Denver native T.J. Miller can be a polarizing character in his hometown. Many in the comedy community see him as a local hero who's helped bring national eyes to the scene; others think he's a bro-down braggart who erroneously claimed civic pride with his "Denver" music video. Either way, though, there's no denying his mainstream success, as evidenced by last night's premiere of the Fox comedy Goodwin Games, co-starring Miller as a lovable jailbird competing against his siblings for his father's inheritance. The show comes on the heels of January's announcement that Miller will co-star in the new Mike Judge comedy pilot, Silicon Valley.
While Goodwin Games is a DOA dud, Silicon Valley will most likely be a fantastic gem that may -- or may not -- have a chance of getting picked up. It seems that Miller is taking the classic Nicolas Cage route of "safe" roles that will secure him an income, balanced by "smart" comedies that garner self-respect and long-term credibility. It's a wise route to take, but is it very Denver?
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Personally, I like T.J. Miller. Most of the time. His Gorburger Show is not only hilarious, but a refreshingly arty spin on what has become an unbearable talk-show format. Last year's season of Mash Up was always worth watching, and his scene in Russell Brand's Get Him to the Greek had me falling to pieces. At the same time, though, I understand the criticism from some locals, whose faces contort like they've just inhaled a bag of dead-baby farts whenever his name enters the conversation.
While comedy groups like The Grawlix and Fine Gentlemen's Club have proved that you can gain national attention while maintaining a base in Denver, Miller never cut his teeth here. He developed his craft in the Chicago comedy scene, and gained his "success" in movies like Yogi Bear 3-D after he relocated to L.A. This is sometimes cited as a reason to dislike him, though Ben Roy and other successful comics have repeatedly said that while Colorado is the best place for their comedy ambitions, they hold no ill will for people like Miller or Ben Kronberg heading off to the bright lights of the Coasts. And I'd be a hypocrite myself if I disagreed with them, since I left a rural hamlet in Iowa for the opportunities of a relatively larger metropolis.
It's not even the fact that Miller has stared in some truly crap movies and TV shows that leaves a bad taste. Plenty of respectable comics like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Bill Maher have appeared in movies that were grossly beneath them. Whether you're a writer, musician or comedian, everyone's gotta pay the bills (though sometimes you have to look at performers like Jim Carrey in Mr. Popper's Penguins or Jason Bateman in The Change-Up and wonder: How much money do you need?). The difference is that in most of these cases, the actors could pull off a decent performance in what was an otherwise unwatchable movie.
T.J. Miller is a brilliant comedian -- but Daniel Day-Lewis he is not. When he's landed the role of a witty, brutishly cynical hot-potato he can really shine, but his lack of versatility is nakedly displayed when he takes on the "safe" roles that Hollywood dishes out to him like food stamps for the famous. In Goodwin Games, his effort as a soft-hearted oaf that you love in spite of his thievery is mostly unconvincing. He was handed some truly awful writing in this series, so I should be generous toward the handicap he's inherited. And I am. But at the same time the question remains: Is this very Denver?
Interviewing dozens of touring standups who make a point to stop in Denver and do the rounds of Deer Pile, the Bug and Lannie's, the most consistent description I hear of our blossoming comedy scene is: Denver comedy is authentic. Without any large studios waving a smelling salt of cash under their noses, local comics have been able to sustain a kind of regionalism that grows out of finding their own strengths, and finding ways to wedge those strengths into their ambitions. T.J. Miller shouldn't endure a hipster castration for "selling out" and taking roles that are beneath him, but in order to sustain his "Denver, Denver, I'm from Denver" creed, it is important that he stick to what he's good at.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.