T.J. Miller stood in front of a packed house on the Mall of America’s House of Comedy stage, reached into his pocket, and took out a train whistle.
They make the funniest sound, he says. He gave it a couple of toots in varying pitches.
“I was on a train recently,” he says. This is something most everyone in the room knew.
Just 10 days before before his performance at the House of Comedy, Miller was arrested for allegedly calling in a bomb threat from an Amtrak Train heading from Washington, D.C. to New York.
Miller told the dispatcher he was riding with a female passenger, and that he thought she had a bomb in her bag, according to a Department of Justice statement. "This is the first time I’ve ever made a call like this before," Miller told a 911 dispatcher. "I am worried for everyone on that train. Someone has to check that lady out." Amtrak officials stopped the train in Connecticut and searched it -- no bomb.
As it turned out, Miller had reported the wrong Amtrak number, and was on a completely different train. Amtrak officials also stopped and searched that train, according to the DoJ, and again found no explosives.
An attendant from the first-class car where Miller had been sitting said he’d seemed drunk, and he was having “hostile exchanges” with a woman sitting a few rows away.
Miller was arrested and charged with falsely reporting information to law enforcement, a crime that comes with a maximum five-year sentence. Miller was released on $100,000 bond.
He'll be at the House of Comedy all weekend. Club manager Ron Saver says Miller showed up right on time and asked for a pinata in his rider, which was provided.
Miller didn't avoid talking about the incident: 15 federal agents showed up, he told the crowd, as though the feds thought they were about to confront someone high on PCP. He’d been so excited to have his first train ride, he says, that he’d taken out that very whistle, the one still in his pocket, and given it a merry “toot toot” on their way out of the station.
“I like trains,” he says. “Or, you know, I used to.”
To say Miller’s had an “interesting year” is kind of like saying everclear has an “interesting flavor.” Last spring, when Miller left his flagship role on Silicon Valley under what was, at the time, called “a mutual agreement,” and has since devolved into Miller trash-talking his former coworkers, and his former coworkers confessing that he wasn’t a treat to work with, either, alleging heavy substance abuse and shoddy attendance.
Summer rolled around. Miller promoted his starring role in The Emoji Movie, which received a staggering zero percent on Rotten Tomatoes going into its opening weekend. (Reminder -- this is the movie where Patrick Stewart, of Shakespeare and Star Trek fame, played the role of the Poop Emoji.) Miller dismissed the criticism and the waves of abysmal reviews. The film still made money, he said, and he’s not out there to please everyone.
It was around that time that he started a Twitter storm over some comments he made in Vulture that seemed to imply that women weren’t funny. He went on an equally confusing and winding rant trying to clarify that he believed society was responsible for the unfunniness, not women themselves, and that women are funny… you know, in spite of everything.
Then, early last winter, the Daily Beast published a story of a woman's allegation Miller sexually assaulted her back in his undergrad days at George Washington University. The story was corrobrated by five sources; Miller and his wife, Kate, sent out a statement saying the allegations weren’t true.
After all that, the Amtrak arrest was merely the latest ingredient in Miller's toxic cocktail.
“Why would I stop working?” he answers when asked about performing so soon after the incident. He doesn’t need to be here, he says. There’s no part of him that wants to leave his wife for four days and spend half a week at the Mall of America. (Onstage, Miller worked in a couple bits specific to playing the Bloomington mall.)
“I’m here for you guys,” he says, referring to the audience.
And Miller showed his appreciation for them, playing along with and talking sugar to drunken shouters, weird laughers, and the kind of gentle hecklers one finds at a mall in Minnesota, and nowhere else. He bought the people who interrupted him drinks. He waxed about time, and its significance in a society that's post-religion, implying that time people spend together is sacred. He promised he'd get more into his theories about time later in the set, then never quite came back to it.
Mixed among gags about cat ownership, a few one-liners felt downright cringeworthy. “I called my friend an Indian giver, but he’s Native American, so he made me take it back.”
At one point, Miller talked about moral relativism, exploring America's embrace of slavery a few centuries ago. “All your values are based on when and where you were born,” he says, to his mostly white audience.
A self-identified provocateur, the line between Miller's onstage and offstage life is permeable, if it exists. His philosophy is that it’s all comedy, with a heaping handful of nihilism thrown in.
There’s the sense that Miller the person doing things out in the world is just an extension of Miller the comedian; that the people who call him on it have no sense of humor, but the people who pay to come see him on a Thursday will greet him with both goodwill and the benefit of the doubt, and he will repay them in kind.
But if your whole life is your act, both are fair game for criticism. No train whistle is funny enough to change that.
IF YOU GO:
Rick Bronson's House of Comedy
Friday, April 20-Sunday April 22 (Multiple shows)
Click here for tickets
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