T.J. Miller talks ‘Silicon Valley’ and Mucinex Phlegm Ball

Miller

There is cringe-worthy humor, and then there is comedian and actor T.J. Miller, whose specialty might be called wince-inducing.

On the HBO series “Silicon Valley,” which returns Sunday, he’s Erlich Bachman, the status-obsessed, invective-flinging, bong-ripping ringleader of a startup crew.

In Season 3, there is even “more sad depth,” Miller said, to “this poor guy, who has really fallen from grace. This season, it gets bad, and I don’t know how it can get better.”

In his stand-up, Miller has been known to steal audience-members’ cocktails, then riff onstage about morality and death.

“Pets are friend slaves,” begins one unlikely bit. But Miller, 34, still aims for mass appeal.

He appeared in the action films “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “Deadpool”; you might also know him as the talking phlegm ball in Mucinex commercials.

A Denver native who toured with Second City, Miller, who lives in Los Angeles, takes a dim view of some Silicon Valley mainstays.

Tech bloggers, he said, “would be like if a journalist got a lobotomy, and then went to trade school for not being a journalist.”

In an interview, he alternated between teasing and thoughtful. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Do you think of yourself as a satirist?

A: (The “Silicon Valley” creator) Mike Judge is my Jonathan Swift, and I say that because I don’t know any other satirists. But the problem with satire is that it’s so easily misinterpreted. So many tech guys come up to me, like, (in a bro voice): “Hey dude, you’re so funny on that show, and I gotta tell you, it’s too real. I’m you at a tech company!” And you know that he doesn’t get the joke. He’s just like: Finally, they made a show about me!

Q: How do you get into character?

A: I gain about 20 to 30 pounds, and I grow facial hair that is really odd and funny to the American public, but not as funny to my wife.

Q: You’ve gotten to meet some of the titans of the industry.

A: It’s been so bizarre. I met Elon Musk, and I didn’t know who he was. Somebody asked to take a picture, and he thought it was with him, but they wanted him to take a picture of them (with) me. Elon is like, I’m making space travel possible, sure, I’ll take a picture with you. And they’re like, ahem, this is the Mucinex guy!

Q: Was it your dream to play a large ball of mucus in a commercial?

A: Mucinex were like, would you like to be the Mucinex man? You sound like you’re sick, right now. In each spot, they give me a little bit of room to do something strange. And in a world of fractured mediums, where there is no zeitgeist, and you get your comedy from your phone, it’s all content.

Q: Erlich is known for inspired, florid put-downs. Have you done that in real life?

A: Well you know, (staring pointedly at a reporter’s shoes), I’ve never had an interview with a journalist who purported to be an intellectual when they had the worst effort at open-toe footwear I’ve seen, ever. So no.

Q: You’re an advocate for legalizing marijuana. Are you stoned right now?

A: No. God, if I was stoned this would be such a more interesting article. Are you stoned?

Q: No.

A: Well, then neither of us are having a very good time. Ironically, I didn’t start smoking marijuana until I was 23 or something. I thought drinking was cooler; I switched after I had (a seizure). I have a medical marijuana card. If people are like, “I wish I could smoke weed, but I can’t,” I always am like, well, you need to practice. Think of how many times you threw up learning how to drink. And people are like, “I got paranoid once, so I’ve never smoked marijuana again.” It’s like, no, you’ve got to put some work into it. Put your back into it, for God’s sake.