Monday, December 3, 2007

TJ Miller

TJ Miller is one of the hottest young comics in LA. He has a starring role on the ABC sitcom “Carpoolers” and he was selected to appear at the 2007 US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. He recently shot a feature film with JJ Abrams (“Lost”) and his stand up career is thriving. All of this at the tender age of 26 and only a matter of months since he was touring the country as a member of The Second City Touring Company.

Your originally from Denver, how did you end up in Chicago?

I took a plane. You’re going to use that right? That’s my opening joke.

I’m using it.

I was in an improv group in college – big surprise. I knew I wanted to study in Chicago so I applied for a summer internship at Loyola – which was, essentially, an excuse to take classes at all the best improv schools. So I had a class at Second City and IO. I did stand-up comedy – I really liked the stand up scene in Chicago. So after I went back to Denver I decided to make the move to Chicago.

Did you like your improv classes?

Honestly? I thought Second City was too ‘actory’ – I was a comedian and I wasn’t focused on the theatre end of things. I was attracted to the scene at IO at first because it was about going for the joke. I was also real cocky. I had assumed that I would go to Chicago for like 3 months – I’d learn everything I needed to know about improvisation and then I’d apply it to my stand up career. I really didn’t realize that people spent years and years studying and honing their craft. I also assumed – you’ll love this – that everyone would remember me from the classes I took during my internship years at Loyola. Shockingly they didn’t. So I took more classes at all the schools. I actually auditioned for Second City’s Conservatory program and was rejected. I keep that rejection letter up next to my door in LA – so I see it every single day – I’m not kidding.

But Second City ended up hiring you for the Touring Company?

I hadn’t really seen Second City shows – I just heard about them from bitter improv guys that hadn’t been hired by the theatre. So I had no idea how nuanced and wonderfully inventive the work was. I had a bunch of friends auditioning for the touring company and they convinced me to tag along. I suspect that part of the reason I did so well is that I felt completely at ease – I had no expectation that I would be hired and I didn’t really know what was at stake. When I got asked to the callback my friends had to tell me what a big deal that was. By that point, I had spent two years working in Chicago. It was soon after the callback that Beth Kligerman – the casting director at Second City – offered me a job as an understudy for the Touring Company and I jumped at the opportunity.

You moved up the ladder pretty quickly, didn’t you?

Thank god that Jonathon Keaton is as virile as he is. I was understudying his roles when his wife became pregnant and he decided to stop touring. I got the job. My friend Brad Morris – who was also a member of that company – said to me, “Buddy, this is good for you and it’s good for the company. But it’s mostly good for you.” I’ve never forgotten that.

I suppose he was referring to the fact that you were a somewhat untraditional Second City performer.

Absolutely. I was a stand up comedian in a world that had a lot of negative opinions about stand up comedy. I faced less of that bias at Second City than I experienced in other improv theatres in Chicago – in part, I think, because Second City has a talent base that is far more progressive in its attitude towards comedy and the industry in general. Other improv theatres had a real us and them approach to the work.

Did you enjoy touring with Second City?

I would say it was the best job I’ve ever had – it’s at least equal in enjoyment to working on a prime time television show – if not even more fun. I remember my favorite gig of all time was the college in Winona Minnesota. It was an absolutely explosive show. It’s always a treat to go to smaller towns where they ask for your autographs after the show. At this gig, they not only asked for autographs, they demanded that we all party together. It was great. The college actually brought me back as a solo performer to do my stand up.

You must have a worst experience.

Oh yeah. It was at Florida State University. This is an important fact for later in the story. First of all, the technical set up for the show was horrible – bad sound, a pipe and drape background, audience members were walking in and out of the show so no one was really paying attention. Every time I came offstage my cast mates were cursing about the crowd. At the end of the show, a bunch of audience members just started yelling stuff at us on stage – they were trying to be funny. I thought that I would try to get them on our side – so as I’m leaving the stage for the final time before our curtain call, I yell “Go F.U.!” The rest of the cast looks at me in amazement: ‘what did you just do? Why did you yell that?” I forgot that it was Florida State University – I had just yelled out the initials of their chief rivals that also happened to be the initials for an expletive. It was, hands down, the worst bow and curtain call of my career. They hated us.

You’re a great student of comedy, what kind of discoveries did you make at Second City?

As I said before, I really didn’t have a knowledge base about Second City prior to getting hired. I had heard from friends who didn’t work there that it was very mainstream. The great irony is that it was just the opposite. The actors at Second City were taking more risks. The Capitol Steps do hack political comedy, in my opinion. Second City does some really sophisticated work. I’m not a political satirist. I tend to do more absurdist comedy that turns normal situations upside down. But some of my favorite pieces at Second City were political scenes that had a deep emotional depth to them. Brian Gallivan had a scene where he was a basketball coach who was dealing with his wife’s cancer with all these sports clichés. It was really funny, but at a certain point Brian’s character just breaks down on stage. You could hear a pin drop in the room. I loved that scene. There was also a scene at an Army recruitment center where a grandmother was trying to get drafted into the Army. It’s not until late in the scene that you realize she has a grandson in Iraq an she just wants to take his place because he has so much life left to live. That’s the kind of comedy I want to make.

Are you enjoying working on “Carpoolers?”

It’s a great environment and that comes directly from Bruce McCulloch – our director – who is also a member of Kids in the Hall. The show is also run by the folks that did “Arrested Development.” It’s interesting, we’re on ABC which is really not a comedy network. NBC has Tina Fey and Steve Carell and a bunch of terrific comedy shows. ABC has “Lost” and “Dancing with the Stars.” So our show really sticks out. But everyone who works on it is absolutely dedicated to making a great comedy sitcom. We’re not trying to be too hip for the room and we’re not trying to change the face of modern comedy. It’s a great cast – Jerry O’Connell is hilarious and Jerry Minor, a fellow Second City alum, is simply amazing.

I have to bring up the show you did with your sketch company Heavy Weight.

We did a show at Sketch Fest in Chicago a year back. We spent $1,000.00 on one scene. We knew we wanted to blow away the house and we also were self aware enough to know that we didn’t have the polish or discipline down to do a traditional great sketch show. So we ended up breaking 37 bottles; we used over 100 bananas; and we used 10 gallons of various fluids within the body of this show.

And people still talk about it to this day…

And we didn’t tape it. Which actually kind of makes me glad. It just exists in the memories of the 200 people or so who saw it that night.

What’s on tap for you now?

We’re waiting to see if they order more episodes of “Carpoolers.” I recently filmed a JJ Abrams helmed feature film. I’m auditioning all the time and I’m pitching my own series ideas. I’m also still doing stand up. But I sincerely look at my time at Second City as being primarily responsible for the success I’ve had. It was a real honor to work there.

TJ Miller is available for stand up dates. Please contact Dave Becky at 310.888.3200.