The more you research Silicon Valley, the funnier it gets, according to Alec Berg (“Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), executive producer of HBO’s tech-culture skewering “Silicon Valley,” which returns for its second season on April 12.
Berg, who produces the show with Mike Judge, says the writing team toured countless tech companies, incubators and accelerators in preparation for the new episodes. There were also dinners with venture capitalists and company founders — as he puts it, “a lot of billionaires.”
Following Season 1, both Berg and Judge hinted at wanting to explore bigger themes brewing in “Silicon Valley.” Watch for more exploration of subjects such as wealth, gender and IP theft. And keep an eye out for Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel and the Winklevoss twins in the season premiere.
Berg took a moment recently to talk tech and TV with me:
On the production side, what was the biggest difference between Season 1 and Season 2?
The biggest difference between last season and this one, hands down, has been dealing with the huge void left by the death of Christopher Evan Welch, who played Peter Gregory. His death was crushing in all of the obvious ways.
But beyond all of the personal stuff, it was really hard on a creative level. The Peter Gregory character was pretty crucial to the show as a source of comedy, as a source of insight into the tech world and the type of people who thrive there, and most importantly as a source of stories and conflict for the guys in the hostel. Richard’s whole effort to get Pied Piper off the ground was kind of tied to gaining Peter’s support and approval, and we had to figure out a way to do the show without him. It really changed the entire course of the series in a pretty radical way. I guess it remains to be seen how successful we were.
Ahead of Season 1, you talked with me about the extensive research you did in crafting the show. What was the research process like for Season 2?
We kind of picked up where we left off last season. We read a lot, met a lot of people and tried to ask a lot of questions. At the beginning of the writing process, we took the entire writing staff up to the Valley and SF, met with a ton of people, toured a ton of companies, incubators and accelerators. We had a bunch of meetings and dinners with assorted VCs, founders and investors — a lot of billionaires.
We also have a producer on the show whose entire job is making sure we get the technical stuff right. He’s assembled a team of advisors that is pretty mind-boggling. We keep joking that we should use all of these advisors to help us start an actual company instead of doing a jerky TV show about one. The opportunity cost of doing this show is proving to be regretful.
You and Mike hinted at wanting to explore bigger themes brewing in Silicon Valley, such as the Google bus protests and income inequality. What themes may surface in Season 2?
Anything we can mine for comedy or truth: money vs. autonomy, IP theft, gender. It’s fun to do a show that satirizes a real place, especially one with all of the money and social dysfunction of the real Silicon Valley, because a lot of the hard work is done for you. The more we look into what’s really happening in the real Valley, the more material we find for the show.
We’ve done pretty well just taking real things and depicting them on the show. The narrow car in the pilot last year is a real thing, but everyone thought we made it up. A lot of people asked me how we built that thing. We didn’t. It’s real. Hypothetically, I suppose Gavin Belson would only have to say some of the real things that Tom Perkins has said, and he’d come off as pretty out there.
Mike also said at least two main female characters would be introduced in Season 2. Can you elaborate on the storylines tied to those characters?
The answer is yes, we actually do cast women in the show. Tune in and see for yourself.
“Silicon Valley” star T.J. Miller was recently criticized for comments he made while hosting TechCrunch’s Crunchies Awards. Have you spoken with T.J. about the reaction?
That happened right as we were wrapping up the shoot, so I didn’t get a chance to talk to him about it at all. And I haven’t seen a lot of the footage. But my sense is that the TechCrunch people hired a really funny, edgy, smart and provocative comedian to liven up a levity-challenged awards show, and when he did exactly what they hired him to do, a few people complained about it, and TechCrunch folded their cards and issued an apology. Everyone I talked to who was actually there enjoyed it.
Season 1 included cameos from people such as Google’s Eric Schmidt. Are there more cameos in Season 2? And did you have to politely turn down any requests from Valley celebrities hoping to make an appearance?
A bunch of tech luminaries who clearly have much better things to do were kind enough to volunteer their time to be in the show. The Winklevoss twins, Evan Spiegel, Justin Rosenstein and some of the Dropbox guys all appear in the first episode of the season. Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg play themselves in one of the early episodes. Real tech people have been really positive about the show and for whatever reason seem to want to swing by the shoot and be in scenes. It can’t possibly be a career move for them.
Elon Musk was pegged as an outspoken critic of Silicon Valley, based on comments he made after seeing the Season 1 premiere. With a full season complete, any updates on how Musk feels about the show?
In fairness, just because Elon “was pegged as an outspoken critic” of the show doesn’t mean he was an outspoken critic of the show. I read what he said. It wasn’t that bad. And I’m not spinning here. It would probably be better press for us if he actually hated the show.
I know people probably get a lot of clicks stirring the pot, and I appreciate that some people took the piss out of Elon and seemed to side with us, but if what Elon said is the worst criticism we get from insiders, then I’m pretty much over the moon.
I should also add that I have tremendous respect for that guy and all he’s done. Also, apropos of nothing, I should make it clear that I need a new car, and that I am very afraid of being killed by lasers from space.
Ahead of Season 1, you told me HBO had been “unintrusive” in the creative process. What about with Season 2?
Best creative situation in which I’ve ever had the pleasure of working. Hands down. They’re smart people who give you what you need and let you do your job. They totally understand the show and support it in the best possible way. They’re the best. Also, at this point I’d be remiss if I didn’t reiterate that I need a new car.
You started 2015 by tweeting, “This year I resolve to spend less time with family and more time on Twitter.” Based on your recent tweet activity, should I conclude you’re still spending time with your family?
Who says I can’t spend less time at home and less time on Twitter? I’m multi-tasking. Or whatever the opposite of that is. Multi-not-tasking.
“Silicon Valley” Season 2 premieres at 10 p.m. on April 12 HBO