Inside ‘The Gorburger Show’ with T.J. Miller

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Comedy Central has a history of taking short form web series and expanding them to long-form primetime shows. That pattern continues this Sunday at midnight as The Gorburger Show makes its television debut. For those not familiar with the format, Gorburger is a large, blue alien who has arrived to Earth to forcefully take over as host of a Japanese variety show. T.J. Miller, who voices Gorburger and is executive producer of the show, describes the character as an Earth-obsessed, naturally inquisitive lover of pop culture who is here to learn about the human condition. Listening to Miller talk about Gorburger is an odd experience wherein he speaks of the extraterrestrial as if he actually exists. That is likely a result of his commitment to The Gorburger Show as a four-year “passion project.” I talked to Miller about why the show is so important to him, the cultural significance of Gorburger, and how I’m wrong in thinking that Gorburger and T.J. have a lot in common.

How’s it going, T.J.?

Dude, this is real and it’s happening. I care more about this show than if I had my own Apatow-produced T.J. Miller show.

Why does this show mean so much to you?

This is a difficult moment for America. We’ve got all these “mainstream media,” “libtard” fucking talk shows. That’s how a lot of America sees Hollywood’s talk show format. Even The Daily Show is considered liberal. But Gorburger is an alien. He doesn’t have any political affiliation. He’s in Tokyo. It’s a truly apolitical show. He doesn’t care. He could leave the planet anytime. He doesn’t have a dog in the fight. I use that expression three to eight times a day. Because he doesn’t have a dog in the fight we’re in a great position to just have the guests, ask them what’s going on, ask them their opinions, and not have any investment in what the answer is. That’s huge. I’ve been with this project for four years. It’s truly been a passion project in the most real sense of the words. I’ve believed in this for so long. Working to get this on television for four years and then finally getting it is really exciting.

We hope that people connect to it and go, “This is different than anything else on television,” but it’s not one of those random-ass shows that feel like they should be on Adult Swim. I respect Adult Swim, but I’m a commercial artist. I deal in popular culture. I’m not trying to get 500 hipsters really excited about what I’m doing. Gorburger loves pop culture. He loves people. He thinks Usher is the best dancer that’s ever lived. He can’t believe the things that Lady Gaga does. But also because of The Director Brothers [Josh Martin and Ryan McNeely] he’s at the forefront of modern music. The musicians we have are incredible. We’re doing collaborations. All the music that you hear on Gorburger is original music, like Reggie Watts with Thundercat. Getting these different musicians to collaborate is amazing. We may release an album.

I just saw Thundercat live, and watching him perform made me realize why so many people like Kendrick, Erykah Badu, and Flying Lotus have brought him into their projects.

That’s insightful. We’re going behind the curtain of pop culture and finding the people that make the fabric. Whoa, good textile reference T.J.!

How would you describe Gorburger’s character?

Gorburger thinks that everybody is his best friend. He loves the concept of the best friend. You have friends and then you have a best friend, but he’s fascinated by the concept of, “What if all of my friends were my best friends?” He’s got these weird obsessions. He’s idiosyncratically humanistic. I would describe him as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog if he was completely positive with no cynicism to him at all. But also he’s a puppet the size of anything Jim Henson is ever made. There are five people involved in the puppeteering.

The show started as a web series…

We were at Warner Brothers Music of all places. They were supportive and helpful, but this was a time in history like the Wild West. We were on YouTube but Warner Music YouTube isn’t really around anymore, but they launched us.

Did it move to Funny or Die next?

Funny or Die had been producing it from the start. They were the ones that connected The Director Brothers and me. But it was after people liking it on Warner’s YouTube that they said, “Okay, we’re really going to start pushing it.” They’ve been wildly helpful as well. Comedy Central is now our last step at bringing Gorburger into the mainstream. I hope and think that it will work.

Wasn’t HBO also in the mix?

We did a pilot at HBO. I’ll forever be indebted to them for letting that pilot go and allowing Comedy Central to pick it up. That’s not something that networks do. For them to have the confidence to make the Gorburger pilot to see if it would work for HBO and then not only saying, “Nope, it didn’t work,” but also, “Yes, go make it somewhere else. We’re HBO, we don’t have competition” — for them to do that is huge. Usually when a network has a pilot that doesn’t work they don’t let the competition do it. I’m thankful to them for that.

How much of the show is improvised?

I mean, it’s me, so nearly all of it. We’ve got incredible writers. Miller Davis, the head writer, he and I have worked together a lot. And then Nick Vatterott, he’s one of the best comedians. Those two guys are the head writers, and The Director Brothers also write. We’ve got a strong crew. But it’s a talk show, so when we’re doing the talk show elements I’m desperately trying to stay afloat, stay interesting, stay funny, but also do what Gorburger does, which is at the heart of all this. He needs to know what human capability is and what the human condition is. Once he finds that out, as soon as he has that information…he’s sort of a scout. As soon as he finds it out he’s going to leave. He’s kind of a superfan of Earth. It’s like he arrived and said, “I love what you guys are doing here.” To him a talk show is the best way to get to interact with the people that he is a fan of.

The more you talk about this, his interests, his obsessions, it sounds like Gorburger is kind of you.

No. I kind of wish he was because there’s no cynicism. It’s like me playing Fred in Big Hero 6. I play characters that are very much not me. I don’t even know if Gorburger and I would get along.

It’s interesting to hear you say that because…

I’ve been fooling people into thinking I’m interesting for a long time.

I feel like you talk about positivity and connecting with people a lot. You wear your influences on your sleeve. You talk about the things that you like. You aren’t afraid to superfan out about things that you enjoy. So you might deny a connection to the character, but I’m seeing a lot of similar personality traits.

Well then, you’re probably the best reporter I’ve ever met. But here’s the deal: right now my influences are Andy Warhol and Friedrich Nietzsche. Gorburger’s influences are Danny Brown and HEALTH. I’m not a Debbie Downer, but his positivity is not the kind that I…he’s a fucking alien, man. I don’t think Usher is the best dancer and I wouldn’t even have a conversation about that at a party. All of that being said, I’m a fan of his show.

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