Inside Just For Laughs, Morning Talk Shows, and the Future of Comedy with T.J. Miller

Of all the funny things T.J. Miller said during his many performances at the 2014 Montreal Just For Laughs Festival, one of his best lines came in his introduction of Andy Kindler for the State of the Industry address, which was part roast/part tribute.

“I’m trying to mix sentimentality with humor,” Miller said. “Just like in Yogi Bear 3D.”

Miller’s ability to make fun of his roles in Yogi Bear 3D, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and other critically panned franchises, which he does frequently, is what makes him so beloved in the comedy world. He’s in a weird position in that he’s a successful actor with roles in Hollywood blockbusters (plus the Emmy-nominated Silicon Valley on HBO), while at the same time never letting any of that go his head and maintaining his place in the standup world as a lovable goofball.

Miller can also be very serious about the craft of comedy, which I learned during a 2:00am interview in a hotel bar after one of his Montreal shows. We talked about his show, fame, and his bizarre morning news appearances.

What did you think of the show?  To me you crushed it.  But how do you evaluate…

[Editor’s note: Miller was interrupted by fans several times during the interview, including the following exchange.]

Random Woman: Hi.  Sorry to bother you.  I don’t even know who you are.  Sorry about that too.

Miller: That’s what everybody says, often.  It’s true.

Woman: I truly don’t.  Somebody told me all of your movies earlier and I don’t know.  I’m sorry.

Miller: It’s OK.  What can I do for you?

Woman: Do you have any idea where the tent party is?

Miller: No, I don’t.

Woman: Thank you.  I told him you wouldn’t.  I’m sorry to bother you.

Miller: Please no you didn’t bother me.

Woman: Have a very good night.  Thank you.

Do you often get asked directions at these festivals?

Yeah, that’s primarily what I do here.  For years I was a crossing guard.

I like how she was adamant about it too.  “I don’t know who you are.  I just want to make that clear.”

I’m getting girls coming up “Hey, I don’t know who you are, but my friends say you’re famous so are you?  Like who are you?”  And I’ll be like, “I’m not famous because you don’t know who I am.”  “Well then who are you what are you from?”

It’s self-defeating if you’re saying you don’t know who I am.

I know enough to know to bother you.

So I just want to know how you feel about a show like that?  How much of it is scripted?  So much of it feels loose and you’re just in the moment reacting.

First of all I appreciate you coming and talking to me after the whole festival.  Because that was my last set and it felt like it was a weird mix of like an audience that required me to switch gears and do older material.  It also felt like I could improvise.  I riff in every single set.  I have to.  Otherwise I feel like I’m doing a disservice not only to myself, but to the audience and that’s kind of where I’m at with it.

Do you go in there with a skeleton of what you want to say or…

Yeah, I’m finding that it really sometimes can be an uphill climb to do accessible material and absurdism.  The more absurdist I get the more the audience has to be there.  Otherwise it’s not quite, it’s not the best.  Because people just aren’t used to seeing that, and what I learn from my show is that I have to be more careful about who I’m bringing up.  Like if I could have Noel Fielding opening for me and Brent Weinbach and guys like that then people are going,  “oh, this is going to be weird.”  But tonight I think I came out and was bizarre enough that they were like “What is this?  What is this supposed to be?”  So then I have to bounce back a little bit and go to something that’s more accessible and then I try to give something that’s more absurdist.  And what was strange is this is my big show, this last show at 11:30, and you know I’m up at 12:30am and they’re drunk and you forget that it’s like any other comedy show where you have to deal with those factors.  So that was an interesting experience for me too because I think I went out there being like now I can let my hair down and really, you know, deal with this.

Are you conscious of the industry present?

No, I said this to my manager and agent that this was the only show I was a little self-conscious about because I knew they were there. But I knew the TV taping went really well.   And the TV warm up went well.  And the energy of opening for Andy Kindler, which is like this huge honor for the State of the Industry, went well and the Doug Loves Movies was really fun.  But I realized that I went into this show with the same attitude that I did with the Doug’s podcast and it’s not lax because Doug as an audience knows what it is and you can all just chill and joke around.  And this audience, I think, was expecting something a little more polished and accessible than I had. But I was expecting they would be more open to the absurdist stuff so like with everything it’s a real give and take.   And I went and saw Pete Holmes before this and he was telling the audience directly, “I don’t know what to think of you guys and I know you don’t know what to think of me.”  So I think people have had that experience with Canadian audiences.

You handled that drunk heckler well.  I was impressed with how in control of your thoughts you are when you are up on stage.

That is one thing I do have control over.  I don’t have control over how drunk they are or what time it is or that this girl wants to be a part of the show and she will do it at the expense of other people, but I do have control over waiting a second and deciding how to respond.  And there’s a lot of math that’s going on: “You know this girl is maybe not being malicious.  I can’t be too harsh on her.”  I don’t always make the right decision.

But you have to compute that in nanoseconds. 

You need to make some snap judgments that aren’t always right.  But the main focus is always the audience as a whole.  So how do I not let myself and my own initiatives get in the way of an audience that I’m coming to serve.

You mentioned before how you have to riff for your show.  Does it make comedy more exhilarating for you? 

It makes it more fun.  It seems more organic, to use a really shitty actor word for you and I’m not an actor, but it does. I think that they see the energy is different.  I see the energy being different.  It’s more fun for me and I think it’s more fun for them.  But ultimately this has nothing to do with me.  It’s just about the audience because I’m there to serve them.

So I’m an old school fan.  Like Blerds fan.  I’m from Chicago.

Yeah, that’s some real Chi-town shit right there.

And that’s what basically became Mash Up.

Yeah we took that and made Mash Up.  I wanted to have everybody involved in Blerds to be involved, and the directors were sort of just focused on it being a successful show on Comedy Central.  Both are the correct approaches.  One is more about loyalty and the other is about success.

I just wanted to ask about that scene.   

That scene itself was really lucky.  It was very fortunate.  I visited Chicago the summer of my junior year in college and I did a little standup. I wanted to go to Chicago because that’s where the bible of improvisation was which is Truth in Comedy by IO. So I went from there to, I don’t know, I saw something in that scene so I returned to there thinking like “they will remember me,” but they didn’t.  And then I fought my way into the rooms.  And there was something very special about how all these people went to Chicago and they were working there and it was just about the comedy.  There was no industry.  Everybody was so innovative and so funny.  There was something to that.  There was competition but it was not to be successful in Hollywood or get on television it was to compete with the other people who were so ingenious.  Nick Vatterott, I would watch him every week and be like “I gotta get it together.  I gotta do better. ”

You’re pushing each other.  So it was you, Vatterott, Hannibal…

Hannibal, Pete Holmes, Kumail, Kyle Kinane, Matt Braunger.  Yeah, I mean Kyle and Matt were a little bit further along, but yeah Hannibal, Pete, Kumail, Vatterott, Sean Flannery, C.J. Sullivan, this guy Pat Brice who died it’s a tragedy he was so funny. Mike Holmes, Mike Bridenstine, Mike Burns—he’s DadBoner on Twitter.  There was some incredible talent there.

There wasn’t nearly as much opportunity then, right? Only a couple times during the week you could do open mikes?   

That’s one of the reasons I think we did well because you could get up every night of the week but you had to really fight for it.  And then Hannibal and I were the guys who at the end of the night went to three different fuckin’ music open mikes because it’s its own thing that way. There’d be a guy doing a John Mayer cover song and I’d have to do my John Mayer acoustic material.

When did you know you were ready to move?

You hit a glass ceiling and I was ready to move to New York, actually, and then I got work in Los Angeles.  Everybody goes, “Don’t leave until you’ve got a reason to go out there” and I disagree.  When you’ve gotten what you need out of a scene then you leave.  You can stay a little longer and try to develop but you’ve gotta leave.  I know a lot of great comedians in Chicago or improvisers or sketch comedians who just stay too long.   It was just not the right decision.  Different people have different reasons to leave or stay and I don’t fault anybody.   I used to think work ethic was the most important thing.   Perform every night and get as many reps as you can.  And Pete Holmes isn’t that way and he is a better comedian than I am.  It’s different approaches to the same thing, which is developing the right material and the right stage persona.  For me, the right prop comedy.   [laughs]

So when you go out to LA do you have to be really confident?  Do you walk in that place like you own it? 

You can and they won’t give a shit.  I was on television, I was in Cloverfield. I would go to rooms and be like “Hey, I’m on this ABC television show.”  And the guy goes “Uh, you’re on TV?  Look around.  Everybody in here was.  Call me when you got something to tell me.” You just have to do open mikes like anywhere else.  And you gotta get to a point where you tape or enough people are talking about you.  It’s just you’re working and you’re working to make your way up in a very difficult industry.  It’s like anywhere else.  Just like the textile mills.

Cloverfield was your first role?  That’s a pretty big part for your first movie.  How does that happen?

I had to shoot a third of the movie.  And most of the time I was behind the camera. And it didn’t even connect with me.  I had a weird thing. And then I went and did She’s Out of my League and that was a costarring lead role.  I did it backwards.  Then Yogi Bear happened.  I sold out as a family guy/comedian.  It comes from always thinking of everything as a performance for the people in the room.  So that’s what auditions are for me as well.

Did you take acting lessons or anything like that? 

I started acting in high school and college. You know when I was working I was doing one to three sets a night seven nights a week never taking a break except for holidays.  Then on weekends I would take improv classes and if I wasn’t performing I would watch comedy, take acting classes, and voiceover stuff.   But it was really important to me to become proficient or good at every medium of comedy.

That was your mindset?  Workaholic.

Successful workaholic.

Congratulations on the Emmy nomination. 

That’s crazy.  For a season–only eight episodes, but it’s Mike Judge.  He’s an icon. To work with him and he makes me a better comedic actor. I was in Extract, and he forces me to be more subtle than I’d like to be.  And that might be another thing.  Standups are more inclined to be more broad than they need to be.

Has anything changed now that you have the Emmy nomination?  Like do you have a team now? [laughs]

No just everyone is betraying me, needs money, and parasites have come out from the woodwork.  You know, I don’t think so.  I’m now on the precipice of something very big and it’s a weird thing.  I’ve always been afraid of fame.  It’s an unfortunate side effect of being a successful entertainer.  It’s weird.  People come up to me on the street all the time and want pictures and they draw strange drawings for me and frame them.  It means a lot to me and it means people are connecting to what I’m doing, but it also means there’s a weird shift in the paradigm.

[Editor’s note: another fan approaches Miller.]

You’re in a weird stratosphere now.

It’s bizarre.  It’s uncomfortable.

Do you do anything to keep yourself grounded? 

I mean, I have family and my girl is great.  I’ve known her since college.  We’re getting married.  It feels like that’s really helpful and I have good friends around me.  But it’s fuckin’ strange man.  Shit changes, and it’s Hollywood, and once you get to a certain level people sort of drop the veiled niceties and are a little bit more open about “There’s a lot of money at stake, this is what we want, you got to do this” and that’s scary.  It’s a new type of thing.  I always joke that it’s an ugly empty place and Los Angeles is a terrible strip mall of a city, but what are you gonna do?

Going back to Silicon Valley, was Erlich written specifically for you?  I can’t see anyone else playing that character. 

John Altschuler and Mike Judge, who created the show, came to me early and said I think you should be this character Erlich.  And I said no I think I should be Big Head, the friend of Thomas Middleditch’s character.  And he said no trust me you need to be Erlich.  And Mike was like “I see him as a dumpy pony tail guy and I don’t see you in it.”   Same thing with Extract and I had to again say, “I’ll change my appearance I’ll do whatever it takes.  I can become what you need me to become.”  He gave it a shot and then they gave me some leeway.

Can we talk about your morning television appearances?

I love it. I want to do a gallery on my website —because those are each little pieces of comedy/performance art.  I saw Tracy Morgan do something once that was just unbelievable.  It was so good and I was blown away by it.  It made me laugh so hard.  And I watched it again and again. It made me think why wouldn’t everybody aspire to this?  So that’s where it kind of came from and I find that they love it.

Are comedians who hate morning radio and television missing out on an opportunity there?

The people who are interviewing you love it.  They are so sick of seeing the same shit over and over again.

So how many of those have you done now?

Like 15 or 20 and they’ve all been bizarre.  Different levels.  The Omaha Morning Blend was truly exceptional… A Slim Jims campaign and a Motorola commercial or whatever it is–it’s all comedy.

You don’t have any interest in any sort of dramatic role?

No.  There are people who are better at that than me.  I don’t find that particularly engaging.  I don’t know.  Watch in ten years I’ll be gunning for a Scorsese line in Departed 8—that’s where Hollywood is going to head.

[laughs] I guess I’m wrapping up here.

I’m sort of in love with you man.  I love this site and there’s something very interesting, special, exciting about the future of comedy.  It’s like the new rock n’ roll.  People are paying attention to it.  There’s this genre-fication going on where people identify with different comedians like they would bands.  And sites like Splitsider–all of them–are helping that.  They are showing people what’s behind it.  People want to know the process.  It’s really interesting.  People are paying attention to reviews and all of that.  So that’s a weird thing to be in the eye of that storm working.

It’s crazy how much comedy is exploding right now.  It’s raising the bar.  People are getting better and better. 

The next generation will be super comedians.  Because I consumed as much comedy as I could.  It was records, it was CDs, it was watching Comedy Central non-stop.  Now everybody has access to the Internet—to anything at any point.  If you really want to do it—you can watch thousands of hours in every era of comedy. So they’re going to be better than any of us could be because we don’t have the access to that type of source material.

How do you keep getting better every year? 

Keep working.  I just work so much. Now it’s like, I was an absurdist, and I was pretty good at that.  I’m not a political comedian, and I’m not a social commentary guy.  But I did realize I read a lot of philosophy. Like Nietzsche and Socrates.

Does that inform your comedy?

It’s beginning to bleed into it.  That’s what I’m interested in—injecting philosophy in with a mix of absurdism and to talk about stuff like death.  It’s fun to talk about politics, it’s fun to talk about government, it’s fun to talk about the difference between men and women and relationships and all that stuff.  But there are some very big issues people aren’t talking about and I find that to be the release of the death, anxiety and just happiness.  Making your own meanings.  I’m in to the existential school of philosophy and trying to communicate that without sounding pretentious, which I’m already self-conscious about in this interview.

Phil Davidson writes about, performs and produces comedy.

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