If ever there was a champion for the American beta male — nay, omega male — which is to say, a champion for the probably least-championable class of American, it would be Mike Judge. He's practically been an anthropologist moving from village to village in the hopes of classifying these unloved, uncelebrated subspecies of humanity. Beavis and Butthead chronicled the angry teen boy; Office Space considered the consequences of shoving grown-up angry teen boys into cubicles; King of the Hill looked at a regional specimen of flabby male adulthood, and Idiocracy explored a future world in which, improbably, these idiots (due to their being white males, perhaps) continued to be allowed to reign. (Extract had to fight the uphill battle of convincing us that adorable Jason Bateman was somehow in this charmless class.)
But Judge has a scientific bent, so maybe this study of American species is a natural result of having an archaeologist as a dad and graduating with a degree in physics. And that's got a lot to do with how he ended up a programmer in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, which introduced him to a world, and to a subspecies of American male, that would, 25 years on, rise up and take over the world. So maybe with Silicon Valley, Judge's HBO series about the promise and peril of the start-up world, we see finally the ascent of this previously unlovable caste into a position to program the future — for real. A meek protagonist (Thomas Middleditch) develops an algorithm that allows information to be compressed into smaller files without a sacrifice of quality (a working title of the show was Lossless). This “Nerd's MacGuffin” sets off a race to start a business before a larger company puts its ripoff version of his design on the market. Filling out the storyline are examinations of satanism, immigrants, narrow cars, working with friends, and lots of jargon buttressed by the desire “to make the world a better place.”
It's unclear whether this better place will be Idiocracy, but like that film, Judge is asking here whether the people in charge are really the best qualified to do so.
In Silicon Valley, Judge's meek finally stand to inherit the earth, but as he says, we really should have never left the village.
SF Weekly: Given all the controversy and debate the tech industry has kicked up here in the Bay Area, did you have any idea how perilous this show might be?
Mike Judge: That's interesting, because when I lived up here I lived in East Palo Alto. I couldn't afford to live anywhere else. I was an engineer, and I got frustrated by it. Any time you try to find an apartment, and this is back in '88, '87, it's just 20 people trying to get the same apartment. It's just this feeling of nobody wants you to live here. [laughs] I'm not surprised this is happening now. Now it's just in the news media. If we do another season [Editor's note: HBO on Monday greenlit a second season], we'll definitely work some of that in there 'cause it's really interesting. I'm not surprised by any of that.
How did the show come about?
A year and a half ago … we were just kinda looking [at the tech industry] in general terms. We definitely did a lot of research, but from the time we shot the pilot to now, so much has happened. I guess some of it's good luck. I also knew that this stuff wasn't gonna go away any time soon as far as these kinds of people being in the media. There are more tech people that the average American knows about now than when I worked in it.
I had wanted to do something like this a long time ago. I was reading an article about Paul Allen, I think it was in '99 or 2000 … and I see that picture of Bill Gates and Paul Allen in Albuquerque where I was living at the same time they were there, and they looked like these guys I knew who hung out around … these places I used to take programming classes, just the idea that those guys have billions and billions of dollars, and reading this article about him and these parties he has on a cruise ship and sending everyone a totem pole — it seems really great for comedy. John Altschuler, who co-wrote the pilot with me [and worked on King of the Hill] mentioned a while back that it would be fun to do a show like Dallas or Falcon Crest, but instead of oil or wine money, it was tech money.
Where do you think the tech industry will lead the human race?
I find tech stuff both interesting and helpful and incredibly annoying. Ultimately I think we'd probably be better off living in little villages. But that's not going to happen. In our series, we make fun of how a lot of them want to make lots of money, they're making lots of money, it's capitalism, but they shroud it in this “We're making the world a better place” thing all the time
As far as what it's doing to the world, I wish we were still living in little villages, but since it's here, it's here.
There are some similarities in the projects you work on, but they take a lot of different forms. Are you choosing your projects or vice versa?
I'm choosing them. In fact, this one you could kinda say follows from Office Space — if I had been born 25 years later, or those guys [in Office Space] had been born 15 years later. The landscape's a little different. I could see myself maybe trying to doing a start-up. … But back then, when I did it, the barrier for entry, you needed more money, more people. Now you can get five people to program, if you have a good idea, I think it's easier to get funded now.
Silicon Valley feels a bit like King of the Hill in that it's sometimes like anthropology more than comedy. Was that a goal?
I saw Do the Right Thing when it came out… and I'd never been to Brooklyn, but there was this nuance of something that's just real. You're learning about it through the movie. And I think King of the Hill, there's people who outside of Texas maybe learned little things about it.
[Silicon Valley] has a little bit of that too. I think there's people who go, “Oh, that must be a thing there. They're making fun of these guys saying that they're making the world a better place when it's clearly not.” I think you learn about the absurdity of it through the show. That's my hope, you know. Any time you're doing something that's very specific and observational you just gotta make sure that you're not telling it in a way that you're only gonna get it if there's some [specific] reference that you've heard of. We try to be careful about that.