Denver-born T.J. Miller got his break in 2007 when he was cast in Cloverfield as Hud, the goofy camera-holding friend who catalogs New York City’s monster-fueled destruction. Since then, he’s done pretty well for himself. He has 49 television and film acting credits (including voice-over, cameos and web series appearances) under his belt since then, a music comedy album, hundreds of stand-up gigs, and several writing credits.
But, like so many comic actors, he first cut his teeth doing stand-up. He started out in Chicago, and there’s a funny story to his first gig.
“Yeah, the Cotton Club in South Side Chicago,” recalls Miller. “I didn’t know this, but it was, like, this famous black jazz club. I had given myself a hard date where I had to do my first set. The place I was going to do it was closed because of some holiday in the summer. And I still had to do it, and I saw an open mic at the Cotton Club. I didn’t know anything about Chicago. I went all the way down to the South Side, and went and I walked into the place and it was empty. There were, like, five people there. The bartender was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I was like, ‘I’m here for the open mic.’ He was like, ‘OK, cool, sign up.’ So I went into the bathroom and just rehearsed my set for half an hour. Then it came time for the open mic to start, and suddenly the place is packed. There’s like 300 people, and I’m the only white person. And that was my first show.”
And how did it go? Was he encouraged by success or crushed by an unfriendly audience?
“I did great actually, 15 minutes,” he says, starting to laugh. “The reason I did great was because I came out and I go, ‘Thank you all for coming out to see me tonight.’ I didn’t even understand. I just said that involuntarily. And they just erupted with laughter.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this is easy. I’m set.’ Then somebody booked me on some other south-side urban show, and I just ate it. I fucking bombed.”
Miller says it took him three years before he felt comfortable on stage, before performing in a room felt like “just talking to a group of friends.” Then he got cast in Cloverfield, and the rest seemed to fall effortlessly into his lap — voice-over roles in How to Train Your Dragon and the upcoming Hell & Back, live action roles in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Rock of Ages and Our Idiot Brother. He wrote a short film, “Successful Alcoholics.” He does it all, and he says he doesn’t prefer one medium over another.
“I’m not going to be one of those guys who says, ‘Well, stand-up is fun; now that I’m making money doing movies, I’m not going to do stand-up anymore.’ That’s not the idea,” he says. “But I like all of it. I really do.”
Miller’s roles tend to be the comic relief side character, and he comes off as a goofy frat boy, something aided by his oft-disheveled curly brown hair and the exaggerated expressions he makes with his face. But what sets Miller apart is his voice. In conversation, he can mumble and swallow his words, but when acting he demonstrates total command of his voice, employing a quirky pronunciation that makes even mundane lines sound funny. It’s hard to pin down his accent — he’s got a slower, stoner cadence that causes him to spend a little more time than usual pronouncing each word, and, perhaps, hints of his tenure in Chicago are occasionally audible.
Miller brings his stand-up show to the Fox Theatre on Wednesday, Feb. 26, and the Gothic Theatre in Englewood on Thursday, Feb. 27. Expect pot jokes (who can blame him) and lots of improvisation — no two shows are ever the same, he says.
Miller might be shackled to Los Angeles now (“a terrible strip mall of a city,” he says), but he adds he would move back to Denver if he could. He paid the city tribute in 2012 with “Denver,” a song that included the lyrics “We went to war with Texas and they surrendered / All that stuff about us eating Texan babies is folklore / We do drink their blood though / Seriously though, fuck a buncha Texans.” It’s the sort of joke you might not get if you hadn’t spent time in the Rockies as a child, marveling at all the Texas license plates crowding the parking lots at tourist traps.
“The funny thing about the Texas thing, … people either got it or they did not get it,” Miller says. “Most people from Denver seem to appreciate it. I’m lucky in that respect.”