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Comic T.J. Miller: Trained Clown And Student Of Nietzsche

T. J. Miller performs at the 2014 SXSW Music Festival. He credits his high school drama teacher with setting him on his path to comedy.
Heather Kennedy
Getty Images for SXSW
T. J. Miller performs at the 2014 SXSW Music Festival. He credits his high school drama teacher with setting him on his path to comedy.

T.J. Miller has played a dragon slayer in the How to Train Your Dragon movies, a man who doesn't always change his underwear in Big Hero 6 and a pothead who thinks he's a tech rock star in HBO's Silicon Valley. Now Marvel fans will know him as bartender Weasel, best friend to the titular superhero in the new, R-rated comic book movie Deadpool.

Miller is a physical and cerebral comedian, a good combination for his Silicon Valley character, Erlich Bachman. Slovenly with shaggy, curly hair and mutton chop sideburns, Bachman is ridiculously full of himself. (Miller has described him as an "arrogant blowhard.") He puts clips in his hair to hold it back when he eats, and he get furious at his housemates when he finds there are only soup spoons left for him to eat his yogurt. Bachman runs the business side of the show's central startup, Pied Piper. In his mind, he's the only one who understands you need to be "a real a-hole to make it in this world," Miller says.

In <em>Silicon Valley,</em> Miller plays tech blowhard Erlich Bachman opposite Thomas Middleditch's Richard Hendricks, a tech newbie.
Frank Masi / HBO
In Silicon Valley, Miller plays tech blowhard Erlich Bachman opposite Thomas Middleditch's Richard Hendricks, a tech newbie.

Silicon Valley creator Mike Judge says the character is real. "In the tech world there are a lot of arrogant people, people with no filter. And that's right up T.J.'s alley. He's very good at playing that."

But Miller also makes Bachman likable — even charming. Judge, who also directed him in 2009's Extract, says, "There's this odd kind of vulnerability to T.J.'s face and his expressions ... that make it kind of innocent."

As for Miller, he says he identifies with Bachman: "He is just sort of, unfortunately for me, a magnification of certain aspects of my personality, mixed in with a couple of fictional things. I'm an enthusiastic marijuana user; he obviously is also. I am, at times, a Falstaffian figure; he very much is that too. We are in line with each other as nihilists: He thinks you should tell it like it is ... because everybody's opinion — including yours — doesn't mean anything."

From Class Clown To Clown School

The 34-year-old Denver native started doing comedy early on. Melody Duggan, his drama teacher at Denver's East High School, says Miller was a typical class clown, except that he was more intuitive than your average teenager. She says, "He understands the frailty of the human condition better than any kid I've ever had."

Duggan, who's retired now, tried to get her students to sample all forms of acting, including stand-up. She says Miller "was absolutely fearless. He doesn't mind making a fool of himself."

Meanwhile, Miller credits Duggan for the eureka moment that set him on his path to comedy. "She made me do musicals and Oedipus Rex," he remembers. "She said, 'You're going to do comedy, but I need you singing. You have to learn everything.' "

His mother, a clinical psychologist, told him the same thing, and it seems he took the assignment seriously. He studied circus arts, and learned how to be a Shakespearean clown at the British American Drama Academy in London. After that, he toured with Chicago's Second City.

Miller's observational humor is rarely cutting. When an audience member bellowed above the rest at 2015's Just For Laughs Festival, Miller pointed to him and imitated the sound. Then he quickly said, "I'm not making fun of your laugh. I would never make fun of your laugh," and took the opportunity to improvise:

"Have any of you had someone make fun of your laugh — a friend make fun of the way you laugh? You know, that's basically your friend saying, 'Hey you know that sound that you make when you're happy and joyful? And the tragedy that permeates our everyday life is momentarily abated for an ephemeral escapism? Yeah? You sound stupid. You should feel embarrassed when you're happy.' "

Weasel (Miller) gets roughed up by Angel Dust (Gina Carino), one of <em>Deadpool</em>'s bad guys.
Joe Lederer / Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox
Weasel (Miller) gets roughed up by Angel Dust (Gina Carino), one of Deadpool's bad guys.

Comedy And 'Fundamentally Tragic Existence'

Between movies, TV, stand-up and commercials, Miller is on a fast-moving roll. He's hyper-focused on his "mission statement," as he calls it: "To become the best comedian, I must be well-rounded." (According to Melody Duggan, "His business acumen is something else.")

The comedian says his role in the new anti-hero comic book movie Deadpool is right up his alley. "I'm a student of [Friedrich] Nietzsche. I'm interested in morality and mortality, and Deadpool kind of has all of these themes."

Given Miller's cerebral approach to acting, it's not surprising that he almost pursued a career in psychology — that was his college major and he thought he might follow in his mother's footsteps. But then he did the math.

"If you're a psychologist, you can instrumentally change peoples' lives for the better," he says. "But you can only do that for about 300 people to maybe a thousand people, if you're really prolific and you're working really hard. If you're a comedian, you can change peoples' lives for the better in much smaller increments — not their entire life, but for 15 minutes or a half hour."

He says, "If I can make someone laugh, I lift them out of their fundamentally tragic existence." And for this comic, that's anything but meaningless.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.

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