T.J. Miller kicks off his hour stand-up special No Real Reason with a pre-taped opening showing him renouncing a table littered with drugs, then passing his family, high-school drama teacher and fellow comic Nick Vatterott in the hallway outside his dressing room. Everyone seems hostile or indifferent to him, and his mother lands a sarcastic shot when he’s unable to find the stage door. As Miller runs up the stairs he tells her, “Mom, I don’t know why I did any of this.”
It’s a fitting introduction. Miller is a talented guy who hasn’t found his center as a comic, and he’s going to leave no gag unexplored. (The bit with Vatterott is funny, but others seem almost purposefully flat.) His September album The Extended Play EP boasted 41 tracks (that’s the first joke) and was well-produced, with music portions that didn’t sound thrown together. The humor, however, didn’t always land.
Reason is much the same. Miller is still exploring who he is as a comedian; if you don’t like a specific joke or song, fast forward a couple of minutes and he will probably be doing something different.
It’s clear from Miller’s interviews that he does his homework. He told Gothamist’s Ben Harakh, “I think it’s important for me, as a comedian, to be proficient in all mediums of comedy, including funny mouth noises.” He’s studied acting at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, England and minored in theater at George Washington University. He’s even studied circus arts and taught clowning and stilt-walking.
Befitting his education, Miller acts out a lot of his bits. He has an eye for physical tics and a flexible face that allows his impressions (no celebrities, just people he’s met) to really pop. One of special’s early routines concerns Miller throwing up in public, accompanied by an over-the-top pantomime (including an amusing zombie walk) that seems more honed than the premise it is supporting.
In some of his funniest moments Miller is a storyteller, his physicality still very much present but more subtle. Talking about his contract riders he says, “I require a terrible turkey sandwich, and then in parenthesis it says ‘Open to interpretation,’ and then a real piñata or a hand-drawn picture of a piñata.” At one gig bookers apologized and brought him a ham sandwich, since it was all they had. “I said, ‘A ham sandwich; that’s a pretty terrible turkey sandwich. I like the way you’re interpreting things!’”
A bit about him wearing a woman’s tennis outfit in public on a dare from friends includes running into a group of wannabe thugs. Trying to think of the most inappropriate thing he could do at that moment, Miller clears his throat to get their attention, yells “Faggots!” and tries to escape into his apartment, realizing too late he doesn’t have his keys. Fortunately the only repercussion is one of the faux thugs yelling, “You too old, you Will Farrell-looking motherfucker!”
The set-up feels contrived, but the funniest part is the coda, where Miller imagines the guy who yelled trying to explain the story later to friends. “No, he yelled that at us,” says Miller as the thug. “What do you mean, ‘What was I wearing?’ I was wearing this. ‘Too old for what?’ To old to wear a tennis outfit!”
In a good, absurd running gag Miller refers, for no reason, to his “ex-wife of 27 years, Karen,” which hits because of its jarring segue. And he hates when people make fun of the way others laugh: “That’s basically like saying, ‘Hey, you know that sound that you make when you’re happy and joyful? And the tragedy and sadness that permeates our lives is temporarily set aside for a moment of euphoria? Yeah, you sound stupid. You should stop doing that.’”
Toward the show’s close Miller throws in a section of hokey short jokes that he tries to play up by mugging after the punchlines. “I called someone an Indian Giver recently,” he says. “They were really offended, so I had to take it back.” Unfortunately his facial expressions don’t save the jokes. Similarly, a series of offbeat impressions a la Zach Galifianakis (a guy who hums heavy metal, a hip-hop guy who laughs like an Asian schoolgirl) mostly miss the mark. His robot dancing “The Person” is funny, but the version he’s been doing on talk shows is actually a little funnier than that on Reason.
The segment ends with confetti showering over the audience while an alarm sounds and an assistant brings him an AK-47. He sheepishly says, “So this next character is a comedian who should have quit while he was ahead,” then does a few more. Not that Miller should quit; far from it. Just maybe edit a little more.