T.J. Miller Q&A: Silicon Valley can't take a joke

From CNET Magazine: Comedian T.J. Miller says tech startups share a "delusional need" to believe they're actually changing the world. It's why he's having so much fun mocking them as tech entrepreneur Erlich Bachman in the HBO series "Silicon Valley."
Mark Mann

T.J. Miller is experiencing technical difficulties.

The stand-up comedian, best known for his role as tech entrepreneur Erlich Bachman on HBO's "Silicon Valley," says he's, um, accidentally submerged his iPhone in water.

"You always know it's been a good weekend with your wife if you don't remember two days and your phone is in the toilet," Miller, 35, says. "I don't know if I was trying to kind of flush telecommunications down the toilet literally instead of metaphorically but, yeah, it went in there. And then I had to get a new phone -- and even if you've got an iCloud backup, still it's a disaster."

Miller obviously knows a few things about tech. He jokes about iOS versus Android and notes, "By tomorrow there'll be a new operating system and we'll be in real trouble trying to connect." But please don't call him a fanboy.

Miller openly thinks the real Silicon Valley is too full of itself, which he made clear as host of last year's TechCrunch awards when he offended nearly everyone in the tech-glitterati audience (and triggered a firestorm of complaints).

"I consider everybody who takes themselves seriously to be a little bit off," Miller says. "And Silicon Valley seems to be the most effusive about how important their contributions are to society."

Yet Miller is also firmly rooted in tech culture. Besides playing the kimono-wearing Bachman on "Silicon Valley" for the past two years, he was the voice of tech fanboy Fred in Disney's "Big Hero 6" and Deadpool's best friend, Weasel, in the 2016 superantihero movie. He'll return in "Deadpool 2," slated for release in 2018.

He's also set to star in Sony's computer-animated "Emojimovie: Express Yourself" as the voice of a young emoji trying to live up to his parents' expectations, and has joined the cast of "Ready Player One," Steven Spielberg's adaption of the sci-fi novel set in a virtual world.

We caught up with Miller in Boston, where we presented him with a kimono before he kicked off his 20-stop stand-up tour ahead of an HBO comedy special. Miller spoke (and joked) with CNET Editor in Chief Connie Guglielmo and Executive Editor Roger Cheng about Silicon Valley's phoniness, balloons versus soap bubbles and the superpower he thinks could help Deadpool. Here's an edited transcript of their conversations.

Q What was the first piece of tech you remember playing with?

Gameboy. My parents would always say, "Why aren't you looking out the window? We're driving in Colorado through this beautiful landscape. Why are you just looking at your Gameboy?" And it's because it ruled.

So yeah, Gameboy was the first thing. One of the biggest moments in my life was when my mother said, "I'm not sure you deserve this" -- she always said that -- "but you've been talking about it for a while. So we got you a Nintendo." I lost my f--king mind. That was a moment for me when I was like, you can carry video games with you?

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Mark Mann

And now we all carry phones. Do you want your next iPhone to be waterproof?

I mean, when are they gonna do that? But they make so much money off, you know, toilet incidents.

How real are "Silicon Valley" and Erlich at reflecting the tech industry?

It's pretty true to life. When I come across people who work in tech or know people that work in tech, not only do they interrupt my eating a burrito in the airport, they make sure to tell me -- thinking that they're the first person to enlighten me on this -- but they say that it is almost "too real." And that's not a compliment to them.

We try and reflect that there's a lot of optimism, there's a lot of positive things that are happening in Silicon Valley. There's a lot of ideology, at least in the beginning, that we respect and almost venerate. But yeah, we're satirizing how out of proportion their egos are to what they're bringing to the table.

After the TechCrunch awards, you've said Silicon Valley can't take a joke.

Yeah. [They're] having a tougher and tougher time taking a joke. A lot of them don't get it. They kind of drank the Kool-Aid they made for themselves.

You've been pretty open about calling out the real Silicon Valley.

I consider everybody who takes themselves seriously to be a little bit off. And Silicon Valley seems to be the most effusive about how important their contributions are to society. It's almost Trumpian. Let's make that a word because he will forever be remembered as this hyper BSer who wants to "make America great again."

It's Trumpian, their delusional need to validate their contribution to America and globally. Our big joke in the show is making the world a better place. Really? How? How does Lyft help people in India?

They don't have a sense of humor. That's the problem. We've got a huge problem here in that the industry that should take itself the least seriously is not.

I look at anything Silicon Valley-related with sort of a smirk.

Do you think we're in a tech bubble?

It might be. I mean, these valuations are getting really out of control. And even the idea of a valuation is kind of strange, but that's how they got in trouble in the first place [during the first tech bubble in the late '90s].

And they're doing it again, but in the hundreds of millions or in the billions, instead of just millions. I don't know when it's gonna burst, but it definitely [will]. It's a bubble that continues to inflate. And it's less like a balloon and more like a soap bubble. You can stick a nail through it and, if the nail is the same temperature as the bubble, it won't burst. But if you touch it, it will. So I think that's almost a literal metaphor.

What did you learn about the world of tech that you didn't know before you joined the cast of "Silicon Valley"?

I'd say all of it. I was unfamiliar with the idea of a personal computing machine. I thought those were big calculators. It's like, who needs a calculator this size, because it's not portable? Then later I found out what a computer was and what it does -- and that you can both find and enjoy pornography with it.

T.J. Miller Q&A
Mark Mann

Do you consider yourself a big tech user?

What is a big tech user? I'm over 6 foot 2; I'm actually 6 foot 3. And depending if I'm doing "Silicon Valley," I weigh about 245 to 250 pounds. But when doing "Ready Player One," which is a Steven Spielberg film about VR, then I'm not as big of a tech user -- about 225 and I slouch while I'm acting, so I'm about 6 foot 1, 6 foot 1 and a half.

Let's talk about "Deadpool."

No, not that. I can, but then Marvel will find me, torture me, kill me in front of my family.

We're OK with that.

You're OK with that? Well you better give my grandmother a call because she is dead. Sorry. It's OK. "Deadpool" will probably start filming in January 'cause they wanna give the fans what they want as quickly as they possibly can.

In "Deadpool," you doled out drinks and sick burns. If you could choose a superpower, what would it be?

I'd like to be able to fly but only a foot or two above the ground. So to be able to laterally fly but kind of knee level.

How would that help out Deadpool?

How would it help him? How the f--k wouldn't it, buddy?

So basically you want to be a human hoverboard?

Well, not a human one.

You are kind of a tech cult figure now with all of these tech roles. That technically makes you technorati. Are you good with that?

No, I don't like the term at all. I was part of the glitterati for a while. But I consider myself more of a sex symbol than part of the tech community -- not a sex symbol for human beings necessarily.

TJ Miller
Mark Mann

Any thoughts on Pokemon Go?

Pokemon no. Why? Why would a person do that? I see people doing it, I walk up to them. I'm like, "Why are you doing that?" And the answer usually is because people are lonely. And that's in part because tech -- instead of connecting all of us to one another -- is actually isolating us from the real-time experience.

Technology has given us less mastery of our own time. Time -- being in a post-religious, post-meaning society -- is the closest thing we have to a deity. It's omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. It's omniscient because everything that happens, happens within time so it must know about it. It's omnipresent because sooner or later you'll realize that we speak in temporal terms. Years from now you may look back and say, "I didn't realize it at the time, but he was right about the time thing." And it's omnipotent because eventually it will vanquish us all.

That was very profound. Let's change tack. What tech from the '80s and '90s would you want to bring back?

I did like Atari, but a lot of the tech from the '80s and '90s still exists now.

How about the Nintendo light Zapper?

Yeah, so it'd be really fun to bring that back, just that old-school Nintendo gun that I used for several armed robberies.

Finally, what annoys you more: that you were killed off half an hour into "Transformers: Age of Extinction," or that you were in "Transformers: Age of Extinction"?

Do they have to be mutually exclusive?

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