Talking to T.J. Miller About Live TV Standup, Sketch Comedy, and Maybe Becoming a Celebrity
T.J. Miller is hard to define. His eclectic resume includes acting in movies like Cloverfield and Yogi Bear, voicing a character in How To Train Your Dragon, hosting Comedy Central’s standup/sketch show Mash Up, appearing as the guest every week on his podcast Cashing In With T.J. Miller, and putting out a 41-track hip-hop comedy album, The Extended Play EP. Those who mostly know him as one the best show-derailing guests on Doug Loves Movies may be surprised by his bittersweet turns in short films like Successful Alcoholics and I’m Having a Difficult Time Killing My Parents.
During his recent New York visit, I got the chance to ride with him from Brooklyn’s Legion Bar, where he was performing at his sister’s weekly comedy show Big Gulp, to his headlining set at Gotham Comedy Club in Chelsea. On the way, we talked about televised standup, being a well-rounded comedian, and his inevitable move into prop comedy.
Tell me about the AXS TV show you hosted last night at Gotham.
So, Mark Cuban and Ryan Seacrest—yeah I know, start it off with a bang—they did this merger and rebranded [Cuban’s] network HDNet, and it’s now a live channel. So Gotham, which is built for a Comedy Central show said, let’s do a live broadcast here. So it’s like 10 PM Eastern, and you tune in at that time, and it’s just a well-shot broadcast of a stand-up show. It’s really crazy. I felt like, what was interesting was to go and talk about the fact that it was live. Do what I would do if I hosted any show and riff and do a little bit of crowd work. And then I mostly did bits that I thought of that day about the fact that it was streaming live. It’s pretty weird that they can do that now. You know, it was probably seen by a hundred thousand people. It’s crazy.
It’s pretty new, right? Just within the last few months?
Yeah, they’ve done two or three of them. At Gotham, they can headline a guy and then part of his deal is doing the show. That could be a really good way for them to get huge people that can do three live shows. One of them is broadcast, and that one ends up being the big money making aspect of the weekend for comics. So, it’s a really good idea. It’s super cheap, cameras are nothing now and it’s lit really well. And it’s totally uncensored.
Standup on TV can be so bland. With this, it seems like you get better feel for what it’s actually like.
I think that’s right. I’m excited at the prospect of this replacing Comedy Central’s—Comedy Central’s doing a pilot with Jonah Ray and Kumail [Nanjiani], who do The Meltdown in LA. They’re doing sort of a back-room standup showcase show that will be very low key and real lighting and all that stuff. I think Comedy Central should be doing that more than, like, Live at Gotham. It was too bland, too presentational. That was the cool thing about Evening at the Improv and all those old shows. I watched those DVDs a hundred times; it felt like you were really at a club.
And Morgan, your sister, is also a standup. Have you guys done standup on the same show before?
We have. She did a guest set at one show, and she’s gonna do a guest set at Gotham. But she’s only been doing it a year, so not really hardly at all. In fact, I’m concerned. I’m excited for her but I’m concerned about her at Gotham because a club is very different than the room that I just played. But she’s got to learn it somehow. She might as well, if she gets all the negative aspects of having to put up with me being her brother, at least she can have that one positive aspect. [Laughs]
But you know, I think it’s pretty right on. She works crazy hard. I was so worried about that, because she also parties a lot, but she came out here and she does sets every night or she sees improv or she does improv. There’s so many people in Hollywood that are successful just because they always say, “I have to do this. I have to make myself work and do this. I’m gonna spend the extra two hours in the editing room.” You have to have that. And if you do, you’re successful. Then there’s so many people that go, “Uhh, I don’t want to perform tonight. I gotta drive all the way to the West Side.” Or, “I don’t want to hang out there, I’ve hung out there three times and they’re still not booking me.” You can’t have that mentality.
It’s so interesting, I just did After Lately, which is Chelsea Lately’s afterwards program. She’s kind of taking more of a shine to me and she wants to develop something at her company with me. But I remember when I first started doing Chelsea Lately, people were like, “I can’t believe you’re doing that, it’s like a panel show. It’s so gross, it’s pop culture.” And then she became what she is now, and I was psyched. You don’t get paid anything for that, you get like a hundred bucks or something to be on TV. And you have to write the material that morning, because you get it at 11 and then you shoot at 1. But it’s really served me well, and it helps me because now I just mostly sketch rough concepts out in my mind and then try to riff on it, because that’s much more interesting to me right now, improvising stuff.
You mentioned [earlier at the bar] that you’re working on something Nick Vatterott. Can you tell me more about that?
Oh, so we’ve been trying to sell this concept that Nick had called Manimation. It’s an animated show where the main character is this boring Dilbert guy. He works at an animation studio, but because it’s in an animated world, it’s called Manimation, and when they animate in the animated world, it’s live action. So it would be a way to do live action sketches in an animated workplace comedy. It’s a brilliant idea. He’s like one of the funniest dudes ever. It really is me, like, parasitically profiting off of him.
And you guys worked on Mash Up together, right?
Yeah. He was a producer and the head writer.
This seems to have a lot in common with that, in that you’re mixing genres and real-life with animation.
I think we’re both sort of drawn to that because we come from a background of sketch, improv, and standup, so we’re sort of multi-discipline comedians. Always mediocre at all of them, you know. Never once excelling.
When you look at the stuff that you’ve done – TV shows, movies, the record – it’s a very eclectic mix of stuff.
Was that always…
The record I was really serious about, you know, and that was such a colossal failure. I really hope people come around to it. I think in 10 years, people are gonna look back and be like, that was terrible. Go ahead.
Why was it a failure? Sales?
Oh yeah, just financially. I’m in immense amount of debt from that record. Uh, no it was fun. You know, I get into something, and I’m like, this is funny. This I need to finish. Once I start something, I have to finish it. And everything always grows. I’m always starting with, like, I’m just gonna include a couple of fake songs as sort of a double album with my standup. And then I was like, well I might as well just do an EP. And that turned into, let’s do an LP, that the funny part about it is that it’s 41 tracks long. It got really bad.
I just think it’s good to be a well-rounded person, so I think it’s also good to be a well-rounded comedian. They’re all just mediums of comedy, and I like doing comedy so much. And I think they all build each other. I think it’s interesting and challenging to do all those things. And I think also the comedians that I respect the most all did that, or all do that. And I’m interested in why so many people that are successful in film or television stop doing standup, that doesn’t make any sense to me really. But maybe it will one day. You know, who knows.
I still like the standup. If I do another show at Comedy Central, I’d like it to be standup-centric, but with better sketch. That was such a frustrating process [on Mash Up] in terms of collaboration that the sketch didn’t end up being the quality that it could have been. But I think I might have another shot at trying to get that right, because I do love sketch comedy. It’s just hard. There’s not a lot of it. You never think about that because the shows that are successful are so ubiquitous in society, and yet, you know, there’s Saturday Night Live. MAD TV‘s not on anymore. And now we’re kind of having a resurgence with Key & Peele and Kroll Show. I think Kent Alterman, the guy at Comedy Central right now, really knows what he’s doing. He’s really hilarious. In the press releases, when he talks about picking up show, he always ends it with like a really funny quote. Like, legit funny. [“To have even one show you know for sure will change the world is amazing, but to have eight that won’t is also noteworthy.” – Kent Alterman]
What I like about Mash Up is that it sort of can be anything. I like nonsense. My improv team in Chicago, Chuckle Sandwich, we did a show called “Practice Scaring a Bear,” and it’s just very frenetic. Mania, I think, is really funny. And the best way to do that is to fire a lot of different cylinders at once and then people are like, what is gonna be next? What is happening?
You said that people you admired in comedy did a lot of different things. When you started out, did you think you’d be doing all the things you’re doing now?
I mean, I didn’t really know what it was gonna be. I never thought I would be the voice on a Disney cartoon. That was such a weird reality. But I could see myself being a guy who was fun on set. And that [laughs] tells you something about me as a person. That I was like, I think I could make people laugh and keep people happy and, you know, do funny jokes with the salami trays. There’s some weird inkling in me that that was maybe gonna happen.
I just really thought, if I want to be a great comedian and really do it, I need to learn how to be a good enough actor to serve the comedy. And if I want to reach a lot of people, and make the maximum amount of people laugh, that sort of utilitarian view, then you sort of have got to do television and film. It has the highest distribution. Now the Internet has more, but the structure is still in place to build an audience through film and television. But I think it’s just interesting to do a lot of different things and let them inform each other.
I don’t know. It’s so weird. Like, first of all, it feels so ridiculous in this car, like doing this interview is so hilarious, but it is interesting. It’s like I read Splitsider and Laugh Button, and some of these blogs have real audiences. Standup is really having this weird cultural transformation. I was just talking to my girlfriend, who’s a Groundling, and we were just talking about how five or ten years ago, nobody would know what you meant when you were like, I improv on set. If I said, I’m improvising on set, they’d go, what is that? And now they know it because they’ve read articles about Judd Apatow. And the internet sort of provides a place where people can have taste in different comedians and talk about it.
At this point, we’ve arrived at Gotham and T.J. performs his first headlining set of the night. His closing bit involved spraying an absurd amount of Evian’s mineral water spray on his face. Here, a discussion with the show’s emcee, Angelo Lozada.
ANGELO: T.J., what are you spraying on your face, man?
T.J.: That’s real. that’s an Evian, right there. Check it out.
ANGELO: What is it?
T.J.: Here. I’ll give you one. Here, that’s for you.
ANGELO: What does it do?
T.J.: You spray. You hydrate your face, man.
ANGELO: Alright yo, relax.
T.J.: This is America. No, it’s great.
ANGELO: Dude, it’s hilarious. Cause I’m like yo, he’s gonna pass out from the fucking fumes, man. You go in, dog. Like you, fucking in.
T.J.: I know, right? I really go for it.
ANGELO: You shouldn’t really be inhaling that shit like that.
T.J.: And I just found that bigger size, now I’m like, yeah.
ANGELO: So I’m like, that has to be water that he has in there and he’s fucking with it.
T.J.: It’s water.
ANGELO: You spray it on yourself…but it is Evian.
T.J.: Try it, do it right now. Hold it away from your face, kind of give it a mist. Ah! Refreshing.
ANGELO: Oh my God.
T.J.: See, the truth is, right now you think, oh that’s stupid. And then you’ll do it a couple times, you’ll want to carry it with you.
ANGELO: So you’re a spokesperson now?
T.J.: I should get money for it.
ANGELO: You don’t?
T.J.: But no one would every pay me. No way man. And I don’t, for me it’s a service to Evian.
So you just discovered this thing and started doing it on stage?
Yeah, totally. Somebody had it in a makeup trailer or something, and I used it, and I was like, that is so ridiculous. Then I bought one as a joke, and brought it on stage one day at the Laugh Factory and now it’s the closer. I think that’s my future, is kind of being a prop comic.
It’s good to move into that later in your career.
It’s called evolution. You know what I mean, you just can’t help it?
I was noticing a lot of people coming up to talk to you after the show. What do people know you from?
You know, it’s different. It’s interesting. Mostly She’s Out of My League. And now people are starting to come because of the podcast, which is really cool. People sometimes see Idiot Brother and they’re like, “That guy’s funny, I’d see his standup.” But they kind of don’t quite connect yet. I don’t have a big audience base yet, I don’t think. But I have no idea. It’s always so weird to me.
I was thinking the other day how, if I become a celebrity, I hope to be one of the guys who’s like, I’m in the enemy camp. I want to report back and tell you what it’s like. Because that’s what I make fun of, that’s what I think is so ridiculous. It’s another example of becoming the joke and actually having it be real. People are really nice about my standup, and they come up and they’re pretty cool, but I don’t understand what my reach is and where people are seeing me. It doesn’t really seem real that I’ve been in, like, movies and stuff. It’s weird. It’s just really surreal.
T.J. Miller’s podcast, Cashing in with T.J. Miller, can be found on the Nerdist network. He’s on Twitter at @nottjmiller, and his website, tjmillerdoesnothaveawebsite.com, is one of the best things on the internet.