I’ve never been more confused in my life. I had an agenda: learn everything T.J. Miller knows about his success in one hour.
But he caught me.
“You have this need to be like, ‘But what is your secret? What do you mean? What is that? How? CAPTURE IT!’”
“I WANT TO MANUFACTURE IT.”
He did not give a f—.
And he knew it.
He stopped the conversation at one point.
“Do you ever put twigs in your hair? Or birds?” And then he started screaming.
“Or a fish bone? TO SEE IF A CAT COMES AFTER IT?! HA-HA.”
“No, but I should do that.”
This kept happening.
Sometimes, he’d yell about the circus. Or how he hates “whites.” And French people.
He told me about one of the fights him and his wife are having right now. And it somehow connected to who he is as a comedian.
“Kate and I have this big thing right now,” he said.
When she gets offended by someone, she’ll say “I wouldn’t act like that if I was them.”
Then T.J. will tell her, “Yeah, you would.” And they go back and forth.
“No, I wouldn’t. I mean I wouldn’t be rude like that.”
And then T.J. says, “Yes, you would. If you were actually that person with their background, their upbringing, the pros and cons that came with their life, the resources that were afforded to them and weren’t, the obstacles and the challenges and the tragedies they’ve faced, you would act exactly the way that they are acting.”
He told me that. And said that’s why he works hard.
Because he was taught to.
“I learned this from my father. Work harder than anyone around you then you will be successful. I’ve worked harder than almost anybody,” he said. “I am a clear example of mediocre talent, incredible work ethic, success.”
But I wouldn’t accept that.
I wanted to know the full formula.
Because he’s been in so many great TV shows and movies. He’s been in “Silicon Valley,” “Deadpool,” “Ready Player One,” “The Emoji Movie.”
Plus he has his own specials, “Meticulously Ridiculous” and he’s touring right now for “The New Nonsense.”
I had all these questions.
How did he become so carefree? How many hours of stand-up did he do before he got good at it? How did he get on each TV show and in each movie? Why is he so successful?
Part of it has to do with knowing when to stay and when to walk away.
He kept getting picked for all these different TV shows. They’d film the pilot episode and then he’d get a call, “Sorry, but the show didn’t get picked up.”
Then he’d go to another show. And he’d get a call, “There’s a writers strike. The show is canceled.”
Then he’d do another. And the head of FOX would see it. And say, “He’s funny but that show sucks.” So then, they’d put him in a different show that sucked.
This repetitive disappointment happened over and over again.
He needed to walk away.
He said, “I can’t be on this side of the phone anymore. I need to be the guy who says, ‘I’m sorry, but we just got canceled.’”
So he stopped doing TV. And decided he’d only do movies and stand-up.
T.J. told me not to “formulize” everything. But that’s part of how I learn. So that’s lesson #1: Cut out repetitive disappointment.
#2: Be ridiculous on purpose
“I think one of my strengths is I actually don’t take myself seriously,” T.J. said. “So I really, for realz do not take any of this seriously.”
He told me about his audition for the Yogi Bear movie. He auditioned with a real bear. But (and here’s the weird part), the bear isn’t playing Yogi.
T.J. hands the bear his lines, looks at the camera and says, “I’ll be playing Ranger Jones in this scene and the bear will be playing Ranger Smith.”
It was ridiculous. And he got the part.
If T.J. was a billionaire or someone who built up some huge company, I’d probably see this as the cliche “take risk.” Because that’s what business books tell you to do. But in comedy, it’s not labeled like that.
And that’s sort of freeing.
Because “risk” implies failure. Being ridiculous implies fun.
#3: Decide that things are meaningless
T.J. reads a lot of philosophy. And he works it into his comedy.
“I’m sort of a trained clown,” he said. “And I know a lot about circus. I’m a juggler and a unicyclist. And a very bad magician and a horrible ventriloquist. I think eventually, all of my stand-up will be a mix of circus and philosophy.”
“You went to a circus school, didn’t you?” I said.
“Yeah, you did do your research!”
He got a scholarship, went to Paris and learned how to perform.
Then he combined that with absurdism. Here’s an example. This is what he’s talking about right now in his comedy.
“If everything is meaningless, then that’s the biggest gift. Because if nothing means anything than anything can mean everything, so you transcend being a human being into sort of being your own god by deciding the meaning of your own life. But I haven’t figured out how the f— to make that funny.”
I wanted to know more about his process.
But instead of telling me how he does it, he told me why.
“The mission statement behind everything I do is that life is fundamentally tragic. So comedy provides an ephemeral escapism from that tragedy that permeates everyday life. And the idea is that because that’s altruistic in its intent then I’m trying to make people happy.”
T.J. wanted to end the podcast on this note:
He said, “Death is the longest, greatest sleep without nightmares where you don’t have to go to work tomorrow.”
I tried to ask another question about comedy. I wanted to formulate it.
He stopped me.
And said, “Buddy, sometimes, you just have to let it be what it is.”
Links & Resources:
- Check out T.J.’s tour dates at tjmillerdoesnothaveawebsite.com
- Watch T.J.’s HBO special “Meticulously Ridiculous” and you can watch the trailer here
- Watch T.J.’s audition for Yogi Bear
- Watch “Mash Up” on Comedy Central
- Follow T.J. Miller on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook
- “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari
- “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” by Yuval Noah Harari
- My interview with Yuval Noah Harari Ep. 216 – “A Brief History of The Future”
- Steve Martin
- British American Drama Academy (BADA)
- Floyd King
- Jerry Seinfeld
- The Comic Strip
- Dane Cook
- The Shining
- The Thin Man
- “Yogi Bear”
- “The Emoji Movie”
- “Alvin and The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked”
- “Breaking Bad”
- “Transformers 4”
- “Freaks and Geeks”
- Jimmy Yang
- “Curb Your Enthusiasm”
- Ellen Degeneres on “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”
- Woody Allen
- Norm Macdonald
- Louis CK
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