You may recognize T.J. Miller from his role as the tech entrepreneur Erlich Bachman on HBO’s hit Silicon Valley. But before the Denver native played the megalomaniac with a soft side, he spent the better part of a decade honing his comedic chops in Chicago. On the eve of Silicon Valley’s second season (which premieres on April 12), the 33-year-old veteran of iO, Second City, and the Lincoln Lodge gives the low-down on his most formative influences.
My father is very dry and very quick-witted, and my mother is very silly. It was the perfect combination because I got an education in physical and verbal comedy.
Steve Martin’s Comedy Is Not Pretty!
Steve Martin’s comedy albums are so ridiculous. The name of this one comes from a joke where Martin says to this woman, “You’re the best hog I have.” Then he says to the audience, “Hey, comedy is not pretty.” It got a big laugh and applause break. That taught me that even if people don’t align with it, humor is so much more about the delivery and the character.
Probably the only way Woody Allen and I are similar is that he has a lot to say about Nietzsche. I’m a Nietzschean scholar. I’ve read an immense amount about nihilism and existentialism. I just wrote a screenplay called The Nihilist.
The fascinating thing about them is that each represents a different medium of comedy. Harpo is mime and clown. I studied clown [at Friches Théâtre Urbain in Paris, France]; I’m a juggler by trade. Chico is character comedy; he’s putting on an affect. Then Groucho is completely verbal. They are this weird one-stop shop where you can learn everything you need to know about comedy.
The Lincoln Lodge
In my day, Zanies was not particularly friendly to young comedians, which was frustrating. But the Lincoln Lodge helped cultivate the most important crop of comedians in my peer group [Hannibal Buress and Kumail Nanjiani, for example]. It was the first room I booked.
He’s one of those voices that’s either ahead of the curve or spot-on. Beavis and Butt-Head, Office Space, King of the Hill, and now Silicon Valley [cocreated by Judge] all helped me cultivate a subtlety in my comedy.
They showed me that comedy could be as absurd as you could imagine it to be.
The show taught me about character comedy. I loved that you could expect great lines perfectly suited to each character, whether it was Carla, Norm, Cliff, Woody, or Sam.
Fragments of a Journal
This is the most influential book in my life. It’s an autobiography by Eugène Ionesco, the playwright. It was the first time I’d seen absurdism clearly spelled out. It was also the first time I read a comedian who was discussing death. A lot of the standup I do now deals with death through an absurdist lens.