EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview first posted on Feb. 6th 2014
BY BRIEN EDWARDS T.J. Miller is a funny motherscratcher, which works out well since he is also a stand-up comedian/comedic actor. Perhaps you recognize him from 2008’s Cloverfield or Get Him to the Greek or She’s Out Of My League, or How To Train Your Pet Dragon. Or perhaps you recognize the 32-year-old Denver native from Curb Your Enthusiasm, The League, and The Gorburger Show. Or No Real reason, his 2011 Comedy Central stand-up special. Or as part of the voice-acting cast of the hit Academy Award-nominated How To Train Your Pet Dragon. Variety called him one of “10 Comics to Watch” and Entertainment Weekly dubbed him the “Next Big Things in Comedy.” If you missed out on all that, you’ll have plenty of opportunities in the coming year. Miller will play his first leading role in Scot Armstrong’s Search Party. He will reprise his role as Tuffnut Thorson in How To Train Your Pet Dragon 2, and play a part in the fourth installment of the Transformers franchise, Transformers: Age of Extinction. T.J. Miller performs at the Trocadero Wednesday August 12th. The show is sold out.
PHAWKER: How old were you when you decided to become a comedian?
T.J. MILLER: Oh, geez. It’s a weird one. Comedic actor, in high school. I was like ‘I think I’m good at this. I think I want to try and do it, or pay attention to it’. And then by the end, I was also doing some improvising and doing some stand up in that class. But I decided to become a comedian – I considered it when my drama teacher had a stand-up course in her curriculum, and I did a great job. She said ‘None of you are going to be comedians. This is just for you to learn the type of performance. Well none of you except for maybe T.J.’. That was the first time I was like ‘Wait, what?’. And then in college, my sophomore year, I was like ‘I can’t do anything better than this’. This is the most that I can offer to humanity. I’ll never be a politician. I’ll never be a great scientist who discovers the cure for polio, which I’m pretty sure already has a cure, so that shows you how bad of a scientist I would be. So, I said I’ll be a comedian. So, I went full steam ahead, and now, you and I are on the telephone together. Who knows what you were doing then. Who knows what I was doing then in that moment. Now, we’re on the telephone together, spending this exact segment of our lives together.
PHAWKER: How about that. If you could be any comedian in history, who would you be, and why?
T.J.. MILLER: If I could be another comedian?
T.J. MILLER: Good question. Good question. I’ve never gotten that question. Living or dead, probably Steve Martin. Although I got to say, I kind of feel bad because he seems lonely, and I’m sure he’s by himself now. But yeah, maybe Steve Martin. And dead, W.C. Fields, without any shadow of a doubt. He had the funniest most fun life, and the best comedy of all time. He’s number, and ask Woody Allen, he’s number one. And he’s a juggler, and so am I.
PHAWKER: Let’s play worst gig-best gig. Everyone loves that game! What’s your worst show that you’ve ever had, and why?
T.J. MILLER: Brien, with and ‘i-e’, I got to tell you buddy, I’ve done so many terrible shows. Awful. Awful, awful shows. I cannot pick one. I will say this, Atlanta – because people love this story, and I want it to be out there—Atlanta, some dude rushed the stage and tried to beat the shit out of me.
PHAWKER: Oh, wow.
T.J. MILLER: We almost got into a fight. That was very crazy because his wife was heckling the whole show, and one of my specialties is eviscerating hecklers. Or just general crowd work when it’s nice, you know? So, I just took her to pieces. Not in a mean way. Like, I’m not using the C-word, but I dressed her down. She was pissed. She told her husband ‘Go up there in kick his ass’, and this dude in camo shorts, and, swear to god, a Larry The Cable Guy style vest, and a trucker hat, like ran onto the stage. I dropped the microphone, and we almost got into a fight, but security got there in time. I’m not sure I would’ve won. I’m pretty good at fighting, but this guy was pretty fucking pissed and crazy. But, that was a real bad one. The whole story is much longer but it’s pretty funny. But that one was pretty bad. And then, the best gig I ever did… [sighs]. All of them are good. Like, I had another good show the other night, where I was like ‘This is the best show I’ve ever done in my life’. You know? But, I think – yeah, this is it. I was in San Francisco, at the Punchline, which is a great club, I got on stage, started a joke, and this guy interrupted me. So, I started talking to him. Then I proceeded to rift, like improvised, rift for 45 minutes to an hour. Just make up everything on the spot. It was so fun. Great set. Great set. And then I closed by finished the joke that I had started at the beginning of the set and hour later. And I got off stage, and people were like ‘That was amazing’. And I was like ‘That was amazing. I can’t believe that somehow worked’. And then I came off stage, and the club owner, this chick Molly—she is a very respected mind in the comedy industry—she was like ‘Did you just do one joke for the last hour? Did you just improvise an hour of comedy?’. And I was like ‘Yeah, I guess so. Better give me a whiskey because I don’t know if I could do it again’. But yeah, that was the best, that might’ve been the best one ever. And the audience was so sweet.
PHAWKER: So, you auditioned for SNL. What did you do in the audition, and how did it go over?
T.J. MILLER: [laughs] You ask good questions, man.
PHAWKER: I get some help, so don’t worry.
T.J. MILLER: No, no. I like it. It’s great. Well, hey, man, it’s Philadelphia. It’s a cool city. It’s obviously going to have some cool journalist.
T.J. MILLER: Well, jeez. I don’t know. Say the question again.
PHAWKER: What did you do for your audition for SNL, and how did it go over?
T.J. MILLER: Yeah…I don’t know if we should play this one close to the chest or not. Basically, my managers asked if I wanted to go on Saturday Night Live. I was ambivalent about it, because at that point, I had been doing television, and I was doing movies, and I was like that’s the end goal of most comedians on Saturday Night Live. And I also considered it a place that can make you a bit of a lazy comedian. It can, you know? And, I don’t know. I don’t watch the show. I just don’t watch the show. I haven’t watched it in a long, long time. So, I went out there, and I was sort of ambivalent about it, and you know, it’s at night and they put you on ice, and they don’t tell you when you’re coming in. There’s also this kind of mind game to it that is also distressing to me. It doesn’t seem like it would be a collaborative environment. Like they’re trying to fuck with you head. So, they waited, waited, waited, and they finally brought me in, and I wanted to make it fun. I was like ‘This is fun’. I was excited to see all the other people auditioning. This was a huge moment in our lives. So, I brought a six pack of beer, like Oreo cookies for everybody. Like doubled-stuffed, because I was like ‘We deserve it, guys’. That was my attitude. I think everyone there was super fucking nervous, and they were competitive. It’s just kind of the way it is. It’s a huge moment in people’s lives. And for me, I do stand up, so all of this was just icing on the cake. You know? It doesn’t matter one way or another. So, I think that’s what put people off. And then there was like – I went in, and I basically did – I don’t do impressions. I just think other people are better at it. I rather be the person that someone makes impressions of somehow, and work harder on that. But, I just went in, and what I did was stand up in the beginning, and then I did these short characters that I sometimes do, which are very, very bizarre. Then I made fun of doing an impression. It was stupid. And it was well received. Seth Meyers, a buddy of mine Neal Brennan, were like ‘Yeah. He’s great. Very, very funny’. And they weren’t looking – I think just girls. Really only looking for one guy, who ended up being Bobby Moynihan. But then, I went outside. I offered people beers at the end like ‘We did it’, but everyone’s like ‘Yeah, whatever. I’m just so nervous. I hope I just got the job’. So, I went outside and met up with a couple of my buddies right outside of Rockefeller Center, and we were laughing and fucking around. And like—I don’t know. Just screwing around outside, and I think the security guard thought we were being kind of obnoxious, and he called up. He walked over and was like ‘What are you doing? Why are you guys fooling around, playing outside of here? You here for something?’. He thought we were loitering. I said ‘No, no, no. I just auditioned for SNL’, and he didn’t believe it. So, he called up, and for some reason, a bunch of rumors spread that I was crazy, and walked in and was like ‘I’m from fucking Cloverfield, motherfuckers’. Just weird shit. Because I don’t think that people could take to the fact that I came into that situation not caring if it happened or not, just being honored to audition. Like that’s your dream since you were twelve. But thank God they didn’t want me. I found more interesting work that I wouldn’t have been able to. I mean, Gorburger, you know? Selling Gorburger as a new show. If you haven’t heard of it, you should look it. It’s G-O-R-burger.
PHAWKER: Yeah, I saw.
T.J. MILLER: Oh, you’ve seen it? Alright. Like that’s amazing, and they would’ve never let me do that. That would’ve never even come into the picture of possibility. So, it’s really good. So, that’s the short – that’s the long, short version of what happened.
PHAWKER: OK. Is it true that Lorne Michaels never laughs?
T.J. MILLER: No. It is a very cold room. No one is laughing in the room. It’s some weird thing – see, that’s what I’m saying. I don’t dig how they do things anymore, you know? It’s like ‘Why not laugh?’, you know? Some people sort of chuckle, but, they’re told not to laugh in the room, I think. So, no, he does not laugh.
PHAWKER: While doing some research the other day, I found the YouTube video of faux audition as Ranger Jones for Yogi Bear, where you let a bear eat marshmallows out of your hand and out of your mouth. Couple of questions on that. First, what the fuck were you thinking, and second, how did that bear not bite your head off?
T.J. MILLER: Well, it was great. We were doing this fake audition, that I was sort of considering – maybe if someone asked me to do that—considering to do the movie. I just thought it’d be fun to do the movie. Like, I kind of did the movie as a joke. Thought it’d be funny to kind of sell out in the beginning of your career and do a family film. But also, I only get introduced in stand up as a star of Yogi Bear 3D. They don’t give any other credit. And – I don’t know. We were just filming this thing like ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I did an audition with a real bear’. So, we found a place we could rent a bear in Hollywood in some ranch. I went, and was interacting with the bear. They’re kind of giving me this whole speech ‘Don’t touch the bear. Don’t put your hands near the bear. Don’t get your hands near the bear’s face. You can’t put your arm around the bear, because he will rip and tear at your face. Don’t scare the bear. Don’t sit down or you will look like a small animal, and the bear will kill you’. All this stuff. And then, as you saw, I was interacting with the bear, and he’s like ‘Do you want the bear to eat a marshmallow out of your mouth?’, and I was like ‘What?! No. You told me not to get near the bear’s face or head’. He’s like ‘Just trust me. Put the marshmallow in your mouth and don’t move’. So, fuck it. I put a marshmallow in my mouth, didn’t move, and he comes and eats a marshmallow out of my mouth. And you know what, even the wildest of animals are tamed by a marshmallow.
PHAWKER: Also, along the lines of Yogi Bear – hopefully I pronounce this right—you were diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation. What exactly is that, and is that something that affects your life now?
T.J. MILLER: It’s a strange congenital disease that happens when you are born, when you are in the womb. It’s a cluster of arteries and veins that don’t work because they’re malformed. That’s what it is. Arties. Veins. Malformed. Arteriovenous malformation. Mine was in my frontal lobe, and what happened was it hemorrhaged just a little bit, so there was bleeding in my brain, and it was in my frontal lobe – my right frontal lobe, which is the area responsible for personality. So, I was beginning to go crazy, because if you have too much blood in that part of your brain, not only does it off balance the rest of your brain, but it’s overactive. The way that it’s over-reactive is like, you begin to be like I’m seeing things differently. I would narrate my own actions. So, when I talked to somebody I’d go ‘I’m going to start off with a compliment. Then I’m going to ask you some questions. Some of them will be flattering, others will be challenging, and by the end of it all, return to the compliment from before. We will be able to grow it, because we would have talked’. Just weird shit like that. I was playing with a lot of very strange puzzles from the early 1800’s. All the while, there’s this backdrop of Yogi Bear, which is a movie with talking cartoon bears – CGI, so they’re not there—in the middle of a forest, in New Zealand. So, that’s a pretty surreal situation. Like all the cast was kind of going crazy. And yeah, luckily, I got back, because it was exacerbated by depression and staying up really late at night. So, when I got back, I had seizures, and they took me to Cedar’s, and they told me ‘You have an AVM, usually found in autopsies, most people die from it. Like .001 percent of the world has it, and we’re going to remove it’. So they took a golf ball size of my brain, and before I went into surgery, they were like ‘We have to tell you, this has a 10 percent fatality rate. One in ten people who do this die from this operation.’
T.J.MILLER: I was like ‘What happens if I don’t do it?’. They said ‘You’ll probably die in your mid-30’s’. I was like ‘I play Craps. I’m a gambling man. Let’s do the operation’. So, I went in and did it, they took it out, and I left like a day or two later, and I never had a problem since. The only way it affects me in everyday life is taking anti-seizure and anti-manic-thinking medication. And then also, it’s pretty cool because I’ve met a bunch of people who’ve had AVM who are like ‘Hey, I heard you talk about it. Saw the video of you bringing attention about it. I had AVM, and I appreciate your comedy’. Stuff like that is really cool. It’s not like some cause that I can be like ‘We’ve got to stop using cell phones’, which is probably the reason more people are having them. But people just – you get it, or you don’t. Just like in life. You can die at any moment. People die. This guys on the HBO show I’m doing just died. So, in the way it affects my life is that I was already not particularly scared of dying. Just seems like your fear of it is useless and a waste of time. There’s nothing you can do. And when you’re dead, it’s not like you feel bad about it when you’re gone. But then, having sort of felt kind of how it felt like to die – like we were at a restaurant, finishing the shrimp appetizer, and suddenly, it was blackness. Then I woke up, and I was in an ambulance. Then it’s blackness again. It’s like blacking out when you’re drunk, it’s not that big of a deal I guess. So, that’s what helps me. So now in my life, I really do live everyday like it could be my last. And it also could. It could re-hemorrhage, and I could have an aneurism, and have a seizure.
PHAWKER: Alright. You were a guest on the Jeselnik Offensive — and you probably know where I’m going with this – you set off some firecrackers and apparently, that’s illegal?
T.J. MILLER: Eric Andre, the other comedian on the panel, he set off the firecrackers. But here’s the fucking problem with that, it’s a fucking episode of television. Eric Andre and me are buddies, and I was like ‘I’m going to do something really crazy on the Jeselnik Offensive.’ So what I did was, I found a mask, a special Hollywood mask made of his face – of Anthony Jeselnik’s face—made of rubber silicone, like Mission Impossible-style. I had it made to look like him, and I wore the mask on the show to look like he was talking to himself, while he was talking to me. And that was very insane. So, I told Eric Andre I was going to do something crazy, and he goes and buys fucking firecrackers at the local firecracker store, and set them off underneath me. It didn’t hurt, but I pretended like it was electrocuting me essentially, and then – that goes to show you with American human audience. They rather see thing blow up than see a conceptual joke about a television host that’s so narcissistic that he would love for himself to be on his own show. It’s just really, really funny. Yeah, he did set them off, and it was illegal. People freaked the fuck out, and the stopped the taping, and were super piss, but Anthony doesn’t give a fuck. You know? He’s like one of my best friends. He was like ‘Whatever’. But yeah, that was a pretty crazy episode of television. I mean, all told, that was one of the weirdest episodes of television I’d ever been on, and I was on Chelsea Lately when they had a dancing dog.
PHAWKER: Lastly, a little bit of something only a comedian could answer. Beyond the obvious answer that people laugh because something is funny, why do you think people laugh?
T.J. MILLER: Hmmm. That’s complicated territory, buddy. You have good questions. This one might be too difficult to really get into. Scientifically, there’s a lot of reasons. It’s to show people their not in a threatening situation. Someone makes fun of you, you laugh to tell them you’re not offended or going to be aggressive. But I think comedy is used as a weapon culture, a sort of magnifier, magnifying glass over anything we questioned or thought about – that way it is a medium of philosophy. But I think the main reason why people laugh is because life is so bad. It’s a tragedy. We’ve evolved to the point that we can question so many things, and meaning, that we spend out whole lives like ‘What’s it all mean? What’s happening? Why did this person die? Why did my son die from leukemia? I tried so hard to get my wife pregnant, and all she ever wanted was to have a son, and be a mother, and then he died of leukemia’. Like, that’s awful. That’s the worst thing in the world. And it’s totally unfair, and why does it have to happen? And then there’s no answer to that question. So I think people really could use laughter as a quick drug. It’s like taking a hit of something that makes you forget for a second and feel brave. Then you can return to the rest of your life. That’s what makes more people laugh, and why they’re so drawn to it. It’s becoming more and more popular because there’s more and more anxiety in the modern world that makes them feel less and less happy. More and more scared. You know, like Nancy Grace! That pit-bull, dog-faced, piece of shit, garbage can of a human being, who’s yelling at everybody, and telling them how afraid they should be, and how dangerous the world is. It’s a bunch of bullshit. Like, people are already scared of death and everything else. You’re going to make them think they’re going to get raped or their kids are going to get killed every ten seconds. So we, the comedians, sort of combat those things.
TJ MILLER PERFORMS A SOLD OUT SHOW @ THE TROCADERO WED. AUGUST 12TH