Interview: Mike Judge
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Last year, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, co-founders of Google, took the “ice-bucket challenge”, where celebrities and ordinary folk filmed themselves being doused in freezing water to raise money for charity. For the occasion, held at Google’s Mountain View HQ, Brin wore a white T-shirt with the logo for a corporation named “Hooli”, while Page wore a green one featuring the insignia for a start-up called “Pied Piper”. But these two companies are fictitious. They exist in a parallel universe depicted in the TV comedy Silicon Valley (screened on HBO in the US and Sky Atlantic in the UK).
In the show, Hooli is a tech behemoth. It has a huge campus, full of smoothie-swigging programmers who follow messianic mottos such as: “We can only achieve greatness if we achieve goodness.” Hooli spends its vast resources trying to crush Pied Piper, which is run out of a bungalow by a 26-year-old, socially awkward, hoodie-clad computer genius.
Sound familiar? Silicon Valley is a satire that attacks the excesses of companies such as Google and Facebook, while sending up the entire Californian start-up scene. But the show’s creator, Mike Judge, finds his victims love the torture.
“Apparently, Mark Zuckerberg hosts a Game of Thrones party for his friends and they stick around to watch Silicon Valley because it’s on right after,” he says. “It’s like the way a lot of glam-metal bands love This Is Spinal Tap [the cult 1984 mockumentary about English rockers].”
Judge is one of the leading chroniclers of American absurdity. In the 1990s, he created Beavis and Butt-Head, the MTV cartoon about two grunting, pyromaniac teens that was loved by a Generation X who basked in its reflected idiocy.
He went on to create King of the Hill, an animation centred on a beer-swigging, conservative Texan family man, which punctured the foibles of middle-class America. His first movie, Office Space (1999), targeted 1990s cubicle culture and workplace tedium.
Judge’s characters are vulgar and potty-mouthed. They are often ugly, inside and out. When I speak to him over the phone, he is polite and thoughtful, with a quiet southern drawl. He says that the success of Silicon Valley has been “really good for me — I haven’t had a hit in a while . . . my stuff gets underrated so much. I think at one point I was googling my name and Office Space and ‘underrated’ came up in the autocorrect.”
Judge was born in 1962 in Ecuador, where his father worked as an archaeologist. His family settled in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when he was seven. Judge says he felt like an “outsider”, which may have contributed to a life-long fascination with those stuck on society’s fringes. Silicon Valley engineers meet the criteria.
“I don’t think a lot of these people would have been voted most popular in high school or captain of the football team,” he says. “A lot of them are, socially, outsiders and then they become a big deal. I can relate to that a little bit. I was an awkward person in high school.”
Though Judge is sympathetic to tech’s oddballs, it is the outsized nature of their success that makes them ripe for comedy. “Look at how long it took Andrew Carnegie or the Rockefeller family to build their wealth,” he says. “Now, somebody creates WhatsApp or Snapchat — there are people who are 24 years old and are suddenly worth several billion. It’s just crazy. I don’t think there’s ever been a time like this in history. There’s something funny about it.”
Silicon Valley is also a product of personal experience. Two years after completing a physics degree at University of California, San Diego, Judge followed his then girlfriend to Sunnyvale, California, in 1987, today home to companies such as Yahoo.
He joined a small tech company called Parallax but quickly became disillusioned by the insular world of IT (though it later provided the source material for Office Space).
“When I quit my job and I looked in the paper,” he says, “Sun Microsystems had an entire full-page ad which in giant letters said ‘Push’ across the top. Underneath it said: ‘Push yourself harder than you ever thought possible, beyond all existing goals, up to the level of Sun Microsystems.’ I remember thinking, why? To build servers?”
Judge left to join a touring blues band, playing double bass. In 1989, he moved to Dallas and began toying with cameras and animation. After he mailed tapes of Beavis and Butt-Head shorts to television stations, MTV scooped up the show.
He admits Silicon Valley is an attempt to exact “a little bit of revenge”. “Actually,” he says, “I like these characters. I think that if I was 27 years younger, with the way things are now up there, I could see myself doing a start-up.”
But the prior experience means Judge knows where to look for his jokes. In one episode, a character is trapped in a driverless car, rerouted against his will to an island owned by a tech billionaire and inhabited only by robots. In another scene, there is a debate about the most efficient way to “jerk off” as many men as possible. Frat-boy comedies would revel in simply describing the sex act. The show’s band of geeks produces a mathematical formula to solve the problem.
To prepare for the second season of Silicon Valley, Judge has visited companies such as Facebook, Yelp, Dropbox and Twitter. “They were welcoming and also a little wary,” he says. “A lot of them had their PR person there, which was different from the first time when we were going in through the back door.”
But he adds: “I also tried pretty hard, even though we’re making fun of them, to try to understand it . . . and try to make the technology close to real. I think they liked that. They appreciated that it’s not just a full-on Hollywood portrayal written by someone who didn’t even bother to go up there.”
I tell Judge that I watched Silicon Valley before meeting Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and the first institutional investor in Facebook. Thiel has a distinctive presence — wide-eyed, nervous, with a habit of making outlandish statements whose impact is masked by a halting conversational style.
Some of these tics are embodied with uncanny accuracy by the show’s fictional billionaire investor Peter Gregory, played by Christopher Evan Welch. “Peter Thiel is just one of many tech titans that Chris could have been imitating,” says Judge. “It’s almost that there’s a tech accent in the way those guys talk and Chris just nailed it.” Sadly, however, the actor died from lung cancer during the shooting of the second season and will only appear in five episodes. Judge calls the death a “tragedy” but it will be incorporated into the plot. “We just looked at it in real life,” he says. “What would happen if a one-man venture capital fund dies and how would that go down?”
I ask if he followed the recent launch of the Apple Watch, when the company said it had made the “most advanced timepiece ever” — a claim which may be news to the creator of the sundial. He laughs, saying that “mythmaking is good for the bottom line. The people who are going to win aren’t the ones who are humble and say, well you know, we’ve built a slightly better watch.”
But the failure to acknowledge history hits a nerve, and this is the closest Judge gets to ranting. “They almost never mention that they’re standing on the shoulders of giants,” he says. “I watched somebody paying tribute to Google, Sergey and Larry, but [they] never mentioned there were other search engines already, or that somebody invented the integrated circuit first, or the transistor. They don’t seem to pay homage to what came before.
“I know people who work at Google and Apple who are good people. But sometimes those things do make them seem like they’re a Jonestown cult.” But, he concludes, “That makes for good comedy.”
Murad Ahmed is the FT’s European technology correspondent. ‘Silicon Valley: The Complete First Season’ is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms, courtesy of HBO. Season two begins on Sky Atlantic on April 13
Photographs: Michael Kovac/Getty Images; Rex Features; HBO
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