This interview first appeared online in edited form on Gothamist.com on March 27th, 2007
TJ Miller is not only one of the strongest new talents in comedy today, he’s also a terrific actor. And why not, he studied at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford England. Plus, he can stilt walk. And he makes porn! Very bad porn. In fact, there’s not even any nudity or sex on Verybadporn.com, but there’s plenty of hilarity!
How did Very Bad Porn come to be?
I was working my law secretary day job and came up with it. I think I was looking at some ridiculous site my friend sent me (my friend) like bigsausagepizza.com and I thought “this hasn’t been done in this way. . .” and I realized then it was the best idea I’ve ever had. The melody sands video was the first one I thought of, where the camera gets knocked to the boom operator. That actor, Brenden Jennings was working with me at the law firm at that time and I told him the idea on the way out and he sort of went “Yeah. . .uh, yeah that sounds funny.” I didn’t think he thought 8 months later he would be online.
What’s the back-story of Very Bad Porn and who are some of the characters and the people who portray them?
I wanted to be a character who was ethical and real and likable and who was funny because there were mental obstacles in his way, not that he was stupid. He’s incompetent, but not stupid. I play Chelsea Humboldt, that character. He’s named after my first dog and the street I grew up on, naturally. Chelsea got his friends together, Mark (Mark Raterman), Dillon Thomas (Thomas Middleditch), Scott (Scott Rutheford), and a boom mic guy (Brenden Jennings). They try and get women to get on their website (played by many of the most talented female improvisers in Chicago, including Susan Messing as my mother), and they’re basically clueless to the fact that it’s not really working. Chelsea is tenacious in his pursuit of this version of the American Dream, and that’s why he will never give up. He used to work at a Radio Shack type job, and he saw everyone doing this online and thought “I can do this.” He can’t. Just like I think really, I couldn’t.
What sort of research did you do to prepare for this endeavor and what were some things that you learned about porn and, as a result, about yourself?
I read Kafka. A lot of Kafka. I learned that you quickly become accustomed to being almost naked. I learned that I have as much trouble getting an erection on camera as in real life with a woman I just met. I think I learned that there is even more comic potential in this medium than I expected, and I expected there to be a lot. I also learned that the reality of these situations is something that is so real it’s funny no one has really shown them in this way. That last sentence really made little to no sense.
What is it about porn dialog that’s so funny and is there any that you’d like to share?
The dialog is so absolutely secondary to the utilitarian objectification of an act that was for so long vicseral and humanistic and hence is absurd in it’s very inclusion. I think I spelled visceral wrong.
What are some of your favorite porn premises?
I really like the one where the guy is fixing the cable, and the girl is worried that by objectifying herself sexually, she will simultaneously disappoint her parents but fulfill the need within herself to be needed and worshiped, deep down knowing that this is the product of American culture’s objectification of humanity in general. And then they do it on the ottoman.
Can you come up with three porn premises right now?
As Chelsea: “Alright, one, would be, okay, so she comes in, and I’m doing something super hot like making drinks, or making food or something, and then she walks in and she’s like “you are really hot and I’m ready for intercourse” and I say something witty like “social or sexual” and then we have superhot sex on the kitchen island. And the other two are just different interpretations of that.”
Do you find that surprise and juxtaposition are just as effective in porn as they are in comedy?
Yes. I’m serious about that. I love when you are watching pornography and something surprising happens, that can be very fulfilling. I don’t know what juxtaposition means, unless you’re talkin’ bout having sex in the juxtaPOSITION! Bow chicka bow bow, (low voice) oh yeah. . . .twix.
Tell me about the launch parties that you had?
We did a launch party in Chicago at IO and at UCB/Serena bar. The was a lot of drinking and sexual tension, especially among me and all the girls, and the girls and all the guys and not me.
What are your plans for the future of Very Bad Porn?
Second City is in the process of optioning it as a feature film, and I would really like to do more videos. I would love to team up with superdeluxe.com or some other internet forum where we could produce a bunch and release them weekly, or something akin to that. I would love to see more from this character and this premise, because I feel pretty strongly that porn is something that needs to be satirized because it’s such a big part of our culture, and I’m so baffled by my simultaneous disgust and fascination with it. It’s really complicated.
What are these shows that you’re doing with Pete Holmes?
Pete and I are doing stand-up together where we riff almost the entire set. We have similar energies and really try to improvise entire sets. I think he’s really funny and really smart, one of the funniest and of of two of the smartest, and I enjoy his joking. We’re trying to get a monthly show with CBS-NY, and we want to host rooms (one of which is gutbucket monthly at UCBNY).
Did you know Pete in Chicago?
Yes. It was weird.
What sort of acting training do you have?
I studied at B.A.D.A., the British American Drama Academy in Oxford England, and studied some theater in college, and I’ve taken on camera classes. I’m serious about being good in that medium, and I think it’s important for me, as a comedian, to be proficient in all mediums of comedy, including funny mouth noises.
Tell me about studying acting in Oxford.
I was accepted to B.A.D.A., which was a summer program in Oxford, studying classical acting. I sort of felt like it was going to be a waste, and my parents encouraged me to go, but it ended up being important because I found that classical comedy was an important part of my education as a comedian, and I really grew as an actor and a person (height wise). The thing that I got out of it the most, was a sketch I did with the now nearly famous Charlie Todd, that basically parodied the entire program. It killed, and it solidified even more for me that comedy was where I was supposed to be. Charlie and I became friends at that program (how random is that? I mean, how like completely totally random is that) and I suggested he take classes at UCB. He wanted to be a director of theatre, and I said “you’re really funny man, you out to take classes.” And he said he’d think about it, and now he’s one of the funniest guys over there, and he and I are actually in LA, I’m shooting this ABC pilot and he’s shooting an NBC pilot for Improv Everywhere. Wacky. We had pizza and beer and talked about how weird it was that we were here now after B.A.D.A. Then I threw up at a bowling alley after doing a set.
What sort of role will you be playing in Carpoolers?
I play Marmaduke Brooker (if it get’s picked up, if not, I’ll be playing TJ Miller, guy who was in a pilot one time), the 20-something son of Gracen, the main character in the Carpooler. He’s really weird, sort of esoteric and in his own world, not really understanding why he doesn’t fit into the real world. He’s in his underwear a lot, which I’m less than pleased with but prepared for because of Very Bad Porn. I’m excited because they let me be funny as the character in my own way, and I like the physicality I’m doing, which is super awkward. I hope it turns out well, but with this team I can’t imagine it won’t. Unless I decide to. . . blow. . .it. . . up.. . .bomb. . .style. . . .
Tell me about studying clowning.
I never really studied clowning or juggling. I sort of picked them up on my own. I’ve taught clowning at Camp Winnarainbow, and juggling and stilt walking, but I’ve never formally trained. I studied circus arts (stilts, acrobatics, physical theater) at Frichess theatre Urbain in Paris, and that is how I can walk on stilts like motherfucker. I’m still interested in stilt walking, I’d like to get back into it. It’s great for street performance, which is another thing I would love to get into, but haven’t yet.
Tell me about Practice Scaring a Bear.
That’s the name of a show I did with Thomas Middleditch, we now do a show called Tuesday Riot at IO Chicago. I’m a huge fan of Thomas and a huge fan of our two-man improv, it’s probably my favorite improvising I do. We are fast, absurd and insane, and I hope to do more of it in NY and LA soon.
Do you plan on using stand up as a launching pad for an acting career or do you plan on having stand up as a fixture of your future?
Stand-up is not a launching pad for anything. It’s a complex and baffling art form, and I think I will always do it. I don’t do stand-up to do other things, I do it to do it and be good at it. Acting is just another medium for comedy. I’m a comedian, and I just want to do the highest caliber work in every medium of comedy I can. That’s how you get bitches, that’s how you smoke weed. Believe that.
What is Blerds?
Blerds.com is a website that is a super dope collective of Chicago comics who Blog and create video with the super dope Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and we have very funny stuff, and perform live shows together. It’s definitely one of my favorite projects. We’re going to launch a site with our videos on it soon.
Tell me about the concept behind your website
tjmiller.com was taken. No, seriously–it was. But really, if you want to get real with this, I enjoy absurdity most of all, and the site, URL and all, represents that philosophy, by asserting that it is what it is not, and that it doesn’t exist. I made it myself (hence how ugly it is) and I wanted it to be a place where people could see something absurd and different and check out what I’m doing. I would like to publicly apologize for how much I slack on updates, but really, it’s hard people. I got drinks to drink.
How’d you get involved with standard deviants and PBS and what projects of theirs have you participated in?
That was a college thing! It was a phase. Let’s not talk about it. I did it a few times, that doesn’t mean that I’m an edu-tainer, you know? I’m who I am. I just wanted to experiment. That’s it. Seriously, get off my back.
Did you ever have aspirations of being a teacher? What sort of aspirations did you have before going into comedy?
No. Never. I liked psychology, and still do, and philosophy, but comedy really was what I wanted to do. I was passionate about it early, it just took time to understand how I could do it, and part of that was building a philosophy and belief system that supported my vocation being the best possible thing I can do with my life, which is the creation of that ephemeral escapism that is laughter. I hope I’m coming off smart in this interview. Because I’m looking up a lot of words.
What were you like in school?
Academics really good (I was in honors etc.), behavior terrible. I went to public high school because I couldn’t get a good teacher recommendation for the life of me. Trust me, I tried. Lord God in Heaven, May he Be There This Afternoon Cooking, I tried. I got suspended from doing the announcements when I was head boy of my highschool (president of the student body) because I was joking around too much. I was definitely more interested in being funny than anything else, and I think that was fine. I wanted to laugh and to have people to laugh with. Mr. Girlich from Graland, or however you spell his name, my elementary to 9th grade principal, was a bad person. A bad, bad person, and he was really mean and I hate him. I really sort of hate him.
Tell me about the student council campaign that you ran. What sort of slogans did you use, did you give a funny speech, and how long did your reign last?
I was head boy in High School at East high. I had pictures of myself like mugshots, and it was some really generic slogan. My speech definitely did it. I had this amazing guy named Big John, who was a gigantic black kid that everyone loved and he acted as my body guard. You gave 3 speeches because the school was so big. The guy I was up against stole my idea and had Big John dance with him. So I dropped my bit, and just riffed most of the speech. I definitely won because my speech was so funny. My competition was way more qualified. I suppose that really proved the power of being hilarious versus being competent or qualified, and in a way was a precursor for the Daily Show. You’re welcome John Stewart.
What are your earliest memories of seeing or hearing things that made you laugh?
My parents are super funny. Both are hilarious, my father is very dry and witty, my mother very quick, silly and with a great sense of humor. I used to watch Steve Martin’s stand-up with her over and over, and she really would laugh. My father watched W.C. Fields, The Marx Brothers, The Thin Man, Woody Allen, and all of those masters early on with me and I think that was a big influence.
Are you able to pinpoint the first time that you were consciously aware that you were able to make people laugh?
No, but for a full year, in 6th grade (I’m not kidding here) I wasn’t funny. It was a bad year. Something was in transition and it was really terrible. It was like losing a life skill and then gaining it back a year later. Terrible. I remember at the end of that period, Jonathan Larner-Lewis was dealing cards at some school function, and I was making jokes about, and I was suddenly funny again, and he said “TJ’s back! He’s got it!” It was much cooler when it happened then in words here, but it was a pretty funny and surreal experience.
Do you think alienation and outsiderdom are essential components of being funny? How about in your own experience?
I think you have to explain how you are outside the norm, while being someone that people can relate to and that’s a difficult balance. I don’t think you have to be alienated from society to be funny, but I think you have to see the world a little differently. I’m definitely outside the norm, but I hope that my comedy has a persona that people can relate to. I got to LA and decided to eat only sushi for 4 days. I don’t know why, but I started to lose cognition, and I smashed my rental car up a little getting out of a garage, then got a ticket, then I was walking and fell over a fire hydrant. Fell over one. So I decided to go into a day time strip club and talk to the stripper about it, but that was such a bleak place that I went and bought sunglasses near this hostile that I stayed in as a joke last time I was in LA and got my computer stolen. I think I’m a little outside the norm, but I think it serves me well.
How’d you get your laughs growing up?
I think I did some impersonations, but I’ve always been very silly, and sarcastic, and sort of flamboyant (hence the rumors that I’m gay). But I’ve always tried to have a range in what I do comedically, even then. I used to write comic essays in the style of Ian Frazier when I was a toddler.
What sort of creative outlets did you have?
I’ve done drama, forensics, writing, all sorts of things. I really am serious about this: I think every medium of comedy is vital to be proficient in, so I have always tried to do that. I even made sculptures that I thought were comic in grade school.
What did you do after high school?
I was in receSs in college, an amazing improv/sketch/video group that really had some choice comedians in it, straight up comedians, not actors trying to do comedy, and that was my biggest and best outlet. I moved to Chicago after school and really started performing hard, 7 nights a week. Since then, I have really disappointed a lot of people sexually.
What is your comedic philosophy?
Well, it’s a bit lengthy for the Internet, but basically, I do comedy because I believe that life is ultimately tragic and the creation of any escapism from that reality, no matter how ephemeral, is a noble pursuit. Comedy, and it’s counterpart, laughter, lift the people watching it out of whatever it is that is bothering or hurting them, and that is why I pursue this vocation with such intestinal fortitude. To all those haters rolling their eyes, you will die alone.
Do you think bed comedians know that they’re bad?
I think all bed comedians are bad. They all have the same hack act, “i’m in bed, isn’t it craaazzyy!” And all the bed jokes and bed gags are tired. They were tired in 1947, and they’re tired now. I’m saying, bed comedians are tired.
Since comedy is such a subjective thing, what do you think are some
indications of good and bad comedy?
Bad comedy you can sort of feel, I know that it’s subjective, but anything that isn’t intelligent, that isn’t unique or fresh, that’s hard for me to watch. I think Larry the Cable guy is awful. AWFUL. And I’m not saying that because it’s cool to say (because it is cool to say), it’s because he changes Christmas carols to say “why don’t you get a job you bum bum bum bum.” That’s really hard to watch. If I haven’t seen it before, or if it’s a smart take on a style that is recognizable, then I think it’s good. Hack is harder to explain than to identify. This was a really tough one, and I think I let readers down. I’m sorry for that. I’m embarrassed, and I have egg on my face.
How do you feel about slapstick and physical comedy?
I like it a lot if it’s good. I’m a huge fan of Harry Langdon, and the Harpo, and a lot of good physical comedians. I’m very physical, but I always try to prevent it from being gratuitous. Everything should be used in precision.
What’s one of your favorite slapstick or physical comedy routines?
I like the one where the guy is walking with the acid, and he accidentally drops it and it hits a trampoline and it goes in the other guys face and he is terribly hurt. That one’s funny. Or the toddler that hits the other toddler in the balls with a bat and they both get hit in the face with a beach ball and they all fall into a pool.
Is there anything that couldn’t be improved by being sped up with the Benny Hill theme played over it?
No. Maybe the state of the union address. Or maybe that’s the only thing that can truly be improved.
What’s your opinion on hubris and other intangible sources of comedy?
I would answer this but it’s not worth my time. Honestly. I’m basically famous.
What’s your opinion on the amount of irony in comedy today?
Jordan Voght Roberts and I really hate the amount of irony in Internet comedy. It seems like everything is just people making fun of acting, instead of acting, and it’s all parody and wink wink nudge nudge, and somehow the world of comedy has become so much more self-referential. Everything is mocking or referring to something else, and that is getting worn thin. I believe that it’s better to create rather than recreate.
Do you think comedy, music, or art can change the world?
I’m not sure. That’s not my concern right now. My job is not to change things necessarily, although satire is a part of my comedy. I think verybadporn.com is satire, but I don’t know if it will change the way people think about pornography and it’s effect on societal morals. I do hope people will laugh at it and think about it.
Given the chance, how would you change the world?
I would have more comedy, of course.