You’re Not Supposed to Be Like T.J. Miller

The comedian and "Silicon Valley" star is this week’s etiquette guru, and he comes laden with wisdom… and a rusty old tin cup.

Photo Credit: Mandee Johnson

Brendan Francis Newnam: Each week you send in your questions about how to behave, and here to answer them this week is T.J. Miller. He made his name as a stand-up comedian. He’s lent his dulcet voice to the animated film “Big Hero 6″…

T.J. Miller: Dulcet! [Laughs.]

Brendan Francis Newnam: …and to a ball of mucus in Mucinex commercials. That is some range. You can also hear him on the podcast “Cashing in with T.J. Miller.”  But lately he’s earned raves — and a Critics’ Choice Award — for his lead role on the HBO sitcom “Silicon Valley.” That’s Mike Judge’s brilliant, satirical look at tech startup culture. And T.J., welcome.

T.J. Miller: Well hello! And I always enjoy that when you give somebody my CV, like an audience — the introduction for me — people always laugh. They’re laughing at a man who is the Mucinex guy, “But we loved him in ‘Big Hero 6’!”

I like “dulcet voice,” though. You’ve been getting that “Word of the Day” email, haven’t you! From! We know about it!

Rico Gagliano: We’re public radio; are you kidding?


Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, when your voice gets that loud, it’s no longer dulcet, though, T.J. That’s more of a…

T.J. Miller: That’s very true.

Brendan Francis Newnam: …It’s a deep timbre.

T.J. Miller: That’s a big part of my comedy, is just being louder than other people.

Rico Gagliano: Actually, we’re going to get to “Silicon Valley” in a second, but since you bring it up… you’ve done a lot of voice work. As radio people, we’re curious: when did you realize that your voice was an asset?

T.J. Miller: The way I started getting voice-over work was improvisation. I’m sort of an improviser by trade. In the advertising medium… like the Slim Jim stuff I did, I just did some Smirnoff stuff… Advertising, we’re inundated with it. So I kind of feel like it should at least be funny. You know, you’re going to have to see it anyway.

But yeah, I mean, what I began to realize is that not many people sound like me. Not many people sound like a drag queen who chain-smokes and sings “Tie the Yellow Ribbon,” while drinking whiskey in the West Village of Manhattan. And I’ve kind of cornered the market on that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, you own that.

T.J. Miller: I owe a lot of that to clove cigarettes, and marijuana, and just a variety of things: Screaming, screaming at people.

Rico Gagliano: Good. So, that’s your advice to actors?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Advice for the youth? Maybe do all those things?

T.J. Miller: Yeah, I am the voice of the youth.

Rico Gagliano: Literally.

TJ miller HBO pic Episode 9 (season 2, episode 1) T.J. Miller photo Frank Masi
TJ Miller, demonstrating his connection to the youth, in HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Photo by Frank Masi.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You mentioned the Slim Jim commercials. You inherited the mantle of Slim Jim’s last mascot, the late wrestler Randy Savage.

T.J. Miller: “Macho Man” Savage, yes!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Have they told you any stories about the guy? Like, is there Slim Jim lore that you’ve learned that you can share?

T.J. Miller: Well, I mean, no. They’re not a very gossipy company, ConAgra. They’re just the giants that own all of the farms.

Brendan Francis Newnam: They don’t even tell you what’s in Slim Jims! So I imagine maybe they are tight-lipped.

T.J. Miller: Right, exactly.

No, they told me. I’ll tell you: It’s the paprika — that’s the secret “Slim Jim snap.” It is.

Yeah… It’s hard to wear the Spandex fringe pants of a wrestler that was not only iconic in his medium of wrestling, but also… yeah, I remember those commercials.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, me, too.

T.J. Miller: And it was so funny to do the tagline. I had to do the [in a “Macho Man” Randy Savage voice], “SNAP INTO A SLIM JIM!!!” type of deal, so that was really funny, to get to do that.

Rico Gagliano: Let’s turn, as promised, to your far less important work on the Emmy-nominated “Silicon Valley.”

T.J. Miller: Doesn’t matter to me.

Rico Gagliano: So, you play Eric Bachman.

T.J. Miller: [Laughing] Erlich Bachman.

Rico Gagliano: Erlich.

T.J. Miller: God, you guys!

Rico Gagliano: Sorry!

T.J. Miller: No, that’s OK. I just love it. You guys are like, “And now, so let’s hear a clip of J.T. Biller from ‘Gilicon Falley.’ All right, roll the clip of Erroric!”

Rico Gagliano: We used “dulcet!” That was your gimme.

T.J. Miller: Yeah, that’s right.

Rico Gagliano: Let’s describe your character for those who may not know…

T.J. Miller: He’s a macho man.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, he’s the leader of a band of brilliant, but awkward tech coders. Your character just totally destroys the stereotype of a nerdy computer guy, though. He’s loud and full of himself. He’s a jerk and a hero, simultaneously.

T.J. Miller: Typecasting!

Rico Gagliano: And here is a clip. This is your character playing hardball in a meeting with a venture capitalist who wants to invest in your startup company.

Rico Gagliano: [Everyone laughs.] So simple. [Erlich is] such a great character and so idiosyncratic, I kind of want to believe he’s based on a real guy. Was he?

T.J. Miller: Everybody is trying to figure out who’s based on who, because there are these tech moguls that fit into these archetypes.

But since playing him, people will come up to me and be like, “Oh, my God! I love the show. I love it so much. So, listen, T.J., at my company… I’m you! I’m Erlich at my company!” And I’m like, “That’s not a good thing!”

And whenever this happens, they’re totally high. They’re just blazed beyond belief. Sometimes they’re in a fucking airport — excuse me — but like, totally high. Just walking up with kids with them, and they’re like, “I’m like you! This is my son, Erroric, and he loves you in ‘Big Hero 6’!”

So, it’s less based on somebody, and it’s more… you know, there’s an Erlich type of person in every industry.

Episode 12 (season 2, episode 4) Zach Woods, T.J. Miller, Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr. photo Frank Masi
T.J. Miller as Erlich Bachman (wearing vintage floppy disk) with “Silicon Valley” costars (l-r) Zach Woods, Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani, and Martin Starr. Photo Frank Masi.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, look, you play the most impolite person in the tech industry, so we figure you’re just the guy to ask some etiquette questions. Are you ready for these?

T.J. Miller: Fuck no!

Rico Gagliano: Great. That being the case…

T.J. Miller: [Laughs.] No, let’s do it. Shoot.

The password is PleaseDon’tKillMeRoomie

Rico Gagliano: Here’s something from Andrea in Venice, Italy. Seriously.

T.J. Miller: Uh-oh!

Rico Gagliano: Andrea says: “I’m studying abroad and recently gave my roommate my computer password. Now, every time I walk into the room, she’s on my computer watching Israeli soap operas. How do I politely change my password and still sleep in the same room with this person?”

T.J. Miller: Well, it’s OK to change your password. And I just don’t see her being like, “You changed your password? Well, good luck sleeping at night without me standing over you with a knife! The password was our only bond of friendship! Now we are ENEMIES.”

No, I think you just change it without telling her, and then wait for her to awkwardly be like, “Hey, did you change your password? Because the one you gave me isn’t working.” And you just go, “No, I’m been having the same problem.”

And that’s it. Never mention it again.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I like it.

Rico Gagliano: So, it’s kind of a combination of passive aggression and lying.

T.J. Miller: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But it’s aggressive aggression.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You really have the hang of this etiquette thing.

T.J. Miller: I know what I’m doing.

Gifts for any occasion: lingerie and rusty tin cups

Brendan Francis Newnam: Let’s forge ahead. This next question comes from Cecilia. She sent it to us through Facebook. She writes: “T.J., I have a question. If you give the bride and groom a wedding shower gift, are you expected to bring another gift to the actual wedding? My thinking is yes, because after all, they’re paying for your dinner and drinks at the reception, and they’re probably in debt from funding the cost of a new life together.”

Rico Gagliano: Aww, that’s nice of Cecilia.

T.J. Miller: Wow, yes. Cecilia, you’re a sweet little darling.

You know, I think, yeah, you’re expected to bring a gift for both. And it’s good to think of it that way: They’re throwing you the party. They’re giving you the experience. That being said, it doesn’t have to be a super-expensive gift.

You know, I went to this wedding shower. I was in disguise as a woman, and I went, and I brought this very opulent piece of lingerie, and this was a piece of lingerie from Frederick’s of Hollywood.

Rico Gagliano: Classy.

T.J. Miller: So, I gave that. That was like $168. Then, I went to the wedding dressed as a man, you know, with my wife, and we gave them just an old tin cup. Just an old, goddamn rusted tin cup. And I left that there, and I said, “Every time you feel as though you’re falling out of love? Fill this cup/take a sip/get naked/and take a dip.”

So then they’re kind of like, “Oh, this is a sentimental thing.” Pretend it was your grandfather’s or something like that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

T.J. Miller: So, you don’t have to spend so, so much money. Just pick your present, and go with it, and then the other one can be an old, rusty tin cup.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, the old tin cup.

Rico Gagliano: Although the problem here is that at the wedding shower, you were in disguise, so they don’t realize that one person gave them two gifts.

T.J. Miller: Oh, no, my wife was at the wedding shower also.

Rico Gagliano: OK.

T.J. Miller: I wanted to go, too, because I wanted to see all the lingerie.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, totally.

Break it all down, capiche?

Rico Gagliano: Hey, this is our last question. Here’s something from Bridget in Chicago, Illinois. Bridget writes: “Despite my best efforts, I have no idea what my programmer cousin is talking about when he describes his work. What should I say or do to seem like I’m engaged in conversation with him?”

T.J. Miller: Pick a specific thing that seems interesting to you about his world, like programming or whatever, and ask him to break that down like you would for an idiot or a layman, you know?

Try and understand just one little piece of it. And it’s probably pretty relevant. Like, he probably knows pretty cool stuff. It’s just, you know, people who speak that language — it’s like the young girl from Venice. People that speak coding language talk as if you speak the language, but you don’t, you know?

And if you don’t know Italian, then why are you all up in my face? All I would like is a pizza, and I want to know what thin crust is versus the thicker crust, and you’re mad at me because I don’t speak Italian? I came to Venice to make my way as a visual artist and a phrase-maker, and I wanted to do mosaic on the side, as a hobby, and now you’re in my face!

Brendan Francis Newnam: T.J….

Rico Gagliano: Take it easy, now.

T.J. Miller: Sorry, I had a terrible flashback of my time studying abroad, and it wasn’t just passwords I was having trouble with. It was CODED. LANGUAGE.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, T.J. Miller, you figure that out. Thanks so much for telling our audience how to behave.

T.J. Miller: I like it. Don’t misbehave!

Rico Gagliano: Thanks.

T.J. Miller: Seriously, though, do. If you can have sexual intercourse, you always should.