Comedian T.J. Miller discusses his 41-track hip-hop album and new one-hour Comedy Central special, which premiered this weekend.
At a time when stand-up comedy has become progressively more introspective and story-driven, it’s no wonder a hard-working comedian like T.J. Miller with such a naturally funny disposition has become somewhat of a polarizing figure. With comedians like Marc Maron and Louis C.K. winning over legions of fans through admitting faults, insecurities and personal demons, people have come to respect a legend and a good backstory almost as much as genuine comedic talent.
But as the saying goes, the cream always rises to the top, and after his breakout role in the movie Cloverfield nearly four years ago, T.J. Miller’s one-hour stand-up special No Real Reason is finally set to premiere this Saturday on Comedy Central. His often loud and boisterous style sets him apart from other rising comics at the moment, and in September he released a 41-track hip-hop album titled The Extended Play E.P., the most expensive album Comedy Central has ever produced, only to reinforce his eccentric nature.
We talked with T.J. Miller recently about his new album and stand-up special, as well as his award-winning short film Successful Alcoholics and writing goals for the future.
What made you want to make a hip-hop album instead of a traditional stand-up comedy album?
Well, I have an hour special called No Real Reason out on November 12th and that will also be like a DVD/CD release. I realized in retrospect it was kind of stupid to release the music satire before the stand-up special, because people who know me at all usually know me as an actor, and those who really know me know that I’m a comedian, and I just don’t have anything out yet.
So when I released the album, people were like what the fuck is this? People were really upset and it was very alienating, so in hindsight that probably wasn’t the best idea, but it was also interesting to see how the people who got behind me were really in to the idea of a guy who just wants to be ridiculous and do whatever he thinks is funny in any medium.
Was that the concept behind the album then? Just embellishing your persona into this ridiculous character, while sort of poking fun at commercial rap?
I was going to start by releasing three funny songs that are kind of representative of the type of music out there, where lyrics don’t matter and music can be paid for by somebody else. Lil Wayne’s not the best lyricist, but he pays for all that shit and he’s famous forever because he knows how to pick and choose beats. So in that sense, I don’t really know anything about music. I’m not really a musician. I played the saxophone in middle school. I don’t have good taste in music as my friends can attest to. I listen to stupid rap and a lot of electronic nonsense, but I’m definitely familiar with comedy so music felt like a good place to do it.
I just wanted it to be this really self-indulgent project riffing on the idea of how many rappers are not good actors and many actors would be terrible rappers. But instead of being like Joaquin Phoenix or something, I just set out to make a high quality album, like 41 tracks, a full debut that’s all about everything I know in this ridiculous career, which includes Yogi Bear 3D, How To Train Your Dragon, and the camera guy from Cloverfield. It’s like what if I believed this life was worthy of crossing over in to another medium? It’s so pathetic.
So it’s from the perspective of this self-entitled, grandiose character?
Yeah, which I totally am because I made a rap album for no reason. It’s not even a rap album really, because it has folk music and pop so I call it a fusion of hip-hop, pop and folk, and it’s the most expensive Comedy Central has made. I even dumped a bunch of my own money in to it because I thought it was funny, and once I get moving on something, I feel like it needs to be completely executed. The idea is it would be funny if you tuned in to the lyrics, but not so funny that it was the whole point of the song. If you tune out from the lyrics, you can still kind of chill out and smoke weed, or drive around listening to it.
I just wanted an album you could play more than once, because a lot of people will only listen to my hour special a few times, but music has this quality that’s sort of repetitive. It’s also sort of making fun of like Donald Glover, who takes himself really seriously, and I even wanted to collaborate with him because I thought that would be like the ultimate funny concept, but then he really did take himself too seriously.
But Bo Burnham is on the record, and I put real hip-hop artists on it like Johnny Polygon and Ugly Duckling, who I met in New Zealand and think are just amazing. I think it’s great having them on the album, because it’s kind of explores the idea of me getting credibility through guest stars and ironically, this album has sort of connected me with Jorma of Lonely Island, who I’ve always admired, and he mentioned how he likes the self-deprecating aspects of the album, which is like a through-line in my entire life as a comedian. So it was just about being able to laugh at myself and wanting to make things on my own.
The most recent video you did, “Underpassed”, came out looking pretty flashy. How important is it to have those visuals accompanying the album?
We’re going to be doing several videos for songs on the album, and it’s self-produced but I have some real good directors I work with and I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with some people, so we keep the budget as low as we can, but you can’t make stupid music videos for that guy on the album because the joke won’t work. It has to look like it’s seriously meant to be the best possible thing that it can be because for some of the audience, I want them to be like “Fuck this guy. What is he doing?” because that’s the idea.
Chris Hardwick said it best when he said it’s better to be polarizing that neutralizing, and I certainly think that’s more interesting. At the same time, I’m trying to make it clear to people I’m not going to be the next Jason Segal or Sean William Scott. I have a life outside of the films that I do, and I’m very fortunate to do them, but my identity as a comedian doesn’t have anything to do with How To Train Your Dragon. That’s just something I love doing and I’m fortunate enough to be a part of, and is probably the best movie I’ll ever be in.
Are there any musical comedy acts that you look up to right now?
Garfunkel and Oates – their music videos and the more lo-fi YouTube-y stuff that’s just them on the couch, that creates a certain connection with the audience and it’s funnier to hear them talk about handjobs and stuff that way because all of their material seems real and it is. Bo Burnham is very funny and very smart too, so I’m sort of walking the line between making fun of that stuff and also wanting to contribute to it because I think people really like it. I’m really happy that there are people out there that love the album too.
You mentioned your acting being totally separate from stand-up though. Was acting something you initially knew you wanted to do when you started comedy?
Yeah, but in order to sound like the most pretentious asshole I possibly can, I’ll say that I started out just thinking that I wanted to do comedy and to be a great comedian, you should be proficient in every single medium. So in my mind when I started out, I didn’t even understand that Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell don’t do stand-up. That didn’t make sense. I thought every artist was like Steve Martin because that’s who I was really looking to as an iconic vision of what a comedian is.
He writes, he acts, he just did everything, so I actually never put that together, but I just started reading about stand-up in high school when I was doing these plays and I just liked getting laughs in any way I could. Then I took that model to college when I was in the improv group and they rehearsed from ten to midnight Monday through Thursday, which is crazy for a college kid to devote that much time to comedy. But everybody was pretty serious about it and once I got to Chicago, I did Second City, IO, Annoyance, and then I took classes and worked during the day and did sets every single night, and I just did that for four years.
So you started doing stand-up during college?
Junior year of college in the summer, I went to Chicago and started doing sets and just really got addicted to it. It works perfectly for the kind of person I am because I become compulsive with anything I feel strongly about, and I also kind of believed in the scene and what it meant. The people were very interesting and I just sort of fell in love with the culture of it, which made it really easy to continue.
Stand-up is unlike acting because you can go and do it every night. You can do it whenever you want to do it, and with acting, you have to wait for the audition or class or whatever, so that just felt like a good backbone for the whole thing. So now, I always improvise because that’s how I started out. Truly, I’m not the best writer when it comes to stand-up and I don’t think I’m the best performer, but I do think I can improvise with the best of them.
How did you get your first TV role on Carpoolers and what were your initial impressions of Hollywood?
Well I got that because I had management through showcasing stand up at the UCB’s on both coasts, but I’ve been really fortunate. I was just enamored with the whole process. I couldn’t believe it. And I remember there was another kid, it was his first job too, and he was like “Don’t you get scared when you come to set?” And I was like, “No, not really because it’s so fun!” It sort of felt like what I had been waiting to do and the character was sort of fun because they got my sense of humor.
So I would always bring stuff to the table, and television was good because we did 13 episodes very quickly and it just gave me a lot of time on set. I had done Cloverfield before that, but I never understood what was going on. Cloverfield really doesn’t even feel like it counts. I didn’t know who J.J. Abrams was, we didn’t get the script until we started filming, and I didn’t realize I was going to be filming it until like two days before we started.
Did you know big the role was going to be though?
Yeah, I mean they said it was one of the main roles, but we didn’t know what was going on because we hadn’t seen the script. And I remember Mike Vogel was so sad because he dies 30 pages in. He didn’t know that. So it was cool, but I was like no one will ever see this. No one will ever see me. All of us on the set were like this is never going to work. This is such a pile of shit. Then it became this huge thing. So that was really weird, but those two things together gave me a really good idea of what it was like to work in Hollywood and then Cloverfield came out and I did She’s Out of My League, and then Extract didn’t come for a while so I was kind of a non-working actor for about 8 months.
Even that is like insane though, because most people wait forever, but I feel like I compacted so much development in Chicago that when I came here I was sort of ready to work. I just have a pretty heavy-duty work ethic in general too, so as soon as I made money on Carpoolers I wrote and produced Successful Alcoholics with Lizzy Caplan. That was sort of me saying, “I have some money, now I’m going to make something that I wrote so people could see that I write things”, and that was really cool. I’m not a great writer, but I wrote that in a few weeks and then did the revisions. I sort of work in short bursts. There was also Difficult Time Killing My Parents, which went to Sundance this year. It was something I did with the guy who did the Underpassed video, and it’s pretty fun too.
How did the idea for Successful Alcoholics even come about? The concept is pretty unique and unusual, but the characters also still seem very relatable.
Well I thought it was a funny title and it seemed like a character I could get in to. I was like a heavy drinker but it wasn’t affecting my work, and I saw other people around me in the comedy scene who had similar or worse problems. I like the idea of what is a love affair between people and a love affair between substances and how does that all interact with each other.
I’d been in relationships that were like destructive with alcohol and I’d been in relationships where there wasn’t any drinking, so it seemed like an interesting territory to chart. It was also to do something that was broad and then took a turn. That was my first crack at doing the kind of comedy that I like, which suddenly makes you feel something but it’s never preachy. I think those are the best comedies.
So do you see yourself going further in the direction of writing and producing then?
I’d like to write more, but now I need to write a feature. That’s what I’d like to do eventually is write stuff that I’m in and then work with directors that are better than I’d ever be.
Do you have any more movie appearances coming up?
Well the special is coming out and then I have a cameo in a Steve Carrell movie, and this movie Rock of Ages with Tom Cruise, but I’m just writing stuff right now. I was going to do this movie with Sony and it fell apart, which was really depressing, so I’m circling back and doing more stand-up and trying to write more. I think this is kind of a good time to chill out a little bit because I’ve been working like crazy. Preparing for the special was like 6 months of four clubs a month. It was pretty insane.
I hope people like it though. It’s interesting, the music I don’t really care if people like it or not. If you don’t like it, it’s not for you. But the stand-up special is pretty traditional, which I think is a good call because I’ve been working on it for like eight or so years and it was important to present as I’d been doing it in these clubs for years and years.
So growing up in Denver, did you have any significant influences or was there anything that originally inspired you to do comedy?
It was my high school drama teacher. She put me in all the funny parts in the plays and we were always improvising because she never had a lesson plan, and we had to do stand up sophomore year. It was part of the curriculum in the 90s in this woman’s theater class and it was so crazy to be like 14 and to have to get up in front of your peers, but it was good and it worked.
She said no one will ever do this for a living except for maybe T.J. and it kind of caught my ear, so I just kind of cultivated it to where I became the head boy at my school, which is like the president of the whole school, and that was just because people thought I was funny.
It was definitely in high school when I started to solidify it as something I enjoyed and being funny as part of my identity. I just felt like my whole worldview had to deal with seeing things comedically, so as I got in to college and fancied myself more of an individual, it sort of defined my identity and by sophomore year of college I knew I wanted to do it. Denver’s a cool city though and it’s funny because no one really reps it, so I always talk about being from there, which I just think is silly.