Comic actor T.J. Miller: An oddball among oddballs
Although he’s physically imposing and admittedly “looks weird,” T.J. Miller’s most recognizable feature is his voice.
“I sound like a chain-smoking drag queen after a hard night of singing ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon,’” the comedian says.
That unmistakable voice can be heard as boisterous fanboy Fred in the Oscar-winning animated film “Big Hero 6” and as twin hooligan Tuffnut in “How to Train Your Dragon.”
And his non-cartoon self has become the quotable star of the HBO series “Silicon Valley,” which nabbed Miller a Critics’ Choice Award for his supporting performance as stoner entrepreneur Erlich.
He also plays a talking ball of snot in Mucinex commercials.
“I told the Mucinex people, ‘You picked me because I always sound sick.’ They were like, ‘Well, it doesn’t hurt,’” he admits.
Now the 34-year-old performer will unleash his formidable comedic voice in Kansas City, where he joins Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari and five other fierce standups for Funny or Die’s Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival.
“It’s the people who are left of center — it’s not the Blue Collar Comedy Tour,” he says of the Oddball lineup, which kicks off the first of 18 dates in KC. “You’re going to be getting comedians who are accessible and are mainstream stars but also in the generation that is more assertive and alternative … and a little off.”
The Starlight show offers a sort of homecoming for Miller.,
“Pretty much everybody in my family is from Kansas,” he says.
Though Miller himself is a Colorado native, his dad hails from Parsons, and Miller has uncles, aunts and cousins scattered from Overland Park to Pittsburg.
Miller expects the familial vibe to continue throughout the tour. He considers many of the Oddball standups among his core soulmates in the profession.
“I’ve even been to jail with some of these people,” he says.
Not a joke, either. Miller maintains he and tourmate Nikki Glaser, a 2006 KU graduate, once got locked up because of a bogus marijuana charge that was quickly dropped.
“The thing about a tour like this is you get to know people,” Miller says. “You get to be creeped out by Todd Barry. You get to learn more about John Mulaney’s regression. Jay Pharoah will probably do an impression of you by the end.”
Comedian Jeff Ross has hosted the Oddball Tour every summer since it debuted three years ago. He thinks Miller fits in perfectly with this year’s roster because he’s an original voice in comedy and “because nobody else sounds like a stoned bear.”
“He’s an oddball that even regular people love,” Ross says. “He makes me laugh when he’s not even trying. Then when he tries, he takes over and he’s a tidal wave. Tough to follow. Always delivers.”
While colleagues Ross, Schumer and Anthony Jeselnik are known for their mixture of risk-taking, in-your-face humor, Miller may deliver some of the most personally invasive material of anyone on the tour. Some of this stems from a harrowing medical ailment he suffered in 2010.
Miller began exhibiting bizarre behavior while filming the movie “Yogi Bear” in New Zealand. He was narrating his behaviors and experiencing insomnia, among other symptoms.
“The most unusual (symptom) was a real tossup,” he recalls. “I had an obsession/compulsion with entanglement puzzles, which are like horseshoes with a ring in the middle. It’s between that and narrating what the conversation is going to be before it begins, then fulfilling those promises.”
Doctors discovered he had an undiagnosed arteriovenous malformation, a congenital condition that hemorrhaged and triggered more blood to flow through his right frontal lobe.
Despite facing a 10 percent risk of fatality, Miller underwent brain surgery. His wacky compulsions stopped immediately. (A 13-minute routine where he discusses the experience has netted more than a million views on YouTube.”)
So how is Miller’s career like an entanglement puzzle?
“With each twist and turn, I learn a little bit more,” he says. “One of the exciting things about an entanglement puzzle is there’s no end to it. Once you solve how to take it apart, you have to solve how to put it back together. Now I’m not taking apart my career and putting it back together, but I am taking all these steps to get to one place. Then once there, I have to take more steps to get to the next place.”
Miller’s next place may provide his most high-profile project yet. In February, he’ll be seen in his first (non-animated) superhero franchise: the big-screen version of Marvel’s “Deadpool.” Ryan Reynolds plays the title character, a super-healing, smart-mouthed mercenary. Miller plays Weasel, Deadpool’s sidekick and information broker. Judging from the film’s trailer, Miller gets leaned on for much of the comic relief.
“It’s a totally different superhero movie in a market that is just a glut of superhero movies. They’re all kind of the same, just some are a better version of that same thing,” he says. “This is not only a welcome addition, it’s a necessary addition. ‘Deadpool’ is the antidote to the box-office poison that we’ve been seeing with these big tent pole attempts — ‘attempt-poles?’ We’re hoping to be that thing.”
While he calls Reynolds a “perfect choice” for the lead, Miller concedes Deadpool is the type of comic book character he would love to portray.
“It breaks the fourth wall. It’s absurdist,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to be Superman. Batman would be cool. But the one I’ve always wanted to play is the Joker. There is a maniacal and dangerous side to me.”
Born as Todd Joseph Miller in Denver, he met another kid named Todd in first grade. That proved too confusing in such an insular environment.
“I told my mom to call me T.J. from now on. I never answered to Todd again,” he says.
Like many future comedians, Miller became “the funny guy” throughout his schooling.
“That was about the only way I could survive in high school. I was at a school that was mainly black and Latino,” he says. “Because of that, it was very trying to be a white kid who came from a small private school in Denver. It was pretty rough. We had metal detectors and police and stuff. You don’t survive that unless you’re funny.”
Miller began dabbling with comedy and theater when attending George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He also met fellow student Kate Gorney, an actress-model he married just this year after a decades-long courtship.
Most viewers took notice of Miller as one of the panelists on the TV show “Chelsea Lately.” He made his film debut in 2008’s “Cloverfield,” a found-footage horror hit in which he played the voice of the character taping the events. Ensuing live-action roles included “She’s Out of My League,” “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”
But once again it was the voice that catapulted his career.
“I was really proud of ‘Big Hero 6’ because I tried to shoulder the bulk of the comedy with (the robot) Baymax. That’s the best movie I’ve ever been in and may ever be in until the next one of those,” he says, hinting at a potential sequel. “Now I’m sort of inside Disney. I’m in that cult. It’s wonderful. You really begin to see how they develop those movies and why they’re so good.”
Comedian Chris Rock famously did a bit at the Oscars regarding how easy voice acting is for animation. Miller counters that’s not always the case.
“It’s easy for him; he just comes in and does one movie. I’m in two franchises and three cartoon series. It’s easier than acting in terms of the time it takes. But you’ve also taken away the majority of my skill set as a comedian. I make a living because I look weird and can make funny faces. Any physical component of comedy is gone — that’s up to the animator,” says Miller, who will also star in “How to Train Your Dragon 3” and has reprised the character for the “DreamWorks Dragons” TV show.
“You also don’t have any positive feedback. You’re alone in the room. Everyone else is behind this glass. You can’t hear them unless they press a button. On set after a take, people will laugh hard and you know things went well. That’s not the case here. I’ll do 15 lines, and they’ll chime in, ‘That third one was really funny.’ I’m thinking, ‘If I had known that in real time, I would have followed that sort of riff.’”
That feedback about his line delivery is now bombarding him in other ways. “Silicon Valley” has turned into one of the most quote-worthy new shows, with Miller’s insufferable character Erlich cranking out phrases so memorable they garner their own BuzzFeed articles. (“We need to do what any animal in nature does when it’s cornered: act erratically and blindly lash out at everything around us!”)
Miller is quick to name the ones fans repeat most when they recognize him — not a one of which can be printed in a daily newspaper. The paradox is not lost on him.
“I’m the ‘zany guy’ for Disney,” he says. “Then I curse for a living on HBO.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
The Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival, featuring Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari, Anthony Jeselnik, Bridget Everett, Jeff Ross, Nick Kroll, Rachel Feinstein and T.J. Miller, begins at 5:15 p.m. Friday, Aug. 28, at Starlight Theatre. Tickets are $29.50-$149.50. The show is officially sold out, but some tickets may become available later. Info: KCStarlight.com.