It was just a few years ago that comedian and actor T.J. Miller was pounding the pavement seven days a week doing standup routines at Chicago comedy clubs and touring with comedy troupes. He was paying his dues, as most entertainers do at some point in their lives, when he got a call for an audition.
“I went and auditioned for this teen comedy by this director I never heard of, so it wasn’t such a big deal,” Miller says. “But then they wouldn’t tell us what the movie was about and it ended up being [the J.J. Abrams-produced film] Cloverfield.”
Miller played the character Hud; the wisecracking 20-something that held the camcorder for most of the movie. Although you barely saw his face during the film, Miller’s quips and one-liners during the movie became quotables for fans. The film was a success at the box office and became a cult favorite among sci-fi fans.
At the same time, he had a starring role on the 2007- 08 ABC sitcom Carpoolers as the goofy, Napoleon Dynamite-ish son Marmaduke.
“From then it just started, kept booking movies and doing TV here and there,” he says. “In 2010 I did, like, eight studio films or something. I did more movies in 2010 than anybody else.”
Miller grew up in central Denver and attended East High School, where he was drawn to the drama and acting programs. He loved performing the comedic parts of the plays but really didn’t see it as a career path. It wasn’t until he went to college at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to study psychology that he realized that he could go into a performance-driven career.
“I got into the drama program at GWU, and it was great,” he says. “Everybody was funny, and none of them were actors. So that was the first time I was like, ‘Oh you can be a comedian and not be just an actor.’ So I did comedy through college, and then I went to Chicago and was there for four years. I studied, toured and worked for Second City, and I would do stand-up seven nights a week, sometimes twice a night, nonstop for four years. I never took a night off.”
With the TV show Carpoolers and the film Cloverfield, Miller was able to get a foothold in Hollywood and scored a role in the Jeremy Piven-led film The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, a prominent sidekick role in She’s Out of My League, and the voice behind Tuffnut in the animated film How To Train Your Dragon. He was also in Unstoppable with Denzel Washington, Gulliver’s Travels with Jack Black and Get Him to the Greek with Russell Brand, and he played Ranger Jones in the recent Yogi Bear film.
Now Miller is heading back to his roots. In between doing voiceover work for How to Train Your Dragon 2, a new film called Our Idiot Brother with Paul Rudd, plus a 40-track comedy, pop, hip-hop album called The Extended Play EP, Miller will be filming a Comedy Central standup special on Saturday, May 21, at the Boulder Theater. It’s a free show anyone can attend (get tickets at www.theblacklistnyc.com/tjmiller).
“Stand-up is just a different medium of comedy than a film act or a television act,” Miller says. “Stand-up comedy is the most autonomous of the art forms, so that can be rewarding, but it’s also very challenging. There’s no one to blame but yourself if it isn’t going very well.”
It was important for Miller to come home to the Mile High City to film the special.
“This is my first one-hour special, and I wanted to do it in Denver. We couldn’t make any theaters in Denver work for where I am in my career, and what I wanted to do with my special,” he says. “Then we looked at the Boulder Theater to produce the special, and it was the perfect place. Boulder and Denver are the coolest cities in Colorado. And Boulder has such a different aesthetic. It’s almost a cross between a granola and California feel, and I’ve become more of a West Coast type of comedian since moving to Los Angeles. It’s a laid-back lifestyle and pretty open about drug use and drinking but has an intellectual edge to it. I’m better with smarter audiences that are open to absurdity and silliness, and I found Denver being one of the best audiences I’ve ever played for.”
But sometimes it doesn’t go very well. Miller says that he probably gets more hecklers at his shows than any other comedian.
“I improvise a lot on stage. I ask the audience questions, and I guess I have the type of personality where it feels like it’s OK to yell things at me,” he says. “Drunks yell stuff at me. Fans yell stuff from the movies. That’s what people do at my shows. I rarely do a show where someone isn’t disruptive.”
But he’s always prepared to deal with the rudeness. “I’m not particularly mean unless they won’t be quiet or they’re mean,” Miller says. “Sometimes people can be mean because they’re mean people in the world. So if they’re mean, I will verbally ruin their lives!”