“Office Space” creator and “Seinfeld” vet Alec Berg turn their satire on tech entrepreneurs
In the premiere episode of HBO's new sitcom “Silicon Valley,” a young programmer must decide whether to sell his algorithm for $10 million or take a much smaller deal that will let him retain ownership.
The show's creator, Mike Judge, drew on personal experience.
“Some of this is sometimes a little autobiographical with what happened with ‘Beavis and Butt-head,'” he said. “For me, I did the opposite decision of what Richard does on the show. However, I think it was the right decision.”
He pauses and deadpans, “Look at me now.”
You can hear dry traces in his voice of the characters he's created and played, from Butt-head to “King of the Hill” dad Hank Hill. He means to be self-deprecating. But looking at him now, things don't look so bad.
He's also created the films “Office Space,” “Extract,” and “Idiocracy,” which may be, in a way, a “Silicon Valley” sequel.
We talked with Judge and “Silicon Valley” executive producer Alec Berg (a “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” veteran) about Judge's work in Silicon Valley before he sold “Beavis and Butt-head” to MTV, and about the tragedy that struck their new series: one of its stars, the brilliant Christopher Evan Welch, died of cancer after the fifth episode.
We also talked about why there aren't more women on “Silicon Valley” – and in Silicon Valley.
TheWrap: How are the smart people in “Silicon Valley” like the dopes in “Idiocracy”?
Mike Judge: There's sort of a running thing in “Idiocracy” where you see all this technology that had all these good intentions but you just see it go wrong. There's the Carl's Jr. vending machine that tranquilizes the woman and then has Child Protective Services take her kids. Probably someone thought they were making the world a better place by creating technology that could do that. A lot of technology that we now have no choice but to have in every part of our lives is also very annoying.
We're developing a class of people — and I think I may be part of it — capable of producing online content and getting page views and sending tweets, but who may have no practical purpose in life. I don't know what side of the “Idiocracy”/”Silicon Valley” divide we're on. Are we driving technology, or getting stupider?
Mike Judge: In the movie I kind of imagine that all the people who invented the technology are long gone. So we're probably somewhere where those lines are crossing.
Berg (inset, left, with Judge, right): Somebody sent me an editorial about how kids today are blah blah blah, and how they don't respect their parents, and society is doomed. And it was written by a guy in 300 B.C. There's a lot of like, “This is the final straw!” Anytime I watch boxing and some scandal happens, somebody says, “If boxing had any credibility left!” It hasn't had any in years and years, but people keep hemming and hawing.
The villain of the show is a CEO who wants to not only make money, but be perceived as helping save the world. Why is that so annoying?
Judge: It really is just capitalism. They're trying to conquer and make lots of money but it's always shrouded in this thing about making the world a better place, which just starts to seem really false after a while. It was like that when I worked up there years ago and it's still like that, if you're talking about those types of billionaires.
Berg: I think it's pretty easy to be suspicious of that. In a weird way someone on Wall Street is being a little more honest if they just say, ‘Hey. We just want to make a fuckpile of money. The idea that these guys want to float these balloons to give African tribes people internet connections is all well and good. But it's also really the fact that these guys make money by connecting people to the internet and selling them their platforms. It's not entirely altruistic. And if it were altruistic, would these guys be worth $14 billion? Probably not.
Do you find yourself nervous or suspicious when you use Google or Facebook or other companies that are supposedly doing some good?
Judge: I'd say no, but recently I've started to wonder. (Long pause.) I don't do anything bad though.
Berg: Maybe this is my Swedish Midwestern upbringing, but I think it's kind of arrogant to think I'm doing s anything interesting enough for anyone to give a shit about spying on.
What's the right decision if you're offered $200,000 to develop your own idea or $10 million to sell it?
Berg: I've never said no to $10 million. Nor I suspect would I. But anytime you write a movie script or you have a pilot idea and you take it out and pitch it, if people are interested … it's part of the calculus. Jeez, these people are offering less money, but this may be a better place for it, and ultimately, what is the win? Do you just want the most money? Particularly with TV and film, it's never about the initial sale. It's about does this thing become the real thing and does it get to the right people and is it made the right way and is it distributed the right way. … Somewhere there's a guy who sold back a bunch of his points in “Seinfeld” because he wanted to go do something else. I'm sure he's not happy about it.
You're not that guy, right?
If I had had points in “Seinfeld,” I would be talking to you from my spaceship.
You've said that while this show is male-dominated, it's only as male-dominated as the real Silicon Valley. Do you plan to critique that more?
Judge: We do take shots at this world. … We've talked about that if there's a second season. Doing more with that.
Berg: It's definitely one of those super relevant hot-button issues that if we're lucky enough to do a second season we would love to steer right in the middle of. … That and the class issues and gentrifying, these are super relevant things and if we can come up with the definitive satirical take on them — if not this show, then who?
It's not an excuse, but the most sexist shot in the entire series is a real shot we got when we were at TechCrunch Disrupt of this massive room and there's like two women and 300 dudes in it. And it's a real shot. It's not something we crafted.
It seems like such a gross world — five dudes living in a two-bedroom, coding all night.
That's why women don't want to be in it. [Laughs.] I don't know … programmers are in such demand, I don't think there's anyone saying, “No, don't let women in.” In fact my ex-wife was in the tech world. She had a physics degree like me and there weren't a lot of women in those departments. I guess someone has to say why aren't women majoring in computer science and engineering [in the same numbers as men].
Berg: The one statistic I just heard is only 4 percent of partners are women. We're not saying that justifies us in making it like an old Shakespeare play where all the cast members are male. But I think we owe it to the show to come up with kind of a definitive satirical take on it.
Christopher Evan Welch is so excellent on the show, and he looks so healthy. Did you have any idea he was apparently terminally ill?
Judge: Actually, he'd gone through chemo between shooting the pilot and the series, and it seemed like he'd recovered completely. We didn't see it coming at all.
Berg: It was incredibly shocking. … That was gut-wrenching and obviously for all of the right reasons it was a terribly horrible thing. But also just on a selfish level to not have that character in that toolbox to play with was such a bummer.
Judge: He was so fun to write for… He was amazing. He was the one that we found ourselves talking about his performance. You'd go home from the set imitating what he was doing.