T.J. Miller Wants to Use Comedy to Soothe the Human Condition
T.J. Miller cuts to the core. Whether shooting from the hip on local morning talk shows or waxing philosophical in his standup, Miller is operating from a place of gut instinct. In his latest ventures, he’s appearing opposite Jennifer Aniston in a holiday comedy, Office Christmas Party, debuting December 9th, and starring as Greg the Genie in a second series of Slim Jim ads on Funny or Die. Between shooting the new season of Silicon Valley and appearing on Ellen, he made some time to talk to me about nihilism, mortality, and Goblesnarfs.
You play Greg the Genie for a Slim Jim campaign on Funny or Die. If you had a genie and could make a wish what would it be?
Ooh, I like that you’re coming with an angle already. I sincerely love Splitsider, you know I love Splitsider. And I love Slim Jim. I have done ads like this before, but I have complete creative control this time. So here’s the tricky T.J. answer — if I had one wish, it would be for Slim Jim to allow me to do more sketch comedy and this character that I think is hysterical.
How much of Greg the Genie is off the cuff?
So much. I mean we have the same crew as Gorburger on Greg the Genie. You know Gorburger, the giant blue monster? It’s going to be on Comedy Central in January. Those directors and then Miller Davis, who is my cousin. They write, direct, and produce the spot, the four of us. And Slim Jim just — it’s really crazy, they just sign off on the strangest things. Like this round we are putting out is even stranger than the last round we put out. Like the last round we had these two Ukrainians that wouldn’t break eye contact while building a shelf. And I had always wanted to do some kind of funny, Monty Python-like sketch with a guy that has an entourage of nine elderly Polish women with goats. And they let me do it. Slim Jim was like yeah, do it! The thing is I’m a sketch comedian, I started out at Second City and Slim Jim recognized that, and I guess I also fooled them into believing that I’m dynamic, I hoodwinked Hollywood somehow into thinking that, but I’m not going to stop — not now. Slim Jim said, this is funny, we should do more of these. This guy is in movies and on a TV show, but he seems to love being painted blue for some reason.
How long does it take to get all blue?
It takes three hours. One and half to get into it and one and half to get out. While we were shooting it, I wouldn’t take off the makeup at night. I would go to a pinball bar — pinball is fucking fun as hell — so we’d go to this pinball bar and no one would mention that I was blue. It was the strangest thing. I’d say hello to the doorman or the bartender and they would kind of wait for you to say something like, “I’m a commercial actor, I’m doing this thing.” But if you don’t say anything, then they don’t know what to say, so they don’t mention it.
It’s almost like a weird social experiment.
Yeah, it really kind of is. And it’s fun for me to give people a story. It’s funny and interesting that people get to go home and say, “This guy who was completely blue came into the bar. It was the weirdest thing. Regular hair and everything, but he was completely blue head to toe.” And yeah, the funny part about the next round is, you kind of get a little of Greg the Genie’s personal life. Like his family, his co-worker genies, where he lives — it’s really, really very silly. I love Slim Jims. I always go into gas stations and ask if they sell a lot of Slim Jims and they say ‘yeah, always with beer late at night.’ Guys come in and say, I need to eat something, but don’t want a whole pizza or waffles or something. A guy wants something that’s just meat, so he snaps into a Slim Jim.
I just think of them as the producers of this very funny content we get to do. I find it really strange how bizarre they are letting us be. I wouldn’t do this if they were like “No, you’ve got to scale it back, it needs to be less weird.” But you know me, I’m not trying to be edgy, I just want to do the Polish women and goats thing.
I would definitely do another round. I think there are even stranger places we could go.
Your comedy is really absurd and often spontaneous. What do you think gives you the courage to be so uninhibited when performing?
Being a nihilist probably helps. But a positive one. I always think that people should be given another option with comedy. I had the choice between doing that Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates movie with Zac Efron and Adam Devine — and those guys are both great, but I didn’t do the movie. But they talked to me about doing that movie and it was between that and Deadpool. And here’s why I made that choice. America doesn’t need another R-rated wedding movie, but there’s never been an R-rated superhero genre movie. So although I’m not a huge fan of that kind of stuff, Kumail Nanjiani said, ‘Deadpool! That’s my favorite comic.’ And I trust that guy, so I said okay, I’ll do that. And I went in and read for the director because they were thinking of a nerdier guy, and I just went in and said, look. I’m not a very good actor, but I’m very good at changing my appearance — that’s about all I’ve got. That coupled with Silicon Valley and my standup kind of got me the part of Weasel. Which then later would introduce me to Justin Bieber, who is a real big fan of Deadpool, which is very strange. Now I’m friends with Justin Bieber, who is a very smart guy, it’s very strange.
Yeah, it’s a real cultural touchstone because we all said, who knows if this will work? I’ve never heard of Deadpool. But it’s R-rated and Ryan’s really funny and his handsome fucking face will be covered for most of it so people will be able to pay attention to how fucking funny he is — he’s really fucking funny. That’s his defining role. That’s his Greg the Genie. That’s what I try to do, to look for something a little bit different. I’m influenced by Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Ellen DeGeneres, Steven Wright. People whose bent on comedy was, we don’t need to talk about how ridiculous it is. And I do sometimes talk about things from my actual life, but in my HBO special I veer into things that aren’t real at all. Instead of telling you, for example — “Isn’t it weird, when you shake someone’s hand and don’t know what to do, so you tickle their palm and then they slap you in the face?” Jesus. Even my example of taking something from life and making it absurd was absurd. But in contrast to that, if I talk about how my greatest friend Gleeb Glarb the Goblesnarf, very wealthy guy obviously from the family of the Goblesnarfs — if I talk about how him committing suicide affected me and those around me — that’s a really interesting way to hold up a funhouse mirror. With a little dose of satire. That’s why I get along with Mike Judge. And that’s what Gorburger is going to be, this show that has satirical elements, but is completely absurd. A giant alien. Why is Usher such a good dancer?
The eternal question.
I have this mission statement that is — make as many people as you can laugh in the world. Even if it’s in small increments like Slim Jim ads for two minutes or a longer two-and-a-half-hour movie like Transformers.
Are you feeling that impetus more than ever post-election?
That’s what I think Hollywood is trying to figure out and SNL botched it. But Ellen DeGeneres, whose show I’m about to go on, I think she absolutely hit a bull’s eye with her response to the election. She had this sort of mission statement too, beforehand. But you’re right, more than ever, I’m excited to be promoting an R-rated Christmas comedy. That’s never happened, right? That’s like a Deadpool situation. It’s like It’s A Wonderful Life except it’s R-rated, seriously. That’s what the movie is like. It’s great. So this is a good time for people to see movies during the holidays. To get away from their families — no offense to my father-in-law. But to have something to talk about with your family and hopefully you’ll talk about how funny it was and how you were laughing the whole time.
Did anything unusual happen while you were working on Office Christmas Party?
Oh yeah, I almost passed out while rapping and dancing in a Santa suit. Where I do the whole DJ Cool, Let Me Clear My Throat bit. I had to sing that whole thing for real.
Yeah. And I don’t know if you guys know this, but Santa suits are designed for Christmas time, winter. But we were in Atlanta, in June. And we’re under hot lights in a giant sound stage. And I was dancing for nearly 12 hours, rapping my heart out because I wanted it to be a great part of the film. And I literally got dizzy and almost passed out and a doctor looked at me and said, “You’re so severely dehydrated that we need to get you an IV right now.” So they rushed a doctor in and had to actually give me a second IV. That’s how hard I worked for America, okay? Two IV bags worth.
What do you love most about comedy?
I think that it’s such a beautiful opiate. I believe in drugs, I believe in moderation also. I take a drug that stops me from having a seizure, a stroke or an aneurysm. And I smoke marijuana. I think that comedy is this — you know you don’t have to inhale it, you don’t have to take a pill. It’s just this incredible, beautiful departure from the tragedy that permeates our everyday life. And the unjust position that humans were put in where we can ask so many questions that we can’t answer. Like what the fuck is going on? Is there any meaning to this? Why are we here? And then satire — you know, Mike Judge being the Jonathan Swift of our time. I would like to be America’s jester, and the only way to do that is to ask America if that’s okay. Historically, the jester could say anything he wanted to the King and avoid execution, but of course you have to have freedom of speech for that, so we’ll see if Donald Trump — trying to open up the libel laws — whatever. But the jester takes aim at the people above, at the elites. The problem is that someone is trying to paint the celebrities as the elite, when the irony is they’re the most liberal, progressive people. They’re a bunch of weird people in Southern California eating granola and hiking with dogs. Through Gorburger and Cashing In, the podcast I do, and through Twitter, through being in stuff like Silicon Valley and standup, I try to use comedy to sort of soothe the human condition. To eventually get people to release their anxiety about death and to literally, I’m not joking, explain time. Something that is so prescient, but also relevant in this moment, that people are like, “Okay, now I understand that thing I took for granted.” I’ll do the same with capitalism, that’s what the Epicurean foundation is going to be about. But it makes me not care so much what the fuck people think about what I’m doing because I’m like, “This is my craft and it seems to be working so I’ll just continue to trust this instinct and work as hard as I possibly can.”
I was talking to Kumail the other day and he was like, “You are the hardest working man in show business, you are.” And it might be true. You know for my peer level, I really work hard. That’s kind of why I’m the Mucinex man. I really try to make as many people laugh as possible. And with the election, I think both sides need to laugh. People voted for presidents that they didn’t even want in office. Millions of people did. It’s time to take a load off and laugh a little bit.
Were you funny as a kid?
There was one year where I wasn’t funny. In sixth grade I was not funny for an entire year. My only friend that year was a kid whose name was used to describe things that weren’t funny. Then one day I was playing cards and suddenly I was back. In high school, I started reading Eugene Ionesco and I went, you know, there’s something to this. I wasn’t like one of those Harry Potter kids, but I did read. And my drama teacher was a brilliant woman and had us do a couple of his short plays. I really started to get into absurdism then. So then it became more of a philosophy. Some comedians really need attention, need people to like them. I’m not one of those comedians. I’m driven by a need to do something altruistic.
What do you think sustains that level of hard work?
It’s the philosophy that drives me, the fact that I don’t need anything. I’m doing this for the greater good. I feel like humans have it kind of rough. So they deserve to take a break and laugh. That’s what drives me. I don’t need anything. The only thing I need is my wife. I’m so pleased and so happy. I feel like Hollywood has been so generous with me, so I don’t need anymore. Gorburger, Critic’s Choice Awards, Silicon Valley, they let me be in movies sometimes. I don’t think I need any more platforms. I’ve got a podcast that doesn’t need to be Marc Maron’s WTF — but people like it. So I think the goal now is to get more effective rather than try to get further in different mediums. I can’t sustain this work ethic and I won’t because if I do burn out, I’m no use to anybody. As I was discussing with my mother, my father is slowing down too. He’s from southeast Kansas and there’s a strong work ethic down there. That’s where the Koch brothers are, but we’re not like them, we’re the good ones. So I can’t sustain this work ethic. I’m married now, I want to spend more time with Kate. You’ll see, there will be a shift here in the number of projects I’m involved in. Features, TV, standup, but maybe less kids cartoons because kids aren’t as aware of their own mortality so they don’t need to laugh as much as adults.
Well, that got really heavy really quick. I don’t think I’ve ever laid that all out for anybody before. But the idea was to build this infrastructure so people can turn to me in these different mediums, and say, “I trust this guy to take me out of this awful situation. My uncle has cancer, I’m fighting with my girlfriend, my job feels like it’s good, but it’s kind of a dead end.” My comedy says, “Hey, get out of that for a minute and laugh — let me make you laugh.”
Did you spend time getting to know the real Silicon Valley before you did the show?
No, I thought the show wouldn’t work because nobody cared about that world. So it happened in reverse. I got on the show and then I got to know the real people who live in Silicon Valley. Like I’m great friends with the girl that is the head of compression. So I met all of these people in Silicon Valley because of the show. I do panel interviews with GE and all these companies that have a Silicon Valley presence. With the show we are telling them, “You have a hyperbolic self-affirmation and you guys have to kind of tone it down.” Now more than ever though, I feel like we have to make it clear to Silicon Valley the place, that the show is not making fun of them, we’re teasing them and we’re their friend. We need their help right now. Our show is not making fun of Silicon Valley, like ha ha you’re stupid, we’re just teasing them because a jester should say a snappy thing or two to the King.