People love learning about and seeing things that they've never experienced. We all know about death, for example, and yet never seen it happen by the hands of a giant slimy monster. You might be sitting right now thinking, "I'd pay to see that!" And you wouldn't be alone. In early 2008, Cloverfield, a creature feature, set the world record for highest grossing January premiere of all time. Manhattan was destroyed, millions perished, and through it all we heard the voice of TJ Miller. Starpulse caught up with the man behind the shaky cam to talk about life, death, and people, making it relevant and relatable to all.
One of the things I loved most about Cloverfield was that the idea of a monster destroying all of New York is as absurd as the fact that I will die at the end of my life.
Everything is absurd until it happens, in a way. Both are absurd. The constant knowledge that everything we have learned and worked for and the life we have led will end is the most overarching absurdity of life, and [Eugène] Ionesco lived and died by it.
What is your view on death?
I'm an atheist, so I don't think much happens after. As far as death as an end point to life, I think a lot of people spend time worrying about it and fearing it, and I think that you don't make a deal when you are born, this is the deal. Life begins and ends. There's no way around it, and we can prolong its arrival, but it's coming.
I have been having conversations a lot recently about getting older, and so many people fear getting older. I think without the ability to avoid the inevitability of something, our only real choice outside of becoming depressed is to change our mental perspective on it. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to think about things, and one of those things is aging. I really feel better with each year that passes because I think I know more, understand more, and I become more of the comedian I was meant to be, or was setting out to be. I lived so many years in uncertainty (will I be able to do comedy for a living, can I be in film and television, where will money come from, am I funny enough to do this) that with each year comes more certainty and I would trade that in for any amount of youth and vigor. Plus I've got tons of vigor. I got like a lot of vigor.
What are some signs of aging you've experienced?
Yes. I'm becoming smarter. And funnier.
So, what would you do if your death was immanent?
Party slightly harder than I do currently. Like one or two more beers than usual. I sort of live my life like death is immanent because it is. It's not going away. So that's in some ways why I try and live comedy. My best friend Nick Vatterott and I have talked about creating comedy outside of traditional venues because the hour or two you perform a night isn't enough, and part of that is because life is so ephemeral. You have to take life by the thighs and draw pictures of other thighs on it.
What's an example of "living comedy" and creating comedy outside of "traditional venues"? Nick and I went to a carnival once. We were driving along and we saw a carnival, and we went to it. We bought tickets, and for every ride we went on we thought of a joke or something funny. On a very small ferries wheel we rode in separate cars and we had a verbal fight while the ride was going. Then when we got off we stopped. We went on the bumper cars and drove around in an orderly fashion, never bumping into each other and using hand signals to turn. We got kicked out of the funhouse for horsing around too much; essentially we were kicked out of a funhouse for having too much fun. We got on the tower of fear (the ride where you drop straight down on a pillar) and rode it about 15 times in a row, each time with the same reaction. When we asked what the record was, the carnie said, "You haven't even touched it. I saw a little girl once ride it all day. She just stayed in, never screamed or got scared, she just kept wanting to go up to the top and sit in it as it fell to the bottom. Over and over." That was fascinating to us. And so we went, coming up with comedy for each ride and asking the people about their experiences, trying to make each other laugh, and others would laugh at us, seeing us do things they'd never seen. And in the end, we left with a ham and two packs of bacon that we won from a game where that was the prize. We never recorded it, never wrote about it until now, we just did it to live that comedy and to have other people live within it as well. And I kept that bacon in my freezer for 2 years.
Death is very much a part of the human condition, but there is, of course, more to it than that. What is, in your opinion, the human condition?
I think overall it can be pretty tragic. I think that most people go through life and are constantly faced with adversarial events, and that sadness and loneliness pervades modern life. That's the main reason that feel comedy is so vital.
What do you think of people?
This is a really interesting question. I have a love/hate relationship with people for sure. I often talk about how I spend hours of my day and years of my life trying to make people laugh that I wouldn't spend two minutes talking to at a dinner party. I make people laugh that are probably people that I would dislike in everyday dealings. But I do fundamentally believe that people deserve some sort of escapism from the hardships associated with their lives, but I love humanity as a whole and think that people are interesting and most do good if external circumstances have not led them to do bad. As you can see, it's complicated.
While a giant monster attack doesn't seem likely, there are a few things today that have the potential to wipe out not just New York, but all of humanity. What do you see as some of the big issues people should be concerned about?
I'm not entirely sure. I think technology has created a problem (one of many): it takes less and less people to do more and more damage until one person can destroy the entire earth. 200 years ago it would take an army to destroy a country, now it takes a guy who's fucking crazy enough to believe in God (and that God wants him to do that).
Monsters, nuclear war, global warming. These are all things that frighten people. What frightens you?
I'm not frightened by much, I think. Some accident that would prevent me from doing comedy, like losing my tongue. I have actually thought about that. I make an effort never to shoplift in old world countries. I think fear is a waste of time, and the media perpetuates it to try and get people to tune in to the News. Take that American Media Machine! Yeah!! I carry a taser.
One of my favorite lines from the film was, "Our choices are we die in here, die in the subway, or die on the streets." It seemed very existential to me. Were the philosophical undertones of the film intentional or coincidental?
I didn't write the film, and I'm not sure if JJ and Matt had a lot of philosophical undertones. There were a lot of sexual and political undertones, and some homosexual overtones. That line to me was Hud trying to do what I think a lot of people would do in that situation but we rarely see in film--try to make light of the situation. That was my biggest thing about the movie, was to act like how I or some of my friends might act. It's not going to be articulate or clever, you would say "shit" a lot (or "fuck" if it wasn't PG-13) and would be scrambling to make people feel more at ease if you were a good person and like to make people laugh.
Even though your character, Hud, is one of the main characters, the audience doesn't know anything about him. Did you come up with any sort of back-story for him?
Nah. I don't really do that sort of thing. In this movie especially, we were trying to convey that back-story, and the future, doesn't matter so much in these times (both during disasters and the times we live in now). So it's not important where Hud came from or where he is going, what's important is what he does in the midst of the event. Hud especially, as a character, doesn't care that much about the future. He doesn't have big plans or think about much else other than having fun with his friends. That's what's important to him--the people he surrounds himself with. I relate to him in some ways because of that.
TJ Miller on Letterman
How would you describe your auditioning process for Cloverfield?
Shrouded in secrecy and hung over. I never really knew what I was auditioning for, and it didn't seem very interesting. The sides were all about a young kid wanting to start a restaurant. So I came in hung over and did the audition, and when they called me back I showed up 45 minutes late and smoked cloves instead of reviewing the sides. Then I went in and improvised some, and they told me I needed to do the second scene. "What second scene," "The one where you are stabbed with an adrenaline needle." "Oh. Can I have that?" I looked at it and then proceeded to act like someone stabbed me in the heart with an adrenaline needle. It all seemed weird and pretty lame to me--which is JJ's genius. He chose those sides specifically so that he could see what we could do with boring material (the party) and also with extreme reaction (monster).
Do you think your experience as a stand up comedian factored into their decision to cast you as Hud?
They 100% cast me because I am funny. I was the first person they saw, and also the first person cast, so I like to think they built the movie around me, as well as the next season of Lost. They needed someone in the group who would react differently to the situation, and JJ cried from laughing during my callback. They made a big deal about putting it on the DVD, and Lizzy recently saw our audition, and thought it wasn't that funny. But at the time I really killed. I think though that auditioning for film is a completely different game than stand-up, but all of it strengthens your skills as a comedian.
What's next for you now that Cloverfield is out?
I'm doing another Dreamworks production, a film called "She's out of My League", which I refer to as SOOML. I'm trying to do more stand-up, and I just finished filming a short moving picture I wrote, "Successful Alcoholics" with Lizzy Caplan, also from Cloverfield. I'm writing and having sex. Or writing about having sex. I'm also getting more into comictography which is comic imagery through photography.
And where can people see you perform stand up in the near future?
I will be playing Comix in NYC tonight, Feb 29th, and tomorrow, March 1st. Tix can be found online at ComixNY.com . With all of these shows I offer discounts to myspace and facebook friends, and I charge extra to people who are still on Friendster. So become my myspace friend or facebook, or sign up for my mailing list. I'll have a new website up soon, and it will be cyberdifficult.
Interview by Ben Kharakh
Starpulse.com contributing writer