Middleditch, have been good friends for nearly a decade. The two met through the Chicago improv world and quickly became pals. After realizing each thought the other was the funniest guy in town, they decided to start an often poorly attended two-man show. (Look at them now, indifferent Chicago audience!) In preparation for Silicon Valley’s season finale (read our recap here), Vulture had Miller and Middleditch interview each other.

Thomas Middleditch: Now, T.J., I know you as a man with one of the strongest work ethics I’ve ever experienced. Is it a learned trait or is it something that was inherently within you?
T.J. Miller: Knowing each other for as long as we have, there’s an interesting answer to this, which is that it’s always been a difference between us. I think you have the same work ethic, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see that you don’t necessarily always apply that to comedy – to work-work. You have a strong work ethic when it comes to working at your own mind and what you need to do to be healthy and happy. I’m starting to work harder on that stuff at this point.

So, I think it’s definitely learned. [For] my family on my father’s side, work is God. You just put yourself into your work and you can do anything you want depending on how hard you want to work for it. My father really told me, seriously, if you want something, you can have it, but you may have to work harder than anyone else around you. Now, there’s a magic to that.

Okay, I’ll ask a question now too. Do you think all of the comedy that you do is borne of being an improviser? I would say — and I’ve told people this — that you may be the greatest living improviser. Zach Woods is definitely there too. He’s incredibly funny, but for my mind, and for my taste, I’d say you’re the greatest living improviser. So, how do you sort of grab all that, wrap it up, and put it into your acting?

MiddleditchAfter going to theater school, and then subsequently dropping out, I would say that when I first went to Chicago and learned long-form improv, that was a far better acting workshop than any acting school I’ve been to. I mean, I’m not saying acting school doesn’t have its merits, it totally does, but there’s something to the core level of improv, just the listening and reacting and agreeing.
Miller: I’ve taken a lot of acting classes, ‘cause I’m not a very good actor, but I still agree with you. I don’t think a class in acting or a class in stand-up is worth shit. A little bit. I think they’re good for other people, but for me, it’s all improvisation. I don’t sit and write stand-up material; I come up with an idea onstage. It’s a language that we both learned. I do think it makes you a good actor. Did you do any comedy-centric education in college?

MiddleditchNo comedy-centric education. I went to University of Victoria on Vancouver Island and their theater program. They had comedy plays. I did a Commedia Dell’arte show — two of them. We did all that kind stuff like, “What body part do you lead with?”
Miller: What body part does Richard do? What do you lead with as Richard?

MiddleditchProbably the shoulders.
Miller: I lead with the belly.

MiddleditchYou do. You lead with your pregnant belly. I would say all that stuff makes a lot of sense in the insular theater world. For me, it’s not really thought about. When you’re on film or TV, essentially you’re in front of the camera. Unless it’s a Tim Burton thing, the desire is to be real and grounded. All that kind of stuff seems way too big.
Miller: Do you usually just play a version of yourself in character?

MiddleditchI don’t think anyone can do any character that doesn’t have at least some ounce of themselves in it. You are who you are and your brain is drawing on things that you’ve experienced. You can’t just not suddenly be you. Like Heath Ledger as the Joker: That’s a guy doing a character, but he’s bringing parts of himself to that. Richard isn’t that far away from me, though. He’s someone who’s into computers and is a bit of an introvert. But at the same time, I feel like I’m way different from him.
Miller: Well, you crush pussy on the regular. My thing is I’m very different from my character. In real life, I’m a young 17-year-old girl. You know that, but not a lot of people know that about me yet.

MiddleditchNow, after being in the biz for a while, it’s not a crazy notion to have actually met some of your influences from when you were younger. Have you managed to do that?
Miller: The biggest story, and it’s not that funny, is Steve Martin. He’s my all-time icon. I got this call that he was doing a reading of his musical that’s gonna be on Broadway that he wrote with Paul Simon’s wife, Edie something. I don’t know anything about music – I certainly don’t know anything about musicals  – but I said I’d do it, of course. That was the one moment I was like, “T.J.? Get the fucking laughs. Your whole life has come up to this moment. This is your moment to make your hero laugh.” I did get one good laugh. At the end, I waited until everybody else had left, and I said, “Mr. Martin, I’m T.J. and I just wanted to thank you for this opportunity, but also, I’d be remiss not to tell you that you’re the reason I do comedy.” And I said some stupid thing like, “I thank you for your contribution to comedy. Anyway, nice to meet you, I’m T.J.” And he was like, ”No, I know who you are! You’re very funny! Thank you for doing the reading.” And I was like AHHH and I almost fell over into a big tub of tapioca.

MiddleditchWell, yeah, and the joke was probably ruined because they saw you haul that tub in there. They were like, When is this gonna come?
Miller: I don’t tell a lot of people this, but during the thing he was like, “Why is there this tub of tapioca?” And I didn’t say anything. He said, “Well, if nobody’s claiming it, then I’m gonna eat some.” Steve Martin ate a handful of tapioca out of my fucking tub, so you better believe I’m not washing that tub for a couple of years.

MiddleditchYeah, man, you should’ve known that he’s a tapioca nut.
Miller: Have you met anybody who blew your mind?

Middleditch Yeah, I guess I’ll say two short ones. I’ve had the fortune of meeting most of the Kids in the Hall. One meeting was special in particular because this was before I had gotten anything, before anything was clicking, and I just found myself hanging out with Scott Thompson. We were like, “Can we just ask you about Kids in the Hall?” And he was like, “Yeah. Is that weird?” And we were like, “No. This is the dream.”
Miller: The dream.

MiddleditchAnd then another time was when I managed to work a few scenes with Will Ferrell on The Campaign. Just my takeaway from him was that he’s been in the biz for so long, but he’s still super nice and he’s down to do just bits to pass the time.
Miller: Yeah, he’s funny.

MiddleditchAlthough I had a speaking part, to him I might as well have been an extra, but he was totally game to hang around, shoot the shit, and do comedy bits. I walked away being very impressed and thinking to myself, If I ever get to his level, I’d like to be like that.
Miller: Oh, I think you will be. And I think for both of us: Mike Judge. Amazing that we both are even just saying that. Isn’t that crazy? That’s how insane and how quickly normalized he’s become. It’s very bizarre. I still don’t think this stuff is gonna wear off for us. That we’re working with Mike Judge.

MiddleditchYeah, you get piece by piece and then suddenly like, Oh, yeah, this is good. I should be friends with Mike Judge. When in reality you feel like if you said that to your 15-year-old self, he would slap you.
Miller: He would slap you in the face and say, “Good sir, you’re a liar. Return you to the future from whence you came. Take your lies along with you.”

MiddleditchThat’s a perfect segue to my next question. T.J., the year is 2023. A scientist by the name of Alexander Breem contacts you enthusiastically over the phone. His voice is excited, incapable of restraint. You barely remember him, perhaps he was an audience member at the 50,000-capacity show in Delaware two weeks ago. It’s hard to say. But there’s no time to dally, as he emphatically demands you come to his lab. In classic T.J. style, you accept. When you arrive, Dr. Breem lifts a large canvas cloth to reveal a hulking machine that beeps and illuminates the room. “It’s a time machine,” he exclaims. “You will be the first to use it. Where would you like to go, my boy?” Well T.J., where would you like to go, and why?
Miller: Alright, the first thing that comes to my mind, I would sit in the wing and watch the Marx brothers perform live at a vaudeville show. And then try and maybe talk to them afterwards. Recently I went to Oddball Festival, and they let me stand in the wings to watch Dave Chappelle perform. I remember thinking, as it was happening, This is a lifetime, recorded memory. It’s a defining memory in my life and I’m living in the midst of it. So that would just be so fascinating to me, because I think they’re the best.

MiddleditchOkay, well, I’ll let him know. That doesn’t surprise me that of all the things to experience, you’d want to go see a comedy show.
Miller: Yeah. How long is he gonna give you to decide? Maybe you should go kill Hitler? What if you failed? God, the world would be the same as it is now except in history, you’d be known as the guy who time traveled and fucked up killing Hitler. You died in the process.

MiddleditchTheoretically, you could see a dinosaur. But you’re like, “No, I want to see the Marx Brothers.”
Miller: Yeah, well what would you see? You’d see a dinosaur? He would just eat you, though.

MiddleditchNo, I wouldn’t go to the dinosaurs. I mean, I would love to maybe hop in a space suit and see what the Earth was like 100 million years ago, but my knee jerk is – this is gonna sound crazy – 1930s Germany.
Miller: Really?

MiddleditchOnly to witness how a population could be swept up in something as crazy as that. But just to be clear, I don’t want to like tour the Holocaust – just like, Berlin.
Miller: No, I think that would be fascinating because you’re in real time watching people accept this scapegoat. Now, my other question is: What do you feel right now in this moment about the success of the show?

MiddleditchWell, in all honesty, there’s an element that doesn’t necessarily feel real. Because it’s that thing that you dream of happening that you never think is gonna happen, and if it were to ever happen, you’re kinda like, Yeah, but something will go wrong. Like each step along this way, “Holy crap, an HBO show,” “Oh my God, it’s created by Mike Judge,” “Oh my God, I get to do it with all my friends.” And then when we’re doing it, there’s a part of you that’s like, Yeah, but it’s not gonna turn out well – like it won’t be funny or HBO won’t like it. But then it turns out that no, they do like it, and they’re putting it on after Game of Thrones and before Veep. You’re like, Okay, but no one will end up liking it. No, it turns out, not only do people like it, but critics like it, and we’re getting a second season. It just sort of feels like, where’s the gut punch?
Miller: Yeah, ‘cause it’s Hollywood

MiddleditchYeah and Hollywood is filled with gut punches. We’ve experienced gut punches, so you’re like, But where’s the gut punch? And maybe we’re kidding ourselves and maybe it’s gonna happen tomorrow, but I couldn’t be happier. It’s literally the thing I’ve dreamed of.
Miller: It’s a strange thing to have people really like the show. I’ve never been involved in anything like that, and it’s mind-blowing. And it’s also the perfect one. As you said, it’s the white whale. A show on HBO. And to be with these iconic comedians and all of your friends. It’s all of these perfect things, and then people actually like it.

MiddleditchWell, T.J., next year, you are blessed with a child, a girl. However, as troubling as it is, at the age of 12 she looks shockingly like you — you know, like, everyone can tell it’s a girl, but it’s a girl version of you — what advice, if any, do you have for this young T.J. girl? Also, what’s this little T.J. girl’s name? And keep it in mind that she’s your daughter.
Miller: Uhh, you know, I think her name is Vajina [pronounced vah-heena]. And, she’s a beautiful male-looking person. It’s just, like, “I want you to know this is going to be a really hard life for you because you look like me and you’re a girl, but I just want you to know that I’ll always be there for you and you can do whatever you want, if you put enough work ethic into it, but you can never be a pretty girl because, Vajina, you look like me.” And then I would make us both turn towards the mirror and put on lipstick at the same time.  

If you have a little boy, but he looks exactly like you, what are you going to tell him? And what’s his name? It has to be Thomas. Go!

MiddleditchOkay. I’d say, “Thomas, I’m going to enroll you in swimming lessons because you’re going to be drowning in pussy.” No, that’s gross. For the Vulture article you’ll have to put in brackets, “Goes into creepy Nick Nolte impression.”
Miller: That’s exactly what you should tell a young boy of your stature and size: “Son, listen to me. You get a life raft and a life jacket because, buddy, you’re going to be floating in pussy from here to the Black Sea. You understand me?” I think it’s good advice. And then he’s like, “Dad, you’re scaring me.”

MiddleditchYeah, well if he is like me, I’d have to remind him that being sensitive is a good thing and that it’s okay to coat that creamy chocolate interior with a hard, candied shell.
Miller: I want to tell you that I imagine you giving all of this advice in a wig.

MiddleditchOf course. I’m in Big Momma’s House. All my fatherly advice plays out like a Tyler Perry movie.
Miller: Yeah, that’s right, ‘cause you tell it like it is.

MiddleditchI don’t got no time for no sassy mouth.
Miller: Yes, that’s exactly correct. Thank you so much for coming on my show.

MiddleditchThank you for coming on my show.

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