Comedian T.J. Miller has a commitment to comedic absurdity that has served him well throughout his career. From his early days in Denver to his roots in the Chicago improv scene, Miller has emerged as one of this city's most unique standup exports, remarkable for his madman charisma. In short order, Miller stole scenes and joined impressive ensemble casts in movies like Our Idiot Brother and Yogi Bear 3D. All the while, Miller's home town of Denver has remained close to his heart and channeled into song on his Extended Play EP from Comedy Central Records. And this is an exciting time for Miller, with Silicon Valley, a new HBO series, set to premiere on April 6 and the movie Search Party due this summer. This week, Denver's prodigal comic returns to his native state for two nights of shows as a part of his No Cancellations tour. He'll performing tonight, February 26, at Boulder's Fox Theatre. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. for the 9 p.m. show; general admission tickets are $20. On Thursday, February 27, he'll be at the Gothic Theatre. Doors open at 7 p.m. for the 8 p.m. show; tickets are $20.50 in advance and $23 on the day of show.
Westword recently caught up with Miller on the phone to discuss his tour, the absurdity of morning news shows, and why he always brings his best to Denver.
Westword: Hi, TJ, thanks for doing the interview.
T.J. Miller: Of course. Colorado, 303, Mile High till I die!
The app I use to record phone calls makes an annoying beep every sixty seconds or so; I'll go ahead and apologize in advance.
That's okay. I love beeps. I love cursing on national television.
So, I just saw the trailer for Silicon Valley, and it looks hilarious. Can you talk about how that all came together?
Well, Goodwin Games had been canceled on ABC, and I thought, "All right, I'm not going back into TV, because everything I touch on TV turns to shit." Or, you know, it gets canceled. I'd gotten to the point where I just wanted to create my own television, like Mash Up and Gorbuger. But I wasn't going to go out for pilot season, and right as I had made that decision, Mike Judge's producing partners came to me and said, "Hey, we want you to audition for this Silicon Valley show we're doing with Mike. It happened just as I'd said that I wasn't going to get involved in other people's projects, but what am I going to do -- say no to a Mike Judge thing? I went in, and I liked the character and I liked what they were doing. I did an off-kilter version of the character, and they decided that they wanted to go with me and Thomas Middleditch, who I've known for ten years from when I did two-man improv back in Chicago. He's one of the funniest improvisers alive, like on the level of Amy Poehler. Kumail Nanjiani got cast, too, and I've known him for ten years.
It really is an awesome cast. Kumail has the funniest line of the trailer. Martin Starr is on the show too, right?
Yes, I love Martin Starr! These guys are all the funniest dudes. It's an incredible cast. And the show's really good. It's really timeless.
That's difficult for a story about technology to achieve. HBO doesn't usually produce shows that suck, though.
They don't fuck around.
So, the upcoming show at the Gothic is part of a tour you're doing?
Yeah, I wanted to do a national tour. I've wanted to go on tour for a while. I had set up a tour before, but then I had to cancel it -- I think for Transformers. That's why this is called the No Cancellations tour. We have yet to cancel. Of course, Denver had to be a part of that. I've performed at the Gothic before and really loved it. It fits the vibe of the tour, which has been rock clubs, smaller comedy clubs, weird performance spaces and bars that do a comedy night. Some colleges and some clubs.
Do you think that as a prodigal native son, you draw a bigger crowd when you're in Denver?
They're nice, of course. People come out. I also have a lot of family and friends from growing up who'll come out to shows. I get a really good response. In some ways, it's the only place that I really put pressure on myself to deliver because it's so important to me that Denver is proud of me and likes what I'm doing. I try and represent 303 so much, partly because I love it, but also because I think it's funny for a comedian to rep his home town like a rapper or something.
You do big shows all over the country, but is there a special element of doing a big theater gig here? For example, I grew up seeing tons of concerts and comedy shows at the Gothic. Is there a weird feeling of whiplash taking the stage at a place you've recognized for so long?
I didn't go to a lot of concerts and shit growing up. I was always more concerned with comedy. I think the real whiplash is walking through that theater, seeing how incredible it is, and then doing a show there that's sold out. I can't believe that all these people came out to see me. That's a weird thing anywhere. What blows my mind is being here and hearing my Denver song on the radio. The local media, like Uncle Nasty and fucking Keefer, John Wenzel and you guys at Westword have all been so supportive. That blows my mind. Kirk Montgomery and I were texting about Silicon Valley. It's pretty cool.
I've been watching those weird morning news show interviews you've been doing lately. When did you decide to start taking those interviews in such a weird direction? How do the newspeople react?
It started as soon as I started doing the interviews. I remember seeing a morning appearance with Tracy Morgan and he just acted insane. He said, "I was in Vietnam, I'm Lt. Dan!" and took off his shirt. It was just so irreverent and so fun. I did one that was really crazy, I think in Las Vegas or something. I went in, really just fucked around, and afterward they said, "That was so refreshing. It's so hard to interview people." Everybody's boring and they don't want to talk, they're nervous on television, so it was really fun for them to come to work and have this sort of lunacy happen.
That made me think that this is not just about me, it's not just about the people watching. The hosts like it, too. So I thought it would be funny to have a medley out there. People could just google "TJ Miller morning shows" and find a collection of appearances that were all fucking bananas. It's a fun lexicon of work that also illustrates my philosophy of absurdity. It's much better to wreak havoc on a show and be a maniac than promote myself. Plugs and anecdotes aren't really in line with my beliefs. Besides, if someone sees me on a morning show and thinks, "That's not funny; this guy is crazy," then I don't want them to come to the show anyway. It's going to get a lot weirder there than during the five minutes I have on Good Morning Dallas or whatever. It's just as effective for promoting my shows, but it exists as a piece of comedy rather than just promotion.
I like to imagine that a regular viewer of that morning news show tuned in, still half-dreaming, and was totally transfixed by what they saw.
That's exactly right. That's great. I love the idea of them being half-asleep, thinking that it's all in their dreams and I can't be real. I like that I help start off people's mornings with a laugh. I care less about selling tickets and getting Twitter followers than I do about making as many people laugh as I can. I'd rather make people laugh than make them know who T.J. Miller is.
Has your acting career eaten into the time you have available for standup?
Yeah, but it's all comedy, even in different mediums. So if I there's work for me in the acting medium of comedy, I'll have to do standup at night in Los Angeles after working fourteen-hour days on set and won't have as much time for it until whatever I'm working on wraps. I'm pretty lucky to be working in comedy in any capacity, so I feel pretty fortunate. I love standup, though; I'd love to tour more. I think about wanting to do more standup than I think about wanting to do more acting -- I'll put it that way.
Standup is kind of a compulsion once you start doing it. That's why there are so many old-timers who've never quit.
It is a compulsion. The rush you get from making people laugh is addictive. It's the foundation of comedy. It's pure and unfettered -- there's no one between you and the audience. That's what I love about it.
There's no barrier to entry, either. It's hard to make money, but if you want to perform standup, all you need is a place with a microphone. Unlike other mediums, you don't need to be cast, financed or greenlit. The only barrier is repeated exposure to crushing defeat.
That's exactly right. The defeat never bothered me so much. That's part of the form. It's inherent to the form of standup. The worst is doing a 45-minute set where they hate you the whole time. Lately, I've been pretty lucky that the people who show up already know what they're getting into when they come see me.
Did you start out with a more traditional joke-telling style and then veer off?
No, never. I'm not a very good writer, so from the beginning, everything is born from improvisation. I've always gone up with an idea and fleshed it out on stage and keep adding to it.
So it's always been a high-risk, high-reward system?
Yeah, I think so. I was lucky to start out in Chicago. That scene was so alternative and bizarre that people appreciated that kind of comedy. We'd be able to do some pretty absurd stuff and have people encourage us.
I saw that Ben Kronberg and Nick Vatterott were opening for you.
Nick Vatterott is a headliner, but he agreed to be the opening act. We're going to split the profits like co-headliners, though. Andrew Orvedahl is emceeing all these shows, which is nice because he's also a headliner. That's the cool thing about Denver -- I don't know what it is, but I like all the comics in Denver. I think it's because they live in Denver. It's such a different mentality out there. Legalization of marijuana is a testament to that.
Have you performed in Denver since the bill went into effect?
Not since it went into effect, no. I did a Sexy Pizza show for Andy Juett where the whole audience was high. The entire audience. It doesn't matter so much that they're high, but just, you know, open.
Was that on Thanksgiving Day?
Yeah, I was there with my sister.
I was on that show earlier in the night. It's a lot of fun, but people kept lighting up blowtorches for their dab rigs, which is vaguely menacing.
It does look menacing, but it's also pretty funny. If you do a dab, you're in a totally different place. My sister and I barely made it. We got there at the very end of that thing, and people were high, eating Thanksgiving pizza and having a good time. It's the best.
When did you meet Kayvan? He's been kind of a benefactor to the scene here.
I heard of him when the pizza place that was three blocks from my house in Capitol Hill turned into a Sexy Pizza. So I went in there all the time to eat, then later on I tweeted about getting Sexy Pizza to cater my album-release party at the Denver Improv, and that's how we started talking. He and Andy Juett have really pioneered the Denver comedy scene, found alternative venues and promoted people. Andy's influence in radio has helped. I like both of those guys a lot.
Podcast listeners can catch Miller being interviewed by host Cash Levy every week on Cashing in with T.J. Miller, as Miller is the only guest.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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