Interview: T.J. Miller on His Chicago-Inspired Comedic Sensibility

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CHICAGOT.J. Miller is not yet a household name, but his comic stylings are memorable in such films as “Cloverfield,” “She’s Out of My League,” “Gulliver’s Travels” and the upcoming “Our Idiot Brother.” Those comedic roots are in Chicago, doing stand-up and improv here.

Todd Joseph Miller was born in Denver, and attended George Washington University in our nation’s capitol. He spent time in Chicago early in his career, honing both his improvisation and stand-up skills. He was selected as a “new face” at the 2007 HBO Aspen Comedy Arts Festival, and made his film debut as Hud in “Cloverfield” (2008). From there he has become a familiar film presence, effectively stealing the movie as Stainer in the very funny “She’s Out of My League” (2010).

T.J. Miller in Chicago, May 12, 2011, Right Before his Sold-Out Show at the Lincoln Lounge
T.J. Miller in Chicago, May 12, 2011, Before his Sold-Out Show at the Lincoln Lounge
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for talked to Miller via phone before a show in New York City, and the whip-smart perspective of an observer and comedian came through. You come from the “Chicago school” of comedy and improv, as many of your gigantic comedy forebears. What is the secret to that school, that separates you and your classmates from the rest of the regional comics in the country?

T.J. Miller: Specifically, when I was doing stand-up, improv and sketch in Chicago, the stand-up scene was very healthy. It was an interesting alternative scene. It was one of the only places in the country where you could do stand-up and improv with proclivity. We were everywhere, that was part of it. For a person like me, who is very seriously into doing everything, Chicago was a great place. That combined with the fact that there isn’t a huge show business industry presence, that together makes it a pretty unique environment. You don’t worry about who was seeing you or whether you’re going to get a TV show, you just did the work. How did you develop your own comedy act? Was it something that evolved from your natural perspective or was it something that just worked in front of an audience?

Miller: I started as an improviser in college in Washington, D.C. So when I started doing stand-up, I just got up and did the strangest stuff I could. I never did the same set twice, whether I just improvised it, wrote an idea or did something word-for-word. In Chicago, that’s how everybody worked.

There was a recent article in the Chicago Reader about the Lyon’s Den on Irving Park Road. That was the epicenter for Chicago comedy for years, and if you didn’t have a new five minute set, you probably weren’t going to go up. That was the norm, and that is different from any other place. It was about doing the funniest stuff, who was the most innovative, who is killing the hardest and whose material was most enviable. You are highly educated, and have had adventurous volunteer opportunities in your young life. How has education and non-show business experiences kept you grounded while pursuing the brass ring of the overall ‘career’?

Miller: I don’t consider it a brass ring, it’s more of a copper ring. [laughs] I come from a family that feels very strongly that when you make money, you use some of it to help other people. And my parents very much wanted me to go to college, I think every comedian should go to college. In the ‘80s there was a thing on Saturday Night Live that everyone went straight out of high school into comedy, I think now the world works differently. People are generally more educated, and a college degree is like a high school degree was 25 years ago.

I think one of my strongest suits as a comedian is being educated. It helps my improvisation, because mental acuity is at the forefront of everything I do. It needs to move quickly, because there is a lot of competition. What separates me is that I am good at riffing, I’m a quick improvisational comedian. And I do absurdist material that is bizarre, but it’s usually grounded in a keen understanding of language. Plus, let’s not forget funny noises and silly faces. [laughs]

Bloodied But Unbowed: Michael Stahl-David, Odette Yustman and T.J Miller in ‘Cloverfield’
Bloodied But Unbowed: Michael Stahl-David, Odette Yustman and T.J Miller in ‘Cloverfield’
Photo Credit: © Paramount Pictures Cloverfield was an early take-off on our Social Media obsession to catalog our every move, albeit with a giant monster. In the last four years since you’ve done the film, what have you noticed about general society that Cloverfield kind of predicted? And have you seen the Cinemax remake Clevagefield?

Miller: I have not seen Clevagefield, because I was very disappointed that they didn’t ask me to do a cameo. [laughs] I love having been in Cloverfield. I love being in films I can stand behind, like Yogi Bear 3D. [laughs] Cloverfield was one of the first times that J.J. Abrams [producer of the film] said that films like the ‘Blair Witch Project’ are not just a gimmick, but a way to present films. The biggest prediction I think the film made is that this generation is used to watching YouTube videos and J.J. Abrams talks about that a lot. Everybody is used to one camera shooting, jerky and all over the place. They see it in a different way because it is so ubiquitous now.

Another point about Cloverfield is that there is something happening in society where to put a video camera between you and reality is to give you a shield. That’s what the film was all about, my character was trying to protect himself from what was happening by experiencing it through a video screen. Since so many people now have video on their phone, their first instinct when something good or bad happens is to capture it immediately. ‘Successful Alcoholics’ was your brilliant short film on an overall societal obsession with drinking and using drinking to maximize social situations. How do you relate and connect to Drake [Miller’s character] in that scenario and in the end, do you feel sorry for Lindsay [Drake’s sober ex-lover]?

Miller: As I said, mental acuity is an important part of my comedy, so that’s why I like to drink and smoke marijuana. [laughs] I think there is no message with Successful Alcoholics. At the end of the day, it’s a love story between two people, and two people and the alcohol they’re abusing. There is no clear cut winner. I feel sorry for Lindsay, but I also feel sorry for Drake.

That film is not about drinking, it’s about people being compatible and moving forward. It’s the frustration when you love somebody but the things that are happening for each person individually make them make it impossible to be together. So when Lindsay decided that the drinking part of her life was over, regardless of the health issues, Drake wasn’t able to do that.

Wasted Days: T.J. Miller as Drake and Lizzy Caplan as Lindsay in ‘Successful Alcoholics’
Wasted Days: T.J. Miller as Drake and Lizzy Caplan as Lindsay in ‘Successful Alcoholics’
Photo Credit: © Successful Alcoholics What most interested you about the script?

Miller: I am really interested in how modern life creates anxiety and obstacles for people, whether it’s alcohol or a sense of identity. There are a lot of coming-of-age movies about man-children trying to become adults. That theme is part of a greater subject matter, which is someone trying to change things about themselves. What I’m writing about now is that when people are shown a different life or perspective, how they re-frame their situation and make themselves happy that way. The great thing about the film ‘She’s Out of My League’ is that everybody had a stake in making it work, and you seemed closest to your comic element in it. How were you able to work with the screenwriters and director to make the character of Stainer your own?

Miller: That was an offer that came after Cloverfield, because at first they didn’t like me for Stainer, and then after Cloverfield they suddenly wanted me for it. The script was much broader than I was used to, I’m not a fan of super broad comedy, but the British director [Jim Field Smith] had a sensibility that seemed closer to mine than the script was. I made it clear that I didn’t like characters that don’t show vulnerabilities, just like I don’t like comedians who don’t do that. He was on board on that, although he was a first time director and wasn’t ready for much improvising. When he understood that this was an essential part of what I do, he did let me go. I was really proud in that movie, while playing a character named Stainer, that I was able to riff a Charles Dickens joke in there. It was probably closest to what I do more than anything else, if they let me be me. Is that what you do well in film characters?

Miller: Yes, just the guy who you can relate to him, admire his confidence and his bravado, but you can laugh at him because he’s a real weirdo and an outlier in society.

In the Majors: Jay Baruchel and T.J. Miller in ‘She’s Out of My League’
In the Majors: Jay Baruchel and T.J. Miller in ‘She’s Out of My League’
Photo Credit: © Paramount Pictures What still blows your mind about being on a ‘big-league, big budget movie set?

Miller: Golly, everything. [laughs] One of my greatest strengths as a comedian in Hollywood is that I’m in constant child-like wonderment of the fact that you can have a cheese plate in the afternoon and there are people to bring you chai tea lattes. But what is more interesting to me is the dynamics on a film set, the bizarre hierarchy that exists that I’m constantly trying to transverse. I like talking to the extras or the production assistants, or teasing the director after a take.

Anna Faris had this great analogy that filmmaking is like baseball, it’s mostly waiting for a long time and then being asked in a moment to perform at your highest possible level. And then doing it over and over again at the same strength level. And then you are done, to wait for four or five hours. It drives me a bit crazy because in the end no one is more exposed than the actors. You have to walk a line between being anxious and focused on doing the best performance possible. But you also can’t care, because if you care too much it will take your ability away to be funny. Finally, at what point did you turn around in your early career and note, ‘how did I get here?’

Miller: When I became school president in high school. I had no previous experience in student government, but my speech was funnier than everybody else. Even at the time it was mind-boggling to me – even though I don’t like playing Boggle – that there is a premium in being funny, comedy is so important to people and the human fabric in general. It’s more important than experience, skill and position. That was enough for people, the fact that I was funny, and I could comment on the absurdity. That’s what my classmates wanted, they just wanted to look forward to the morning announcements every day.

T.J. Miller’s next film appearance will be in ‘Our Idiot Brother,’ opening everywhere August 26th. Also featuring Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer, Rashida Jones and Shirley Knight. Written by David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz, directed by Jesse Peretz. Rated “R.” Click here for the interview of Jordan Vogt-Roberts, director of “Successful Alcoholics.” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald,

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