There it was, staring the crowd down―a vintage photograph of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson holding a golden WWE belt, projected on the stage, gazing at you in all its “electrifying” glory. At least, that’s what The Lucas Brothers thought after pledging their vote for The Rock in the 2020 Presidential Election. T.J. Miller wasn’t quite on the same page when it was his turn to take the mic.
On Saturday night, University Union hosted Syracuse University’s annual homecoming celebration with a standup comedy show in Schine’s Goldstein Auditorium featuring comedians The Lucas Brothers and T.J. Miller. The performance was full of laughter, Drake lyrics, special shout-outs to sign language interpreters, microphone miming, a heroin induced spotlight operator, and the ever-present, existential topic of mortality and existence. But, of course, it takes a lot more than some funny jokes and a giant picture of The Rock to make a good comedy act. Jerk went behind the scenes with T.J. Miller to talk about his career, his inspiration, and advice he has for aspiring standup comedians.
Miller: Let’s party!
Jerk: You have several movies coming out in the next two years… Walden, Ready Player One, Deadpool 2, Underwater, How to Train Your Dragon 3…You said you’ve been doing standup for over ten years, so why is it still so important to fit live shows into your very busy schedule?
Miller: I think standup is, you know, it’s the only medium where I can speak directly to an audience. There’s no editors or any filter. I love it. It’s so, so fun and it puts me in a unique position in Hollywood where I love doing it and I’ll actually leave something like Silicon Valley. But that gives me more… I don’t know if it’s freedom, or power. I think the only reason I worked in Hollywood is because when I used to audition―I don’t audition anymore―I’d go, you know, “I don’t care if this happens or not. I don’t need this. This isn’t my livelihood.” I’m a standup comic so it’s just fun to come and do a filmed performance during the day for the night. Then I kept getting parts and kept getting parts. Except some people, when they see a live show, you can tell that they liked it more than even something like Deadpool or other things I’m involved in. But I never―Patton Oswalt said this at some point―but I didn’t get into standup to do film and television. I do film and television to get people to my standup. NEXT QUESTION!
Jerk: Many people would describe you as having “no filter.”
Miller: Fuck you!
Jerk: Do you think that that’s an accurate description, and has it played to your advantage at all?
Miller: I just think a lot of people don’t know what to do make of me. There’s this idea of like, “He doesn’t have any filter,” just all these adjectives or ideas that have been used to describe other people. But I absolutely have a filter, you know? Otherwise, I would’ve gone on stage and talked about everything I wanted to talk about, a lot of which isn’t necessarily funny or fully developed enough. And I think that what I realized after November (the presidential election) is that authenticity is much more important than a carefully calculated statement or persona or public appearance. So, I fucked with the press a little bit to see what happens if I’m really authentic upon the exit [from Silicon Valley], and it worked. I stayed in the news cycle for three days. And that’s what [Donald Trump] learned how to do, just stay in the cycle. Every time he does something, he breaks the entire Internet, right? Everybody knows about it, right? I’m starting to understand that whatever we thought was a filter before doesn’t apply anymore… and that was the other thing I realized―the only way you’re really gonna have the biggest audience, and it turns out that being famous is important to people right now, is to become as famous as possible. And I was like, “Well, I’ll say some really authentic stuff. Break the news cycle a couple of times. That would make me immensely more famous and then we’ll have more people listen to me when it comes time to use these platforms for some sort of social change.” Not social justice warrior and all that stuff, but just to be able to―with Jen Kirkman and some of the other people that I respect and I’m watching―to see them figure out how to talk to people, either to take action or just to make people feel less alone.
Jerk: What advice would you give to a college student that wants to pursue standup comedy in the future?
Miller: Work harder than anyone else around you. That’s it. No one ever listens to me. I’ll always be like, “Come after the show!” Whenever I have interviews I go, “Come after the show! Come have a beer! Come hang out!” and no one ever does. And when I say work harder than anyone else that you see around you, they’re like, “okay,” and then they don’t. But I’m not more talented than my friends, I just work harder than them. Welcome to America.
Jerk: Can you pinpoint anything that inspires you when you’re writing?
Miller: For some reason, I started listening to this song [plays Same Old Lang Syne by Dan Fogelberg from his phone] over and over again, and I didn’t understand why. I couldn’t stop listening to it. But slowly I built this piece where I do everything in the song. So, I guess the answer is it doesn’t really matter to me, in the sense that it could be this weird, soft rock, seventies song by Dan Fo—I don’t know this artist, I’m not a fan of this type of music or any of that. But I heard it and it was so funny that I created a little material about it. I have something right now that’s so pathetic but it made Kate (his wife) and I laugh so long. There’s a lot of things that are really dumb and probably shouldn’t even be mentioned here, but it’s this joke where I go, “People think it’s easy for me but it’s not. Every morning I wake up and I have to check my phone and brush my teeth and get ready for the day and try and pee up my own butt.” I’ll probably never do it on stage, but for me, a lot of the time it’s the absurdist stuff that you take very seriously, because that’s kind of what life is. Everybody here is like, “Okay I gotta make this interview the best that I can possibly make it…” But all of it is such a joke, and the more ridiculous it is, often the more seriously people take it. I’m always looking for that. Kate saw a bird and was like, “Look at that bird! Look how funny that bird looks!” And I just couldn’t stop imagining, what if birds can’t speak but they understand English? That’s so horrible! You’re just trying to find stuff for your nest and then some woman is like, “LOOK HOW DUMB YOU LOOK! HAHAHA!” If I open Notes right now, it’s like, “Golf is so disgusting and some sort of horrible thing.” Yeah, it’s that dumb. “Mortifying is very different from mummifying.” “Local honey? Okay, no fight!” Kate was like, “You know, we should be eating LOCAL honey!” And I’m like, “Okay!” Like it’s weird when people bring something up and they’re trying to convince you or argue with you and you’re like, “That’s totally fine.” It would be like, “I think we should recycle, you know?! Because, it would be better for the planet!” And you’re like, “Yeah. Sure. We don’t need to fight about this.” No one goes like, “I like honey from other places.” Nobody does that.
Jerk: Can you learn to be funny on stage?
Miller: Let’s hope so, for God’s sake! Yeah, I mean, you learn to be funnier. I think anything that you do over and over you get better at, always, including listening to a soft-rock seventies song or watching a movie over and over. When I was with Steven Spielberg, who I kind of know now very strangely, he said to me, “I’ve been watching Witness for the Prosecution” lately. And I was like, “Oh, did you just watch it?” and he goes, “No, I’ve been watching it.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” and he’s like, “I’ve just… that’s all I’ve been watching.” He’s watched it 10, 20, 30 times because it’s a perfect movie, it really is. And because he’s learning over and over. He just keeps watching it and he goes, “Well, this tracking shot is a great way to enter the court room,” or whatever it is. Like Hannibal Burress, he’s such a funny guy but in Chicago, coming-up, he was a horrible standup comedian. He was the least funny person. But he did every single open mic he could, and then one day he showed up and he was the fucking funniest. I mean, you guys have seen him now, so it was that work ethic that finally shaped his ability to communicate how funny he is to an audience. So, yeah, I think you can definitely learn to be funnier. Some people are like, “Well, you’re just born funny,” or something like that. Maybe? I don’t know. No! Anybody can be anything they want. That’s the Nietzschean thing. If you want to learn to do something and you have the work ethic, almost always you can achieve that thing. I’ve met some people with some pretty heavy obstacles that have overcome those just by beating their nose against that― again, if only I had a filter.
Jerk: You seem to embrace audience interaction a little more than other comedians. How important is that to your set and how do you craft those moments?
Miller: I think there’s nothing better than an audience walking away knowing that performance was just for them. If I show up and do 80 percent of the material from my HBO special― why don’t you just go and watch that? It’s the better version. I think what’s so great about standup is the singular night. I didn’t do any time theory stuff tonight, but a lot of what I’m working on is that time is sort of our new deity in a post-religious society― it’s satirical, trust me. But you spending your time right now in this room with me, and I’m spending mine―that’s nearly priceless. It’s so rare that this isn’t an email that I get to when I can and then you read that email when you can. All that is eliminated when everyone’s in those seats. And I actually love that some people left tonight. I love if some college student is getting up midway all like, “Alright, I’m gonna go start the rest of my night.” That’s amazing! That means that they’ve given me ABSOLUTELY the max amount of time that they can. And so, instead of being like, “What the fuck! Why are you walking out?” I’m like, “Thank you for your time.” And then everybody that stays afterwards or comes back and tries to get an autograph or something, that’s still them saying, “I’m going to use my time, a commodity that I don’t have an infinite amount of, to sort of interact with you.” If anything, I’d like everybody to leave thinking, “He’s never done that before. I’ve never seen a show like that before.” That’s what you’re paying for, you know? Audience interaction is huge. That’s also why people like improv. You can’t believe that’s happening spontaneously. You can’t believe that this is the first time this has happened. And that’s like magic, you know? Magic tricks, everyone’s like, “What? Huh? No way! You just said that after—no way!” And I love that, you know? John Mulaney can come and deliver a perfectly worded joke as perfectly as he ever has before, and that’s his skill set. Mine is fucking something up and then talking about it and then talking about how I’m talking about it and then talking about how I’m wasting time talking about it when I could be talking about something else, but now I don’t have time to talk about that other thing so we’ll never be able to discuss what that thing was.