Remember Friendster? The Palm Treo? Alta Vista? Mike Judge’s work since the animated one-two punch of Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill was not unlike these relics of the Internet: so far ahead of its time that when America eventually caught up, the biggest checks got cashed by someone else.
This was especially true of 1999’s Office Space, Judge’s feature film debut. Now an acknowledged classic that nailed white-collar drudgery as ruthlessly as Beavis and Butthead skewered Megadeth, its influence has been seen in everything from The Office to a Super Bowl commercial. Some have even suggested it shaped millenials’ very notions about work. But fifteen years ago, it was not loved by 20thCentury Fox, the studio that made it. The film bombed in theaters before finding a second life on DVD and through repeated cable airings. Which is not to say the studio learned any lessons about marketing to Judge’s fans. His next film, 2006’s Idiocracy, a dystopian vision of a dumbed-down, sex, money, and reality TV–obsessed America, barely even got released (at one point it screened in major cities as Untitled Mike Judge Project). It, too, is now a beloved cult classic, with moments that today feel more like documentary than parody. Not that being ahead of his time was ever Judge’s goal. “I wanted the movies to be big hits right when they came out!” he says.
Judge went on to make another movie (Extract) and his only failed TV show (The Goode Family), both in 2009, as well as a single-season resurrection of Beavis and Butthead, in 2011. Now he’s about to have his first perfectly-timed, non-cartoon success—his Facebook, iPhone, or Google, as it were. Silicon Valley brings the longtime Austin resident back to television with the imprimatur of HBO, a network that knows its way around niche viewerships and smarter storytelling. “It’s been as good of an experience as I’ve ever had with filmmaking,” Judge says.
Silicon Valley debuts April 6 in a block with two of the network’s signature Sunday shows, Veep and Game of Thrones, but the series had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this month—a doubly significant appearance. First, SXSW is where HBO launched its buzziest half-hour show, Lena Dunham’s Girls, two years ago. And, given SXSW’s massive interactive component, Judge and the actors who were there for the premiere could walk around Austin thinking, “these are the people that our show is about.”
A few hours before the first two episodes screened as part of SXSW’s new Episodic track, several members of the cast milled about the second-floor atrium of the Stephen F. Austin InterContinental Hotel, pretty much indistinguishable from any of the Interactive attendees in town from New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles: Thomas Middleditch, the show’s lead, in blue canvas Vans and a backwards L.A. Kings baseball cap; Martin Starr (of Freaks and Geeks and Party Down fame), bearded, bespectacled, and wearing yellow-treaded Nikes and a red Locals Only hoodie; and Amanda Crew, who was both impeccably-garbed—sleeveless black dress, platform shoes—and also the only female in sight.
On the show, Middleditch plays Richard, a young software engineer who works for a large, purportedly benevolent corporation named Hooli while developing his own music search website, Pied Piper. The site is forgettable, but within its “clunky UI” is a compression algorithm that, to use the lexicon of the show, could “change the world” (i.e, make a lot of money). In a matter of hours, Richard faces the dilemma of either accepting a $10 million offer from Hooli to buy his work outright, or a modest six-figure sum from eccentric angel investor Peter Gregory (played by Dallas native Christopher Evan Welch, who died in December) that will leave him in control of the company—if he and his fellow coders can actually figure out how to run a company.
It’s poised to be Judge’s most zeitgeisty work since “Buffcoat and Beaver,” as huffing and puffing former U.S. senator Fritz Hollings called it back in 1993. Silicon Valley won the Episodic audience award at SXSW (beating out, among others, another tech-themed show, AMC’s Mad Men-like period piece Halt and Catch Fire) and won an instant rave from Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter, who declared it “HBO’s funniest series and quite possibly the most likely to lure a large audience.”
Mike Judge with cast and crew on the “incubator” house set of Silicon Valley. Photograph by Jaimie Trueblood.
Like Doonesbury’s G.B. Trudeau and The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening before him, Judge is best known as an astute observer of American mores who just happened to make cartoons. Beavis and Butthead was as much a generational touchstone as The Catcher in the Rye or Easy Rider, while King of the Hill sits comfortably next to Giant and The Last Picture Show as a chronicle of Texas in a certain place and time.
All of the Silicon Valley cast grew up watching Beavis and Butthead, even Kumail Nanjiani, who lived in Pakistan. “Every kid saw that,” says Crew, who plays the number two to Peter Gregory, a character she says may follow a similar career trajectory as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. “Well, anyone whose parents let them.”
The actors are also all huge fans of Office Space. “One of the top five comedies, of all-time, no question,” says Starr. Just as Office Space spoke to everyone who works for a big company or hates their boss, Silicon Valley is a show for everyone who’s learned to code or make an app, where a tech billionaire is the 2014 equivalent of J.R. Ewing and a TED Talker is the 2014 version of Hank Hill’s boss, Buck Strickland of Strickland Propane. Phrases like “disrupt digital media” and “make the world a better place” induce as much eye-rolling as Office Space’s “TPS report”—except Judge didn’t have to make up too many tech clichés himself.
“Office Space came out a little bit before people realized that cubicle culture was such a fucking drag,” says comedian and actor T.J. Miller, who plays Ehrlich, the curiously bearded, perpetually stoned owner of the “incubator” house where Richard and the other characters all live. “This new show is coming out when everybody’s fluent in the technical jargon of apps and software and compression and all that stuff.”
Judge worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley himself more than twenty years ago and was married to a woman from Palo Alto. They eventually moved to Dallas, where he was studying to become a math teacher while also making the short animated films—Milton and Frog Baseball—that would ultimately become Office Space and Beavis and Butthead, respectively. He had some exposure to the Texas side of the computer world as well. “People forget how much tech there is in Texas,” Judge says. “I mean, the integrated circuit was invented here [at Texas Instruments], you know?”
The characters he encountered in his time in the industry resonated with Judge. “Having been around programmers and in the tech world, I feel like I had a sense of what the people are like and when it’s believable and not believable,” he says. “The tech world’s changed a lot as far as the tech itself, but I think the types of characters in the world are the same.”
And by that he means it’s a world full of super-intelligent, socially awkward people who illustrate the show’s elevator-pitch sound bite: “The people who are most qualified to succeed are the least able to handle success.” When Judge was in Silicon Valley, it was less entrepreneurial, less possible for one coder with a laptop and a phone to just start a company. “If I’d been born twenty-five years later, I think I could see myself doing a startup maybe,” he says. “I did sort of go the entrepreneurial route, not with tech, you know, but with dumb cartoons.”
The show’s inciting incident—sell out to a big company or start your own—hearkens back to when Judge had networks fighting over his Frog Baseball short. “When I was first pitching Silicon Valley, I think where it clicked for Mike Lombardo, at HBO, is when I said, ‘This is kind of autobiographical.’”
He also got a taste of Silicon Valley culture during the late-nineties dot-com boom, when the first wave of would-be content producers and new Hollywood moguls appeared. In the show, Hooli’s CEO, Gavin Belson, wears toe shoes and has his own meditation adviser on call, a now-almost stereotypical version of the modern tech mogul; the reverence with which Hooli’s employees speak about him is based on some of Judge’s own meetings with tech people during the dot.com boom.
“Judge’s whole thing was, this is a ridiculous enough world to mine comedy in perpetuity,” says Miller.
Whereas it took a few years for Office Space and Idiocracy to feel more like nonfiction than parody, the pace of the real-life Silicon Valley is such that Silicon Valley is in constant danger of being overtaken by events, especially with the shortness of its season (there are just eight episodes). Judge and the other writers are always emailing each other the latest headlines, like when venture capitalist Tom Perkins compared the Bay Area backlash against tech billionaires and companies to—no kidding—the way Jews were treated in Nazi Germany.
“It’s, like, are you guys doing press for our show?” says Nanjiani. “Because you’re saying the craziest shit right now.”
During filming, Judge and co-producer Alec Berg (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm) wondered if $10 million was a convincing number for their hero to turn down. Should it be higher? Lower? “I remember they were, like, ‘Does that seem unrealistic that he gets that much?’” says Middleditch. “‘Ah, we’ll go with it.’” A few months later, Snapchat turned down $3 billion.
While at SXSW, actor Zach Woods (The Office, In The Loop) found himself at breakfast in his hotel’s restaurant, within earshot of somebody rehearsing their big pitch. It sounded like Judge’s dialogue. “Our app is about changing the world. . . . If our app had a face from a character in history, it would be Gandhi.”
“That’s, like, literally from the trailer that’s out right now,” says Crew. “We should say that about our show, just, like, we’re trying to change the world. ‘If there was a face for our show, from a famous character in history, it would be Mahatma Gandhi.’”
Fact continued to intertwine with fiction at the SXSW post-screening Q and A. A couple of the actors on the panel couldn’t help but fall back on their stand-up/improv chops when an audience member—an actress who also used to work in Silicon Valley—asked if there would be a female engineer character in the future. “This wasn’t meant to be a challenging question,” she explained.
“That’s a challenging question,” answered Miller. “No, absolutely not. We live in a society with a glass ceiling. So you can see what’s above you, but you’ll never be able to get there.”
“We’re walking if there’s a female engineer,” joked Middleditch.
“What do you think the ratio is of men to women engineers in Silicon Valley,” Miller continued with mock ferocity, the words coming out of his mouth faster and louder. “Maybe what you should be asking is ‘Silicon Valley, why do YOU, as the source material for this HBO show, not have more women working in your world?’”
“Because they don’t know how to talk to girls,” the questioner, a good sport, replied.
“MAYBE WOMEN DON’T KNOW HOW TO MAKE NERDS FEEL COMFORTABLE,” Miller bellowed, breaking up the room.
“The answer’s yes,” Judge said, bringing the dialogue back down to earth. “The tech world, as you know, is like that.” He added that when the show went to TechCrunch Disrupt (“it’s like the American Idol of start-ups; DropBox and Yammer are both winners of that”), he took a picture of the crowd, and it was “maybe two percent female.”
“But I know they’re there. We’ve talked about it. We’re just starting.”