‘Silicon Valley’ Showrunner Alec Berg Talks About Being Out-Sillied By The Real Silicon Valley

Cultural Critic
07.19.16
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On the heels of a triumphant third season, Silicon Valley received formal recognition as one TV’s funniest shows last week from the Emmys. Silicon Valley earned 11 nominations, including Best Comedy Series and a Best Actor in A Comedy Series nod for star Thomas Middleditch. It was a testament to how Silicon Valley can skewer the excesses of the real Silicon Valley with expert precision without seeming too insider-ish. (Turns out the vacuousness of tech companies is quite similar to the vacuousness of all workplaces.) Silicon Valley‘s delicate balance of specificity and universality derives in part from how conversant the show’s writers are with the subject matter, and how it relates to a larger world.

“It’s just one of those things where, for the die-hard tech fans, we like to throw things in to just say that we’re paying attention,” explained show runner Alec Berg, who spoke with us last week during a break from writing Silicon Valley‘s fourth season. I had just asked about an episode in which the name of this very website appeared as a punchline. I wondered whether we should be flattered or insulted.

“I think maybe in that same episode… we dropped the Theranos reference in,” Berg said.

Sometimes, the real-life Silicon Valley manages to out-do Silicon Valley on the silliness front. Last season on Silicon Valley the TV show, Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller) bought a blog to stave off bad publicity for Pied Piper. Meanwhile in the real Silicon Valley, Peter Thiel bankrolled Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker and bankrupted the site.

How did Berg, whose past writing credits include Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, react to being out-sillied? And will Gavin Belson go on a similar vendetta in season four? Berg tried to give us a sense of where Silicon Valley is headed amid the increasingly weird reality of the tech world.

What’s it like when the reality of Silicon Valley is more ridiculous than Silicon Valley the TV show?

It’s one of the joys of doing a show like this. Imagine the craziest thing that you think that could ever happen and then you wait a week and somebody does something in real life that’s crazier. It’s how you know that you’re plowing a fertile field.

On Seinfeld years ago, we used to write this J. Peterman character, and we’d write the craziest stuff we could think of, and then a week later the real J. Peterman catalog would come out and blow all of our craziness out of the water.

Can we look forward to Gavin Belson backing a wrestler in a lawsuit against a gossip website in season four?

We just starting writing a couple weeks ago. It’s a promising area.

The Peter Thiel story highlights the tension that exists between Silicon Valley and the media, and the problems that arise when the media wants transparency and corporate leaders don’t. Your show is obviously fictional, not journalistic. But you are going for a kind of realism. Do you find that people in Silicon Valley are sensitive when you make fun of something that might be a little too close to real life?

If people are feeling personally attacked, I certainly haven’t heard any of that. I think we are pretty careful that if something is going to feel like a real personal attack against somebody, we fictionalize the characters enough that it’s not.

Every once in awhile we’ll (reference actual companies). That Theranos reference was one — in light of all of the stuff that’s gone on with that company, that was one where they could say, “It’s not like we’re a fraud like Theranos,” because that’s become an overwhelming thing to say around that company. For the most part, I think you have a lot more latitude when you fictionalize stuff.

So, you never worry about someone taking a joke the wrong way? Has that ever come up in the writers’ room?

Not really. If we did an episode where we said some real tech type was a giant asshole, I think you’re churning into a gray area. But Gavin Belson gave, almost word for word, the same speech about billionaires being discriminated against just like Jews in Nazi Germany [as Thomas Perkins]. And then we beat the shit out of Gavin Belson for that.

It’s exactly to your point: I don’t think in our show Peter Thiel would be going after Gawker. In our show Gavin Belson would be going after a fictitious blog.