Close to halfway through Meticulously Ridiculous, T.J. Miller’s new comedy special for HBO, he does a bit composed of some oddball wordplay, and it falls a little flat. “Wish I hadn’t done that joke,” he muses, getting a bigger laugh than he did for the gag. “That’s a real litmus test for how the more absurd stuff is gonna go, and I’ll tell ya, I am not confident.” The honest-sounding confession earns laughs because it’s based in truth: The weirdo performance-art aspects of Miller’s act are rarely as successful as the traditional stand-up, and it’s not because they’re not inventive. It’s just that he’s very good at being a traditional stand-up comic.
Miller obviously has a passion for the bizarre, as his new special is rife with non sequiturs and intentionally inane physical comedy. He comes out onstage already soaked with water, and immediately splashes more all over himself, in multiple ways. At several moments, text will flash across the screen, adding another layer of humor to whatever he’s discussing. And sometimes, he’ll just launch, unprovoked, into a random bit of silliness. But while these experiments are good for some chuckles, they’re also the weakest part of his arsenal. It’s interesting to watch Miller work this material into what is otherwise a normal comedy set, and you can see him eagerly pushing at the boundaries of the form. But while it’s easy to admire, it’s harder to enjoy.
It’s especially ironic that he’s doubling down on embracing the weird when he’s so clearly coming into his own as a strong comedian and storyteller. When Miller speaks with an honest voice, his comedy excels, his cracked sensibility and eye for the unusual making for memorable stories and crackerjack bits. When he steps into his more manic persona, doing jokes where it’s obvious he’s lying or the premise is based on him being an extreme or unreal version of himself, it lessens the impact, robbing the humor of the sense of unflinching truth that elevates it and makes Miller such a fantastic comic voice.
The centerpiece of this special demonstrates how Miller’s honest self, unfettered by his need to adopt Andy Kaufman-esque alter egos, is his best asset. Bringing a two-sided battle-ax onstage, he tells the story of purchasing the weapon, which eventually involves him shirtless, walking down the street next to his wife, holding the ax, when the police get involved. It’s the mental image he paints of a very real situation, and the attendant way he slowly teases out all the elements of this incident—making it all relatable despite its incongruity—that pushes it into the realm of great comedy. It works because the audience trusts him in the moment—he earns their confidence by not pulling the rug out from under them, or suddenly launching into some deliberately phony aside.
Contrasting that bit with a more ridiculous one helps illuminate why Miller’s at his best when he’s being honest with the audience. Prior to the battle-ax story, he starts talking about suicide, and it seems like he’s settling in to talk about someone he knew who committed the act. Dark, sure, but there’s lots of places to go with comedy when discussing death. Instead, Miller goes for the inane: “His name was Gleep Glarf Gobblesnarf,” he says (that name might be spelled slightly incorrectly), and proceeds to lay out the entire sad story of how this mutant-animal friend decided to ends its life. It’s reliably weird, but instead of the absurdity building on itself to become funnier over time through repetition of the idiocies, the joke feels curiously hollow and meaningless, like a Dr. Seuss rhyme run amok.
And the special continues in that vein, shining when Miller is vulnerable and exposed and revealing his thought processes, and uneven when trying for more gonzo weirdness. You can see hints of how the comedian could find ways to meld the two more effectively. A running series of jokes buttressed by the framework of “reasons why I don’t give a fuck” creates some sparks, fusing observational comedy with a braggadocio persona, but again, the best jokes from the premise come when they ring true, such as when he announces a willingness to tell someone’s parents to fuck off, then invites an audience member onstage and asks to call their mother, but winds up in a funny and endearing conversation with her. A wacky bit about spray cans of water works because he’s approaching it from the perspective of a real person, keeping the humor grounded in real events. But none of it’s as good as another true story he tells about visiting a doctor in the wake of the life-threatening brain condition he suffered some years back.
T.J. Miller has come a long way from his first special, No Real Reason, where he still seemed to be finding his voice. But in discovering a fondness for toying with the boundary between humor and peculiarity, he’s actually preventing himself from embracing a definitive greatness in his stand-up. Miller may have to face facts: He’s a very funny stand-up comedian, and a less successful boundary-pusher. He might want to consider simply being a great comic, no extraneous bits necessary. His strength is in showing how reality can be absurd—not trying to make the absurd real.