When T.J. Miller starts talking about the tech industry, it’s worth a listen. For one, as an actor on HBO’s hit show Silicon Valley, he has a unique perspective on startup life. Two, he sparked controversy at last year’s TechCrunch Crunchies after offending some folks while hosting the startup awards show.
And three, perhaps most importantly, the 34-year-old is really funny.
“Are you a PC or Mac guy?” I asked Miller as we chatted inside a small greenroom at The Crocodile.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” he said. “I have a piñata sitting in between us and you think I use a fucking PC? Good God.”
Sipping on Bulleit Bourbon and puffing on legal marijuana he just purchased — a strain called “Panama Red” recommended by a local recreational shop “sommelier,” as he described it — Miller spent a half hour chatting with GeekWire about everything from his disdain for Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to how Silicon Valley and Hollywood are like “very strange cousins.”
“Creativity and money seldom meet at the explosive rate that those two worlds operate in,” Miller explained. “If anybody has a dream or an idea with a great piece of technology, they can make a million dollars. If somebody has a great story to tell and a great way to tell it, they can make a million dollars. And there’s no real objective way to evaluate if a movie will do this or that — it’s rare that we ever actually know. That’s analogous to how all these companies have valuations before they’re even turning a profit.”
GeekWire spoke with Miller before he took the stage at a comedy show in Seattle last month sponsored by Leafly, the marijuana strain resource platform that is headquartered in Seattle.
“The intersection of tech, startups, and marijuana — it’s very good, I like being in that Venn diagram,” Miller said. “Actually, I take that back — this is the only good thing that ever happened to me about learning Venn diagrams. That concept was useless until the joke you just heard.”
To kick off its 2016 Comedy Tour, Leafly said it wanted to find the right comedian that represented marijuana coming on to the mainstream “in the right way.”
“T.J. said this is something he normally wouldn’t do with a cannabis company, but when he saw the way we represent ourselves and how we are in a lot of ways treading a new path, he was interested,” said Leafly VP of Marketing Paul Campbell. “It became the perfect fit for both of us.”
Read on for more from our conversation with Miller, who appears in a Super Bowl commercial this Sunday, stars in the upcoming movie Deadpool, and will again join the cast of Silicon Valley for the show’s third season that kicks off in April.
GeekWire: What’s with this piñata?
T.J. Miller: “I always like to have a buffer between me and journalism in general. Not just a reporter, but journalism.”
GeekWire: OK. Understood. So, first impressions of Seattle?
T.J. Miller: “I like Seattle a lot, and I haven’t been here since marijuana was legalized. When I checked in, I asked the girl where the good places to hang out and drink were. She tells me about this punk rock arcade pinball place near our hotel. She’s like, ‘you like pinball?’ I’m like, ‘fuck yeah.’ She said it was right next to a recreational dispensary. I was like, okay, I think I’ve arrived exactly where I was supposed to arrive.”
GeekWire: Let’s talk about technology and Silicon Valley. Has your perspective of startups changed after doing this show?
Miller: “Yes, one hundred percent. First of all, I never knew what pieces of shit they all were until I really was able to … oh, sorry, PR is in the room. But really, I didn’t completely understand the humorous element that was involved in the tech world until I started doing Silicon Valley. Once I started doing Silicon Valley, now I get to meet more of these people because they all come up to me in airports and they go, ‘Dude, my cousin’s wife is in tech! I want to tell you, you guys got it right on, I mean it is spot on!” I also get people that come up to me and they go, ‘Dude, I’m you. I know you on the show, and I’m that at my tech startup.’ I’m like, you don’t want to be, that’s the bad one. I’m the one is that is the most unaware and totally buffoonish.”
GeekWire: You also had a dramatic appearance while hosting The Crunchies last year for TechCrunch.
Miller: “Yeah, there was all this backlash and I made fun of this girl that was Travis Kalanick’s girlfriend. He’s a billionaire and so we went backstage and everyone’s like, ‘don’t you realize that that’s Travis Kalanick’s girlfriend?’ I was like, ‘Oh my god, who is that?’ They’re like, ‘He’s the CEO of Uber.’ I’m like, ‘Oh no, who gives a shit? She’s got her fucking dog in the front row and so I’m going to make fun of her and tease her.’
I think they got mad at me for being like, ‘Is this bitch from Palo Alto?’ or something like that. They went crazy. They were like, ‘you can’t say the word bitch on our stage.’ I was like, have you seen the show on HBO? I call a kid a c**t and hit him in his face.”
GeekWire: Do you use Uber or are you boycotting it after the Crunchies experience?
Miller: “I’m not boycotting it, but I think Travis Kalanick is such a terrible human being. He followed me on Twitter after that event like he thought it was funny.
GeekWire: Wow. So you don’t like some of these Silicon Valley CEOs?
Miller: “The problem is, these billionaires, some of them have sexual harassment charges pending. So it’s interesting that they say ‘don’t say the word bitch,’ when they’re like, ‘give me some of that ass’ or whatever they’re saying, good God.
Part of it for me is, you know, these billionaires are deified — that’s what we talk about on Silicon Valley. So if they’re going to invite me into their house to be their court jester, then I’m going to be a jester. And they couldn’t handle that. Once I treated them as I would any other audience, like I’m going to treat the Critics Choice Awards, they couldn’t believe that I dared to offend these Gods that just have a ton of money and a great idea.
Some of them have a ruthless business plan. Some people in Silicon Valley are as bad as the Koch Brothers, you know? Don’t be mistaken. For every some of those, though, you get people who come up with something like Leafly, which does what Yelp has done, but in a much more specific way and it’s important because it’s the dawn of this new era. America is going to be totally different. It’s going to be really interesting. First of all, you’re going to sell a lot more donuts.”
GeekWire: There was a woman who wrote that Medium post about how she was never going back to the Crunchies again because of your jokes. People are pretty sensitive about having more diversity in tech and you sort of have this platform to speak about it.
Miller: “I don’t think people quite understand — this happens with my standup a lot, also — that the point of having no women coders on our show is because satire’s place is supposed to be a reflection of what’s real. Maybe even, like Jonathan Swift, a hyperbolic version of it. In that case, maybe there would be no women at all throughout the entire first season and it would be a way to be like, look what a paucity of female ingenuity is missing from this male-driven industry.
So, the way that I can help get people thinking about women in Silicon Valley is to do something or create something that then gets all the tech people saying, you know, there’s a bigger issue here. But I guess some people don’t get that, it’s weird.”
GeekWire: Some folks in the media said that you just don’t understand the problem or why people were angry.
Miller: “No, I totally understand the problem. But you know, satire is not meant to move mountains. It takes a while. Only people can change what’s happening. Comedy can help bring the issue up or prod people a little bit and you know, and I think it might do it more effectively with a lot of other things.”
GeekWire: Okay, how about some quick tech questions. Are you a PC or a Mac guy?
Miller: “What the fuck are you talking about? I have a piñata sitting in between us and you think I use a fucking PC? Good god.”
GeekWire: I have to ask, right?
Miller: “I don’t think so, unless I am a large scale corporate client.”
GeekWire: Okay, how about this: Android or iPhone?
Miller: “I am not a Banana Republic, so yes to iPhone.”
GeekWire: Do you have a favorite app right now?
Miller: “Leafly is the only one. I only have that app. I deleted Mail, Safari, Phone. It only works with just data — I have zero minutes free, but unlimited for data. It is a very strange thing. But really, we have to give it up for Shazam. That guy deserves to be a billionaire. That was a thing that no one imagined could be possible, and then it was, and that’s a lot of fun. And Slang With Homies is a funny app I made that is like Words With Friends but you can use street language and curse words.
With Vine, it took me awhile and by the time I realized what I would do on Vine, it stopped being as interesting as the idea of writing a movie. Then with Snapchat, I kind of have a joke lately where I’m like, by the time anyone gets traction on Snapchat they’ll have invented something that will overtake it.
I actually prefer Twitter as a medium and I also got into Periscope for a second but I’m still trying to figure out what to do with it. I can’t figure out if the only important thing about it is the live broadcast, or if it’s an interesting kind of way to log what you do. My problem is that I say too much shit that probably shouldn’t be on the internet.
It speaks to the eternal fight that all of us are having, which is, how much of all our lives do we want to record and archive and how much of it do we just want to live? And do we really realize that no matter how many photos we post, we’re still going to die?
The record that you leave behind, you won’t know about, or how people react to it. So, what’s the point? Or is it the most amazing thing in the world because we can digitally in real-time review our entire lives in the twilight of our own existence. That’s pretty interesting.”
GeekWire: Would you have had these perspectives before doing Silicon Valley, or is being in that startup and tech world giving you new ideas?
Miller: “I don’t know. That reminds me though, I had the weirdest interaction with Elon Musk. I didn’t know who the fuck he was.”
GeekWire: He didn’t like the show, or something?
Miller: “He thinks the show is funny, he just said I wasn’t funny. He’s actually very nice, and I asked him if he would ever be on the show. He didn’t really answer, and I asked him if he just thought it was an accurate portrayal. He was like, ‘I don’t think I would be on it. I believe that in our world, he would get the check on the first episode and I know that doesn’t make for good drama.’
He’s trying to build the fucking Hyperloop and stuff, and he’s like, you know, ‘everyone will succeed, everything will be great.’ So anyways, yeah, it’s a whole culture that I didn’t know about until Silicon Valley, and I’m lucky because Silicon Valley is successful because it’s relevant, and it’s good for me to keep up with current this thing that’s becoming more than relevant and overtaking global culture, which is technology.
I was always interested in how we are hurling toward singularity, but I hadn’t been as tuned in to the business and commercial aspects of tech. Then after now learning what I’ve learned, I’ve realized that Hollywood and Silicon Valley are very strange cousins.”
GeekWire: Not siblings, but more cousins?
Miller: “I don’t think siblings — that would be too bad if they are, because Silicon Valley will always be overshadowed by its bigger sister. I think they are more cousins because creativity and money seldom meet at the explosive rate that those two worlds operate in. If anybody has a dream or an idea with a great piece of technology, they can make a million dollars. If somebody has a great story to tell and a great way to tell it, they can make a million dollars. And there’s no real objective way to evaluate if a movie will do this or that — it’s rare that we ever actually know. That’s analogous to how all these companies have valuations before they’re even turning a profit.”
GeekWire: Leafly is a marijuana startup and I know your character on Silicon Valley smokes a lot of pot. Why are you doing a show with this company?
Miller: “The truth is, I’m a comedian. But I’m not really like a marijuana comedian. I’m a comedian who smokes a lot of marijuana. I’m also someone who’s a proponent of marijuana — not really an activist, because I think there are better people at being an activist than me, but I can help with legalization. I can help organizations and institutions that are marijuana-focused succeed, and by that, continue to try to make it more mainstream.”
GeekWire: So, you not only smoke pot, but you’re a big proponent of legalization?
Miller: “I’ll never forget when I went home to Denver and asked my parents what they thought of marijuana being legal. From my perspective, it was like, wow, Denver, way to go, that’s going to make a lot of money in taxes. My parents, though, thought we were a joke in the United States.
I didn’t get any of that. There’s just been this stigma of marijuana being a slacker drug. There’s a generation before us that’s had that pounded in their head for so long. But now, it’s so much better if you smoke a heavy indica than take an Ambien, for example. My neurologist had to admit that. The most that can happen if you smoke too much indica while you’re trying to go to sleep is you’ll think that your bed is in another room than where it is and you won’t be able to find it.
So, it’s not even about being passionate, it’s like, this is very clear to me that this is the way it’s supposed to be. Each state and city is going to get on board when they get on board. But it’s coming really, really soon and it will totally change culture. That for me is just interesting.”