As painfully real as it is hilarious, HBO's series Silicon Valley turns the lives of the billionaire geeks at the heart of the computer industry into uncomfortable comedy.
The new Sunday-night staple follows a group of inexperienced twentysomethings whose groundbreaking technology could make them millions, if only they could figure out how to socially interact. It's a series that could only exist today, tapping into a very particular social climate. Unsurprisingly, the show comes from two comedy minds trained in awkward realism.
One is Mike Judge, whose 1990s animated series Beavis and Butt-Head and King Of The Hill were far more relatable than any conventional sitcom of the time and whose cult films such as Office Space pulled that sensibility into live action. The other is Alec Berg, a long-time collaborator of cringe-comedy specialists Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat). Judge and Berg sat down to discuss their new series about an obscenely rich and powerful world that seems vaguely embarrassed by that wealth and power.
Are there any specific stories about the actual Silicon Valley that made it into your series?
Alec Berg: Oh yeah. When Sergey Brin and Larry Page first got incorporated, they got an angel investment of $100,000 that was written to Google Inc. But they didn't own Google Inc. yet, so they couldn't cash the cheque. We used that. We did quite a bit of research and heard a lot of stories about people fighting over shares or calling their living room a conference room during business meetings that inspired scenes.
The show is also a nice flip side to Entourage, showing incredibly rich and powerful people with very little glamour.
Mike Judge: Yeah, that was one of the things that really interested me. I've known tech people for a long time and they have more money than anyone in Hollywood, but they aren't quite sure how to enjoy themselves. One guy told me the worst thing you could do is buy a Ferrari. But he bought a '68 Rolls-Royce that was owned by John Lennon and that's okay.
AB: It's interesting how many rules they have about what you can do with your money. You can fly 500 people to L.A. for a $3-million costume party, but God help you if you buy a Lamborghini.
Was it difficult to invent product and company names as perfectly meaningless as Pied Piper or Aviato?
MJ: It's amazing how hard it is to find names that sound like that, but aren't already taken. Any combination of five or six letters is owned by someone. It was actually the legal department that came up with Aviato.
AB: It's funny, we finally told them, 'I'm tired of giving you 100 names that don't clear. You need to make the next list.' We'd spend an hour coming up with 50 names and only one of them would clear.
MJ: It would be things like 'Diddly-bop' or 'Dida-wonk,' too. Back on Office Space, we came up with a company called Cotex, but spelled 'Co-techs' and it actually existed. There was some tech-placement company that didn't realize they had the same name as a tampon manufacturer.
Mike, were you always interested in transitioning from animation to live action?
MJ: Yeah, I actually always wanted to do live-action TV in particular. When I started doing animation, my pipe dream was to become a Terry Gilliam kind of guy and latch onto sketch comedy. I was a big fan of Harvey Pekar's comic book American Splendor and always thought that would be interesting to see that type of everyday observation in animation. I'm also not a particularly good animator, so I guess it was inevitable that I'd end up in live action.
Alec, is Mike Judge any easier to work with than Larry David?
AB: You probably have an impression of who Larry is from his character on Curb, but the real Larry has to live in society. Whenever real Larry has to subvert an instinct, he writes it down and that becomes an episode. Real Larry is an amazingly generous and personable guy. Actually, it's the opposite with Mike. Real Mike is a tyrannical lunatic and the Mike that you're seeing today that's very calm and measured is an act. Fake Mike is laughing right now, but real Mike is seething.
MJ: It's true.
The interview has been condensed and edited.