Silicon Valley’s TJ Miller on Satire, Weed, and Why Judd Apatow is So Over
Miller is the sarcastic and Rabelaisian actor our golden age of TV needs
On the set of HBO’s Silicon Valley, Erlich Bachman — aka TJ Miller — is the former founder of transportation start-up Aviato, sports a somewhat man-bun, and smokes a prodigious amount of weed. While Miller says the character is just a “hyperbolic” version of himself, it is hard not to spot the similarities between the two — loud, brash, and a bit over the topMiller is most in his element playing these Rabelaisian characters that offer both insight and gut-busting comedic relief.
HBO’s smash comedy is currently in the midst of the third season, and the show has been a springboard for Miller, who before joining the comedic ensemble, had enjoyed voiceover work in How To Train Your Dragon and playing Ranger Jones in Yogi Bear (and as a talking ball of mucus in Mucinex commercials). Fresh off a role in Deadpool, Miller is set to star in Office Christmas Party with Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston, and is preparing for a role in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One. “I work really, really hard,” says Miller, who explains the Popular Science how he separates himself from Erlich once the cameras are off and the dark, unsettling side to our society’s dependence on technology.
TJ Miller: Matt, before we start, can I say that I am a huge fan of Popular Mechanics?
Popular Science: Well, since I am with Popular Science, I hope you love our magazine too!
Miller: Oh no, really? Well I don’t love Popular Science. So let’s keep it square. But really, Popular Science and Popular Mechanics and Wired are the only things I get on my iPad. All three of them. This interview is so far going great. I’ve messed up the name of the publication, that’s how many interviews I’ve done in the past 20 minutes.
No worries! You’ve mentioned in the past about how you believe hard work trumps talent, and I was hoping you could expand on how that has helped you prep for your recent rise in work as well as the third season of Silicon Valley.
Miller: Well, I wrote down today that with the right amount of exertion, anything is possible. Some days, my quote is get as high as you can, and try and figure out the Roku. This morning, that was my quote. I work really, really hard — I am doing a thousand things. I am doing voiceover for How to Train Your Dragon. I am starring in Office Christmas Party with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman, and it is incredibly hard. It is exhausting. It requires my acting skillset, which is not my strong point. The hours are heavy duty, but I have to deliver if I want to get the film I am writing with my cousin, Miller Davis, developing Ex-Criminals for Dreamworks. And then I am also preparing for Ready Player One for [Steven] Spielberg, while preparing the dueling biographies with my wife.
There is about $25 million on the line every day. Right now I am in the midst of something so trying that I definitely have to wake up some days and say, “Doesn’t matter, man, get it done.”
With all that on your plate, how has that affected your approach to playing Erlich in Season Three?
And Silicon Valley is this beautiful respite from all of that. We are all bodies. Mike Judge is this brilliant quiet genius, and it couldn’t be better. It doesn’t feel like work any longer, it feels like school. Every time Zach Woods improvises, I am like ‘no way!’ Thomas and I and Kumail [Nanjiani] have worked together forever, and it’s so fucking fun. That is the one place where the hard work is easy to do.
When you are getting ready on set to play Erlich, do you have a structure? A system? [As I asked this, my phone started to break up]
By the way, Popular Mechanics would have a better car phone, and you can print that. I don’t prepare for anything very well. I am not a good actor. I don’t read scripts. I didn’t read the script for this movie before I signed on for it. I heard the director is Jason Bateman, and Jennifer Aniston, and the concept, and it was at Dreamworks, and I was like OK.
The Erlich thing is, what’s weird about that, Thomas and I don’t ever learn our lines the morning of, and this season, as you see especially, they push me to do more acting. Everyone thinks I can be a fucking actor, I don’t get what is going on with that. It’s probably my fault. They push me to do sentimental, sad, real shit, and so for me, a lot of it was I know this Erlich character so well. He is a hyperbolic version of me. But this was this aspect of it, I would leave set some times, and I wasn’t preparing for Erlich, I was lamenting what was happening to him on the way home. Jesus Christ, this fucking guy is a disaster. This is the saddest story ever told in the Valley, and I’d go to work, have fun on the way home, feel so bad about this person I was playing.
You’ve said before that you are a student of philosophy. Is there any school or individual that you particularly follow when playing Erlich?
Miller: Oh Friedrich Nietzsche, but his whole discipline is not having a discipline. It can get very confusing for both of us quickly. There is a nihilism to Erlich because he questions everyone’s value. it is very Nietzschean. Instead of just accepting the value system that has been thrust upon us by our sad parents and their forefathers. He actually questions the thing and says, ‘Why don’t I just create my own value system? That will be successful to me.’
Do you follow that Nietzsche mindset for other roles you play?
Miller: Matt, if I could get out of that mindset, at any point in the last few years, I would readily welcome that to happen. I am not a great actor. Not preparing for stuff, not method, more of a mess-head. For me, if you wake up and you don’t start questioning everything within the first 15 minutes, then you better still be brushing your teeth.
Since you see Erlich as an extension of yourself, do you have trouble, when you leave the set for the day, of leaving Erlich behind? Does that character come home with you?
Miller: Well … do you mean how do I step away from the character when it is time to stop playing it?
No, when the day’s shoot is over.
Miller: Well, I smoke so much weed. I smoke much more weed than Erlich. You can print that for sure. It is weird. I did some work for the show today, and it really is sad. I am watching this guy, once they don’t need to live in his house, he doesn’t have any friends. And that is real. I have friends so I certainly reach out to them, but the biggest thing I do is connect with Kate [Miller’s wife].
Erlich doesn’t have a girlfriend, because all he cares about is fame and iconography. I settle into that … but it is a weird thing. Ultimately, and this is so dumb, this is why the character is so likable. We all feel a little like [Erlich]. We don’t know why we’re here, or why anybody has given us any validity or opportunity or any of that stuff. It is good to connect to someone who reminds you that you have some real authenticity.
Can Kate tell the difference between Erlich and TJ?
Miller: Yes, because I am not a good actor or a method actor. But what she can do is tell when TJ comes home from set, and is like ‘Wow, this has been quite a day pretending to be this horrible person that is in a really sad position.’ So she can definitely feel that exhaustion.
What I feel most interested to learn this season is how Erlich deals with hitting rock bottom. Because it certainly feels like it is coming.
Miller: It will be explored. And it is exactly that. This season will get much more real. There is a great scene [in Season Two’s ‘Runaway Devaluation’] where Richard [Hendricks, played by Thomas Middleditch] meets with Gavin Belson and a mariachi band is playing. Gavin says ‘What do you think is going to happen when you’re a huge corporation? You think you won’t destroy the competition?’ Where do you think this is headed? And we see exactly where this is headed now.
Something is wrong with the system, but what sucks is Bernie Sanders — again, I am from Denver, I live in Los Angeles, I am feeling the Bern, I am a totally pathetic Susan Sarandon fan — he shows that I can crowdfund the campaign, and Donald Trump is like, ‘Yeah but I got a bunch of money from my family and I built a brand name and I am a reality star.’
I have been thinking about this notion a lot lately, but technology has allowed us to explore those very rock bottoms. Every time I open up my Los Angeles Times app, or whatever, and read about [Donald] Trump and that whole situation, it is this weird thing is I am getting insight into how broken our country is. I am on Twitter so fucking much. And you see so much of people’s sadness, confusion, or anger, there is so much anger online, you don’t have to troll for very long to find how angry people are. Lately I streamed Baskets and Mr. Robot. Have you seen either of those?
Mr. Robot, yes, and while I haven’t seen Baskets, I’ve heard it is brilliant.
Miller: Baskets is beyond. That is some new shit. I thought Louie was great, and Louie C.K. is obviously producing Baskets, but it is up my alley. I went to school in France for circus arts, so it is a real reflection of this pathetic attempt to be some great comedian. It is so good. But Mr. Robot, the craziest thing about that, it reflects this notion that that can exist: you can close your windows and drapes and in total darkness, watch 13 hours of what technology is and what capitalism is. It is weird that we have instant access to that sadness. I can’t tell if it is positive or negative.
Tech can show us what is wrong with everything immediately, but the ways we are using it in a positive light, it is falling short, is what I am seeing as of late.
Does Silicon Valley go far enough to satirize the tech community?
Miller: I never could have imagined that people would have come up to me and say, ‘I’m you in the show! I’m Erlich. In my compnay, I’m Erlich.’ I couldn’t imagine that people would be so stupid or so self unaware as to say such a thing. Erlich is ugh. I don’t even need to use adjectives. That is how unaware they are.
I am having a tough time figuring out if satire works or not. Working with Mike [Judge], you are working with the best satirist alive. From Beavis and Butthead, that was real time satirizing my whole generation and the generation that was to come. Then with King of the Hill, he attacked a completely different culture. Then with Office Space, completely different. Then Extract became more existential in its satire. I’m not sure how much … and I have no aspirations as a comedian outside of distracting the populice from this terrible tragedy they happen to be born into on accident. I am pro comedy as distraction. But I think Silicon Valley humanizes these people. It reminds us of their folly.
As far as satire as an effective tool to change the tech industry, I fear that all they see is finally a show about them. The more I understand tech, and the more I learn about it, the more I realize that all of them take themselves too seriously. Even the ones who are like, ‘Isn’t our name stupid?’ They seriously chose that name. There is no place for a person like me in a world that only takes itself seriously. Satire is so necessary but fairly ineffective.
Does that trouble you, then, doing these interviews for the show? Because the sphere the show is meant to lampoon doesn’t see it that way.
Miller: No. Because Silicon Valley, like Deadpool, is a component of a much bigger thing. The best way to explain this is if you listen to my album, and then if you listen to the remix of my album. I did this music album called the Extended Play EP (2011), which is an EP that is 41 tracks. And some of the tracks are less than six seconds long. That is wholly satire. Thomas Middleditch said to me, ‘Jesus Christ, I don’t know anyone who is in it for the long play like you.’
That joke I did in 2011 is actually designed for 2025 when I refuse in interviews to talk about anything except for the album, because people should take me seriously as a musician, just like they should take Donald Trump seriously as a politician. So Silicon Valley is a component of this bigger mosaic that is a lifelong piece of comedy hopefully akin to someone like WC Fields. Where your whole life is this joke that is supposed to exist in folk lore, and make people laugh in perpetuity.
If I was in Mike Judge’s position, I would be troubled. Or thinking, ‘Why is no one getting what I am doing? What is happening?’ But when you are introduced on stage as Mr. Mucus from the Mucinex and the star — emphasis on star — of Yogi Bear 3D, I am not too concerned as to whether or not Silicon Valley changes the tech industry. I think those people, like all of us, are suffering from something much deeper and scarier, which is this idea that we want tech to save us, but it may be driving us further into the ground.
That connectivity it promises is actually quite isolating. In the wake of that, you definitely need Yogi Bear 3D. You need an hour and a half off from your kids, and your wife, who is frustrated with you talking about how frustrated you are about your work. And all that stuff.
Is there any tech that you can’t live without? Since we are all tethered to our devices, what do you have to have in your life?
Miller: It’s getting bad. I can’t stand Snapchat, but that will be extinct before it is relevant. But Twitter is getting really bad. What they hit upon was that we only have the attention span for 140 characters, which is weird because we have the attention spans for thousands of 140 character tweets.
I don’t think I’ve been online and not checked Twitter since it began. And it is a drug. Drug addicts like to have other drug addicts around them, and they love to justify drug use. So Twitter, on Twitter, everybody is lauding how important this platform is, but it’s only because they are addicted to it. They can’t get off it. Even Kyle Kinane, who is an anti tech modern society post modern culture comedian, he is addicted to Twitter. He can’t stop looking at it even though he hates it.
I was listening to a recent Nerdist podcast, and Judd Apatow was the guest. He posited that more comedians are leaving Twitter, though, and there is a sense that the medium, for comics at least, isn’t as important.
Miller: Well, in terms of Twitter, and I am joking when I say this, we can all trust him, because he is the greatest comedic filmmaker of never. He would love to be a tastemaker, that is exactly what he wants, but in reality, he is usually late to the party. And anybody who can leaves his camp. And I say that having a lot of friends who he has created great opportunities for, like Jay Baruchel. But I have always seen him as an antiquated presence in the comedy sphere.
But in terms of apps, TED, and of course Roku. Anything streaming. If you are a student of comedy in the academic sense, which I am times a million, any streaming service when you can watch any type of comedy all the time is a for sure. But actually my first inclination was those TED talks. But actually, more importantly, because again we are trying to popularize everything, the school of life YouTube channel. It is this really great six minute philosophical videos teaching you how to live. They are funny, they are insightful, they have great Nietzschean stuff, all the existentialists are well dealt with there.
I am doing comedy, so I don’t go to the Internet to get comedy. That’s not my main reason for going to it. But I do go to it to get information, and to get philosophy, to get insight, knowledge.
Any TED talk in particular?
Miller: Yes, it’s about why does anything exist at all.
So let’s say you were not an actor, and had joined this tech bubble. What job would you have in the actual Silicon Valley?
Miller: The exact same fucking job that Erlich has. It’s not in tech. I am a salesman. Right now, I am selling you the idea that it is worth doing an interview with me, and I am selling that you should be on the phone with me. Because you certainly shouldn’t. You’ve got much better things to do than this. You’ve got actual science to popularize.
My strength is what Erlich does. He is selling an idea. He is selling philosophy — the idea that his terrible house is actually a place where greatness is born. I don’t think Erlich or me cares what the product is. This is where the two of us split. For Erlich, the iconography is what he is pursuing. The place in history, the immortality of something, whereas unfortunately I am a nihilist, so I can give a fuck about my lasting impression. But I do think it is important that there is something great, and there are people who can sell that great thing, and that is what Steve Jobs was. And he wore turtlenecks a bit too much.
Now in season three, have you found it difficult to take something so weedy and niche and still get at the essence of a character like Erlich?
Miller: Maybe. I find that Erlich, in that what I do on the show, is much less about tech, and more about humanity. He is a guy that, if it wasn’t tech, it’d be something else he’d try to become an icon with. And that, unfortunately, relates to a bigger need that everyone has, which is to have some sort of longevity beyond one’s own mortality. That’s what my HBO special is all about.
Congrats. When is that coming out?
Miller: I film that in September, and it’ll come out in six months.
I know you have your own brand of hot sauce, so what did you think of the news cycle about Hillary Clinton carrying around hot sauce all the time?
Miller: She is trying to be Beyoncé. That is how powerful culture is over politics. Everyone wants to have this influence, and unfortunately, politicians don’t have it anymore. Artists do. Which is good for me, but is it good for America? I’m not sure about that.
So do you also carry around hot sauce?
Miller: Yes, of course, and since I am a satirist like Mike Judge, that is why I have my own brand. And I carry it in my bag. Swag.