OUT OF THIS WORLD
‘Silicon Valley’ Star T.J. Miller’s ‘Passion Project’: A Murderous Alien Talk Show Host
Comedian T.J. Miller talks his new Comedy Central talk show ‘The Gorburger Show,’ the return of ‘Silicon Valley’ and working with Steven Spielberg.
In the opening moments of comedian T.J. Miller’s new series The Gorburger Show, a stereotypically Japanese talk show is interrupted by an enormous monster who appears in a bolt of lightning before violently murdering several cast and crew members. Gorburger takes a seat behind the desk and declares, “This is my show now!”
First developed as a web series for Funny or Die more than five years ago, The Gorburger Show finally makes its television debut on Comedy Central this Sunday night at midnight. The easily excitable Miller, who voices the character and remotely controls its movements — but does not physically inhabit the puppet — is very excited for the world to see his creation.
Miller likes to call Gorburger his “passion project.” While Jerry Seinfeld had Seinfeld and Louis C.K. has Louie, he has a show about an insane alien who just wants his own talk show.
The Gorburger Show may be all Miller really wants to talk about right now, but it’s far from the only project on his plate. He recently finished a multi-episode arc as himself on his friend Pete Holmes’ Crashing, a show he says he respects, but doesn’t find particularly funny. This month, he returns as Erlich Bachman for the fourth season of Silicon Valley, also on HBO. And next year, he will have a major role in Steven Spielberg’s highly-anticipated sci-fi thriller Ready Player One.
When I catch Miller by phone, he is taking a break from yet another production, the new disaster film Underwater with Kristen Stewart in New Orleans, to headline the stand-up comedy portion of the Whatever Festival in Houston, “which is the most hipster name for anything ever,” he says.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
It’s been a long road to get The Gorburger Show on Comedy Central.
Jesus, has it. I started off as a Warner Brothers/Funny or Die-produced talk show. And then it went to HBO for a pilot. HBO is so amazing that they released it and Comedy Central picked it up as a series. And yeah, it’s been a passion project. I’m not really an actor, but when you look at all these people — like Aziz Ansari with Master of None, like [Pete Holmes’] Crashing, like all that stuff, this is my kind of personal show. So instead of doing T.J. Miller trying to be a funny ad salesman — and I love Pete’s show, but Pete’s making Pete’s show. This is my kind of show. Because I’ve always wanted to be a talk show host, every comedian looks to that, but I never wanted to be one as myself. I think the way that I talk to people and the way I interact with people skews their perception of the situation. So it’s like if you go on Seth Meyers or Jimmy Fallon or James Corden you know what you’re expecting, you know what you’re going to get. And it would be the same thing if it were T.J. Miller’s talk show. But Gorburger is this excited alien. He loves American pop culture, and doesn’t understand why humans are afraid of dying. He’s monstrous and has bloodlust. And yet at the same time feels strongly that Usher is the best dancer alive. It’s a very strange version [of a talk show], but there couldn’t be a better representation of the T.J. Miller passion project. And a big part of it is that I got very lucky with The Director Brothers and Miller Davis and Nick Vatterott being the writers. It’s the best team I’ve ever worked with.
Has your experience being a guest on some of those late-night shows informed The Gorburger Show at all?
Every time I’m on a talk show, I’m anxious for it to go well, right? Gorburger doesn’t really know how to host a talk show. He just loves that idea. So my biggest thing is I want to guests to be comfortable and then for them, after about 30 seconds to a minute and a half, forget that they’re talking to a puppet and feel like they’re talking to an actual entity, which everyone does. Moby kind of put it best when he said, I couldn’t believe it when it was over, because I had gotten into the idea that Gorburger was a real thing. And my response was, well he is.
Is there a guest that has surprised you in their willingness to play along?
We love Danny Brown. He’s one of the tip-top. I couldn’t believe that Jack Black did the show, but he’s just so game. And then Larry King! How the fuck did we get Larry King on? Everybody sort of has their own reaction, but the fact that they get into it shows a lot about them.
And you’re also doing field pieces as Gorburger. Is that something that you’re going to be doing more of and what have those been like to do?
Well, those are the most fun. Unfortunately, HBO kind of owns the pilot. And we had gone to the Magic Castle and done a field piece where Gorburger goes to investigate whether magic is real. And it blows his fucking mind and he can’t deal with it. He doesn’t understand that it’s a trick. Comedy Central, a network that I love, really said field pieces should be a big part of the show. We want to see him out and in the world. So we want to do that. Our dream is to take him and film in Japan. And I don’t know what he would do, because he doesn’t speak Japanese, but he’s become so accustomed and loves the people who work with him at the studio — that he didn’t kill — so I just think he would be ecstatic to be there but unable to communicate with anyone. And that to me is very, very funny.
So you mentioned that you wouldn’t want to play yourself on a Crashing-type show, but you do play yourself on Crashing. How close is the T.J. Miller that we see on Crashing to you?
Yet again Pete Holmes has foiled my plan. [Laughs] I love that people love Crashing. When I saw the first episode that I was in, it’s not really my thing. I watch it and I respect it, but it doesn’t make me laugh really. You’re not really supposed to say that about a show that you’re on.
Or that your friend made.
But I think that it might be that it was so raw, what happened to Pete. It was so fucked up, so strange, out of the blue. It really sent a shockwave through the Chicago [comedy] scene. So I don’t know, I don’t find any of it really that funny. But as far as me representing myself, unfortunately—and my wife will attest to this—that’s pretty much me with a cheaper chain. I think the way that Pete is representing me is his own viewpoint, but I was the guy who was there being like, just fucking be a grateful nihilist. Let’s fucking go crazy, throw yourself into the work. And you’ll find stand-up to be much more rewarding than some fucking bitch who didn’t appreciate you.
I like the line that Pete has said is something you really said to him, which is that comedians are like preachers, but better “because we’re not lying.” Does that pretty much correspond with your views?
I think that one way or another comedians are like the new philosophers. Even pop philosophy, pop psychology, who are those books being read by? But comedians have these huge audiences now. Especially in a post-meaning, post-religious society, which has just been hammered by a golden Donald Trump nail into the coffin of how human beings used to deal with the human condition. I think that’s why we’re seeing a huge spike in the consumption of comedy. I’m a bit afraid that this overabundance of media is an opiate indulgence for a lot of people. Which I respect. I mean, you should spend your time however the fuck you want to. But let’s put it this way. When somebody wants to take a picture, I offer a handshake or a hug or at least an experience. And then I tell them, stop recording your life and just live it.
Seems like good advice.
I mean, shit, I find myself going, “Wait, stay where you are, let me grab a picture.” And [my wife] Kate is like, why are you not living your own philosophy? But that’s the dichotomy of being a philosopher without a system. The nihilist, the Nietzschean apostle kind of has to break his own rules, and doesn’t live by any standards except the ones that present themselves and restrict themselves from adhering to any sort of system or moral value compass. Now you’re really getting into it, you fucking lunatic, Matt! Don’t get me too deep in this rabbit hole.
Well, the technology discussion at least leads us to Silicon Valley. That show, to me, feels like it’s only gotten funnier as it’s gone on. What has the experience been like for you working on that show for four years now?
I love it. I love that it’s a lightning strike. And it’s a comedy that people are really excited about. I feel absolutely embarrassed to admit that being on a television series that looks like it’s going to exist in perpetuity until Mike Judge and Alec Berg want to end it — I’m embarrassed to say that it’s easy to slip into autopilot if you’re playing a character for years. Whereas with Underwater, which I’m filming right now in New Orleans, I have to get my shit together and be that fucking person and then it’s over at the end of May. The movie’s made, it’s done, I move on to the next thing. I’ve always been, as a kid, I was enamored with cinema, as a lot of us are. I know it’s the platinum age of television, but I don’t know, when Atlanta and Transparent are winning comedy Golden Globes, like The Martian or something, I’m lucky to be on a show that is a comedy that’s actually comedic. But Gorburger is the only episodic thing I really want to do and I would love eventually to do it live. Right now, we’re in a situation where I think episodic is very interesting, they’ve been doing great things with it, but ultimately don’t we all want a beautiful, hilarious story? Tthat’s what you get when you buy a ticket to a movie.
And now you got to work with Steven Spielberg [on Ready Player One].
I mean, Jesus, how much weirder could it be? He’s like the Sultan of Hollywood. It’s almost as if he said, “Bring him to me. I’ll judge for myself if this talent is truly real.” And so, I went out there and they kept reiterating that they wrote the part for me. But a lot of it was just watching. You just watch Steven Spielberg work. You act in his film, but there’s nothing negative. If there’s a note, it’s, “That’s good, but do a little bit more of this.” And then the second you do it right, he’s like, “Print it! Let’s print that one, that was perfect. Alright, let’s do one more for safety.” And then he’ll say, let’s do one that’s just for you. So he’s really only looking for three takes and he gets them quickly and he trusts his cast and he’s just the most — it’s not approachable, it’s not grounded — he’s the most unassuming man. You don’t see him look at you and have any other judgement except for, I’m excited to see what we can do together. Collaboration is at the forefront of everything. Ego and self-indulgence is not even present. It’s amazing.
Yeah, you’ve doing more and more high-profile film roles. Is there a desire for you to be more than comic relief?
I don’t want to do anything except for comedy. I’m not really interested in taking a dramatic turn. You know, Dreamworks bought this movie that I’m going to write. Eventually, I’m going to just start writing and being in my own movies. It just depends what size they are and right now Dreamworks thinks they can be studio size. And I love that. Because my whole philosophical mission statement is, get people laughing as much time on screen and then hopefully even in China where there are suicide nets, even at work at a job that they hate, they’re going, “That fucking guy with the weird hair, he was so funny screaming in Transformers.” I love commercial arts. I love Warhol. I love Nietzsche and what he tried to do, but failed. I find all that stuff really engaging and I think it’s really snobby and pretentious of any of these fucking people who are like, “Ugh, that has mass appeal, I hate it.” You know, go fuck yourself. You have your niche options. People say, “Why are you doing The Emoji Movie?” Because you like Silicon Valley. This isn’t for you. I’m working for more than just the people who get to say what’s cool and what’s not. And I’m working very fucking hard. My CV speaks for itself in that I feel very strongly about creating comedy for the American public.