T.J. Miller talks Dane Cook, Denver comedy and eating mustard out of a can
Denver native T.J. Miller is one busy comic. But even on the same day that his new comedy series, Mash Up, premiered on Comedy Central, Miller took the time to give us a call and chat about Hollywood success and why he still misses Denver. During our conversation, Miller was on the set where he's filming the new Fox comedy series Goodwin Games, set to premiere in early 2013. Always looking for ways to align himself with his hometown roots, Miller will be performing in two separate benefits in Denver this Saturday: The Grapes of Rad (a benefit for local comedian Mara Wiles) at Lodo's Bar, and a Yes on 3A + 3B benefit at the Lowenstein Culture Complex.
Westword: With Mash Up, you're kind of living out many comics' fantasy: combining sketch comedy with standup.
T.J. Miller: A lot of these standups are great in their own sketches -- and a lot of the sketch comedians are people who I worked with in Chicago. Three of the cast members of Mash Up were in my touring company at Second City. And another thing is, there have been shows that use standup themes in sketch, like Mind of Mencia and Chappelle's Show, but there really hasn't been a standup show that has other standups as guests and then mixes in sketch comedy.
I also get to showcase really great talent. A lot of my peers, people that I love and look up to in the standup scene, were guests of the show this season.
You seem to have such pride for your home town of Denver, so I'm sure you're aware of how large the comedy scene here has grown in the last few years. How does a younger comedy culture like Denver differ from more established communities like New York or L.A.?
Denver's kind of like Chicago. I started [comedy] in Chicago, and Denver's now -- with the Fine Gentleman's Club, Grawlix, Deer Pile -- looking like it will be the place to breed the next generation of great comedians. I'm excited. I love all the Denver comics -- a lot of them are in that Denver music video. So not only am I optimistic about the Denver scene, I try and be a part of it as much as I can. Sometimes I'll force myself on shows.
But isn't a comic forcing himself onto a show the reason you got into it with Dane Cook last January?
Well, no, no, no. He's allowed to force himself onto any show at the Laugh Factory. My issue with Dane Cook is that he was abusive to the audience; he trashed the show and the crowd for like an hour and fifteen minutes, right before I had to go on. Joe Rogan and all those guys tried to make it seem like I don't like getting bumped. I've been bumped a thousand times -- I was bumped for Seinfeld and he did two hours, and I couldn't have been more ecstatic, it was like being a little kid in the candy store. But if Seinfeld or anybody had gone up there and trashed the stage and been mean to the audience, I would've mentioned it.
Now I wish I hadn't done it on Twitter, because then it became this big thing. I should've just told him directly. I would've made fun of him on stage, but Laugh Factory is kind of his kingdom.
Several local comics have gone full time into their craft, but to support themselves they have to tour. Do you think to survive as comedians they have to leave Denver for L.A. or Chicago?
Well, Chicago...I worked as a comic in Chicago for four years, and while it's getting easier there, the nature of the game is still, if you really want to be in there, at this level, you have to go to Los Angeles. Or New York. But I think what Denver and Chicago are showing is that you can have a healthy standup community in any city -- you just need like-minded, intelligent people who like to go see comedy. The problem is that there's not much money in it. But the Denver underground scene is exploding, and that's going to give a lot of comics a space to develop.
So does Denver need to start filming large-budget productions here before we can afford to financially support comedians?
The problem is there are only so many clubs, only so much paid work in Denver -- just like Chicago -- and there will always be more comedians than there are slots. Even comedians in Los Angeles have to tour. You can be based in Denver and be a big touring comedian. But if you want to be in film and television, you have to come out to Los Angeles. And it still is the case that people who get on TV for standup are in New York or L.A., because they're taken more seriously. And I think that's erroneous.
Instead of asking, "Will Denver be able to compete with Los Angeles or New York?," Denver should be excited that their city is becoming this breeding ground, the incubation period, for a lot of great comedians. As a comedian, you want to be in a setting with a lot of creative people who are very driven; you're producing content and you're learning from people about the content they're producing. But you don't have the industry watching over you; you don't have the anxiety of first three or four years of doing standup where you're thinking, "Boy, if I fuck up this one, I won't be able to get into this or that club, and these Comedy Central executives are here..." L.A. infects you, just like any place with a lot of money and opportunity.
Which prompts the question: if you spend your developing years outside of the industry, in a city not infected by money and opportunity, does that provide more opportunity for authenticity?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. That's a great point. I think that's why I am the comedian that I am today: Chicago was a huge scene, but nobody was paying attention to standup. So we all did whatever we wanted to do, and learned from each other.
So much of your identity is wrapped up in Denver; how do you feel you've been received by the Denver comedy community, considering you made a name for yourself elsewhere?
I think I maintain my identity as a Denverite more than people would like me to. There are a lot of aspects to my personality that are very embarrassing -- most of all to me, and I'm sure to my city. I'm such a weirdo. I look like Ryan Reynolds pushed his face against a brick wall for an hour and a half. I eat mustard out of a can, and mustard doesn't even come in a can! So I'm squeezing mustard out of a bottle and into a can and eating it out of a can, spilling it all over myself...
But, yes, Denver is an important part of my identity. I grew up in Capitol Hill, went to East High School.... Anyone who lives in Denver and is in any way rational loves Denver! No one says bad things about it. No one I'm interested in hanging out with says, "There's nothing to do in Denver. Denver's so boring." It's such a great city. All the comics were so accepting of me, and I love all the comics in Denver. So I've tried to help them. Andrew Orvedahl has been opening for me lately. I try and play the Grawlix and Fine Gentleman's shows whenever I'm in town. This Saturday I'm doing two benefits for Denver. I do that a lot, and want to continue to. I donate to East High School, and every time I come back, I talk to the drama class.
So I try and give back to the community, like a rapper would -- but I have a much worse car.
Well, now that you have a platform on Comedy Central with your own show where you feature standup comedians, do you have plans to feature any of these Denver comics?
Oh, yeah. But the problem is that the network ultimately decides everything. I want to always be trying to have some sort of show where I'm showcasing other people. That's always been the most rewarding thing for me. I don't get such a kick about bringing more exposure to myself; as much as I like talking to you right now, I am not my favorite topic of conversation. The cool thing is that if I can be a guy from Denver who is successful enough to point the magnifying glass over that city -- first of all, it's going to be very hot, because there's so much sunshine there, but also it's going to help grow the scene.
Also, there's a Chicago mafia out here [in L.A.], where the Chicago people run all the best rooms, they're doing the most television. Almost half the standups on Mash Up are from Chicago. Or maybe more. And I'm a Chicago comic, I came up there and know all the Chicago comics out here. So the next step, logically, is to do something for Denver. I have an allegiance to Chicago and Denver and will tolerate New York and Los Angeles.
So you see L.A. as a necessary evil?
It is. It absolutely is. I hate living in Los Angeles; I wish I could live in Denver. But I can't do what I do from Denver. But I'm Mile High until I die. I think Chris Charpentier, Ben Roy, Andrew Orvedahl, Adam Cayton-Holland are all these interesting people who are getting so good. Ben Kronberg is a comic I knew from Los Angeles, but I could tell he was from Denver.
But it shouldn't so much be about "Denver vs. these cities." It should be more "Denver + these cities = success." Now, "Denver + Creede, Colorado"...that's a different kind of success.
Well, beyond Denver, it seems the entire U.S. is going through a kind of comedy renaissance. Standups like Louie C.K., Marc Maron and Patton Oswalt are achieving a level of cultural relevance that wasn't possible ten years ago.
I think you're absolutely right. It's a very strange thing, because I never really saw standup going away. Now, we all know about the boom and the bust [of standup] in the late '80s and early '90s, but I've seen a steady growth from there. I mean, when Dane Cook was on Last Comic Standing, people were saying, "Oh, there's a renaissance now!" But what people don't acknowledge or talk about is that there are different genres of comedy: There's blue-collar comedy; there's indie comedy; there's pop comedy, which is sort of what Dane Cook is; there's darker comedy, like [Daniel] Tosh; there's absurdist comedy, like myself; there's observational comedy, like Patton Oswalt. There's all different types of comedy, like there's all different kinds of music. You never ask someone, "Do you like music?," because everyone likes music. So instead of asking, "Do you like standup?," it should be, "What kind of standup do you like?"
But we're not at a place where someone's identity is mapped onto their taste in standup the way they are with music. If you're into hip-hop, metal or classical, that says a lot about your identity in a way that comedy doesn't.
Not yet, but I think we're on our way. Those heavy-metal guys are into Brian Posehn; if you're into indie rock, you like David Cross or Sarah Silverman; if you're a frat dude, you're into Tosh. And that's why I made that music album. I'm still looking for ways to do satire and comedy that are new. And to bring attention to Denver.
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