Comic T.J. Miller: Trained Clown And Student Of Nietzsche

Feb 13, 2016
Originally published on February 13, 2016 11:52 am

T.J. Miller has played a dragon slayer in the How to Train Your Dragon movies, a man who doesn't always change his underwear in Big Hero 6 and a pothead who thinks he's a tech rock star in HBO's Silicon Valley. Now Marvel fans will know him as bartender Weasel, best friend to the titular superhero in the new, R-rated comic book movie Deadpool.

Miller is a physical and cerebral comedian, a good combination for his Silicon Valley character, Erlich Bachman. Slovenly with shaggy, curly hair and mutton chop sideburns, Bachman is ridiculously full of himself. (Miller has described him as an "arrogant blowhard.") He puts clips in his hair to hold it back when he eats, and he get furious at his housemates when he finds there are only soup spoons left for him to eat his yogurt. Bachman runs the business side of the show's central startup, Pied Piper. In his mind, he's the only one who understands you need to be "a real a-hole to make it in this world," Miller says.

Silicon Valley creator Mike Judge says the character is real. "In the tech world there are a lot of arrogant people, people with no filter. And that's right up T.J.'s alley. He's very good at playing that."

But Miller also makes Bachman likable — even charming. Judge, who also directed him in 2009's Extract, says, "There's this odd kind of vulnerability to T.J.'s face and his expressions ... that make it kind of innocent."

As for Miller, he says he identifies with Bachman: "He is just sort of, unfortunately for me, a magnification of certain aspects of my personality, mixed in with a couple of fictional things. I'm an enthusiastic marijuana user; he obviously is also. I am, at times, a Falstaffian figure; he very much is that too. We are in line with each other as nihilists: He thinks you should tell it like it is ... because everybody's opinion — including yours — doesn't mean anything."

From Class Clown To Clown School

The 34-year-old Denver native started doing comedy early on. Melody Duggan, his drama teacher at Denver's East High School, says Miller was a typical class clown, except that he was more intuitive than your average teenager. She says, "He understands the frailty of the human condition better than any kid I've ever had."

Duggan, who's retired now, tried to get her students to sample all forms of acting, including stand-up. She says Miller "was absolutely fearless. He doesn't mind making a fool of himself."

Meanwhile, Miller credits Duggan for the eureka moment that set him on his path to comedy. "She made me do musicals and Oedipus Rex," he remembers. "She said, 'You're going to do comedy, but I need you singing. You have to learn everything.' "

His mother, a clinical psychologist, told him the same thing, and it seems he took the assignment seriously. He studied circus arts, and learned how to be a Shakespearean clown at the British American Drama Academy in London. After that, he toured with Chicago's Second City.

Miller's observational humor is rarely cutting. When an audience member bellowed above the rest at 2015's Just For Laughs Festival, Miller pointed to him and imitated the sound. Then he quickly said, "I'm not making fun of your laugh. I would never make fun of your laugh," and took the opportunity to improvise:

"Have any of you had someone make fun of your laugh — a friend make fun of the way you laugh? You know, that's basically your friend saying, 'Hey you know that sound that you make when you're happy and joyful? And the tragedy that permeates our everyday life is momentarily abated for an ephemeral escapism? Yeah? You sound stupid. You should feel embarrassed when you're happy.' "

Comedy And 'Fundamentally Tragic Existence'

Between movies, TV, stand-up and commercials, Miller is on a fast-moving roll. He's hyper-focused on his "mission statement," as he calls it: "To become the best comedian, I must be well-rounded." (According to Melody Duggan, "His business acumen is something else.")

The comedian says his role in the new anti-hero comic book movie Deadpool is right up his alley. "I'm a student of [Friedrich] Nietzsche. I'm interested in morality and mortality, and Deadpool kind of has all of these themes."

Given Miller's cerebral approach to acting, it's not surprising that he almost pursued a career in psychology — that was his college major and he thought he might follow in his mother's footsteps. But then he did the math.

"If you're a psychologist, you can instrumentally change peoples' lives for the better," he says. "But you can only do that for about 300 people to maybe a thousand people, if you're really prolific and you're working really hard. If you're a comedian, you can change peoples' lives for the better in much smaller increments — not their entire life, but for 15 minutes or a half hour."

He says, "If I can make someone laugh, I lift them out of their fundamentally tragic existence." And for this comic, that's anything but meaningless.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

T.J. Miller is by no means a one-dimensional talent. Kids might know his voice from the movies "How To Train Your Dragon" and "Big Hero 6." Adults may know his I standup comedy or recognize him as the arrogant tech entrepreneur in the HBO series "Silicon Valley." Now Miller is featured in the new R-rated comic book movie "Deadpool." NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: As a comedian, T.J. Miller is always adapting to the room when he does his stand-up, to the character or to the microphone.

T.J. MILLER: And then sometimes I'll get a little bit louder like this because louder is funnier, and it's one of my only crutches that I can really lean on. And then other times, I'll sort of do my NPR voice, you know. I'm going to kind of talk in a way that's soothing but also informative and nonbiased.

BLAIR: Know the situation. Know the character. T.J. Miller digs deep. Take Fred, the hippie school mascot in "Big Hero 6."

MILLER: He's just a really likable laid back guy who's got a really warm heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIG HERO 6")

MILLER: (As Fred) Welcome to mi casa. That's French for front door.

I am very similar to Fred, and I also - I think I change my underwear more often, hopefully.

BLAIR: Fred is proud of how he conserves his underwear.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIG HERO 6")

MILLER: (As Fred) One pair last me four days. I go front. I go back. I go inside-out. Then I go front and back.

DANIEL HENNEY: (As Tadashi) Wow, that is both disgusting and awesome.

JAMIE CHUNG: (As Go Go) Don't encourage him.

MILLER: (As Fred) It's called recycling.

BLAIR: T.J. Miller's character in HBO's "Silicon Valley" is nothing like Fred.

MILLER: He is an obnoxious, abrasive, totally un-self-aware blowhard.

BLAIR: Slovenly with shaggy curly hair, Erlich Bachman is ridiculously full of himself. He's constantly berating his housemates, like the time there were only wide spoons left in the drawer when he wanted to eat his yogurt.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SILICON VALLEY")

MILLER: (As Erlich Bachman) I specifically posted a note on the refrigerator saying that the more narrow spoons be reserved for the eating of Fage yogurt by me.

BLAIR: T.J. Miller admits there is some of him in Bachman.

MILLER: He is just sort of, unfortunately for me, kind of a magnification of certain aspects of my personality mixed in with a couple of fictional things. But we are in line with each other sort of as nihilists. It's kind of - Erlich really believes that you got to be a real a-hole to make it in this world. And he thinks you should tell it like it is. There's no reason to sugarcoat stuff. And why not have an incredibly high opinion of yourself because it doesn't - everybody's opinion, including yours, doesn't mean anything. It doesn't matter.

BLAIR: "Silicon Valley" co-creator Mike Judge says T.J. Miller uses all of his comedy chops - improv, physicality - to make Bachman likable, even when he's saying something crass.

MIKE JUDGE: There's this odd kind of vulnerability to T.J.'s face in his expressions when he's saying these things sometimes that make it kind of innocent.

MELODY DUGGAN: He was that typical, classical, class clown, scared a lot of the teachers to death.

BLAIR: Melody Duggan was T.J. Miller's drama teacher at East High School in Denver, his hometown.

DUGGAN: He understands the frailty and silliness of the human condition, and I think that's really where he comes from, better than any kid I've ever had.

BLAIR: Duggan included stand-up in her curriculum. She says Miller was a natural. She knew he would do comedy full-time someday. Miller says she made him stretch.

MILLER: She was casting me in musicals, and she made me do "Oedipus Rex." And she said, you have to learn everything.

BLAIR: He studied circus arts and Shakespearean clowns. He was in Second City Chicago's touring company. There was a time before all that when Miller thought of becoming a psychologist like his mother. But he figured making people laugh was more important than ever.

MILLER: We're surrounded by poverty, tragedy, sickness. It's really - it's a tough thing. It's a tough run. You know, you're born, and then you have a tough run, and then you die. But so to do comedy, you can lift people out of that for that amount of time. That's sort of this ephemeral escapism that I think is so vital to modern life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Laughter).

BLAIR: On stage at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal last year, that laugh got T.J. Miller's attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILLER: He's got it right, though.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER: That's exactly right. And I'm not making fun of your laugh. I would never make fun of your laugh.

BLAIR: Miller improvised.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILLER: I don't - have any of you had someone make fun of your laugh, a friend make fun of the way you laugh? Has anyone? You know, that's basically your friend saying, hey, you know that sound you make when you're happy and joyful...

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER: ...And the tragedy that permeates our everyday life is momentarily abated for an ephemeral escapism? Yeah, you sound stupid.

BLAIR: T.J. Miller adds to the comic relief in the new movie "Deadpool." Warning, it's nothing like those children's movies but just as funny. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.