Interview: T.J. Miller, Performing at Helium This Weekend
T.J. Miller is in town this weekend doing a series of dates at Helium Comedy Club in Richmond Heights. Get your tickets here.
Miller is an actor and comedian best known for his roles Deadpool, the Netflix series Silicon Valley, She’s Out of My League, and so many more that it would be more advantageous and time efficient to just check out his IMDb page so that we can get to the delicious meat and guts of what turned out to be a great conversation with a truly interesting individual.
Danya Artimisi: Hey T.J., it’s Danya.
T.J. Miller: Danya? Is that how you say it? Dan-yuh?
DA: Yep! Nice work.
TJ: Yeah…I wasn’t sure if it was Don-yuh, Day-nuh…..
DA: Yeah. I’m battin’ 1.000 with my first and last name. So, my last name is ar-tuh-MISS-ee. It has eight letters and about 437 vowels. So, yeah. Imagine that.
TJ: I bet some days when you’re on the phone trying to say your name to the cable company, you kinda wish you were Sarah Smith.
DA: Yeah. It kind of reminds me What About Bob when he’s trying to find Dr. Marvin and the operators are simultaneously trying to spell Lake Winnipesaukee.
TJ: Yeah! I love that movie. I saw that movie recently for the first time in a long time. I remember when I first saw it, I didn’t really like it. I just didn’t understand why everybody liked it so much. And then, Kate and I watched it recently and we both thought it was so funny and we were talking about it because you kind of have to have lived within the confines of social grace for long enough to realize how intrusive he is. And Bill Murray is really specifically subtle there and I think as we see more of his work, we appreciate the humor that he was doing in that film. But, those are the conversations that Kate and I constantly have.
DA: Awesome! So, how long have you guys been married now?
TJ: About 3 or 4 years. We met in college. We’ve known each other for fifteen / sixteen years. It’s interesting. It’s one of those situations where you’re married to your best friend and she’s much more attractive than you are. And you know it’s kind of been fun – to kind of be the exact same age. I’m eleven days older than her. So, every frame of reference that we have in our lives is exactly identical. We heard the same songs at the same times. We’re both geminis. We both remember each cultural touchstone. In high school we were listening to the same music. It’s very weird. I have a sister that’s seven years younger than me. She has a brother that’s seven years younger than her. So, we have these kind of parallel lives.
DA: Were you guys from around the same area?
TJ: No. That’s an interesting sort of inverse experience where she grew up on a horse farm picking asparagus. And I grew up in inner city Denver going to a mostly black and latino high school. But she lived in New York before I did and she’s more cosmopolitan. So, it’s very interesting. I’m not like a country guy or anything. I grew up in the mountains and around that stuff.
DA: Well, I’m sure you have a very deep appreciation for nature and stillness.
TJ: Definitely. You know, any season it’s incredible there. In the winter, it’s not that cold and the snow is so beautiful. My parents are going tonight with their friends to the new hot restaurant. Lately it’s just exploded culturally. You know, I wasn’t really into music but all of my friends went to these incredible concerts at Red Rocks and Fiddler’s Green. We went to this charity benefit that was hosted by Marcus Mumford and his wife, Carey Mulligan. He had lived in Denver for a while. So, we just both kind of nerded out; talking how amazing it is there and how you don’t really meet any people that you don’t really like from Denver. I’ve never really met anyone who’s from Denver that I didn’t get along with. Anybody who’s lived there for a while, it just makes you a nice, happy person.
DA: I can imagine. You have all of those elements right there that I feel the essence of a human being just craves – with the nature and the open air.
TJ: Yeah. I agree 100%.
Yeah….we were coming down the street, passing the Tivoli Theater in University City.
DA: Yeah! Delmar.
TJ: Yeah! It just reminded me how cool St. Louis is. I used to go out with a girl who’s actually coming to one of the shows this weekend who is a writer and maybe teaches at Washington University, I’m not sure. But she’s super brilliant and I met her at….I think the name of the bar was The Delmar. Does that sound right?
DA: The Delmar? Hmmm….it very well could be.
TJ: It was an east side sort of dive bar that was known for being a real drug haven. We went there because a girl I toured with was from East St. Louis and she was a server there and we kind of hit it off and I ended up staying behind while the touring group went back to Chicago just to hang out with her in St. Louis. It was really fun.
Also, Nick Vatterot, my frequent collaborator and best friend is from here. He actually gets back tonight for the holidays to visit with family. He’s maybe going to join the shows, at least one of them, and do a set completely based on St. Louis since he knows all of the inside references. So, that will be really fun.
DA: I’m not familiar. I obviously know the name, you know, being from St. Louis. But, is he a stand up comedian?
TJ: Yeah. He writes for Bill Maher.
TJ: Yeah. He fights the good fight. I mean, he’s one of two people they’ve hired in the last twenty years.
DA: Yeah, you know….Bill Maher, Al Franken….I was so young. It had to have been right at the end of high school, beginning of college and I saw Al Franken’s book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them in the comedy section of a bookstore. I was like, “Why is this in comedy?” I was instantly butt hurt. This is not comedy! I don’t know. That’s just me and my bleeding heart.
TJ: Yeah. He’s one of the funniest of all. He’s one of those interesting ones. You know, the red side had Arnold Schwarzenegger. It made no sense and it was so weird. Yeah, who knew that his [Franken] background really was in comedy? You know, he was really funny when he was on Saturday Night Live. So unbelievable.
DA: I think he wrote for a while.
TJ: And I think he was Stuart Smalley, right?
TJ: So, I think he wrote that character and they were like, “Do you just want to do it?” and that’s how he got on.
DA: You know, this interview hasn’t even gone in the direction that I intended but I appreciate the small talk for sure! So, I was asked to submit some questions beforehand and I did.
TJ: Yeah! I saw that and all that was good. I was especially excited that you were interested in philosophy because that’s a big part of what my stand up has become because now, I’m less Absurdist and more philosophy and circus. It’s more of an intersection of those two things. There’s juggling and slide trombone and terrible ventriloquism and harmonica. But that’s mixed with kind of helping the audience releasing their death anxiety and focusing on the agriculture impeding our ability to live in the moment, and time theory, and morality. And that’s mixed with some really silly jokes and one liners and bits. So, I try to run the gamut on all sorts of stuff, but what really connects with people is the philosophy. I get people coming up afterwards and it’s less, “Oh, what you said was so true about cats and drugs and alcohol.” and more, “I really like your values.” and “You were right about the technology stuff.” So, people seem to be connecting to that and I enjoy that. I put a lot of work into philosophy and I never expected stand up and philosophy to intertwine in my life, but I ended up being exactly where I was headed from the get-go.
DA: I remember the first time I took a philosophy class in college and I geeked on it hard. It was my first realization that every aspect of society and living can somehow be related to one of the writings of the great thinkers. I remember reading Aristotle and Plato and Jean Jacques Rousseau. It totally makes sense.
TJ: Stand up is a way of framing and thinking about the world. I dropped out of the philosophy department and became so clear so quickly that all these kids were kind of name dropping philosophers and arguing for the sake of argument. Nobody really cares about what philosophy is for which is sort of open discourse. I’ve been studying this stuff since high school. I’ve done enough in high school to know which direction to go. That was it. I took the course Modern Philosophy and started reading the Critique of Pure Reason and was like, “Get me the fuck out of here.” None of these kids seem like they’ll be interesting to talk to about this stuff. You join it because you hope to find people that have a love of wisdom and knowledge
DA: It seems like you and your wife kind of have that bond, that cohesiveness on that same length.
TJ: Yeah. She’s the one that I always want to talk to about stuff. I don’t really need to talk to too many other people besides her. Sometimes they say that my life is just my comedy/my work and then Kate and that’s it.
DA: And that’s ok.
TJ: It’s really, really nice because she’s super smart. She’s really something special. You know, I don’t always get people interested in that aspect of it. I mostly talk about the transparency of the relationship in my act. I mostly tell stories about our relationship, a funny anecdote. You know, the more secrets you have between you and your partner, the more obstacles you have between you and your partner. But reaching the ultimate transparency is the only way to reach unconditional love. I don’t think it’s the meaning of life but it is something that we all pursue without question.
DA: Definitely. It’s innate.
TJ: You know, none of this is high falutin. It’s all very street smart level philosophy.
I just got in from Dayton, Ohio. I left a very successful television show to do stand up comedy. I just have a lot of people, you know, someone like Amy Schumer….Amy would definitely look at me and be like, “Why are you playing the Funny Bone in Dayton, Ohio?” Because to her, you play theaters and casinos because casinos pay the most. She would just never go to Myrtle Beach or to Port Charlotte, Florida. And a lot of people around me go, “Well, you’re in film and television.” What is the impetus behind that? But when I look at the people that I really look up to, they hit the road hard. The Brian Regans, the Louis CKs. Even Ellen Degeneres. I love her. She’s kind of a friend because she’s been so supportive. I’m so excited to watch her special. She told me, “I’m going back and doing stand up. I’m going to call you because you know my act better than I do.” But she really hustled and did the comedy clubs for years before she started leaving to do television shows and I kind of did it the other way around. Now I’m on the road and I really love playing. St. Louis, for me, is one of the smarter, more cultured cities. It’s one of the more urban areas that I play. So, I love playing towns like Philadelphia, Portland, Boston. But, I have as much fun playing Spokane, Washington. All of it is really motivated by tragedy permeating everyday life. I can give everybody just a little escapism. And people in Dayton need that just as much as people in Portland, Oregon.
DA: Well, bottom line, ‘people’ need that regardless of their geographic location.
TJ: There are just a lot of comedians who won’t play Spokane, Washington. They’ll play Seattle. This year, I elected to ‘not’ play Seattle. I might go back to Tacoma. People partly are playing just to see the guy from Deadpool and Silicon Valley in person. In fact, I’m a very capable stand up comedian. I was doing that before television. But, in February, I’ve been on the road every single week for fifty-one out of fifty-two weeks. So, when I’m in town, in Manhattan, I do three to five sets a night. That’s why we moved to New York. Kate is a very talented and well-known mixed media artist and I’m a stand up comic.
DA: So, are you going to have a CD for sale at your shows? Is that the one with Bo Burnham?
TJ: Yeah. Yes! That’s right! You’re a Bo Burnham fan. God, talk about philosophy within comedy. Yeah he’s on that. So, I’m selling this fake music album which is hip-hop/pop/folk music. The idea behind that is that this entire thing is a joke from years ago. It’s celebrities getting involved in platforms they have no business being in. And then there’s a remix of it which is the extended play EP. So, that’s real artists remixing my fake album and that is actually really good.
Part of the joke, as well, is no one has a CD player. You buy this thing and it’s more of an autographed antique thing. And I also sell it for $40. Partly because I think that’s funny. But, more so because they don’t make them anymore. I also have some Deadpool hats – just a few. I’m not a big merchandise comedian. It’s more the joke of it. I sell Emoji movie t-shirts for $110 and I have not sold one of those. I take polaroids with people who want to have something like that.
It’s been so great being on the road. People have just been so nice. A lot of people end up saying, “Thank you so much for coming to Dayton.”
DA: Well, you know what….you give people the feeling that they are seeking out. You give them those moments of happiness and laughter. Of course they’re going to be grateful and of course you’re going to see a nice side of people. I’m sure you get hecklers. You have to get your share of hecklers.
TJ: Yeah. Well, each show is different because I interact with the audience a lot. Some of that is heckling, but most of it is me just sort of exploring the people that are there. I make a big deal about that in the show because, look, you’re not in front of a screen and that’s really important to me. It’s really fucking awesome that people are willing to get out of the house. I make sure that the show that they see, no one else has seen that show. At one point, an audience member is playing the trombone. With every show, you have the sense that this is a really unique experience.