Silicon Valley is the smartest sitcom on TV

We spoke to the cast and creators of the HBO sitcom that makes the absurdities of the tech world universal.

Silicon Valley 2

Zach Woods, T.J. Miller, Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr

If Silicon Valley had been around in the days when three networks ruled the American airwaves, there’s a good chance that it would be as big as Seinfeld. Next to the grating horror of mainstream “nerd” sitcom The Big Bang Theory, Silicon Valley is pure gold: two seasons (and this week, the beginning of a third) of deftly written episodes with an exceptional ensemble cast that’s legitimately hilarious (even for adults with critical faculties) and highly relatable.

Set in California’s viciously competitive tech mecca, where five very different guys band together to launch a data compression app called Pied Piper, the show is a comedy first, but its serious stakes (ie. the constant threat of total failure) foster an empathy that keeps viewers hooked. And though its portrayal of the tech milieu is reportedly authentic enough to pass muster within the industry, its appeal is universal.

Russ Hanneman
Chris Diamantopoulos as Russ Hanneman

The struggles of this misfit crew will be familiar to entrepreneurs of all kinds, and to young people foist into the job market in uncertain times. The tension between the corporate and creative worlds, and the absurdities that that clash can create, were crucial to the conception and execution of Silicon Valley — while a number of real stories from the early days of Google, Facebook and Dropbox make their way into the scripts, it was easy for the writers and actors to draw on their own experiences in Hollywood to bring this show to life. While characters such as big-time CEO Gavin Belson are based on the kind of highly competitive corporate wolf in do-gooder clothing that are common in the tech world, billionaire investor Russ Hanneman (a season two scene-stealer played by Chris Diamantopoulos) is a composite of Hollywood “bad money” characters.

During last summer’s edition of the Just for Laughs festival, two of the creators and most of the cast of Silicon Valley (minus Kumail Nanjiani) were in town for a public panel discussion — three of them also participated in the now legendary live-read of The Big Lebowski, featuring Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence. I was lucky enough to speak to the Silicon Valley crew, two at a time.

“It wasn’t that hard to relate to the characters, especially in the first season,” says Zach Woods, “because trying to get a tech start-up off the ground is not dissimilar from making a pilot and hoping that it takes root, hoping that people like it, hoping that you can continue to be a meaningful participant in the whole thing.”

Woods plays Jared, who, in episode one, leaves Google-esque mega-corp. Hooli to launch Pied Piper with the app’s creator Richard (played by Thomas Middleditch) and their co-worker Monica (Amanda Crew). As convincing as he is at playing meek and mild, Woods claims he’s not as much like Jared as you might think.

“He’s a much better guy than I am in real life, a much more generous, gentle person than I am,” he says. “I’m not a monster, I hope, but the degree of maternal selflessness that Jared seems to have far exceeds anything I’m capable of.

“But anytime you play a character, what you have to draw from is your own personality and experiences. It’s like a mixing board where you turn up certain qualities and turn down other ones. But that initial soundboard is just me.”

“It depends on what you’re doing,” says his co-star Martin Starr, who spoke about a recent role in a film called Operator that took him outside his comfort zone. “Sometimes I don’t have anything to draw from and you just have to find a new perspective and figure something out that is a bit unknown and kind of illuminate the dark.

“But [Silicon Valley] is more akin to what you describe,” Starr says to Woods. “I already have a dry sense of humour and I get to play with that a lot more than I do normally. That and I get to be an asshole.”

In season one, Starr’s character Bertram Gilfoyle (just “Gilfoyle” on the show) is revealed to be a secret Canadian, so secret that he brings zero clichés to the portrayal — a refreshing omission considering how common the absurd shorthand of regional Canadian accents is on American TV.

Every nerd actor in Hollywood

There are a pair of real Canadians in the cast of Silicon Valley, namely Amanda Crew and the show’s lead Thomas Middleditch, who the role of Richard Hendricks was essentially written for. Silicon Valley was co-created by Mike Judge — yes, the same man behind Beavis and Butt-Head, King of the Hill, Office Space and Idiocracy — who’d worked with Middleditch on a 2011 revival of Beavis and Butt-Head. For Judge, finding the rest of the cast was a little like forming a boy band.

“We read lots and lots of different people, every nerd actor in Hollywood, and I feel really lucky that we got this cast,” Judge says, noting the number of indistinguishable actors from TV commercials who came through the auditions.

Mike Judge and Alec Berg
Mike Judge and Alec Berg

Judge hired all the primary actors for the show (Middleditch aside) based on their readings for the same character: Erlich Bachman, an entrepreneur who runs the start-up incubator (ie. house with electrical outlets) where Pied Piper takes shape. While that role ended up being played to douchey, debauched perfection by T. J. Miller, the other actors — Woods, Starr and Nanjiani (who plays Dinesh) — had wildly different interpretations of Bachman, all of which informed how their eventual roles would be written. And according to Alec Berg (whose executive producer credits also include Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm), the characters on Silicon Valley wound up being pretty archetypal.

“When we meet people in the tech world, they’ll say, ‘Oh I’m the Jared of my company’ or ‘I’m the Gilfoyle’ or ‘I’m the Dinesh’ — they’ll lock into one of those people, and that’s a testament to the guys.”

“Dr. Dre used to say that if hip hop doesn’t work in Compton, it won’t work outside of it, so Palo Alto [CA] is sort of our Compton.”

The season three tease (with season two spoilers)

Judge was employed as an engineer in Silicon Valley for a brief (“miserable”) period in the 1980s, and despite the passage of time, the people that are drawn to that world, and what he calls the “flavour” of the place, have not changed much. Judge worked for a start-up of 30 to 40 people, a phase that Silicon Valley may be moving closer to in season three (which was not entirely written at the time of our interview).

“They’re possibly gonna hire up and have some employees,” Judge says, the “they” being Pied Piper without its CEO Richard, who was kicked out of the company at the end of season two. “In the real world, what would (Richard) do?  Is he gonna try to claw his way back in, or is he gonna watch it grow without him? There’s so many crazy awkward stressful things that happen in situations like this — which happen a lot — and we’re looking at all of that.”

“It’s a really tricky thing with this show,” Berg adds. “These guys are trying so hard to grow this business that you have to give them some victories or the audience will get frustrated. If they don’t succeed sometimes and they don’t progress, people are just gonna go ‘I can’t watch these guys get kicked in the face every week.’ But this is also a group of guys who live and work together in a house, so if you don’t keep them outsiders and if there’s no tension, no possibility that it could all go away, it’s just not fun.

“People keep saying that Pied Piper should suddenly be worth $3-billion, but we’ve always said that these guys are sort of like the Bad News Bears — if they win the championship, they’re not the Bad News Bears anymore, you’re just the Bears and nobody wants to root for them — you’d be rooting for the guys who are trying to beat them. So we have to grow the business but we also have to restrict that growth, or we lose the show.” ■

Silicon Valley season three airs on HBO on Sundays at 10 p.m., beginning April 24.

Seasons one and two are available on DVD and Blu-Ray.