On Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley, TJ Miller’s Erlich Bachman ran away with the first season. Miller’s mixture of hyperactive aggression with a softer, more endearing cluelessness made Bachman an easy crowd favorite. It’s Miller’s one iconic performance as an actor. He has a tag now.
In a tent at Bonnaroo, however, watching him perform as a comic far outside the fourth wall of HBO’s Silicon Valley, Miller has a similar bombast to his performance, just without any of Judge’s sharp observations. The energy that bubbles underneath Erlich’s surface is there, dialed way, way up to dangerous levels. He paces the stage constantly, his disheveled suit drenched in water for no particular reason, chest puffed out, almost yelling at the crowd. There were no sharp lines to Miller’s performance, just long diatribes about the time a hotel maid threw out his hash and exaggerated jokes about the size of his own endowment.
Freed up from acting inside a fictionalized Silicon Valley, Miller could have tackled some of the whitewashed sexism or materialism that Judge’s show was criticized for giving the tech world a free pass on. But even the bits that could have ended up smart fall somewhere in the realm of really dumb. A riff about why there are only snowmen and no snow women shoots right past the gender debate to Miller talking about sketching genitals on suburban snowmen with his own urine and calamari. Either way, his pumped up chest and exaggerated delivery seem more determined to make fun of the kind of person who cares about the smaller points of societal sexism than at any actual earnest ideology lingering under the joke.
Miller sprays himself repeatedly with a bottle of Evian Water Spray during the show, which is slightly giggle-worthy and a bit ridiculous, and the gag sort of culminates in a riff about American resource allocation when so many people in the world go without water. Miller’s boasting about how much money he made filming Yogi Bear 3D seems like it might erupt into a point about materialism, but a punchline never really came.
Miller is a natural improviser. The same energy that makes Erlich fun to watch gives his standup show some merit. There’s entertainment simply in the flailing, even if it is about as thought-provoking as watching a child try and stand up but fall over. It all clicks in the few moments when he tones down the delivery and focuses on bits, rather than outsized posturing. His alternative history on George Washington Carver’s invention of peanut butter and extended attempts to keep it from his wife were amazing.
But for any fan of the show Silicon Valley pulled in to watch Miller’s set, it’s quickly apparent that Miller is a mere performer in, and not an architect of, Judge’s tech world satire.