T.J. Miller might be best known as Erlich Bachman from the HBO television show Silicon Valley, or for his movie roles, like his supporting role in She's Out of My League or "getting yelled at by Michael Bay on the set of Transformers," but there's much more to him than being "the guy from Our Idiot Brother." Miller's favorite way to perform is in the form of live stand-up, and it's not something he'll stop doing anytime soon.
"People might come out because they think, 'Oh, that guy's funny as Erlich,' but some of them will hopefully leave thinking that I'm funny as a comedian," says Miller, who's performing at the grand opening of Rick Bronson's House of Comedy in Phoenix all weekend. "Some other people will probably just leave really confused, but that's okay, too. This is like, 'Hey, come and hang out with me,' and you get a whole different experience that you'd never get from watching TV or anything. Whereas that's just a TV show to entertain you."
For some comedians, stand-up is a means to an end. In Miller's eyes, it's the best part of the profession. He was the class clown in high school, and now he gets to make people laugh for a living.
"When I was in college, I used a fake ID to do some shows in Chicago. I was just going anywhere that wouldn't take my ID away, because then I wouldn't be able to do it anymore," Miller says. "That's when I realized that stand-up was incredible because you're the writer, producer, director, and everything. If you want to do stand-up, the only thing in your way is you.
"Some comics do stand-up until they don't have to. I do that stuff to bring people to my stand-up," Miller says. "I've had live shows that are more rewarding than any film or TV show I've ever been on. There are those times when you walk off stage feeling good, and it's better than anything else I've done."
Part of the reason Miller enjoys doing stand-up so much is the audience interaction. He realizes that going to a comedy show should be an immersive experience, unlike watching a television show or movie at home. Miller says his whole initiative is that going to see stand-up comedy should be an escape from the troubles of daily life.
"America is always selling stuff to make you happy, and that's capitalism. That's cool, I get it. But I think comedy should do the same thing. Let go of everything going on in your life when you walk in the door," Miller says. "I like the people who come see me to know that this is our time together. I fly in to be here, you come out to be here. We're all choosing to spend our time here. I might have even more respect for the people who come out on a Thursday or a Sunday, because they're just like, 'I've had a long week and I need this right now.'"
While Miller may prefer stand-up over making movies and television shows, he knows that most of the crowd will probably know him from his filmed roles.
"Sometimes I have to keep my stand-up as close to my acting as possible so people want to come and see the stand-up," Miller says. "Phoenix and Scottsdale are so close to each other, we're within driving distance of a lot of people. I'm really excited to be here."
He might not be a household name just yet, but Miller's role as an eccentric tech entrepreneur on Silicon Valley is generally regarded as one of the most notable characters in comedy television these days. Despite only a single eight-episode season having aired so far, there's already quite a following for the Mike Judge-created show. If you ask Google or social media, you'll see that Erlich Bachman is awfully prominent, particularly among the under-40 crowd.
"He is the most important character on TV," Miller says of Erlich Bachman, his character on Silicon Valley. "There's something about a guy who's completely unapologetic and confident even when he shouldn't be that people really connect with. He can be a fucking dick sometimes, but you can tell that he also really cares about people."
It's not just his character's personality that Miller thinks people connect with though, it's some of the overarching themes of the show as well.
"Silicon Valley is the first thing I've done where they've let me be who I am. I think that's why it hits people so hard," Miller says. "Plus, he's kind of the American dream. He wants to grow his own business and not sell out. That, and I look really weird, I got all this weird facial hair and a giant toddler body."
Unlike some of the more traditional comics, who joke about relationships and family, the base of Miller's style is more improvisational and experimental.
"My show is a lot of improv, so it's a different show every night. You're going to have a great fucking time," Miller says. "One time when I was in Edmonton, the club is in a huge mall, so I decided to just be like Jerry Seinfeld and talk about things that happened to me that day. I did a whole set just riffing and talking about the mall, the ferris wheel, the pretzels, all that stuff. It was the first time I took a risk like that, and you can't do that without one person who says you can do it. Rick [Bronson] was that person for me. Actually, his wife was."
Miller isn't headlining the opening weekend of the new venue just for the instant gratification that stand-up brings him and to get some extra shows in on a tour. He's doing it to assist Bronson in bringing Phoenix's comedy community to the forefront.
"There are other clubs in Phoenix, but they need to raise up the comedy scene," Miller says. "Rick and I came here to help begin the tradition of comedy. RIck isn't like some other owners where they just want your money. He's about the comedy and he's open to helping the other venues around here."
Miller says that Bronson, who was one of Canada's most popular comedians for years, is one of few club owners who genuinely care about the comedy instead of just the bottom line. Phoenix's newest comedy venue focuses on the quality of comedy instead of squeezing every penny out of customers, which means it's the only comedy club in the Valley that will never have a drink minimum.
"We don't have a two-drink minimum because we expect to sell drinks if people are here having a good time," Bronson says. "If someone has too many drinks and is interrupting the show, we'll handle it quickly. I'll kick someone out if they're drunk and obnoxious no matter how many drinks they're buying from us."
Bronson's club was also designed with the comics in mind. As a former comedian himself, Bronson knows how tough it can be financially.
"When I was coming up and I'd go to a club, I'd see what they gave the bigger act from the weekend before me and then I'd be looking at the two drinks that I got. We're not doing that. We'll treat a bigger comic like T.J. and an unknown comic the same way," Bronson says. "We move more merch than any other club. We'll give out free tickets as part of a package when people buy merch, and we'd never take any cut from the merch sales. If the comic goes through all the trouble of making the merch on their own, what right do we have to take that money from them?"
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Bronson, who runs House of Comedy with his wife, Tammy, wants to make sure his clubs provide the best possible experience for the audience, so factors like the ceiling height, sound equipment, seating and service are all taken into account. The couple currently owns a club in three markets, Minnesota, Edmonton and now Phoenix, with one more now on the way.
"I'll probably never own more than eight clubs or so, because we want to be a mom and pop shop," Bronson says. "Our staff hasn't had a chance to do a dry run yet, so we're expecting a few bumps this weekend, but we've brought in staff from other locations to show them how to do it, so it shouldn't be bad. I don't think anyone can really enjoy a comedy show if they're looking around wondering where their server is with their next beer."
T.J. Miller performs at the House of Comedy, 5350 East High Street, through Sunday, September 7. Friday's shows are at 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. Tickets are $26.95. Visit www.houseofcomedy.net to purchase tickets or for more information