Mike Judge is dog tired. It’s 7:30 p.m. in Los Angeles, and he’s headed home after a 13-hour shift directing the second season of his delightfully snide HBO comedy Silicon Valley. He knows the turf well enough. After earning a physics degree from the University of California-San Diego in 1985, Judge, now 52, worked a few tech jobs himself, including a miserable gig as a test engineer for a Silicon Valley hardware maker.
But Judge loved to draw and tinker. On a whim, in 1989, he bought a vintage Bolex camera and used it to make Office Space, an animated short that got picked up by Comedy Central. A subsequent short, Frog Baseball, introduced the world to a pair of depraved young losers, and the rest is history: Beavis and Butt-head became an MTV staple and Judge went on to create, among other hits, King of the Hill and the 1999 feature film Office Space, now a cult classic. Silicon Valley, whose third season premieres on April 24, follows a crew of misfit hackers whose file-compression algorithm, Pied Piper, sparks a bidding war. The series, packed with hilarious dialogue, makes a mockery of the tech world’s hippie-capitalist hubris, smarmy lawyers, eccentric CEOs, and glaring deficit of X chromosomes.
Update (4/1/2016): Although I spoke with Judge shortly before the season 2 premiere, much of what we discussed is timeless. You’ll find the season 3 trailer farther down, but readers who don’t know the show should check out this original trailer first:
Mother Jones: Given the real-world news about apps like Titstare, protesters vomiting on Yahoo buses, and tech-libertarian island havens, a satirist hardly needs to exaggerate. Silicon Valley must seem like one big fat target.
Mike Judge: It’s definitely a wealth of material. Titstare actually happened after we had written and shot the Nip Alert episode, but hadn’t aired yet, so sometimes things almost happen simultaneously.
MJ: You make fun of how these companies all claim to be making the world a better place. Do you think they actually believe that?
Judge: Yeah. It kind of came out of the hippie culture of the Bay Area. You don’t want to be a greedy capitalist—even though that’s absolutely what a lot of them are doing. It’s almost kind of apologizing for how much money they are pulling down. I don’t have any problem with capitalism, but it’s just kind of funny. It makes for good comedy.
MJ: What other low-hanging fruit will you go after?
Judge: [Laughs.] The protesters are some low-hanging fruit. It’s such an interesting clash. If you take the tech founders and the protesters separately, they will probably have similar views about just about everything—except for vomiting on a bus. They’re protesting buses of Google employees, and yet they are going to go Google to see how much of a splash they made. They’re not out there saying, “Throw away your computer!”
One of my best friend’s nephews is a programmer for Google. He’s a really nice guy, and he deserves to take a nice bus to work. They’re not like robber barons, these people. They’re just programmers. So it’s a very odd thing to be lashing out against. On the other hand, I do understand why the protesters are angry. I know people who grew up in SF and have to move because they just cannot afford to live there.
MJ: You toured Google as part of your initial research. Did anything strike you as particularly comedic?
Judge: You hear about how the women’s bathroom is hardly ever used. And I remember that one of the big screens they have to live-stream town hall meetings had some error message on it, like a big “404 not found.” So, you know, at Google headquarters they have the same problems the rest of us have.
MJ: Speaking of women’s bathrooms, your casting pretty accurately reflects the valley’s gender imbalance. Have you thought about throwing a female coder in among these misfits?
Judge: Actually, something like that is going to happen in season two. There are female programmers; there are just not that many. You know, my ex-wife worked in tech, and she was usually the only girl in the room. There’s a lot of funny stuff there.
MJ: What did you have to do to make sure the next phase of Pied Piper feels realistic?
Judge: We met with a lot of VC firms—the next season is them going to venture capital places—and have gotten to know a lot of people: the Winklevoss twins, Drew Houston from Dropbox, Marc Andreessen, people who have invited us into their world and are fans of the show. Kara Swisher originally was really helpful. And TechCrunch‘s Michael Arrington—we got to use the name without having to make up a fake TechCrunch.
MJ: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that hilarious scene at the TechCrunch conference where Erlich‘s crack about jerking off every guy in the crowd leads to a brainstorming session about the most efficient way to accomplish it, which leads to a breakthrough in Pied Piper’s compression algorithm. How’d you come up with that?
Judge: I had wanted to do a version of the scene in A Beautiful Mind where [Russell Crowe] is talking about the way men and women behave in bars and it leads to a mathematical epiphany. I was trying to find something really funny. [Executive producer and writer] Alec Berg overheard another writer talking about being in some discussion, and saying, “No, you can jerk off four guys if you put their dicks tip to tip.” Alec came to me and said, “I think I’ve got the epiphany moment.” In the writers’ room, we were actually drawing diagrams on the dry-erase board. It just kept making us laugh more and more. And then we got our Stanford compression expert, Vinith Misra, and had him weigh in, and he just went to town on an entire paper (“Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency“) that’s now published online!
MJ: Was the name Pied Piper intended as a commentary on the way tech is spiriting away our attention?
Judge: I wish! It was just trying to find what people would think is a bad name. But then it had that added bonus of somebody leading everybody to their doom.
MJ: Let’s talk casting. Most of your leads are not well known. What were you looking for?
Judge: It sort of morphed. I was really happy with this cast, but every one of our main actors had read for Erlich, T.J. Miller‘s part—and each read it a very different way. I reworked the script to suit those characters. I kind of said, “What if Martin Starr is the Satanist guy?” Dinesh actually wasn’t quite as big of a part, but after Kumail Nanjiani came in and read, I made it bigger.
MJ: Which character do you most relate to?
Judge: I’d say [Pied Piper founder] Richard Hendriks. He’s the exaggerated version of how I am. Storywise, Beavis and Butthead was something I just did at my house, but it became this big thing and there were two billionaires fighting over it. If you substitute the compression algorithm for Beavis and Butthead, it was kind of similar—just feeling over my head, and then I was over my head. And I guess Dinesh is probably one of the more normal characters, so maybe I relate to him a little too.
MJ: Christopher Evan Welch, who played Pied Piper’s billionaire mentor Peter Gregory, died while you were shooting season one. Beyond the personal grief, how did you, as a storyteller, handle that loss?
Judge: We had shot up through six episodes. There was a really great scene in the final episode he was supposed to be in. The self-driving car scene where Jared gets stuck on the ship was basically replacing a scene that involved Peter Gregory’s private jet and Jared being stranded in Siberia. We were able to work around it, but it still sucks. Something will come up, and you just go, “Oh, that would’ve been a great bit for Chris.”
MJ: Elon Musk was critical of the show. He said you needed to go to Burning Man to understand the valley’s culture. What did you make of that?
Judge: That was one of the few criticisms from tech world. I actually talked to him. He pointed out that I haven’t worked in the tech world in a long time and it’s different now. I mean, he’s Elon Musk and he knows more about the tech world than I do, so I would never argue with that. But we’re doing a comedy. This isn’t a documentary. We’re looking for the funny, crazy, interesting stuff, and it may not always look exactly right to someone who is in it. For the most part, we get a lot of really nice compliments from the tech world.
MJ: So what was Silicon Valley like when you worked there?
Judge: I was on the bottom of the ladder. It was just the culture I just found a little weird. Instead of Burning Man, people would talk about how they went to Grateful Dead shows, but not out of any passion for music. It was sort of like you had to show you weren’t a nerd, but all the things people did to do that just made them seem like nerds. Office Space was partly those jobs. And when I was in college I worked a job; I only lasted two or three weeks, but it was enough for a lifetime of material. I was actually doing what the Milton character does—alphabetizing purchase orders, collating—and I just couldn’t stand it. When somebody asks me why I quit the tech world, Office Space is sort of the answer. But if I was born 25 years later, I could see myself wanting to do a startup.
MJ: In Office Space you played Stan, the chain-restaurant boss who gets on Jennifer Aniston’s case for not enough “flair.” Do you envision a role for yourself in Silicon Valley?
Judge: Not yet. The times I’ve done it it’s been almost as a last resort. Like the Stan character. I added those scenes at the last minute and had a bunch of people read for it, but I couldn’t find anybody else to do it the way I heard it in my head, and we didn’t have a whole lot of time. I was doing an imitation of an orchestra director I had.
MJ: And people loved it!
Judge: Yeah. But nothing’s come up in Silicon Valley. We have really great casting people. On Office Space, to try and find a Middle Eastern guy, at least back then, seemed hard. Now we have lots of great actors who are Indian, Pakistani. You keep writing all these parts and finding really good people. I didn’t know nerd actors run so deep in LA.
MJ: Any childhood interests that foreshadowed your current path?
Judge: Oh yeah, sure. I actually had a ham radio license and would be in my garage with a dipole antenna on the roof and an Heathkit transceiver doing Morse code and talking to people all around the country. People throw the term “nerd” around loosely nowadays. I was a major nerd for my time. Not many people had a ham radio license at 12 years old. It was absolutely nothing to be proud of.
MJ: At least until the CB radio craze came along.
Judge: We looked way down on CB radios! You have to pass a technical test to get a ham radio. The CB radio guys were just jerks. But I used to draw and do all kinds of really weird stuff. I used to tape record myself—this was like when I was 9 or 10. I still have the tapes. I would talk in this foreign accent nonstop and pretend to be interviewing my sister. I was a big weirdo. I don’t think anybody predicted any success out of it, but I guess, looking back, you know.