For close to 20 years, multi-hyphenate Mike Judge has kept the under-25 set in stitches with his takes of less-than types, read affable vulgarians Beavis and Butthead, the hysterical rednecks on Fox’s King of the Hill, as well as know-it-all bosses in Fox’s Office Space; the latter which continues to be a cult sensation 15 years after its release. This April, Judge launched his first live-action TV comedy series, HBO‘s Silicon Valley, and like Office Space, the show provides a close-up of the absurdities of corporate types, but this time it’s the billionaires and computer geniuses who rule Northern Cali’s tech world. The series follows a group of nerdy programmers comprised of Richard (Thomas Middleditch), Erlich (T.J. Miller), Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Jared (Zach Woods) who hatch the idea for an audio-compression technology called Pied Piper, only to see it stolen by the Bill Gates-ian tech lord Gavin Belson. Much like his previous projects, Judge continues to flex his finesse for nuanced, deadpan, grounded, idiosyncratic types with Silicon Valley. Though HBO only aired eight episodes this spring, Silicon Valley is on pre-Emmy nom fire with three TV Critics’ Choice noms for best comedy series, actor (Middleditch) and supporting comedy actor (Christopher Evan Welch). Click through for interview:
DEADLINE: Silicon Valley is inspired by your work experiences working in the computer tech industry. But how did you originally conceive this project, as a TV series or a follow-up to your cult film Office Space?
MIKE JUDGE: I’ve been hovering around something like this with for a while. Way back, before the dotcom burst in 2000, I thought about doing something like this, about a tech billionaire Paul Allen-type, but that was as a movie. But then John Altschuler, of King and the Hill; he suggested an idea like Falcon Crest, but instead of wine and oil money, it would be tech money. HBO came to me with an idea about gamers with Scott Rudin attached, and from that point it was always going to be a TV series. I told them that I didn’t know enough about the gaming world, but I had worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley, and I suggested we do a project about that.
DEADLINE: What was the biggest challenge, in getting the project off the ground? Were there any nuts that needed to be cracked creatively?
JUDGE: This project felt charmed from the beginning. I was a little worried before we stated the casting process. I thought of Thomas Middleditch (as lead programmer Richard) when I wrote it. He auditioned like everybody else and was great. It was important to me that the cast was believable, that they are highly intelligent and not just goofy caricatures. They had to be both funny and good actors. We found these guys and juggled things around and wrote to them. These guys are programmers and sit in front of the computer screen for 16 hours – how do you film that and make that funny? That was a challenge. This world is so absurd, there’s a lot of great material along the way.
DEADLINE: I understand that there’s a little bit of you in Richard, specifically when you were impacted by the Viacom and Paramount merger. Please explain.
JUDGE: I don’t even know all the details. It was regarding (David) Geffen and (Viacom Executive Chairman) Sumner Redstone. I just found myself in the center of this…it was with Beavis & Butt-Head mostly. At one point, I met with all the studios and I was going to do it with Fox and Peter Chernin, then Geffen said no, and then Redstone bought MTV. All this craziness that started with these billionaires battling over something I made in my house with pen, paper, ink and animation cells. There’s some parallels there. There’s a lot of similarities between Hollywood and the Tech world — very different character types, but just in how something becomes hot. There’s more money in tech.
DEADLINE: What Strange Brew was to Gen X, Office Space is to the millennial generation. What is it about that film that still resonates?
JUDGE: It’s definitely made a big profit for Fox and there’s even merchandise [Editor’s note: The film was made for $10 million]. I started to notice it was getting a cult following a year or two after it came out. I would have thought that the world would have changed more, and that the film wouldn’t be relevant, but I think there are still bosses and offices like that. About four years after Office Space came out, TGI Fridays got rid of all that (button) flair, because people would come in and make cracks about it. One of my ADs asked once at the restaurant why their flair was missing and they said they removed it because of that movie Office Space. So, maybe I made the world a better place. Sometimes, I’m surprised that it’s relevant. I thought there would be a new kind of asshole boss and this would be antiquated. I love it when people say they related to it. It was hard to get made. The studio didn’t like the cast, the music — they didn’t like a lot of it. Then it didn’t do well right way, so I got that ‘I told you so!’ thing from them. Then to have the film make a lot of money — it was really a sweet thing.
DEADLINE: You have a knack for capturing and lampooning corporate culture. Can you expound further on the link between Silicon Valley and Office Space? Does the new series reflect just another atmosphere of eccentrics?
JUDGE: I was never consciously thinking of a link between those two projects, but I guess the kind of absurd things that I find funny and interesting, I always feel like, ‘Hey no one made fun of this!’ I would watch CNBC and see all these commercials for tech companies, GE or Exxon and they’re just gushing about how they’re making the world a better place and ya know, it’s just kinda begging to be made fun of. There’s a new corporate culture, that wasn’t the same as there was in 1998-99 when I made Office Space, so that is what’s fun to make fun of. I think that might be why Silicon Valley feels similar to Office Space for people. I don’t use the word satire too much in my daily life, but I guess that’s what I’m doing.
DEADLINE: One of the supporting characters makes a reference to Richard (the main character) having Asperger’s syndrome, which brings to light how tech companies in Silicon Valley recruit those with autism and Asperger’s to fulfill specific roles. Was this commonplace when you worked in Silicon Valley?
JUDGE: Back when I was an engineer, there was always a certain type that can just sit there and code away for hours, and the companies give them Snickers bars, pizza and Dr. Pepper and they’re fine and happy. They usually aren’t the ones to make a lot of money. They make good money, but what’s happened now that’s different is that there are venture capitalists who are actually more inclined to invest in somebody who has an Asperger-type of delivery when they’re pitching their concept because it makes everyone (in the room) think they are smarter.
DEADLINE: Expound on working with HBO. Was it easier shooting the series than a feature film?
JUDGE: HBO doesn’t focus group test. I don’t think I ever focus group-tested any of my projects. On King of the Hill we never focus group-tested because of the length of time it takes to animate, plus we had a 13-episode commitment. I think, they (Fox) just had no choice: It was gonna air no matter what. HBO is just the best experience with a studio I’ve ever had. They have really just been supportive and helpful and didn’t hassle me about casting, music or anything. Shooting the series has been a lot like shooting a feature. We use the same kind of cameras, which have the same production value. You can just project these episodes in a theater. It really is like shooting a movie. The good thing about this TV series is that I have more chances to develop the characters. One isn’t just putting all their eggs in one basket. There was the opportunity to shoot extra footage and add it in later.
DEADLINE: You won an Emmy for King of the Hill for best animated program. Do you have an idea of what type of comedy material floats with Emmy voters?
JUDGE: You know I’m maybe the wrong person to ask. I know so little about the Emmys. I didn’t even go when King of the Hill won. When King of the Hill would get nominated, we would lose sometimes to The Simpsons and I don’t know if the year we won, was particularly better than the years we lost. I just remember being kinda surprised when I got the phone call saying we won. It seems like they nominate good shows. The shows that win are good shows. The Simpsons is great. I think they (the TV Academy) generally have pretty good taste, but I don’t know.