Mike Judge made his name being one of the sharpest observers of American subcultures and by distilling those observations into genre-spawning satire. Witness the work he did on Beavis and Butthead, a show that ridiculed MTV’s audience so brilliantly that it was beloved by MTV’s audience; or the cult sensation Office Space, whose biggest fault was being so far ahead of its time as a ruthless satire of the soullessness of office-drone work that it would take audiences years to find it and wholeheartedly embrace the truths that it told them about that work; or his work on King Of The Hill, which Texas Monthly recently described as a show that “sits comfortably next to Giant and The Last Picture Show as a chronicle of Texas in a certain place and time." Consider also his science-fiction parable Idiocracy, about a man who wakes up in a just barely fictional future America full of runaway ignorance and brain-curdling reality TV.
The way satire usually works, the observer finds the absurdities of a given culture--like the redundant tasks in a corporate office setting--and transforms them into exaggerated situations of deep symbolic meaning to the people in that world--Office Space’s fetishization of the “TPS report," say.
But with Silicon Valley--the new show from Judge and collaborator Alec Berg, which premieres on HBO on April 6th--there was an added challenge: the tech world of Silicon Valley is so absurd, and fast-moving, that it almost defies satire. How do you effectively depict a satirical version of a world that’s as extreme as the one that exists in the real Silicon Valley? And, while just about everyone has worked in a cubicle farm, not everyone has worked at a startup--so there was also the matter of creating a show for everyone that's layered enough for insiders.
“There's a lot of stuff that seems absurd that's just very real,” Judge says. “It happened a lot--like in the editing room, someone'll be laughing about something. They'll be color-timing something that seems ridiculous and we'd say, ‘No, that's actually a real thing somewhere.’”
In other words, Berg explains, it’s actually not that hard to look like a genius when you’re writing a satire of the tech world. “In a way, you just televise (reality). Then you get credit for satire, when sometimes all you’re doing is putting it on TV.”
That simple-sounding approach seems to have worked for the duo, which is especially notable considering several others have hit a wall in attempts to create a viable entertainment property based on the tech world. In 1999, Writer Po Bronson created South of Market, an original-bubble-based series for ABC that never aired (he also wrote and sold a never-produced romantic comedy feature, Dotcomarama). Business writer (and Fake Steve Jobs creator) Dan Lyons almost brought iCON, a series based on a Jobs-like character to air on Epix and let us NEVER again speak of the short-lived, execrable Bravo "reality" show, Start-Ups: Silicon Valley. Judging by previews and early reviews of Judge and Berg's Silicon Valley, though, this could be the show that earns the respect of those in the industry while attracting a mainstream audience. The show revolves around a group of young programmers who leave their jobs at a tech giant to launch a startup called Pied Piper. Thomas Middleditch stars as a Richard, the creator of the compression algorithm that's the backbone of the budding company. Martin Starr, Josh Brener, T.J. Miller, and Kumail Nanjiani, play his incubator-mates in the venture. It's a simple enough premise, but the genius is in the devotion to authenticity.
“We really immersed ourselves in that world,” Judge explains. “I used to live up there--I was an engineer for a while. And Alec’s brother has been immersed in that world.” Berg’s brother worked at Microsoft for a time, under Paul Allen, and has also been through several startups. Beyond that, Judge says, “We went up there a number of times, met with incubators [in L.A.] and up there, and met with companies and lots of consultants.”
The extensive research that Judge and Berg did helped them develop a show that’s packed full of dead-on details--something that Berg says doesn’t always work when researching a show. “If you’re writing sci-fi, I always find that research hurts you, in a way, because all it does is tell you what you can’t do,” says Berg, who served as a writer on Seinfeld and executive producer of Curb Your Enthusiasm in addition to writing the screenplays for The Cat in the Hat and The Dictator. “But with this, the more real stuff we could find, the more funny stuff we could put in the show.”
And that real stuff, the tech-world excesses that shape the show, are unique in their form to Silicon Valley. There are other places and fields where people have billions of dollars, and other places where people think they’re doing the most important work there is, but there aren’t many places where people believe that their seemingly inconsequential and hard-to-understand application is the key to a better future for everyone, and thus they deserve billions of dollars for what they’ve created.
Which leads to the challenge that comes with depicting such a singular culture. The first two episodes of Silicon Valley were a smash hit at SXSW, where they screened in front of an audience for the first time, but that’s a community that is intimately familiar with the world that the show depicts. How do you take the unique, unlikely blend of ideals that make up Silicon Valley and present it in a way that’ll play way, way outside Palo Alto?
For Judge, the answer’s simple: You look to Dr. Dre.
“I make a weird comparison, but in my mind, it makes sense--which is the 'gangsta rap' thing. Dr. Dre used to always say it has to appeal to people in the neighborhood on the streets, and then go from there,” Judge explains. “This is similar. If you don’t have any credibility among the people that it’s about, then I don’t think that it works--but I don’t think we’re even close to making something that only works if you live in Silicon Valley.”
To ensure authenticity, during the development process Judge and Berg workshopped Silicon Valley's fictional company, pitching it to actual tech industry insiders and venture capitalists.
“Our consultant, Jonathan Dotan, went and pitched what our guys are doing to actual VCs,” Judge says. And the first one they approached said that he’d buy in. “They said it’s called a deep-tech investment.”
The pitching process helped iron out a lot of the details that make the show work, Berg explains. “We asked people, ‘Would you invest in this company? If not, why not?’ We tried to push a real version of this company through the system up there, just to see if this would work. If not, why not? We were basically asking all the same questions about running this business that Richard is asking in the show, so a lot of the stories in the first season are stories that just came up. ‘Well, it’s called Pied Piper’--does he own the name? If somebody wrote him a check for $200,000 to Pied Piper, Incorporated, and he went to the bank to try to cash it, what would happen?’”
Making the show’s central conceit--that Richard (Middleditch) and the product he’s created are worth potentially billions--work in the tech world is important. But part of figuring out how to make sure the show was engaging outside of that world was to also ensure that the product’s utility--it’s a new method for lossless data compression--was something that people could grasp.
To that end, what Richard and his friends end up creating is something of universal utility, though not mass appeal. That’s something that Judge and Berg thought about a lot in this process.
“I think The Social Network only worked as a movie because you know that Facebook is worth billions of dollars,” Berg says. “That’s what’s compelling--but if it were a fictionalized account of a company that may or may not become worth something, I think you just don’t give a shit.”
In other words, making a show about a business-facing application, rather than a consumer one, took a lot of the pressure off. “This isn’t a social media app, where the audience at home would be like, ‘Well, I would never use that,’ because then it’s a lot less interesting,” Berg says. “This is just objectively useful, because everyone can understand that if you can take something that’s 5X, and make it X, then you can put it through a smaller pipe faster. Richard has figured out a way to do something better than anybody else, and that takes all of the guesswork out.”
Ultimately, that’s what makes Silicon Valley work as a show, and as an effective satire: It might have been satisfying to make a show about a bunch of goofy tech dudes who spend all their time working on a useless app, but it would destroy the illusion of reality that’s made even Judge’s more out-there satire, like Beavis and Butthead and Idiocracy, feel authentic. The world of Silicon Valley might be full of absurdities and laughable idiosyncrasies, but it’s also a place where people do come up with ideas that shape culture--and Silicon Valley manages to be effective satire because it both respects that fact and mocks it relentlessly.
[Images courtesy of HBO]