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[July 04, 2014]
The Guide: THE APPS: PLANET OF: Mike Judge created Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill, while his Office Space defined white-collar drudgery. Now he's satirising tech startups.... Graeme Virtue plugs in
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) He created and voiced puerile, metal-loving dunces Beavis and Butt-head, but in real life, Mike Judge speaks softly and is unfailingly polite. Which makes his impression of Tyler, The Creator even funnier. He recalls a recent meeting with the notorious rap tyro where the conversation turned to Judge's current project Silicon Valley. "I guess Tyler had seen the billboards for the show," explains Judge. "And he said, and I won't get this exactly right, but it was something like: 'Man, I thought it was going to be some fucking show about how fucking hard it is to make a fucking computer. Then I saw it, man, and that shit is dope.'" The 51-year-old sounds half-embarrassed and half-proud. He chuckles at the memory, and you can hear the faintest echo of Butt-head.
Once an arcane minority interest, the entrepreneurial tech world of Silicon Valley is now fully mainstream, as the software and hardware companies hothoused in Palo Alto - your Googles, your Teslas, your Mashables - have become desirable stocks and household names. Now everyone's mum knows who Sergey Brin is (or is at least aware he's worth a mint). Judge's HBO sitcom, which he developed with veteran Seinfeld writer and producer Alec Berg, has cannily synced with our current tech obsession, and feels like the enhanced V2.0 of a geek-literate TV trend started by The Big Bang Theory and The IT Crowd.
The show centres around Richard Hendriks (Thomas Middleditch), an anxious programmer in a Zuckerberg hoodie who writes a game-changing compression algorithm. No rock star, Hendriks finds himself kicked like a hacky-sack between two rival mentors. On one shoulder is the memorably strange angel investor Peter Gregory, who offers Hendriks the freedom to run his own company; on the other, there's Gavin Belson, the devilish head of Google-esque behemoth Hooli, who offers $10m just to secure the algorithm. Suddenly, Hendriks's spoddy start-up, Pied Piper, is the hottest tech ticket in town, and his coding buddies morph from bungalow-sharing friends to fractious employees.
"I think there's a relatable thing about a guy who's in over his head or who doesn't have the social skills to do things like take charge or fire his friend," says Judge. "We tried to make it not about the tech, really." Industry-watchers in the real Valley have already decided who the two rival kingmakers must be based on: Peter Gregory urges teenagers to reject college, which sounds like the mantra of Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, while Belson's supercharged mix of market domination and evangelical philanthropy has drawn comparisons to the billionaire CEO of Salesforce.com, Mark Benioff. Judge diplomatically bats down the notion.
"There was no one-to-one, 'this-guy's-based-on-that-guy,'" he insists. "They're just drawn from some personality types I know well." But the gold-rush history of Palo Alto threw up plenty of useful tales. "We heard that when Sergey Brin and Larry Page got their first angel investment of $100,000, they were handed a cheque that was written out to Google Incorporated," says Berg. "And they hadn't registered Google Incorporated and had no bank account in that name, so they couldn't cash the cheque. We thought that was hilarious, so that's exactly what happens to Richard and Pied Piper." Pied Piper's crappy bungalow base is a world away from Hooli, an immaculate, primary-coloured beanbag-and-juice-bar campus, but the show pokes fun at both evangelical tech do-gooders and the hustlers trying to make a quick buck from useless apps. "We're equal-opportunity that way," laughs Judge. He also has a great ear for the mangled aspirational language of coding pitches. "Some of that stuff, we just go with what sounds awesome: 'Elegant class hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility.' Somebody will say that and everyone nods along. . .
it just sounds funny." Real-life tech faces like Google chairman Eric Schmidt and influential journalist Kara Swisher pop up on the show, but there are also more recognisable cameos, notably a bummed-out appearance by Kid Rock, booked for a cash-rich, credibility-poor tech launch. "Kid Rock sort of owed me one," says Judge. "I'd done a Beavis And Butt-head thing for him for free that he used on his Jumbotrons on tour in 2011." The scene was based on Judge's own experience. "I was at a big party a long time ago, before the last bubble burst. Run-DMC was playing, which was the only reason I went. And it was just a lot of disinterested tech people standing around. It seemed like an odd juxtaposition." The tech world exists in its own bubble, but increasingly, it's finding itself the target of real-world scrutiny. In San Francisco, Google's shuttle-bus service, which takes employees to their Silicon Valley HQ, has been the target of guerrilla action, a backlash against the city's colonisation by tech employees that, protesters claim, is inflating rents and house prices and causing a sharp spike in evictions.
"I can see both sides of it," says Judge. "My ex-wife's cousin grew up in San Francisco and is now having to move. She doesn't work in tech and she can't afford it. But one of my best friend's nephews is a programmer at Google and I don't see anything wrong with a nice shuttle bus taking him to work. Everyone wants their cellphones to work better and their internet to go faster, and to do that you have to find the best people and pay them a lot." Judge has Silicon Valley history himself. He moved to the valley in 1987 to work at a graphics company in Santa Clara, but, hating the culture, quit after three months. After seeing animation cels on display on a movie theatre, he purchased his own 16mm camera. In a sense, he's the ultimate analogue start-up: the struggling artist who ended up being courted by Viacom.
"To me, Silicon Valley feels a little autobiographical," he says. "I was making these animated shorts in my house on a Bolex camera and mailing them out to people, and Beavis And Butt-head eventually became this thing that two billionaires were fighting over." Judge's short film Frog Baseball, which aired on MTV's animation showcase Liquid Television, morphed into Beavis And Butt-head, which ran on MTV for four years between 1993 and 1997. His next show, the double Emmy-winning King Of The Hill, for a while outperformed The Simpsons in ratings, while his cult movies Office Space and Idiocracy cemented him as a revered comedy brand in his own right. A revived Beavis And Butt-head ran for just one season on MTV in 2011, but he seems to have found a groove at HBO, where Silicon Valley has already been renewed.
It won't be quite the same, however. Christopher Evan Welch, the actor who imbues Peter Gregory with such a vivid sense of strangeness in its opening episodes, passed away due to lung cancer midway through shooting.
"In the edit, we watch each take literally hundreds of times," says Alec Berg, "and every time we watched his stuff we found something surprising." For Judge, the show hasn't quite bounced back from that. "It's still hitting me as we start to do season two," he says. "But I feel lucky and privileged to have been able to work with him. His whole body language and mannerisms just changed when he was doing that character. It was pretty incredible to see." Now they've become so embedded in the world of the future, it's easy to picture Judge and Berg mapping out episodes on gesture-controlled Hooli-branded holo-tablets. Compared to those days using a Bolex, has working on Silicon Valley changed Judge's relationship with technology irrevocably? There is a long pause. "Uh, when we started working on season two, I switched from AOL to Gmail." * Silicon Valley starts 16 Jul, 9pm, Sky Atlantic = Captions: BASIC instinct: (l-r) Kumail Nanjiani, Marin Starr, Thomas Middleditch, Zach Woods, TJ Miller "What to see my dongle?" Christopher Evamn Welch turns on the charm Judge's summing-up: (from top) Office Space; King Of The Hill, B&B (c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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