Had Mike Judge spent less of his youth playing guitar and more playing videogames, Silicon Valley might never have existed. HBO originally approached the Office Space, Beavis & Butt-Head and King Of The Hill creator about making a comedy based around games designers. No expert in that world, Judge instead mined his own brief experience as a coder in the late eighties to create the story of Richard Hendricks, a chronically anxious genius programmer thrown into the obscene wealth and volatile politics of Silicon Valley.
For three seasons, with a fourth confirmed to arrive next year, Hendricks’ story has provided Judge and co. with the scope to satirise not only modern tech giants, but also to write a recognisable workplace comedy about a pack of underdogs attempting (and through their own strategic ineptitude, regularly failing) to take on the establishment. It’s clever, dumb, often painful and always funny.
We spoke to Mike Judge, writer-director-producer Alec Berg and the actor behind Richard Hendricks, Thomas Middleditch, about season three, which is due to conclude on Sky Atlantic this week…
The reversals of fortune in Silicon Valley are the most dramatic currently on TV. Like, forget about Game Of Thrones, The Walking Dead, any of them. Mike and Alec, when you’re plotting out a season, how do you decide on where the highs and lows are going to fall? Is it like, ‘it’s been going well for them for a whole fifteen minutes, we need to destroy them after this ad break’?
Mike Judge: That’s way too long, fifteen minutes! [laughs]
Alec Berg: We don’t generally plan it out that far ahead. We have certain big moves that we plan here and there but generally… a great example I could give you from this season is at the end of episode three, the guys have devised this very complicated skunkworks plan where they’re going to do this secret company within a company. We wrote the entire sequence when they’re planning it out to feel like we were sort of laying the groundwork for the rest of the season and the reality is, when we wrote that, we were laying the groundwork for the rest of the season. We thought, oh yeah, this is going to be what the season is. And then we tried to write episode four and we just found that that idea wasn’t giving us any comedy gold and it was incredibly restrictive about what we could do. All the jokes we were writing were things about how there’s a knock on the door and everybody has to hide their plans and it was very farcical and not really our show so after a week of trying to sort of make that work, we just said ‘what if they just completely fuck it up immediately?’ and that was the biggest laugh we got, when they ruined the skunkworks plan, so it was like okay, we have to trust that.
MJ: That was a very happy day.
AB: Yeah, we’d been there for a week trying to write it all. I remember going ‘okay! That feels right. That feels like our show’. It’s less a plan and just more that we have to listen to the material and find those twists and turns as we get to them.
It does make for really painful viewing, I have to say. As a fan, it’s like an exercise in mortification. A lot of the time we’re watching it through our fingers.
Thomas Middleditch: [Laughs] Honestly, that’s a lot of the interaction I get. I get a good chunk of people saying hey, ‘I love the show, it’s great, that happened to me’ or whatever, and then I get a really large amount of people saying ‘I can’t watch your show, it’s too painful. It’s like all my painful memories of being an entrepreneur are brought up in your show and therefore I can’t watch it’.
Alec, do you see it as an inheritor of the cringe comedy of your work on shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Seinfeld?
AB: It’s interesting that Thomas mentioned that people can’t watch the show, because that’s what I got when I was working on Curb. Curb was the most polarising thing I ever worked on, a lot of people would come up to me and say they loved it and a lot of people would hear that I worked on that show and they would just say ‘you know what, I’ve got to be honest, I can’t watch it. It just makes me sick! [Everyone laughs] I get nervous and I hate Larry for doing those things and I can’t watch it’.
But I’ll take that. To me, if you look at a bell curve, rather than being at the centre of the curve where everybody thinks it’s alright, I would rather live out at the edges where we’ve got fanatical fans and we’ve also got fanatical haters. I’ll trade mediocrity for the extreme.
Thomas, to use a term from tragedy, which you’d have to agree Silicon Valley feels like sometimes for Richard, what would you say was his fatal flaw?
TM: Pride. I think in the end of that very first episode in season one at the end where he’s like ‘let’s try and do this whole thing differently, the make the world a better place mantra is fake and hollow and we’re going to find the honesty in that’ and a lot of the time he actually sacrifices the ability to potentially do that, to potentially ride Pied Piper to the next level, because it’s either undermining him and his own ego or what he initially envisioned for the whole process.
The scene of him and the tech blogger for instance.
TM: Oh yeah. Pride definitely gets in his way and therefore that’s why he gets himself into those little tizzies and unfortunately in the scene you’re quoting, does it in front of a journalist.
Always a mistake, we’re evil. Don’t talk to us.
A word we hear a lot from actors and writers is ‘relatable’. ‘The show is so relatable, my character is so relatable…’ Then you come along with a series about a compression algorithm, something niche even in computer engineering terms. Yet, ordinary idiots like me really get it. Mike and Alec, how did you shape the show’s perspective so it wouldn’t alienate its audience?
MJ: We kind of make it so when there are technical things in play that it’s really not about the technology, it’s about some kind of emotion or a story that’s rooted in some kind of personal stakes that are relatable in an emotional way, hopefully. I think we’ve managed to do that. We don’t know that much about… I used to be an engineer but we kind of keep ourselves and the actors ignorant.
TM: That’s not that hard to do, actually!
AB: I would also just add that fundamentally this is a show about outsiders and that’s one of the things that I think makes it, as you said, relatable. These are guys trying to do something but they face long odds and they’re decidedly not part of the establishment which I think makes them somebody you root for.
Essentially, do you think of it as another workplace comedy then, it’s just that this particular workplace is populated by incredibly dumb, incredibly smart people?
MJ: [laughs] That sounds right yeah, except the workplace is a house.
TM: I think that workplace element is relatable. I get people that come up to me and they don’t necessarily work in the tech industry but just in an office and either they have an IT guy, or just the dynamics of getting [laughs] perpetually fucked over by your overlords and bosses or any other entity, it’s universal in some way. I get people not even in tech coming up and saying that’s their lives.
AB: We do a lot of that in the writing. We’ll try and say, oh, we’ll make the dynamic that the guys are dealing with similar to something that we’ve dealt with in the entertainment business, like when an agent tells a producer that such and such is going to happen and it turns out they’ve lied. My parents are academics and it’s amazing how many times I’ll listen to them talk about what’s going on at the university where they work and how the Provost has lied to the administration and they’ve ear-marked some money that isn’t delivered. I think there are certain human behaviouralisms that are universal across all businesses. So I think when we’re successful it’s when we find something that’s happening in the tech business that is also happening in the lives of everybody that’s watching the show.
On the subject of ‘overlords’, a lot of your characters, particularly the billionaires, are geniuses but they’re not at all self-aware. Yet the show seems to have been embraced by the tech industry. Do you think that Silicon Valley the place and the people that work there genuinely get and appreciate the satire, or, a bit like Sarah Palin appearing on Saturday Night Live, is there sense that it just wants to be seen to be in on the joke?
MJ: I was curious about that from the beginning. It’s sort of a little of both. The Sarah Palin thing is a good example, I use the example of Spinal Tap. You know, when that came out I thought ‘the heavy metal bands are just going to hate this, it’s just making fun of them so hard’ but they all embraced it. We found that when we first made a field trip. We had gone up to Silicon Valley a bunch before for research but when we came up there after the show had aired, we found it was funny because a lot of them would say ‘oh yeah, that’s really great how you’re making fun of how we all say we’re making the world a better place. Let me show you how we really are making the world a better place…’ Every one of them just about did that with us eventually.
AB: It is interesting that the attitude was like ‘yeah, all these other people in this business deserve to be burned. We’re glad that you went after them.’
How careful do your lawyers have to be in terms of representation and libel? How scared have you made your legal team with ideas for this show?
MJ: [Laughs] We have a very scared lawyer.
AB: Yeah. HBO Legal is permanently scared.
MJ: They were born scared!
AB: Let’s just say they’re highly motivated.
Moving on! What your characters do in that workplace isn’t actually filmable. Watching someone write code doesn’t make great TV. I think Sam Esmail said the same thing about making Mr Robot. That show has thriller aspects to rely on, but as a comedy, how have you got around that?
AB: It’s kind of what Mike said before, we try and make it about emotions or you try and get characters on opposite sides of a point of view so that they can argue about it in words, like Dinesh and Gilfoyle are constantly at each other and that’s not a thing that plays inside an IM window, that’s two people talking to each other. We have to be good at figuring out what the emotional angles are and having characters play that.
When the show first came on I remember some tech guy gave it a scathing review, he just said ‘there’s not nearly enough people texting on this show! In real life, everybody just sits and has their chat windows open and they text to each other, these people are talking to each other?!’ [laughs].
A theme of season three seems to have been how unreal money is in Silicon Valley. Bighead burning through his windfall, the way that a company’s value is determined by the illusion of success rather than actual concrete success. It strikes me that skewering the obscenity and downright weirdness of how money and stock works is perhaps the real subject of this season?
AB: Like when Jack Barker says ‘the real value of a company is stock’, it’s not the person, that’s what’s making the needle move?
MJ: Oh yeah, we saw so much of that in our research. What inflated value things have and what they’re based on is just so flimsy. Even in Hollywood. There was a while there when the number of Twitter followers meant so much to people and then you find out that you can buy a million followers for like a thousand dollars or something.
TM: Can you? I’m going to get on that. I need some more followers! I need to get my stats up to a million so I can make any movie with The Rock I want!
AB: If you look at the stock market, nobody cares what a company is actually worth, right? Because if you really cared about what a company’s assets really were, you’d only invest in airlines and companies that owned heavy machinery. When Facebook bought WhatsApp, WhatsApp was a three year old company and I think it was worth more than Xerox and Campbell Soup were at the time. Those valuations are insane.
MJ: It’s what the users are valued at that’s insane.
AB: Yes. Somebody walked us through the Facebook acquisition of WhatsApp and really, what it was is that Facebook users are worth X amount and WhatsApp has a certain number of users that are worth half that amount, so if we just move those users over to Facebook, each user doubles in value. It was a really cut and dry metric.
TM: It’s also hard to guess what valuation everything should be. In the pilot episode, when we shot it, I think on the script Gavin Belson offered Richard like one hundred million dollars for Pied Piper and he turns it down and everybody thought that nobody would buy Richard turning down that much money so it got brought down to something like ten million, and we’re all okay with that. In between shooting the pilot and the season, was it Snapchat that was offered 2 or 3 billion and they turned it down!
MJ: If you really had a compression algorithm like this, they’d offer you 19 billion right now!
You bring up an interesting point, what you just said about the pace the real world moved at between shooting the pilot and the season. The tech world moves so fast and is so volatile that your show runs a real risk of going out of date with a news cycle. How do you deal with that risk, that it moves so quickly you might not be able to keep up?
MJ: We were talking about this season, if the bubble burst, we would have to add a little title that said “8 months ago” [laughs] because it would have made the whole season irrelevant.
AB: I said once that because we shoot three months before we air, we were in danger of being a period piece by the time we got on air!
TM: You guys are also very predictive. That whole episode with the moustache thing, where Richard goes off to another company [that makes software to add comedy moustaches to video chat], and then literally at the time that episode aired, Snapchat was doing all those stupid CG faces that you could add.
AB: We got very lucky with the sort of guesses we made about what’s going to happen in the tech business. We’ve largely been correct.
Across all three seasons, can you tell me which joke or line got the best reaction at a table read?
AB: I can tell you. I feel like the line that got the best reaction was one that we never shot, which was in season one, Chris Evan Welch who played Peter Gregory, there was a scene where he and Gavin Belson confronted each other at the end of season one and you could tell that Peter Gregory took great glee in dusting down Belson and it was a scene that we read at the table and was phenomenal and Chris Evan Welch was pretty amazing playing it and then he died before we got to shoot the scene.
MJ: Yeah, that was a classic. I think a good one we had this season was the gold chain stuff. The guys ribbing Dinesh on the chain.
Finally then, the show’s endgame: will Pied Piper eventually destroy the world like Skynet? Is that what all this is building towards?
AB: Yes! That’s where we’re going.
MJ: Absolutely. Exactly.
Mike Judge, Alec Berg and Thomas Middleditch, thank you very much!
The Silicon Valley season 3 finale airs on Sky Atlantic on Thursday the 14th of July.