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Freaks of the Industry

Ellen Cushing | April 17, 2015 | Story Tech World National

It’s another blindingly sunny day in Silicon Valley, inside yet another low-slung, stale-aired hacker hostel, and something is very wrong.

Five young men in the standard uniform (hoodie, T-shirt, dirty blue jeans) pace and sit on couches and perch at desks, trying to solve a problem with their product—iterating, in Valley parlance—as young men much like them, from Santa Clara to SoMa, do all day, every day. Scattered around them is a fantasia of frat-boy filth and geek-culture clutter: half-eaten yogurts in the kitchen, water-stained copies of High Times and Wired on the ratty couch. The men are arguing about something, though the particulars of the dustup don’t matter as much as its conclusion: “We’re fucked!” says one of the five with exasperation.

And then: “Cut!”

From the back door of the house—actually a ceilingless set plopped down in the middle of a soundstage parked on the Sony lot in Culver City—Mike Judge emerges. The co-creator of HBO’s half-hour comedy Silicon Valley, now entering its second season as the most talked-about show in its titular region, Judge has a reputation for fastidiousness—and it’s certainly on display now, as he runs through various inflection options with actor Kumail Nanjiani. There are, as Judge sees it, three ways for Nanjiani’s character, Dinesh Chugtai, to deliver the line: the facetiously upspeaky “We’re fucked!”; the ominous, melodramatic “We. Are. Fucked”; and the exasperated, curt “We’re fucked.” Judge is a master of mining the banal for satirical value, and he’s not content to let this line achieve anything less than optimal comedic potential. (If this were the real Valley, that concept would be turned into an acronym—OCP—and trademarked.) Ultimately, the director and actor settle on the second option, and the filming resumes.

“We. Are. Fucked,” intones Nanjiani.

And then again. And again. A dozen-odd fucks later, Judge—like Steve Jobs assessing 4,000 earbud colors before selecting seashell gray—is finally satisfied.

The Silicon Valley that we encounter in Silicon Valley is an eerily familiar place, its lawns neatly manicured, its cars electrified and self-driving (and sometimes absurdly small), its inhabitants embroiled in concerns that don’t quite jibe with those of the average non-Peninsulite. The show’s first season centered on Richard Hendricks, a meek, Zuckerbergian everyman, and his company, Pied Piper, whose product is a high-speed, high-power application for compressing data. Richard (played by the endearingly pallid Thomas Middleditch) is surrounded by a band of sidekicks whose nerdy interests, odd tics, social awkwardness, and poor hygiene are straight out of startup central casting. T.J. Miller is Erlich Bachman, a boorish hacker-hostel proprietor with horrible manners and even worse facial hair—the show’s only true tech bro. Zach Woods plays well-meaning lackey Jared Dunn. Nanjiani and Martin Starr are Dinesh and Bertram Gilfoyle, the team’s ever-bickering programmer duo. At the close of the first season, Richard pulls off the unthinkable, winning TechCrunch Disrupt, the Valley’s annual marquee startup showcase, by the seat of his pants—then celebrates by vomiting into a dumpster.

In that single season, Silicon Valley established itself as pop culture’s keenest observer of the personalities, quirks, and tropes of this very specific, very strange milieu. And in doing so, it pulled off a rather neat trick: It captured the hearts of both people who work in the tech industry and people who revile it. Sam Biddle, former Valleywag editor and perpetual nuisance to the tech elite, told me that he loves the show. But so do legendary venture capitalists Marc Andreessen and Ron Conway; former AOL chief executive officer Barry Schuler; Zynga CEO Mark Pincus; Craigslist founder Craig Newmark; and Sam Altman, the whiz kid founder of the startup incubator Y Combinator. Silicon Valley’s first season—which was purportedly screened in living room viewing parties up and down the Peninsula— featured cameos by Re/code chief Kara Swisher, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and CrunchFund founder Michael Arrington, among many others; this season promises another flurry of high-profile, high-impact (and, for now, top secret) cameos.

“We think Silicon Valley is a great show,” angel investor Tyler Winklevoss tells me one day in April, speaking for himself and twin brother Cameron, with whom he appears briefly in the second season’s first episode (Erlich describes them as “two genetically enhanced Ken dolls”). “It really captures the technology startup scene in a good-natured way.” Swisher concurs: “It’s a good sendup of tech without being the stupid cliché Hollywood version of tech. It’s tough, but it’s fair.”

Perhaps nowhere has Silicon Valley collided more spectacularly with Silicon Valley than at this year’s Crunchies, the so-called Oscars of tech, put on by TechCrunch. Billionaires dressed like college students packed into Davies Symphony Hall, one of the city’s most conspicuously gorgeous buildings. The host of the night’s proceedings was none other than Miller, who has become Silicon Valley’s breakout star and its most marketable cast member. Outside, protesters in head-to-toe pig suits protested the atrocities, both real and imagined, committed by the industry, screaming at passersby about evictions. Within, Valley insiders walked a green carpet and posed for pictures as the assaultive synth line of a dubstep song made its way into the lobby. Gabi Holzwarth, girlfriend of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, came in a backless evening gown with a teacup terrier under her arm. A supersize version of the Crunchies statue—a stylized King Kong holding a bone—watched in simian silence as awards were presented in categories like Best E-Commerce Application and Venture Capitalist of the Year. All told, it felt a lot like a scene from Silicon Valley: life imitating art imitating life.

Later, Miller’s stint as MC of what he himself dubbed the “fake award show” would be roundly panned, both for his liberal use of the word “bitch” (often directed at Holzwarth) and for his final monologue, a rambling 19-minute, 28-second stream-of-consciousness burble. But for a while, at least, he was sublime. Consider his extended riff on imagined tech taglines, which managed to make fun of both the companies themselves and their self-image—and which was met with thunderous applause.

Tinder: “Get robbed by strangers you just had sex with.”

Fitbit: “If you don’t take the stairs, you’re going to die.”

Apple Pay: “God, I’ve always wanted a wallet that runs out of batteries.”

Or consider how Miller reckoned with his own presence at the Crunchies. “I’m on a show called Silicon Valley, making fun of Silicon Valley—effectively satirizing every single person in this room,” he offered. “On our show, we make fun of billionaires trying to justify why they have so much more money than anyone else. And as multibillionaires, you’re, like”—here, Miller affected an exaggerated, long-voweled, British-nobility accent—“‘Who is that tubby fellow with the strange facial hair from the show that is named where we live? Bring him! He will be our court jester!’”

Silicon Valley in general is kind of like that riff: painfully self-aware, fascinated with tech’s self-conception, and cognizant of its own ability to knock some icons off their pedestals. The tubby fellow with the strange facial hair wasn’t just entertaining tech’s holders of power. He was doing something far more interesting (and valuable): He was calling bullshit on them.

In a way, it’s a miracle that a show like Silicon Valley exists at all. It is, after all, about a bunch of entitled, dislikable-by-design nerds who stare at computers all day. Indeed, except for a few middling productions (the Vince Vaughn–Owen Wilson buddy comedy The Internship; Amazon’s also-ran web series Betas), Silicon Valley, at least in its most recent ascendancy, has scarcely been fodder for satire—let alone satire from one of the biggest names in comedy on one of television’s most prestigious networks.

And yet: Silicon Valley is here, and it is, shockingly, very good. Its humor lies in being both puerile and smart, in parodying the Valley’s immaturity, abject nerdiness, and myopic willingness to spend untold years and dollars solving problems that don’t exist, all without becoming overly preachy (à la HBO’s Newsroom) or outright preposterous (see: Netflix’s House of Cards). Take, for example, a spew-out-your-milk scene from last season’s finale, set late on the night before Pied Piper is to present at Disrupt. The team members are at a loss, convinced that they’re 12 hours away from career-ending embarrassment, and Erlich is attempting a pep talk.

“We’re going to win even if I have to go into the auditorium and personally jerk off every guy in the audience,” he announces.

“That’s a lot of jerking,” says Jared.

“And we only have 10 minutes to present,” says Bertram. “So...”

“So we’re fucked,” says Richard.

On another show, the joke might have ended there, a throwaway piece of dialogue, quickly abandoned. But here, the conceit opens a veritable penile Pandora’s box: The guys, their imaginations fueled by mathematical variations of “mean jerk time,” “dick-to-floor ratios,” and “complementary shaft angles,” work themselves into a lather. An impressively detailed diagram appears on the whiteboard, and soon Bertram and Dinesh are pondering the “orgasm threshold as a function of lambda sub-i.” The gag goes on and on for minutes, building and building until it crescendos into a (figurative) climax: a breakthrough by Richard, who rushes off to his workstation to write some code that’ll save the day and win Disrupt.

The scene is classic Judge—he’s one of modern comedy’s best at twisting the mundane into the absurd (recall the copy-machine scene from Office Space). But it’s also vintage HBO, king of the corporate satire (The Comeback, Entourage, How to Make It in America). And the director and the network share more than their taste for comedy: Both are also obsessively committed to verisimilitude. A former techie himself (he earned a physics degree from UC San Diego and worked in tech for several years, an experience that became the inspiration for Office Space), Judge has made numerous trips up to San Francisco and the South Bay over the past couple of years, touring dozens of offices and meeting with, says show runner Alec Berg, “hundreds” of tech workers. For a conference scene in the second season, the show’s producers flew two industry luminaries down to L.A. for what ended up being nonspeaking roles. Their presence becomes a so-called Easter egg, noticeable only to the tiny fraction of people who know what the men look like and happen to spot them in the background.

Before the start of last season, Judge and HBO hired Jonathan Dotan, a front-end developer who abandoned the Valley for Hollywood, as the show’s technical consultant, tasked with ensuring its accuracy. “I treated it like a seed company,” Dotan says. “I hired a team of consultants—10 to 12 people, lawyers, CTOs compression experts, everything you’d need to form a company.” His team now consults with more than 65 people: “Any piece of technology on the show, at least 10 people have looked at it, helped shape the dialogue or construct the prop, or create a plot line around it.” When the show, for instance, features a scrum board—a Post-It–covered whiteboard used to manage coding projects—all 200 Post-Its are accurate. When its characters talk about data compression, they use real terms in the right way. After Judge and Berg conceived the hand-job-factory joke in the first season finale, they commissioned Vinith Misra, a real-life Stanford compression expert on retainer with HBO, to write an actual paper determining, per its abstract, “a probabilistic model for the problem of stimulating a large male audience.”

In part, this attention to detail is a canny way to insulate the show from criticism: “I think one of the things that [tech professionals] appreciate is that somebody even cared enough to get it right,” says Judge. But even more, it’s an outgrowth of the fact that the real Silicon Valley is just as odd and comical as the TV version. “When you have this much absurdity, and it’s all true, you have to use it,” says Miller, smoking a clove cigarette out the door of his on-set trailer. He recaps the original pitch for the pilot, which had a major tech CEO offering Richard $100 million for the technology he’d developed for Pied Piper. “And we all thought that $100 million was too much, that no one would buy it,” Miller says. A few weeks later, Snapchat, a company with no revenue and a staff of 30, turned down a $3 billion purchase offer from Facebook.

The cast and crew are full of stories like that: In the first season some characters develop an app called NipAlert, a scene that was written a few weeks before some actual brogrammers released a similar app called Titstare. “It’s such a crazy time in history,” says Judge. “And one that I don’t think we’ve ever been in before: Some guys create something like WhatsApp and in a very short time become billionaires. It’s a great time to be making fun of this stuff.” The combination of antisocial personalities (what Clay Tarver, a show writer, calls “extremely intelligent, extremely awkward, extremely entitled people”) and high financial stakes generates much of the show’s tension—and a good deal of its humor. “There is no doubt in my mind that a lot of what people are doing in Silicon Valley is genuinely beneficial,” says Berg. “But the degree to which their commerce is viewed as altruism is really amazing. When somebody says that they’re doing something just to benefit other people, and then they’re making a billion dollars, that’s suspicious.”

Silicon Valley’s job is to turn that suspicion into satire. After all, hypocrisy is funny, and so is self-delusion. As one of the show’s characters says this season, “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.”

Yet, in spite of its cutting satire, Silicon Valley is, fundamentally, a sweet show. Its techies are not predators or cretins (well, except for Erlich) but lovable oddballs—mockable in their nerdiness and naïveté, but not intent on developing the next Titstare. By and large, they’re decent dudes trying to use their god-given talents to do productive work (Pied Piper’s killer feature compresses large amounts of data into small, shareable files very quickly without losing any of the data’s integrity—a multimillion-dollar innovation in the real and the fictional Valley). Richard and his band of sidekicks may occasionally be incompetent, but they’re not evil. They’re not even necessarily Zuckerbergian. In fact, they’re doing the very thing for which their creators mock the Valley: making the world better by making it more efficient.

So while the show is sharp, it’s a superficial, goofy kind of sharpness, more fascinated with surface-level signifiers and small-potatoes idiosyncrasies—smart cars, “culture fit,” those separated-toe shoes—than with deeply cutting commentary on the real ills of the Valley: the gender discrimination, the casual racism, the income inequality. There’s a reason for that, of course: Only the former is funny.

The fact is, Silicon Valley can make fun of dumb jargon and doughy white men in polo shirts all it wants, because those doughy white men have already won. “We had a choice,” Dotan says. “We could either laugh at the Valley or laugh with the Valley. There was a big decision in terms of how the humor would work. And a big relief is that people think we got it right. The reaction I get the most is people saying, ‘Oh, you’re laughing with us.’ The people with the greatest self-confidence are the ones who can laugh at themselves, at the farcical elements.”

And more and more of these inordinately self-confident people in our society are geeks. The men of Pied Piper aren’t, in fact, fucked, or at least not really, and never for long. The geek culture that Silicon Valley is tapping into has not only infiltrated popular culture—it has colonized it. “We’ve reached a point in American culture where it’s not, like, the ’80s version of the nerd,” says Middleditch. “If anything, it’s, like, oh God, let’s stop making Marvel movies. If anything, geek culture is reaching its zenith soon.”

For perhaps the first time, the nexus of capital and culture-shaping has shifted away from Hollywood and toward the Valley. “The amount of money that we’re talking about, and the wealth and power that the people have up there, is insane,” says Berg, back on set in L.A. “And I live in Hollywood. People think of show business as all these rich people and their egos, but I went to one dinner [in Silicon Valley] and there were four or five billionaires. Even with studio executives, you don’t get that— it’s just a completely different level.” As Tarver puts it, “These guys—they’re the kings, they’re the Carnegies, they’re the captains of industry, they’re the billionaires making the world go ’round.” Ultimately, Silicon Valley works for the same reason that Miller’s Crunchies performance worked (at least until it didn’t): Satire only succeeds when you’re punching up.

Toward the end of the Crunchies, eight minutes into his meandering closing monologue, Miller addressed that Silicon Valley obsession with changing the world. At first, it sounded like he was setting up for a joke, another roast-y barb in a night full of them: “As you all...ascend into the ether, you’re gonna say to yourselves, what I’m doing is making a difference,” Miller began. “And it’s true. The most difference that I can put forth is satirizing the thing that you do. Because all of you are, I guess, shaping American culture—maybe global culture. Certainly with the economic projects that you’ve endeavored into.”

He paused a beat, staring out into the silent room.

“Is it weird when I’m honest?”

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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