TJ Miller is a standup comedian versed in the styles of sketch, improv and absurdist comedy. His most recent cinematic venture, Transformers: Age of Distinction, just wrapped and he has three more in post-production. In 2011 he released The Extended Play E.P. demonstrating that laughter, while a one-way street, can be approached from many different angles. A true entertainment busybody, he may be most recognized as the voice of Cloverfield, Jimmy of The Goodwin Games or maybe from one of his numerous standup specials. In the past year his television interviews have proved farcical, but lucky for us, Miller was willing to dial it back a notch and genuinely discuss what it means to laugh and why doing so is the best escape to the tragic nature of our lives.
On Saturday, February 15, Miller will appear at the Firebird performing his true-to-self, chaotic yet finely tuned form of standup comedy. We talked with him about why he doesn't stick to just one medium, the many genres of comedy and where it all began.
Kelsey McClure: I want to talk about how you are an amazing comedian.
TJ Miller: Let's fucking do it. I don't care for it; I find myself to be fairly prosaic and boring to talk about, but I will indulge you for simply the reasons of comedy.
Oh man, that is so sweet of you, I really appreciate it. I just learned a new phrase, it is "fingers in the pie..." Have you heard this before?
Fingers in the pie -- is that like irons in the fire?
Yeah, pretty much.
You can't really craft a great sword if you are looking over at too many irons. The idea is to cross the platform while making fun of cross-platforming.
And to do comedy in as many mediums as possible. Go ahead and make a music album, which I did. It's called The Extended Play EP, it's 31 tracks, it's from Comedy Store Records. I feel that it is better than Donald Glover's work. That is all a joke -- I am just doing that to make fun of comedians that would be like, "I'm also a rapper." Just do an actual music album -- so they are like, "Do you have a comedy music album?" That is where the thing with the pie comes from.
A lot of people think I have this insane surge for whatever, for being famous or being successful, and it really doesn't have anything to do with that. I'm trying to do comedy to make you laugh and to be happy for a moment and to escape their tragic lives and have an ephemeral moment of joy. I should be trying to do that for as many people as possible, and to do that you have to work in the mediums of television and film, live performance, written word, music.
Right. Based off of just that very idea, I was going through some of your Tweets and you had one that read, "Comedy is in itself a selfless act, selfish reasons for doing it come only after the fact, which are our own flaws as people."
Do you remember that one?
Of course, yes. I remember everything. That doesn't mean that I am not always fucked up.
My question off of that is... [Laughter]
No laughing off of that one!
I'm not! No, I read that and I was just like, "Wow. TJ Miller: truth-sayer." I assumed it was a serious thought or statement; it wasn't something you were trying to make funny...
It was serious; it was born of a pretty serious conversation. I don't want to drop too much knowledge because I don't want to waste your time. We decided, like Nietzsche, that the only absolute in life is beauty, and you know that because you only evaluate it afterwards, you cannot argue if something is beautiful. Most people will look at something and say, "That is beautiful." Afterwards you can be like, "Well...I have seen more beautiful sunsets," or, "It is kind of cloudy."
When it happens in the moment, that is an absolute, you see beauty, you recognize it is beautiful, then you can talk about it or say that it isn't real, or just go on and criticize it or whatever, but it happens in that moment. Comedy is the exact same thing. When something is funny, you laugh immediately, and then you can evaluate, "Oh that isn't that funny. That is not that great." Or whatever. "Ryan thought it was really dirty," or whatever.
When comedians say, "When you do comedy, it is about you, it is about getting attention. It's a selfish thing. Comedians are all about themselves, they are narcissistic." All of that stuff happens after they're comedians. They do that to themselves, and other people do it to them.
Afterwards, you, yourself, can evaluate and go, "It's because I want attention because my parents weren't nice to me. It's fulfilling a need for me." It's all a waste of time. We should all be looking at that moment of laughter, and in that moment of laughter we find complete selflessness.
Continue to page two for more of our interview.
What was it that made you want to work through different avenues -- do the improv, do the acting. You said earlier that it wasn't just to become famous, so what is it about it that you enjoy so much?
I will say that it is that basically the philosophy that drives everything that I do as a comedian, is that life is tragic by nature and that you need to be distracted from it or given an escape, a small period of rest from that tragedy. Otherwise you will go crazy. It is the nicest thing to do for someone.
Yes. I absolutely agree.
You can talk to them about politics, and if you make them laugh, what a great thing -- everybody loves to. Also, my general philosophy is that the meaning of life is happiness. Those things combined, it is like: Why not make other people happy? And I also subscribe to the philosophy of John Stuart Mill -- he is this fucking dope philosopher who was like, "You have got to make the most amount of people the most happy." That is ethics.
So would you say you are a utilitarian comic then?
Yeah, you could say that. Utilitarian comedian -- that is great. What a wonderful turn of phrase.
I watched the interview you did fairly recently in Kansas City where you were soaking wet, and it was hilarious, but I almost felt bad for the interviewer because I don't think she had any idea how to handle what you were doing.
Never feel bad. Lots of people say that. You don't have to feel bad for them. Some people are like, "You wouldn't even let them talk or anything." Every single interview I do on television is always insane on purpose. At the end of it they go, "Dude, thank God, thank you for coming in." Every day they have to deal with this bullshit, and we forget that for them it is a nine-to-five job. They are always pretty psyched about it. Pretty weird.
In that situation I would have expected her to walk out and be like, "What is wrong with this guy? Why did he make a scene?"
I am a mile a minute. Some of them are like deer in the headlights, but that is OK. That's the nature of the game.
TV is very far-reaching. The movies are the annex; they have the most permanence in people's lives. Here's another conversation: Have you seen Billy Madison, an Adam Sandler film?
Oh yeah, absolutely.
Everybody loves Billy Madison more than they love Obama. I am not joking. If somebody loves Billy Madison, they like it more than they like Obama, probably. That's why movies are so important. That is why I do that stuff, not because you make a lot off movies or you are saying that you are rich, just because you have to try and make the most people laugh that you can.
Unfortunately, this is just a subjective opinion, standup is the only...standup is the funniest thing. Movies are fucking amazing; they're amazing. Seeing a packed theater and laughing at movies is so fun, but standup is the best one. You are going to laugh harder at standup; that is why it leads the charts. Improv can be pretty terrible sometimes. Standup can be bad, but then it's funny that it's that bad.
It's just uncomfortable.
If you are open to that. If you can laugh at yourself you can be like, "I can't believe I paid money to see this guy. How ridiculous." But, it's the best one. It's also the most difficult one, and the most rewarding one. It makes sense.
Since you are coming to St. Louis to do a standup show, do you have a regular set that you perform? I get the impression that you base a lot of it off of atmosphere.
Are you laughing at me?
No, it's just funny. I don't see myself because I am me. I cannot imagine what people think about me; I just have to be ridiculous and see what happens. It is so funny. Of course that would be a question, but it is so insane to me. Anyway...
Really, but also yes. Yeah, I have a foundation from which I build other stuff, but if someone yells something, I'm like, "What? What did you say?" Then they explain it didn't make sense, and I talk about how it doesn't make sense and it makes me think of something else and I start talking about that and riffing. I have done entire sets like that; I have done hourlong shows that are completely in the moment, on the spot.
But for the most part I know my opener, I know my closer, I know a fair amount of material that could be on the show, and that's it. It always doesn't work; it doesn't matter when you're an absurdist comedian. You're already asking the audience to go in any direction, so you don't need a segue. I'll tie things into that but that's it.
Continue to page three for more of our interview.
When you say that you are making stuff up on the spot, is that completely new ideas, or are you drawing from stuff that you have written in the past and come back to?
It's completely new ideas. It's the genesis of an audience and a performance, two people. It's not even me making stuff up, it's just me talking to them and being like, "I realize this thing..." And they would be like, "Haha, that's hilarious!" I'm like, "OK, that means this, this and this..." It's completely improvised, there is no, "I tried this joke once and went three months, so now I am going to try it in this way..." It's not that, it's literally, "I just thought of this and it is funny." Sometimes it's not funny.
Right, that's the risk of improv.
Sometimes people are like, "This is the dumbest thing I have ever heard, so no laugh."
Based off of what you just said, it sounds like you are doing would be labeled as a standup tour, right? Would you call it a standup comedy tour?
Do you think it is important that comedy has those kind of labels or genres similar to what music would have, so people know what they are getting themselves into when they go see a show?
Maybe. Very perceptive of you. I have never heard these questions; it's great. I had this stereo a while ago that would tell me the genre of the station of comedy. It is like that with music, it is like, "This is blues, this is hip-hop." Right now we still only have three genres. We have mainstream comedy, blue collar comedy, and alternative comedy. Eventually it will be like, "Oh he's an absurdist-observational comedian. He's an observational comedian with a socio-political conscious." I guess there is also political comedy, so four genres.
It's good. Here's my thing: If somebody sees that label and is like, "I don't like alternative comedy," I do not want them to come to my show anyway. Just like I do not want them to come to my show if they are like, "I do not like mainstream comedy." Unfortunately a lot of the people who live in Los Angeles and New York are those kinds of people, but that is OK. I do not really need those people to show because they are coming with a preconceived notion. I do a show every two weeks at a sex shop, a sex store in Los Angeles, and the reason I love it is to even come to a show in a sex shop, you have to be a somewhat open-minded person.
Right. I make the comparison to music because all of the comedy publishing that the Riverfront Times does right now is in the music section because comedy in St. Louis is picking up steam, but it's not Denver, it's not LA, it's not New York.
Right. It's so funny that you say Denver. Denver is fucking bananas right now. They put it in music because they do not know what to do, they're like, "We know everybody likes this and it's incredibly important to everyone, but it's hard to understand it." It's a new art form. Standup, specifically, is. Standup and jazz are the only two American inventions and standup has only been around since the '60s, '70s.
Right, well and standup even spawned out of jazz.
What is that?
I said it spawned out of jazz. Right?
Again, it sprung primarily out of Vaudeville and burlesque, but yes, you're right, the improvisational nature of jazz and more importantly what you are talking about, which is the idea of a solo jazz piece or be an ensemble, but one person just performing at once and everyone focuses on that person, yes, absolutely. The truth is, we are filler for strippers. Vaudeville they had comedians come out... They had a guy come out and tell jokes and then do the stagehand while the girls were changing into their different burlesque outfits.
Why is it not OK to laugh at strip clubs now?
Because strip clubs don't need it anymore. Jay Leno used to perform at Playboy Clubs and all these strip clubs, because once people were like "comedy can be a tough thing," strip clubs were also like, "Get out of here! We will just have them dress less. They don't have to make changes; they can just be naked all the time."
That is how there is less laughter at strip clubs.
Continue to page four for more of our interview.
But back to genres of comedy; earlier you said genres like blue-collar, political, mainstream, whereas, I was thinking more along the lines of sketch, improv, standup.
I see. Those have to be delineated. It's just because there are different mediums, just like doing TV, movies, etc. You're not telling somebody they are going to watch a movie and then show them the first episode of Lost. But I have already been talking too much.
No, it's great, you are explaining everything in detail, which is the purpose of interviews, right? To give people some insight?
Inside the mind.
I have just got a couple fun questions, do you want to do some fun questions and then we can wrap it up?
Yeah, for sure.
I can't remember a particular joke, but... I guess Hitler. I would like to tickle Hitler and the reason is because I want to tickle him and see his joy and his laughter and things like that and then stop suddenly and go, "See! That is why you don't kill Jews!" Then I will walk out of the room, leave him confused. Hopefully change the course of history, who knows?
Where do you think he would be most ticklish?
Hitler? Right under the mustache sister, right under the mustache.
Do you know the game Marry, Fuck, Kill?
Yes, Marry, Fuck, Kill.
Good, so in honor of Black History Month, I've got Jay Z, Martin Luther King and Obama.
Jay Z, Martin Luther King and Obama? Why do I have to fuck all of these weird black guys?
For Black History Month, because your show is in February!
I don't know, I guess... Fuck, Marry, and Kill... it's Obama, Jay Z, and Martin Luther King? You want me to kill one of those people?
It's just a question. I mean, you don't have to... You can back out...
No, no, no. I'm seeing... I'm just seeing how difficult it is. I guess kill Martin Luther King because he was already assassinated, or was going to be assassinated. I would fuck Obama just to have the story of, "Yeah dude, do you want to hear something crazy!? I fucked the president of the United States!"
That story there trumps any other story.
(Laugher) Yeah. It certainly would.
I would marry Jay Z to learn from his infinite wisdom and be there to support him in his art, and to create a rap empire that is greater than any that has previously been imagined.