Well, it turns out that that is a total cliché, and not a deep, sensitive insight like I'd sort of hoped. T.J. Miller, this year's headliner for the Charleston Comedy Festival, called me on it (in the nicest way possible) when I asked him whether he thought that was true. "I think a lot of people look for that. I think it's romanticized a bit, the sad, tortured clown. There's something more attractive about that than the happy-go-lucky guy making jokes."
I admit, it's true. Maybe we can feel better about laughing at some of the dark stuff comics dish out if we're thinking to ourselves, "Whoa, she/he must be really screwed up!" But of course, we're the ones laughing. So doesn't that make us the sad, tortured souls?
Perhaps that's getting a bit too philosophical, but I found myself thinking that way while talking to Miller, whose comedy rests largely on a pretty philosophical idea that life is utterly absurd. And although "happy-go-lucky" is pretty characteristic of Miller's stand-up, he does have some insight into the particular weirdness of those who spend their lives on stage trying to make people laugh. "You do have to be a little off — someone who repeatedly hits their head against a wall thinking that if they do it enough times it's going to move. And after years of doing open mics, believe it or not, the wall does begin to move. And you're also bleeding profusely all over your face." And he said comedians weren't dark.
But seriously, folks, T.J. Miller is the real deal. He's appeared on David Letterman, in hit movies, with dragons (animated, that is) and even a bear. He's done stand-up all over the country and written a short film, Successful Alcoholics, that was chosen for the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Now, he's bringing all that awesomeness to Charleston, where he'll make us laugh for two nights at the Footlight Players Theatre, on a double bill with the comedy duo Team Submarine.
Miller comes by his comedic talents honestly. He grew up in Denver, with parents who loved W.C. Fields, The Thin Man, and Woody Allen. In high school, he had a teacher who was interested in stand-up comedy and made it a part of the class curriculum. Miller also acted in high school productions (the funny ones, that is).
It wasn't until he got to college, though, that he started seriously pursuing comedy. He joined the improv group receSs while at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "Once I got there ... I was with people who weren't all actors, but they took comedy very seriously," he says. "It was there that I really said, 'This is what I should do with my life.'" He credits receSs with teaching him his work ethic, which is, as he says, "Do as much as you can of everything."
It's worked for him, too. It's how he got into stand-up, which he was never particularly interested in. "I did improv first, [in D.C.] and I improvised in Chicago. I didn't learn stand-up so much because I wanted to be in stand-up, but more because I thought it was a necessary skill. This was before I knew that Will Ferrell wasn't a stand-up, Ben Stiller wasn't a stand-up."
His improv background is still evident, for although he's a talented and fairly prolific writer, he says he doesn't often write out his stand-up jokes. "It's all sort of improvisational in nature," he says. "I mostly just write down ideas and try to flesh them out on stage. For the most part, the meticulousness comes after it's been performed a few times." Most of his material comes from everyday observations, and it's almost all from real life — like the story of the time he held a ridiculous face at the DMV for more than an hour so he could have a funny driver's license picture. That's totally true. Or another time, when the people he was sitting next to on a plane held hands over him to pray (he was in the middle seat).
It's that kind of absurdity that Miller loves bringing out in his comedy. "I like telling stories, blending ... the telling of real life with absurdist pieces. Because I think at the end of the day, there's no difference. Me saying, 'Women are intimidated by me because I know so much about giraffes' is no less absurd than having to hold a face at the DMV because you can't make a silly face in your picture."
Miller's brand of absurdist comedy has earned him quite a bit of attention from Hollywood. His first break in the movie business was doing the monster flick Cloverfield, in which he was cast as the guy behind the camera who films the whole thing. The experience was a strange one, Miller says, partly because he didn't totally know what he was getting into. "I definitely got the job because I was a comedian. [Cloverfield's producer] J.J. Abrams was looking for one person to sort of be comic relief throughout the movie. But I really didn't know what it was, I didn't know much about the project ... That sounds weird, but it's true. So I show up and then they're like, 'Oh, by the way, you're going to be filming the whole movie.'" Absurdity really is everywhere.
He went on to appear in She's Out of My League, Extract, Yogi Bear, How to Train Your Dragon, and many other feature films, as well as TV episodes. Luckily for his stand-up fans, he still considers himself a comedian first, so it's safe to assume he won't be giving up the microphone any time soon.
Fernald and O'Brien both trained at the iO Theater in Chicago, but that's not all they have in common. "We both have a strong belief in doing the stupidest thing possible. That's always been our compass," O'Brien says.
"If we thought it was funny in the eighth grade, then it's funny now. We never graduated to high school," Fernald adds. The two also appreciate the instant gratification that comedy offers, whether you're an instant success (laughs) or instant failure (crickets).
For this performance, they'll be doing a mix of improv and sketch in the traditional two-man act format. Keeping a measure of improvisation keeps things from getting boring, but they still take other precautions against getting stuck in a rut, O'Brien says, "It helps to not rehearse enough."
The two have learned a lot together during their years as a team, but there's one lesson in particular that they'll never forget. "Never make fun of Jersey when you're in Jersey, especially when you're in a VFW hall," they say. "We were at this VFW hall performing for old people and I think we said 'Give it up for New Jersey,' and they did, and then one of us said 'I think that's the first time anyone's given it up for New Jersey,' and the old people booed us."
We don't think they have to worry about getting booed in Charleston, but if it happens, at least they're prepared. We're way better than Jersey anyway.