"A psychologist can profoundly impact between 200 and 1000 people's lives – profoundly; in a positive way. Ideally. And when I did the math, I sort of looked at it from a utilitarian ethical standpoint, I then thought if I'm a comedian I won't profoundly impact 200 to a thousand people's lives but for between 15 minutes and an hour and a half, I can give them this ephemeral escapism, give them that benevolent opiate that is comedy, and I can do that for hundreds and millions of people."
– T.J. Miller
T.J. Miller: How are you?!
Guy MacPherson: Oh, there you are! Hi.
TJM: Hi. Thank you, thank you for your patience. We got delayed for like, I don't know, 45 minutes or something, or an hour. And then they said, 'Oh, there might be a mechanical issue.' Cut to 45 minutes later, everybody off the plane, we gotta get you on a different one. So it's been a long travel day.
GM: Where did you travel from and to?
TJM: We came in from Toronto. It wasn't even a weather thing; it was just some mechanical issues with the plane. But we did our show in Toronto two nights ago and now we have the night off in Edmonton but then tomorrow the real fun begins because it's night after night basically until Vancouver.
GM: How many have you done so far?
TJM: We did Hamilton, Ottawa, Toronto, and that's been it so far.
GM: When you do a show like this where you're thrown together so it's not like you at a club. You're part of a group yet you're all individual. Does it make a big difference to you how you prepare for that?
TJM: No. This is not me being self-effacing: I talked early on about should Rhys Darby and I switch. Because he's iconic in his own right. And so is Vatterott, especially in the States. It really is a show of headliners. I think the only reason I'm last on the bill is because I was in Office Christmas Party or whatever thing you want to reference. But we all love everything Rhys has done. He's New Zealand's best, in my opinion. He's a really powerful standup comedian and absurdist. The Alternative Tour – even though I've been joking it should be called The JFL Mainstream Alternative Comedy Tour because Just For Laughs is not like this quirky producer; they're the most trusted name in comedy. And that's kind of why they put together, I think, this group. Vatterott is very, very strange, and I have mime and clown elements, and Rhys is doing absurdist bits and sound effects. This is what's great about Vancouver, but also we just arrived in Edmonton, which is the city I've worked the most in, working in the West Edmonton Mall! There's a zip line in there, but it's indoors, sir, and there's a Ferris wheel.
GM: Oh, I know. I know it well.
TJM: So I know Edmonton and it's nice for this to be the fourth show because now we've seen the show. I prepare a little differently in the sense that I'm watching Rhys, thinking, 'All right, what is my act exactly?' If he's doing anything that I think, 'Well, if I pull from this area of my arsenal, then it'll offer people something different.' That's what you get when you have three headliners on the same bill; you get guys that have enough material in their arsenal or their artillery or whatever war-like... bullets, bullets, bullets! You'll see. But all us have enough in our repertoire that we can go, 'He's doing this stuff on marijuana so I'm not going to do any drugs stuff. Or I'll do only nitrous oxide stuff.' Or it's like, 'Okay, he's doing a mime bit where he goes through doors that are smaller and smaller; I'll do my thing where I spill beer all over myself and do a silent scene between two people.' So it becomes a very dynamic show and it already was from the get-go. But by the time we're in Vancouver, we'll really have gelled. We don't rehearse the show because we're individual comedians, but what's interesting is the latter half of the tour ends up being the more kind of gelled, prepared, polished, finished show. But that doesn't mean that in Ottawa it wasn't fun to kind of have it be rough around the edges, very improvisational, all those things. That's a cool thing, too, is that Rhys is presentational in a lot of ways and it's very dynamic, Vatterott is like a mainstream absurdist that will dip into the crowd, and then a good portion of my act is about the city and something that happened to me that day and who's in the audience and give me tips about what you like about your city, and then it suddenly becomes this riffed set where what material I choose is informed by the audience.
GM: You guys are all pros. As you say, you have a large reservoir of material. When I see the Alternative Comedy Tour name, I was wondering if it's an alternative tour or alternative comedy. But I think you've answered. It's alternative comedy.
TJM: First of all, I love that question. Second of all, it kind of is alternative to a tour.
GM: Because JFL does a regular tour every year. Now this is an extra one so it's an alternative tour.
TJM: Yeah, it might be this. It might be, if you don't want to see the mainstream tour, check out the alternative tour. But this also feels like it's different. It doesn't really feel like a tour. If you're on a tour, it's in a bus and it's 30 cities in 35 days. This kind of feels like I get to come along and perform with Vatterott and Darby. That's what our sitcom will be called.
GM: How long do you do each?
TJM: Nick does about 15 or 20 minutes, then Rhys and I do sort of comparable amounts of time. He really is a formidable force in the comedy world internationally. He's something to behold. That's my favourite part of the show is watching those two guys.
GM: Of course, you don't understand anything he says because of his crazy accent.
TJM: Certainly. And also Rhys Darby is from New Zealand!
GM: What does alternative comedy mean to you? I know when it started out, it was more an alternative to comedy club venues. But you're saying you guys are slightly absurdist and presentational.
TJM: Yeah, I think that's more it. Calling it the Absurdist Comedy Tour both would not be as saleable, and also it doesn't exactly give you the right picture. But alternative is closer. I'm the Mad Hatter in the posters and banners and all that stuff. It's sort of saying this is going to be a little off. It's quirky. It's something you wouldn't necessarily expect from JFL but it's something that you'll like because maybe your sense of humour is a little off. Which is basically all of Vancouver, in my experience.
GM: I know you're no stranger here. You did shows at Yuk Yuk's.
TJM: Yeah, Yuk Yuk's. I've done a bunch of the, I guess you would call them alternative rooms. But the comedy scene there is so good that I've performed in bars and dispensaries and at Yuk Yuk's, which is amazing, and dropped in on other people's shows. But this is my first time at this venue with this size show. And what's nice is that I'm with two other people where it's worth coming to a large, refined, classic venue to see something like this. It's more of a theatre setting.
GM: When you were doing the rooms around town, were you here filming something?
TJM: Yeah, that's called Deadpool. The time that I really spend in Vancouver is around Deadpool. And Kate likes Vancouver and Toronto the most of anywhere in Canada so my wife will be in Vancouver and she was in Toronto. She's really excited about Vancouver because I worked there enough that we know the people at Rodney's Oyster House and we know exactly where we need to go to gt sushi. And also I've stayed in enough places that I'll drop into LEVEL or one of these places that people stay and say hello to the people working there. We're definitely comfortable in Vancouver. The other thing I like is that the best audiences are probably in Toronto and Vancouver – also just because I'm a city kid and we live in New York – but I think a big part of that is that Toronto is sort of fast-paced, it is Toronto, and Vancouver's very much laid back. They feel like the two cities I play the most in the United States, but a Canadian version of that, which is more polite, more down for anything, and slightly more drunk.
GM: So you live in New York.
TJM: Yeah. She's an artist and I'm a flailing standup comedian.
GM: I know you've done a ton of acting, and you really started in acting. What drew you to standup?
TJM: I've done so many things in Hollywood. All of that, actually, came from Second City, which is a Canadian institution that came to Chicago. I worked there. I toured at Second City, I studied there. So I started as an improviser by trade, even in college. I never realized that Will Ferrell didn't do standup or that Ben Stiller did sketch. I thought if you're going to be a comedian, then you have to do what Steve Martin or Woody Allen did or Billy Crystal, you have to do all of it. You have to do everything you can. So that's how I started standup. I thought that must be the skeletal structure, the backbone of any comedian because that's the most stripped-down version of comedy. So that's how I came into it. And then film and television came out of the visibility that both those things bring, and also that I was working seven days a week every single night, also working a day job. I worked basically harder than anyone else. Except for Nick Vatterott, to be honest with you, because we both came up in the same scene. But on the way here, when we were having all those plane delays, I watched Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. It reminded me of how powerful Steve Martin is. John Candy is the best part of that movie, I think, but Steve Martin did standup and sketch and improv and magic and film and television and writing. He just did everything. He was the one that my mother always thought was the funniest so he's who I tried to emulate.
GM: Have you ever met him?
TJM: Between you and me, and this is on the record, my psychologist said to me recently, 'You've got to stop feeling so challenged and frustrated by the kind of social aspects of these comedy clubs, because for most people, they want it to work the other way around. They're doing standup to get into film and television, be on a hit show and that kind of stuff. And you left Hollywood to come to New York to do more standup.' The art scene in Los Angeles is not even comparable. But neither is the standup scene, necessarily. So that's the chronology of why I'm Canada is I left Silicon Valley, which is shooting right now – you and I wouldn't even be having this conversation if I had stuck around for a paycheque and wanted to be a famous television actor. Instead it's really awesome to be able to both do Deadpool in Vancouver and then come perform with these guys and do a tour and go to places like Red Deer and Hamilton and Ottawa and just really great places that I haven't been. I've been to towns similar in the United States but never in Canada have I done an extensive comedy tour, and never with this calibre of talent.
GM: So you want the best of both worlds rather than just being immersed in one of them.
TJM: I really want the best for everybody watching any comedy that I'm involved in. The work ethic has to cycle through every single thing and once I get too deep into television, then features and animated films for children and selling cough syrup as the Mucinex talking booger man and Gorburger and the podcast, the list goes on, but those things start to be neglected. So it's not really about me. I don't give a shit about having the worst of any world as long as I make people laugh because right now specifically this is the darkest time and people need to laugh and be distracted. That's another thing about my act. I'm not going to come in and really spend much time on the horrific state of affairs in our reality. Instead we've brought to you an alternative version of things. We're sort of an optimistic view of your life, hopefully at least for an hour-and-a-half or two hours.
GM: You got a psych degree. Do you feel that comes in handy in your showbiz career or standup or anything?
TJM: I get that question a lot. You go to school for journalism.
GM: No. I took English and Philosophy.
TJM: Oh. Well, that's a form of language and writing. So the thing you're interested in learning, the thing that is exciting to you ideologically as a kid, when you do the math, it doesn't quite work out. So the math for me was a psychologist can profoundly impact between 200 and 1000 people's lives – profoundly; in a positive way. Ideally. And when I did the math, I sort of looked at it from a utilitarian ethical standpoint, I then thought if I'm a comedian I won't profoundly impact 200 to a thousand people's lives but for between 15 minutes and an hour and a half, I can give them this ephemeral escapism, give them that benevolent opiate that is comedy, and I can do that for hundreds and millions of people. That's why I do Transformers 4 and Big Hero 6 and The Emoji Movie. A lot of my peers maybe wouldn't make these choices. But that was the way the math worked out. And that's why I think psychology has helped me think about the way people think about everything. But also, if you had a journalism degree you'd know it was Psychology with a concentration on Persuasion Theory and Social Influence.
GM: I did but I didn't know what that meant!
TJM: I don't think the school did, either, and that's a big part of why I was able to get that degree.
GM: Good for you! I love that answer, by the way. All right, man.
TJM: Well, thank you for helping with this because Vancouver is one of our favourites, man. And Deadpool might be, I think for a lot of people, the best thing that I've been involved in. And that is still very Vancity, Ryan Reynolds, Canada, Vancouver. So it'll be good to be back and doing standup.