Tech elites love HBO comedy Silicon Valley but don't think it's about them

Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch (above) and creator Mike Judge.
Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch (above) and creator Mike Judge.PHOTO: HBO ASIA
Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch and creator Mike Judge (above).
Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch and creator Mike Judge (above).PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Despite mocking the tech world, TV comedy Silicon Valley is still well-received by those in the industry - a reaction that surprises its creator Mike Judge

The television comedy Silicon Valley gleefully skewers the technology sector of the San Francisco Bay Area, including its insane start-up valuations, eccentric and egotistical leaders, "tech bro" culture and soap opera-worthy in-fighting.

"The tech world is so absurd already, you don't really have to exaggerate too much," says its creator Mike Judge, 53. "A lot of what we put on the show is based on real stuff that's happened - and the real numbers. We're not exaggerating the amount of money that's being thrown around."

Yet he reveals that the show, which was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series at the Emmys last year, has been surprisingly well-received in the industry.

This, despite its merciless mocking of this world through characters such as Richard (Thomas Middleditch), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), three socially awkward programmers trying to get their data-compression start-up Pied Piper off the ground.

In addition, the series references real-life figures such as Tesla Motors chief executive officer Elon Musk, while many observers have noted similarities between other characters and industry leaders such as Yahoo chief executive officer Marissa Mayer and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

When Judge and the other writers toured the top companies in Silicon Valley to do research after their pilot episode aired in 2014, they were "surprised at how welcoming they were and how much they like the show".

We'd go to these companies and, time and time again, they'd go, 'Oh, it's so funny you make fun of (the characters) saying they just want to make the world a better place... but we actually are making the world a better place... So they get it - but they don't get it.

SILICON VALLEY CREATOR MIKE JUDGE on the reactions of the tech elite to his television comedy

"It's like when the movie This Is Spinal Tap came out - I remember thinking, 'Boy, this is going to pi** off heavy metal bands, it's so vicious.' But they all loved it," he says, referring to the classic 1984 mockumentary. "And I've kind of seen that happen with this show."

But while the tech elite seemed to embrace the series - which returned this week for a third season on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) - he believes they may have somewhat missed the point, often insisting their own companies are the exception to the sector's profit-driven ethos.

"We'd go to these companies and, time and time again, they'd go, 'Oh, it's so funny you make fun of (the characters) saying they just want to make the world a better place... but we actually are making the world a better place. And here are some of the things that we're doing...'

"So they get it - but they don't get it," says Judge, who wrote and directed the hit animated series Beavis And Butt-Head (1993 to 1997) and Emmy-winning King Of The Hill (1997 to 2010), along with the cult workplace comedy movie Office Space (1999).

"That's one of the things that's funny about this world. When Wall Street people were in the news for getting rich in the 1980s and 1990s, they just seemed unashamed about going, 'Yes, I'm trying to suck as much money as I can out of the economy and into my own pockets.'

"But in the tech world, it's not enough to be the richest people, they also have to be 'saving the world.' So it was fun to make fun of that as much as possible because you just hear it all the time."

As they learnt more about the industry, the show's writers and cast were also struck by the astronomical sums of money involved in start-up valuations and company acquisitions.

Middleditch, 34, says: "In one episode, someone's offering to buy Pied Piper and we turn them down. And in the script, it was originally for US$100 million, but the writers brought it down because they didn't think anyone would believe that someone was going to turn down a US$100-million offer.

"Then when we started filming, that whole Snapchat thing happened where that guy was turning down US$3 billion," he says, referring to the photo-sharing app's CEO Evan Spiegel turning down a lucrative cash acquisition offer from Facebook in 2013.

"So I definitely took away from this that there are a lot higher stakes and people are willing to turn down a lot more money for an app that essentially sends d**k pics," he quips about the app where sent pictures disappear after a period of time.

Judge was familiar with the sector because he worked as a programmer at a Silicon Valley start-up in the 1980s, but even he was and still is "continually surprised at how much money people are still making so quickly".

No matter how much money people think is made by Hollywood, show business pales in comparison, he adds.

"Since we started the pilot, we've seen WhatsApp sold for US$19 billion. In our world, probably the most successful person, say, producer Chuck Lorre or someone, is not even worth close to US$1 billion," Judge says, referring to the creator of hit shows such as The Big Bang Theory (2007 to present) and Two And A Half Men (2003 to 2015).

"And here you've got Spiegel, who is worth US$2 billion and 25 years old. It's crazy."

As he researched this world, Judge got the sense that sums like these are ultimately unsustainable.

"We were talking to one of the many billionaires we met about the WhatsApp deal, what the users were valued at and how Facebook bought them and immediately flipped that user value for so many billions of dollars - and it just feels like a bubble's got to burst here."

Silicon Valley also draws inspiration from the dramatic upheavals at companies such as Twitter, where behind-the-scenes machinations can lead to founders suddenly finding themselves out of a job. Season 3 begins with Richard having to deal with his company finally being acquired, but the new investors removing him as chief executive officer.

"There's a wealth of material. So many founders have been fired from their own companies - that's a very common thing so it seemed like we had to do that. There's one venture capitalist we met - I won't say who it is - but he said, 'Yeah, we have a saying here: It's never too early to fire the founder.'"

Judge believes that the Gold Rush in the tech sector and proliferation of young billionaires have altered the American Dream, as well as middle-class aspirations.

"It's definitely changed from when I was young. It's changed the social politics of high school.

"My daughters are 24 and 21. Thirty years ago, among people their age, the jocks would be looking at the nerds and picking on them. Now they're like, 'Oh, that guy might rule the world someday, I'd better be nice to him.' It's almost replaced starting a band as the suburban fantasy of kids."

•Silicon Valley Season 3 airs on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) every Monday at 10am and 10pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2016, with the headline 'Bowled over by tech geeks'. Print Edition | Subscribe