*This interview was originally published May 5, 2011.
I know T.J. Miller as one of my favorite comedians. You probably know him or recognize him from “Chelsea Lately,” or his co-starring roles in movies like Cloverfield, She’s Out of My League, Unstoppable, Get Him to the Greek, or you know his voice from the mega movie How to Train Your Dragon. Some only know him most as a comedian, some only as an actor. You should know him as both. His stand-up is SO great. He is hilarious, smart and comfortable. I use that word because whenever I see him perform or on stage, it looks as if that’s where he should be, that’s where he is at his best, just so good, and so comfortable.
I told T.J. that I wanted this interview to be more serious than just him being on, that I wanted a mixture of both. What I got was one of the most interesting interviews we have ever published. T.J. seems sincere, annoyed, honest, and of course funny at different times throughout the whole read. Maybe that’s why I’m such a fan. You never feel like he would hold anything back, he says what he thinks, and he says it with passion (and of course sometimes sarcasm). Read on for some video and a truly great interview with actor and comedian T.J. Miller.
Serial Optimist: What’s up T.J.! How are you, where are you, and what are doing at this exact moment?
T.J. Miller: I’m baking a baby. In my Loft Apartment. In Hollywood. And over using periods, capitalizing needlessly and not combining words that are actually oneword.
SO: What’s up with the theme of your Twitter (@nottjmiller) and website tjmillerdoesnothaveawebsite.com? What are you hiding behind T.J.? Or this just some sort of twisted, confusing, SICK joke?
TJ: Thank you for capitalizing SICK. It’s very much in line with my life practice. It’s because T.J. Miller is a common name and I arrived late to the game, and have to use the “not.” Also, none of it is me, and it emphasizes the absurd nature of language. Don’t get it twisted.
SO: Most people would know you as a comedian, seeing you on the “Chelsea Lately” roundtable, hearing you on multiple podcasts, and you just in general being a stand-up. But over the past couple of years you have been hitting movie screens in strong supporting roles, not just bit parts and cameos. How did that transition happen?
TJ: I find that to be the opposite. You are in the circle that recognizes that I’m a comedian, but most of America thinks I’m an actor, which is becoming problematic. That’s largely why I’m shooting my hour special for Comedy Central, “NO REAL REASON” May 21st outside of Denver at the Boulder Theater. I need to up my visibility as a comedian who does stand-up and improv, etc., and not just some actor. I don’t really consider myself an actor, I consider myself a comedian who is expert at fooling Major Motion Picture Studios that I can act. That’s more how I see it. But I was always acting growing up, and I had a minor in theater. But for me the acting as well as the writing and the improvisation and the stand-up were all to become a better comedian. I see all of it as different mediums of comedy, not acting versus stand-up versus writing or something like that. I see it as different types of comedy, and so I’m still doing comedy whether it’s in a children’s dragon movie, an R-rated comedy, a network sitcom, a Sundance short film or stand-up comedy. Or fist fighting a bear for charity.
SO: Have you been hand picked for a role, or is it still grinding on auditions? What is your process in choosing movies? Some have been great, and make sense for you as a comedian: Extract, She’s Out of My League, The Goods, Get Him to the Greek, Our Idiot Brother, mixed with voiceover work in one of the most acclaimed and loved movies of last year, How to Train Your Dragon (and the upcoming sequel), a surprising role in Unstoppable, and then bombs like Gulliver’s Travels (but how you could pass on that with the cast) and Yogi Bear (eh, you probably could have passed on that). Did all of this start with your somewhat leading role in Cloverfield? Long question, I know.
TJ: I have been handpicked for a few things, but they weren’t roles. I don’t audition for TV any more, which is very bizarre because I’m down to audition whenever for whatever, but that’s a sort of status thing the agents and managers play out here. I was offered Stainer in She’s Out Of My League after Cloverfield, and Our Idiot Brother and How To Train Your Dragon. I go on a lot of auditions still though, and I enjoy that, I see it as yet another version of comedy. It’s another chance to make people laugh, which is why I do this, that and I’m buying golden turntable to scratch platinum records on it. Those things don’t buy themselves! Humans have to do that! (Drop Kicks Toaster).
As for the movies, I choose what I think I can be funny in and I don’t judge the material too harshly. Gulliver’s Travels had a tough run of it, but I loved the director and I think Jack Black is a very good movie star, he’s good at being a movie star in his movies, but that was a swing and a miss. Yogi just passed the 100 million dollar mark, so I literally don’t know WHAT THE FUCK YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT. And if you have the attitude of “should have passed on that” then you not only didn’t understand the movie or that it was groundbreaking technologically in the world of cinema, but you don’t understand the process of being a true artist: someone making fun of me for being in Yogi Bear is like a child making fun of a chess master’s move with his rook. It’s short sighted and kind of cute in a sad and pathetic way; it’s like a toddler trying to tell a mathematician what he thinks about a mathematical proof; or a baby trying to use my bicycle to cook food–it’s stupid and the child deserves to be hit.
SO: In all honesty, I hear you and Doug Benson (for example) joke about it (Yogi Bear), and I can never tell if you are really joking about it or not. Plus I’ve never seen the movie, so that was me just trying to fit in with a joke, which I’m horrible at. Of course you take that role. So I’m sorry. But shit T.J. you DON’T HAVE TO YELL! (All love.) And “a baby trying to use my bicycle to cook food,” brilliant.
SO: You’ve written and starred in a few really, really good shorts: Successful Alcoholics and I’m Having a Difficult Time Killing My Parents. Both of which were loved at Sundance, and I assume other festivals. What makes you do shorts as opposed to writing full-length? Where do the ideas come from for your shorts?
TJ: First of all thank you for saying they are good, it’s always weird to write something and star in it and hope that people like it, or that they hate it. I write shorts because they are cheaper and I have a lot of ideas for stories that can be told in a shorter amount of time and in that medium. I write full screenplays but they take a long time and you need a ton of money to produce them. With shorts I can produce/shoot/edit them for relatively cheap and then put them out there for the festivals and eventually people.
I write ideas down all the time, every day, and each idea is best suited for a particular medium, sometimes it’s sketch, sometimes it’s stand-up, sometimes it’s a TV show idea or a feature film, and sometimes the idea is best expressed as a short film. I wish shorts were more lucrative, because I like the short film as a longer more involved form than sketch comedy, but still less severe then a feature. I come up with my ideas as a Gypsy’s house (which is sometimes a covered wagon).
I’m Having A Difficult Time Killing My Parents
SO: What has been the most fun, or your favorite role to play to date?
TJ: Everything is fun to a certain extent, but I sort of default to She’s Out Of My League because it was a straight up comedy, and that’s what I do, that’s what I am, and that’s what is tattooed on the bottoms of my feet. The director, Jim Field Smith, is hilarious and very smart, and Jay Baruchel became a good friend, as well as Nate Torrence and I already like Mike Vogel (did you see him in Blue Valentine? Dude is fucking awesome). So that was great and I look forward to doing more comedies that are just comedies, they aren’t also horror or action or bears. Well, I do love working with animated bears. NO. SHIT.
SO: You look like, and sound like, someone who enjoys marijuana. Doug Benson obviously pushes it on all of us he smokes pot, loves it, etc, like, “We get it Doug!” But how about you, are a casual smoker, or a smoker at all?
TJ: Why do I sound like someone who smokes pot? Is it my voice? My mother always mentions that. I didn’t use to smoke much marijuana because I would get paranoid and I was afraid it would slow me down mentally. But I had a congenital malformation that I was born with in my brain that had to be removed after Yogi Bear (Yogi was that intense) and it’s better that I don’t drink very much anymore, I was a big drinker because I love casual drug use in general, I think it’s hilarious. So now I smoke more because it’s safer, I prefer hash, I have a medical license for anxiety, and I believe it should be legal and I’m a strong proponent of that. Nick Vatterott, my main motherfucker, has a great joke about how if grass was legal and alcohol wasn’t, kids wouldn’t say: “My dad came home, got drunk and beat me.” But rather: “My dad would try to remember what he was talking about for hours and then laugh himself to sleep after realizing he was looking at a map upside down.” I’m paraphrasing, but I agree with the politics of it. And I love Doug because he’s so unapologetic. I’m less about, “I smoke weed, or I’m a drunk, or I’m political…. etc.” and more, “I take absolutely nothing seriously, and so that involved occasionally getting high and going to a car auction.”
SO: I agree with your Mom, it’s the voice. And maybe because I’ve heard you on “Doug Loves Movies” so many times it just seemed like you would. But thank you for making that actually pointless question interesting with your response. Real talk.
SO: I lived in Vail, CO for three years after college to be a ski bum. You were born and raised in Denver. Are you a skier or snowboarder, and were you that into it growing up? Does your family still live in CO?
TJ: I am from Denver, and fully represent Denver, CO. My family still lives there, and I have skied since I was 4 years old. Which means I’m better than you. Whoever is reading this. And if some weird fucking Olympic skier is reading, quit reading my interview and go practice… you snow-loser.
SO: What made you leave Denver and go east to attend George Washington University? As an 18 year old, when you made that decision, did you know you wanted to be a comedian? What kind of experience were you looking for in going to college? And why GWU?
TJ: I went to GW because they offered me money (scholarship) and I like big cities. D.C. is a great place to learn and go to school. But I don’t love the school and I’m not big on alumni stuff right now because they fucked me over my last year and then now they want me to give them money because of Yogi. I’m not really down with that.
I wanted to go to a place that I liked being there because I’ve never believed that education is the responsibility of the institution. The Internet has all the information in the world. It’s more about you, and I usually educate myself like Groucho ya’ll! (breakdance headspinning the mustache off).
It was receSs, the comedy group at GW, that accepted me when I auditioned and was full of some of the most talented comedians I’ve ever met: Steve Siddell, Wendi Butterworth, David Angelo, Sage’, Todd Schulman… many of whom work in the comedy industry now. That was my real education and by sophomore year I was like: “I’m doing this, real talk, I want to be like R. Kelly.” I was really confused as to what being a comedian was.
SO: Where are you at with your stand-up right now? How many shows are you doing a month, and do you have a tour or anything coming up?
TJ: I tour whenever I’m not doing a movie or television or something else. I’m on a plane right now to Iowa to do a college in Waterloo, and then I’m doing Salt Lake City at Wiseguys this weekend and next weekend I’ll be in Addison, TX and after that Chicago. I do a lot of standup. When I’m in Los Angeles I do it every night I can unless a girl says I can’t. I’m taping my hour special for Comedy Central “NO REAL REASON” on May 21st, so I’ve been preparing for that. But it’s tough because I don’t have the same amount of prep time as most comics. So boo hoo me I have to be in movies sometimes, but honestly, it creates anxiety for me that my stand-up isn’t where it needs to be because that’s such a core part of me as a comedian. I need to work on core strength, but also external outside skin strength.
SO: What was the first bit, or joke, you really remember writing, or performing, that just worked? That moment where you got laughs, and you were hooked?
TJ: I was hooked when I was getting laughs in grade school man. Making other people feel good happy on command is pretty clutch. My first joke that worked consistently is going to be on my special. It’s called “gay wad.” It’s short.
SO: Would you say you’re more improvisational, or more of a writer when it comes to your stand-up?
TJ: I’m a way better performer than a writer, but I’m pretty disciplined in both areas. I think every comic is either more a writer or more a performer. I’m a performer. No one says: “He’s such a great writer.” But sometimes they say: “He’s funny as hell.” That’s okay with me.
SO: What do you have coming up in for the rest of the year?
TJ: Whew. Here we go:
OUR IDIOT BROTHER with Paul Rudd coming out nationwide in August.
NO REAL REASON Comedy Central Hour taping in May coming out soon after.
THE EXTENDED PLAY E.P. is a ridiculous music album for Comedy Central Records coming out probably in summer or fall. It’s the Absurdid Heat.
THE ROAD TO NARDO is a movie at Sony Pictures that they are trying to make that I would star in. That would be excellent. Scot Armstrong wrote it, he wrote The Hangover II among other great comedies. I want that movie to go, that’s the right comedy crew for me to be involved with right now for sure.
THE ASSISTANTS is a CBS pilot I did, and we’ll see if that gets picked up. If it does the movie might not happen or would get pushed, if not the movie goes in the fall. Either way I’m buying new pajamas.
AN UNTITLED DOCUMENTARY about me (only 12 minutes) and what happened when I’m was losing my mind and my brain was bleeding while I was doing Yogi Bear and something bizarre and incredible I did involving Chatroulette (no it was not jacking off with another guy).
And then various other writing projects that may never see the light of day. And I’m going to throw a massive birthday party.
SO: Okay, the rest of the questions you have ten seconds to answer. So short questions, first thing that comes to your mind kind of shit: GO!
SO: Charlie Sheen thoughts?
TJ: Mania. He is experiencing an extended manic episode that is similar to what we all go through when in withdrawal of some drug or another but its 30 years of crack and coke use. Ultimately it’s sad. But he’s says some pretty amazing shit.
SO: Donald Trump being president?
TJ: Absurd, but not in the way I usually gravitate towards.
SO: Last time you laughed really hard and why?
TJ: Last night Nick Vatterott and I were in Iowa working at a college doing stand-up and we shot a video of him trying to say “Donald came home early last night” and he said “Donald ended up sending me a letter and…” and well, it was such an immersion in the absurd that we were both crying. I can’t explain and that’s why it will never become comedy we perform, but here’s a go at it: The absurdity of him trying to recreate the nonsense he was repeating so that I could video tape it for no real reason and then him not being able to but coming up with something equally as absurd but then my reaction of being frustrated and angry that it wasn’t the original nonsense because we had both agreed on the value of that original non-sentence. That really had us slappin’ our a’ knees!!!!!
SO: Do you believe in God?
TJ: Nope. I believe in the fundamental existence of absurdity over religion, although they can coexist. Just not for me.
SO: Favorite song/album you’re listening to currently?
TJ: I was pretty into Girl Talk because of what it meant for the future of how music is made and I liked what he was doing creatively, then that led me to discover Steinksi, who is a fucking genius and is playing my birthday party, and I’ve been listening to his retrospective “what does it all mean?” and it’s pretty incredible. I also have been doing this ridiculous music album that is sort of genre satire but really more an opportunity to express myself emotionally and physically in my music, so I’ve been listening to A LOT of pop and hip hop, all current shit, so that I can lamBLAST THAT SHIT OUT THE SPEAKER ON THE OUTSIDE OF YOUR CAR EVERYONE!”
SO: Last concert you went to?
TJ: Girl Talk for five minutes. I don’t care for concerts (or music that much really either).
SO: Favorite podcast?
TJ: Doug Loves Movies. I know that I’m on it, but I really love him, I think he’s such a natural in that medium (as well as others) and he’s just so genuinely hilarious and knowledgeable it’s very fun to do and listen to. I don’t listen to podcasts really though. I wish I did more.
SO: Who writes the funniest tweets?
TJ: That is always changing. I think sometimes it’s @jim_hamilton, sometimes it’s @robdelaney, @chelseaVperetti, @cheezitslut, @rikilindhome, it really changes all the time. @joselynhughes really kills me sometimes. I’m forgetting a lot of people. I really love most of the people that I follow. There is so much funny shit out there.
SO: Best late night food to eat while intoxicated?
TJ: That entirely depends on what happened up until that point. Mexican if it’s never going to work out, Hot Dogs if it’s a temporary problem, and Pizza if you know we’ll all die eventually.
SO: Are you happy?
TJ: Fuck. Yes.
SO: Thanks T.J., you are hilarious and honest and confusing all at once, and I love it.
SO Note: Make sure to check out T.J.’s Comedy Central Presents special “NO REAL REASON” coming out early summer, check out T.J.’s website tjmillerdoesnothaveawebsite.com for updates and news, and follow him hard on Twitter @nottjmiller.