From the moment I get on the phone with comedian/actor/absurdist T.J. Miller, he is performing. “Hello, hey, Mr. Fragoso. Fragoso … is that Icelandic? Maybe Greenlandic?” It is neither, and he knows it, but it’s a fitting way to kick off our sprawling conversation, which went on for over an hour while Miller sat in his hotel room in Vancouver, where he is shooting Fox’s new X-Men spin-off, Deadpool, with Ryan Reynolds. There is a controlled chaos to Miller both in conversation and on stage. It’s hard to tell when the Denver native, with his unkempt curly hair and broad smile, is telling the truth and when he’s crafting a bit. The tongue seems to be eternally planted in the cheek of Miller, but perhaps it’s not. Whatever the case may be, the emerging comic will return as the boisterous and hirsute Erlich in Silicon Valley when Season 2 premieres on HBO April 12th (after the complete first season hits Blu-ray and DVD).
Tell me about “Wet Garbage: the new fragrance by Hot Trash, a line of discerning smells.”
We are in development of a perfume. A fragrance line. We’re working with the people who do the scents for Polo Ralph Lauren. We’re just trying to do different stuff. “Wet garbage, toddler body,” and my wife, Rose Petal Pistol, is doing a self-titled perfume and also a perfume called Boozy Brunch, which is supposed to smell like you’ve had a good Saturday or Sunday morning.
And then “Straight Dumpster Sex?”
Well yeah that’s just straight up like dumpster sex. Like you’ve been passionately in love with someone you couldn’t help but make love to them in a dumpster.
I wasn’t sure if it meant literally having sex in a dumpster, or if the sex was just bad.
No, no never. No sex is like garbage I don’t think. I also wanted to do a line called “Trannie Dumpster Sex,” but we had a big conversation about that and Kate [Pistol] felt it was a little insensitive.
Perhaps that’s a good place to start. Are there subjects you won’t touch in your comedy?
Not really. My stand up is dirty, but not offensive. I’m not trying to be edgy, necessarily. I won’t say the “N word” on stage, but I did talk about it in a recent bit. There’s stuff that wouldn’t be offensive, but I think other people can do it better than me. Like political humor: That’s not something I touch on. It doesn’t interest me quite as much. And if I’m doing social satire it’s not usually explicitly social satire. It has an absurdist element to it.
What was the “N word” bit?
It’s about how morality is relative. I talk about saying the “N word” and then not only not giving money to a homeless person of any ethnicity, but also not even looking them in the eye as they ask for a dollar that they need and you have. And you’re not going to give it to them. But this is true actually: I have given a dollar to every homeless person that’s asked for one, or had a conversation with them about how I couldn’t because I didn’t have money on me or I just had given money to three other people. So then I ask, “Does that make me a better person than you? So what if I’ve been doing that, but you know that I also use the "N word” sometimes? But I only use the “N word” in the company of my own house.“
So you look all homeless people in the eye.
You better believe it. And usually I give them a dollar.
That sounds like something a good person does. Or maybe a crazy person.
Yeah, exactly, but what about a really crazy good person? Like he’s the craziest good person I’ve ever met in my life.
Is that what you’re going for?
I think so, yeah, in general. I want sort of my madness to represent what a great guy I am.
Have you always wanted to do comedy? I’m not familiar with your origin story.
My origin story involves a radioactive spider.
I know there’s a Marvel movie in development about something similar.
[Laughs.] I didn’t know you could be a comedian in the beginning. So when I was in grade school, even in high school, I thought, "Oh, if you’re funny and you want to make a living off it you have to be a funny actor.” I had been in the plays in high schools and did the funny parts. And then I got to college and I joined this very prestigious improv group at George Washington University in D.C. And I said to them, “So you’re all actors majoring in theater?” They all said, “No. None of us. You think the writers for The Simpsons are all actors?” That opened up the idea of how much opportunity there was in comedy. I got into some standup and felt like that needed to be the backbone of a well-rounded comedian. Also in high school I started reading Eugene Ionesco and weird philosophy, and started forming this idea that existence was kind of absurd. And so it seemed appropriate that the best way to handle that or talk about it or add to everybody’s life would to be a comedian.
What were your early days of standup like?
They were tumultuous! They were volatile! I had performed a lot. I knew what I was doing. I had some funny. But it was very extreme. I would absolutely kill and just be on the greatest high of one’s life. Just feeling like tip-top, having made so many people’s evenings. In these early days I would have one night like this, and then a few days of just dying. Totally bombing. So sad. Then you’d get to that last night. Where it’s your swan song, “your last set,” and “it’s been made clear to me that I don’t belong in this vocation.” And then you kill! And you think, “Yeah, this is it. Next Chris Rock coming your way.” It’s a weird roller coaster. But I also was improvising the entire time while doing stand up, which added an interesting component. Improv shows would either fail or do great depending on the team. So the early days of comedy were touch-and-go as they say. Touch yourself and row. That’s when you masturbate in a canoe, right?
There’s nothing wrong with touching yourself. It’s a perfectly natural expression.
Certainly not! But if see your hand near your genitals in a catamaran, this fishing trip is over. You know what I mean?
I think so. I think I know what you mean. With your improv background, how much actual preparation and writing goes into your standup?
[Laughs.] I usually have a rough outline of all the material I’m going to do. I did this show in San Francisco one time, where I started a joke and someone interrupted me, and I began interacting them. Then I riffed the entire set, like 45 minutes of improv and crowd work and then my closer was finishing the joke I started in the beginning of the show. But the improv can be a bit of a crutch, because then you don’t need to write as much.
But in a way that’s reminiscent of Tig Notaro’s comedy, it seems your improv background gives you a lot of comfort and ease on stage.
That’s an amazing compliment, because Tig is one of the best comedians alive. She’s really at ease. Mine is kind of like … manufactured confidence, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to go poorly when I get on stage, even when it does, as it recently did in Detroit at the MGM Grand Casino.
Well, I just bombed, but I don’t think the people in the audience thought that I was bombing. I think they were pleasantly laughing, but for me I was dying on stage. I know how the show can go. I remain staunchly at ease while on stage, even if it’s not going great, because that’s the best environment for an audience to be in. By the way, I think Tig is another person who can do crowd-work. She takes the silence. And I think she has influenced me in that respect. Lately, or even on the last Craig Ferguson set that I did, there’s some silence. I’m pretty comfortable just holding and letting everybody settle into the silence.
Where does the manufactured confidence come from? Are you a confident person, or is this completely an act?
I’m confident that it’s the best act. I just like to joke around about how primarily I’m not really an actor. I’m trained in some acting; I’ve seen a lot of acting, but only in service of comedy. It makes me giggle a little bit that I’m in all these movies. Hollywood is addicted to confidence and charisma because all of us are so concerned about “Is this movie going to work? Am I making the right decisions if I don’t do it? Am I going to get fired?” What works well is if you’re confident in an audition and you do the comedy, and then just act naturally in the comedic moments. And if you’re confident Hollywood is like, “Yeah no that’s an actor, right? It seems like he’s an actor. Alright, great, let’s put him in Transformers 4.”
But how much of difference is there between this act and yourself?
I think I’m very much me. But the single greatest performance of my life was in Yogi Bear 3D, you know? And in my life, everything has sort of gone downhill from there. It’s interesting as an artist to reach the pinnacle so early in your body of work. I’ve read a lot of Nietzche that talks about this. So to do Yogi Bear 3D and then have it all just be a sort of toboggan sled ride down into the fiery pit of hell … is a weird experience. I’ll tell people about that and they’ll say, “It seems like you’re doing a bit right now.” And I’m like, “It seems like you haven’t seen fucking Yogi Bear 3D right now.”
So if it’s downhill from here why continue onward?
Because it’s not for me. People are still enjoying things like Silicon Valley or whatever the fuck that TV show is called. And I want to keep doing it for them.
For the most part it really is selfless and what’s interesting about that is that’s really what drives my work ethic. If you talk to pretty much anybody, I have a very, very almost compulsively strong work ethic. Some people are driven for empire building and being able to make the things they want to make. Like a Mark Wahlberg for instance. And I think he’s brilliant and look at the success he’s had and look how much people love his films. Other people are driven by money or fame. There are all these reasons that people have. But I find that if it’s driven by oneself, then there’s no reason to do it if you don’t feel like it. It becomes by whimsy or fickle. Whereas if you’re trying to give people ephemeral escapism from the tragedy that is an undertone of everybody’s life, and the sadness and meaninglessness and that anxiety about death, if people are really in that mindset and you can make them laugh … it’s like a drug. I’m like a drug dealer. If they can be watching a movie and laugh and sort of escape into it, or see a Mucinex commercial and even for just a couple seconds be like, “Taco Tuesday … that fucking idiot.” That I think is a great service. It’s better than being a politician or a social worker or psychologist because politicians often get in gridlock, and a psychologist and a social worker are very noble positions in society and can change lives, but you can only change 1,000 or 2,000. Whereas I can lift people out of there life for just a second or an hour or ten minutes on YouTube. But I can do it for millions or billions of people. The idea that this is an altruistic effort is really quite effective. If you have a bad show, “Fuck it! I’m not doing standup for another week.” You have to go out there and continue working for other people. You’re a public servant in many ways. A very well paid one.
Who quells your fears about death?
I’m not really afraid of death. It’s never been something that really struck me that much and then I also had this brain surgery in 2010 and that confirmed everything. That’s a big issue in my standup right now: How we don’t talk about death, and if we talked about it, we’d be more prepared for it, or less scared of it. I’m just trying to release human beings from their death anxiety. Nobody needs to bring me out of that. But I’m feeling really bad, I like watching W.C. Fields or the Marx Brothers, but also someone like Tig or Morgan Murphy or Nick Swardson or Eddie Pepitone. Throughout my life, especially with standup, it’s always been Steve Martin. There’s something about him where you don’t think about anything other than that he’s funny. I can watch The Jerk over and over again. And L.A. Story became particularly relevant and overwhelmingly brilliant once I moved to Los Angeles.
Martin appears to be someone who has figured it out.
Yeah. But I think he’s very lonely. I think for a long time he was really lonely. I read a biography by a friend of his, and he lay it out that Steve was a great guy and incredibly generous and hard working. But he painted a picture of a guy who was lonely and isolated. And a man of his brilliance probably does feel that way. Then Steve Martin did the foreword and said, “I read through this whole thing and I didn’t have any notes. I just said ‘yes’ this is perfect.” But yeah, I think the same thing as you. I’m sort of buddies with Wahlberg and I think that about him. But you know he goes through frustrations.
[Laughs.] It doesn’t seem like it. I’m in the same boat as you. We look at some of these people in Hollywood and go, “They got it figured it out. Matthew McConaughey has it figured out. He’s partying not the beach.” And I’m sure he’s going nuts. He’s a guy, by sheer will and charisma, who is in these movies and they just learn how to act by acting.
It sounds like you’re describing yourself.
Yeah, that is kind of me. I was thinking about that yesterday. I’ve been given so many jobs and movies in such a small amount of time that it does feel like I’m getting my acting lessons before I go try to tackle a starring vehicle role.
Is that something you want?
If it was the right thing. A couple things have come my way. But I wrote this script called The Nihilist, which I think would be fun. It would be nice to write something because I know my voice so well.
Do you ever think about creating a Louie-like show?
That’s a good piece of television. It’s a weird situation. Isn’t Maron sort of in that realm? My thing with that was Louie already did this. Louie did it on his own way. Seinfeld did it, in terms of using standup in his sitcom.
Louie feels like the logical next step from Seinfeld, where Maron comes across as a step to the left. An entertaining and often very good show, treading familiar territory. I think everybody right now thinks that Louie is this kind of special thing. A sort of Richard Pryor/Woody Allen thing.
Is that unanimous among comics?
I’ve never heard, not in the last five/ten years, “Yeah, Louis C.K.? Not for me. A lot of things tickle my funny bone, but I can’t get into Louis.” You just don’t hear that. If I had some logical next step, it would be some sort of sketch show that is an evolution of the current sketch that’s going on. Especially with the Tim and Eric stuff. I’ve been considering some sort of hybrid between fictional narrative and real life, like a sur-reality show, and that’s interesting to me because it’s not all sketch. It’s really me, “T.J. Miller” and they are following me around with cameras, and the show would be interspersed with my real life issues while the house is getting shot up by counter-terrorists. It would be fun. I will probably do that at some point, in some streaming capacity, where I can make it and people can follow along with the present version of my life. But it has great action sequences and weird predicaments. Like I get lost in Sam’s Club and Kate’s lost also, and we keep running into ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends.
Of course the setting is Sam’s Club.
Fuck yeah; they have the best prices on the big ol’ tubs of mayonnaise.
You weren’t born into this industry, right?
No, definitely not. My family has no ties to the industry, although my father is a professional liar. He’s been a lawyer for years and years. He’s a very good writer. He wrote the books on personal injury law in Colorado. He was a good trial lawyer. I’ve seen him take the stand a few times, and that was something that was influential when I was young. My mother is a psychologist, so I think psychology goes hand-in-hand, to a certain extent, with comedy. Most people, as they get into the entertainment industry, their family doesn’t know anybody who even knows anyone who knows the family members of someone is a celebrity. So when you say, “That’s the job I’m going to do,” the family says, “Oh, well that’s not going to happen. How would you even go about that?” And once you become a success…. even my parents are confused by it. They are proud of me, but there are also like, “What is he doing?”
And you’re one the cusp of going through the threshold….
It’s getting pretty real is what you’re saying.
The thing for me is like, “What is the cusp?” I’m already someone who we’ve had paparazzi waiting for us at the airport. Everywhere I go, people stop me. People want pictures. I’m on the cusp of being a household name. To me, once it gets there it gets crazy. The fame thing is a very unfortunate negative side effect of being a successful entertainer. It’s not the best part of the whole thing. It’s pretty shitty, man. I wish people talked about it more, because so many people in America want to be famous.
And there’s also the comment like, “This is what you’re going to complain about? Being too famous? You’re rich and doing exactly what you want to be doing.”
[Laughs.] That’s exactly it. I love that. And it is like, “Oh really, you’re rich and you get to do something fun for a living. Shut up.” To a certain extent they are correct. But when I tell Kate, she’ll say it’s a “first-world problem.” And I kind of go, “Well how many times do you say that before you go, ‘Well, these are just my problems’?”
What are your problems?
The fame thing’s a bummer. More importantly, it’s sometimes hindering. It can make you want to be out less. Maybe you don’t feel like walking tonight because it’s Saturday night, and if you walk on a Saturday night and it’s late, people will be drunk. So then you miss out on that walk where you might have walked past something that was funny. It can get in the way of the process. Less walking and more stalking.
Are you genuinely worried about being assailed by fans?
It’s the picture thing. I had a great conversation with Andy Richter about that. Everyone has a camera, and they all want a picture. And for what? Are people not going to believe you when you say you met the guy from She’s Out of My League? You interrupt what could be a cool story by taking a photo. You could say, “Yeah, I met so and so, and instead of asking for a picture I asked him, ‘Do they like the color beige?’ And it turns out, they don’t like beige!” Then there’s something to tell. Pictures are sort of bragging. Look see, I have a picture with them!
There is a heightened expectation that famous people are especially interesting.
I think it’s interesting that a lot of people, especially actors, are about as interesting as tradesman. Again, everyone is interesting. But I would love to hear what an electrician does. I’m always asking questions of people’s profession and their day-to-day lives. Just yesterday I was in a Cold Stone Creamery, and I was asking her, “Do you ever put two things together that you feel like you would hate just to try it?” And she’s like, “No, not really.” Then I responded, “Do you ever put together someone’s order and then try it?” And she said, “Yeah, I do that all the time.”
People taking chances.
People Taking Chances at Cold Stone Creamery: The T.J. Miller Story. That’s the name of my autobiography.
Are you taking chances in your career?
I took a chance that it would be funny in seven years if I made a music album that was a 42-track EP, put that on Comedy Central records, and then remixed it with a real illegal art music label and produce that album. Then put those two things out knowing they were a satirical piece of comedy making fun of celebrities who cross platforms into areas they shouldn’t be in. And the whole thing was done so that in another three or four years, I can refuse to talk about anything except for the music album. That’s a pretty big risk: to plan out a seven-year joke.
That is the definition of being committed to the bit.
People have heard the album. They played one of the songs on the radio in Denver. That’s a pretty weird one. I’m producing a pilot on HBO with Lonely Island, and even those guys, especially Jorma [Taccone], talk about how they’re in the same realm, but we’re doing two different things. We’re making real hip hop that’s a parody of hip hop, and then I’m making nonsensical hip hop, pop, and folk music that is supposed to be making fun of the idea of making something. But I’m also walking around with a gold chain and I have gold grills. In my core, I am a rapper.
Are you fascinated by the rap culture?
Totally, because it’s so ridiculous. It’s ostentatious, the pomposity is insane. It’s plainly and outright ridiculous, and they don’t apologize for it. They are unapologetically ridiculous, whereas John Mayer is not.
Do you secretly wish you could be that ridiculous all the time?
I think I am. One day I’ll walk around with the gold chain, and the next day I’ll dress like a hipster because we’re going to Silverlake for lunch. So I’ll put on tight jeans and a fucking plaid shirt and grow a mustache for the lunch. I am always as a ridiculous as I’d like to be.
Founder of Movie Mezzanine, Sam Fragoso is a San Francisco-based journalist whose work has appeared in Interview Magazine, The Daily Beast, Forbes, RogerEbert.com and The Week. You can follow him on Twitter @SamFragoso.