This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Job: Producer and writer of Silicon Valley, HBO’s new, tech-skewering comedy, which premieres April 6
Residence: Austin, Texas
San Francisco: After Office Space and Beavis and Butt-Head, you could pitch a show about anything. Why tech?
Mike Judge: The idea was to do a show like Dallas or Falcon Crest, but instead of making it about oil money or wine money, it’s about tech money. A friend recently told me this story about getting coffee and listening to a woman talk about the app she wanted to design. When I was an engineer 25 years ago, that wasn’t something you could talk about to an ordinary person, but now everyone has technology. At the same time, for the most part, no one knows about the guys who actually make all this stuff. That’s why I wanted to do this show.
The pilot paints Palo Alto as a sort of wasteland of hapless white-collar serfs and mad demigod billionaires, and in general, Silicon Valley’s satire is pretty pointed and specific. There’s a lot of catharsis here, especially for people living in the Bay Area. Did you predict the anti-tech rancor we’re getting now, or was it a lucky break?
It’s a coincidence, but I do think that you could feel it coming on a little bit. You see people making something just to flip it for big money to Google—it’s a feeding frenzy. There are computer billionaires out there who want to build private, offshore islands and have their own monetary system, but then also try to have it both ways by staying the cool guy— they go on and on about making the world a better place and try to join Occupy Wall Street. Are you kidding me? I’m definitely interested in lampooning the billionaires. With the protagonists, it’s more affectionate parody. Although we do have a nerdy Satanist programmer just to show how sad and pathetic that stuff is.
Are audiences outside the Bay Area going to understand the satire if they haven’t run into the real thing every day? There’s a great Peter Thiel parody in the pilot, but how many Americans know enough about him to pick up on that?
People can tell when you’re being sincere. When I saw Do the Right Thing, I had never been to Brooklyn, but I still knew that the movie was a very real picture of that place. Even if something is absurd, people will know it’s real if you have a good sense for it. Most of the show is based on real things, even though some of them seem too absurd to be real.
Josh Brener’s character makes an app called Nip Alert, and the whole point is that it’s sexist and perverted and not a good app—but then someone came out with a real one, called Titstare, and now everyone’s going to assume that we were referencing it. And the stuff Tom Perkins said, comparing rich people to Jews in prison camps? Or that book he wrote called Sex and the Single Zillionaire? Chris Welch plays one of our kooky tech billionaires, but if we wrote that stuff in a script for him, no one would believe it
You premiere the same night as the new season of Game of Thrones. Which show is more brutal?
I would probably rather live in Game of Thrones than be a programmer. At least they kill you without the slow crushing of your soul first.
Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco