T.J. Miller on His 'Alternative' Standup Tour and Leaving 'Silicon Valley' for Love (of Comedy)
As he heads out on what could be called "The Mainstream Comedy Tour" or the "It Could Be Anything Tour," the hard-working comic reflects on moving to New York and the art of 'Transformers.'
Published Nov 02, 2017T.J. Miller is basking in the northern glowing sun shining down upon Canada.
"I'm in Toronto," he tells Exclaim! over the phone. "Home of the Torontonians! My friend Noel Fielding says it sounds like everyone's a minotaur. 'The Torontonians!'"
Miller is a veteran standup comic who is perhaps best known for acting roles in films like Cloverfield, Transformers, Deadpool and his voice work in event flicks like How to Train Your Dragon and The Emoji Movie. He played Erlich Bachman on the critically acclaimed HBO series, Silicon Valley; he made waves by departing the show this year, in order to better support his wife Kathryn Gorney's art career, as well as pursuing his own love of standup, by relocating to New York.
He's the star attraction on a cross-country Alternative Comedy tour presented by Just for Laughs, which also features sets by Rhys Darby and Nick Vatterott, which hits cities in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia in November.
"I've been joking that because it's Just for Laughs — the most trusted mainstream brand of comedy in Canada — it might as well be called the 'Mainstream Comedy Tour,'" Miller says. "Everybody knows JFL as this comedic institution and they wanted to present 'alternative comedy' and I am a kind of 'alternative comedian.' I'm a little stranger, there's some absurdism, philosophy with the observational humour with the car horn noises. But I'm also the guy from The Emoji Movie."
Indeed, when information was distributed more slowly than it is now, the term "alternative" seemed to have a particular weight to it — whether it was alt-comedy, alt-rock, or alt-country music. It's almost quaint to imagine 'alternative' packing the same punch or generating the same intrigue in our internet age, which has made stars of weirdo outliers like Miller.
"That's an astute observation," Miller admits. "Here's what's changed. The word 'alternative' now implies that whatever is mainstream is bad. That's what's happening [in America right now]. So, we're here to say, 'Alternative just means different, it doesn't mean worse or better, it just means being open.' And Canadians are known for being very open to all sorts of funny things.
"So, this isn't the avant-garde comedy tour and if they called it that, it really wouldn't connect," he continues. "But they can't call it the 'Holy fucking shit what a lineup in Canada Comedy Tour.' I think we're trying to tell people don't come if you're expecting 'the difference between men and women' or 'have you noticed how funny Tim Horton's is.' That isn't at all what it is. There might be some clown, mime, juggling — it could be anything. It should be called the 'It Could Be Anything Tour.'"
In a sense, we should all be celebrating the fact that subversive art seems to be more omnipresent than ever, but it's also led to a certain numbness. Almost nothing's shocking, as we become further desensitized to the onslaught of provocative information we're expected to process. Miller, sensing a shift, decided to make the bold decision to leave a steady paycheque at Silicon Valley to challenge himself and, for whatever reason, the move caused considerable showbiz shockwaves.
"We're in a garbage time, but we've got some really good culture going on," he says. "We have people in sports even doing some important stuff. Culture is slowly changing and all of it is good. Look, I study Andy Warhol and Nietzsche, not Britney Spears. These are people that are very pop — pop art, pop commercialism, 'art is business,' and all those things are important to me because your reach is wider.
"If I just do Silicon Valley then I'm not making anyone laugh in China," he reasons. "Transformers 4, however? Commercial art or pop art, on a spectrum of money to meaning, it's going to start ticking towards meaning more than money and that's just about the only good thing going on right now, especially in Hollywood."
Just to murk up the water, Miller, who still has a slate of big budget films on the horizon (including roles in Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One and a reprise of Weasel in Deadpool 2), not only left a hit show, he left Tinseltown altogether to head east and hit, not giant arenas or theatres, but small clubs.
"New York City is where you become a great standup comedian," Miller says definitively. "You can become a really good standup comedian in Los Angeles but you can never become a great comedian. People have had enough of Erlich, or at least I did my duty and I served that show as well as I could, but I was also interrupting their production schedule with standup dates and movie parts and that became even more clear when I realized this was the most supportive thing for Kate, who's exploding as a mixed media artist in New York and Europe. Why not be there for that?
"In New York, you get stage time. I'm a big fan of work ethic over talent, as you can see from my career. I work harder than anyone else. I just do. There's just no one who works as hard as I do. In New York, your stage time is probably three times more than you'd get in Los Angeles.
"When I work, I do between two to five sets," Miller states. "When I'm really working and do a full night, I can do between six and ten 12-to-15 minute sets. That's the same material in front of different crowds, different clubs in Manhattan or Queens or Brooklyn. So the math is in favour of New York City if you're willing to do the work.
"So, that's one of the many reasons to go to New York instead of resting on HBO laurels," he says. "It isn't about the money. The second it becomes about the money that's when you misstep and when you fall because your values change."
Listen to this interview with T.J. Miller on Kreative Kontrol via iTunes or below.