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.
Silicon Valley gets a lot of comedic mileage out of satirizing the grandiosity of people in tech. Do you feel like that arrogance is worse in the tech world, compared with the rest of corporate America?
This is the moment where arrogance, I think, in the tech world is probably at an all-time high, and you could argue that some of it is deserved because they’re doing amazing things. It’s that same God complex that doctors have where it’s like, “I control whether people live or die. I have the power of life in my hands.” With that comes a kind of arrogance. I mean you go to every corner of the world and people have smart phones in their pocket.
It remains to be seen whether there’s a tech bubble or not. But people seem pretty smart right now. If it continues for another 100 years then great, they’ve earned it all. But if it all blows up and implodes, then I think the higher you fly, the further you fall.
I was also thinking about that Steve Jobs idea where people in tech look at themselves as being artists or poets, which has also been skewered on Silicon Valley.
It is a creative field. It’s not just number-crunching. I mean, there are number-crunchers in that field but it’s a pretty creative field. You’re designing things. There are a lot of artists and graphic designers and even writing code is pretty creative. You’re creating something out of nothing.
When you start to get arrogant about your power, you start to think you can disrupt everything. Not everything needs disrupting.
I think part of the fear with the Peter Thiel story was this idea of tech people having personal vendettas, and because they have so much money, they can manipulate the world to suit their own selfish ends.
Yeah, but I don’t think that’s unique to the tech world. I think we have to have a sort of even-keeled view of the tech business because our characters are in the tech business and our characters are striving to succeed in the tech business. If we were doing a show that asked the viewer to question the mission or say, “Boy, I think they want the wrong thing” or, “They’re succeeding in this business that’s being portrayed as shitty,” I don’t know that you invest in the characters or their goals in the same way.
At the end of season three, there was essentially a reset, where Pied Piper is pivoting to this new video app and you also have Bachman and Big Head reunited with the rest of the gang. Do you know where you are going for season four? How far ahead do you plan? Do you come up with the season arc right away?
You try. It makes things easier. It depends on the season. Season one, we kind of stumbled through. Season two, we sort of landed on the idea of the lawsuit. We figured out that they should take money from a bad source, and then we kind of knew where the season was going to end, with mediation and with them getting their IP back. Season three, it was sort of like two half seasons to me. The first half was the season of Jack Barker, and then the second half was rolling out the platform.
Every season we do this, we keep getting more and more behind as we do it. So we were crazily writing episodes seven, eight, nine, and 10 midway through the season last year.
I don’t think we even really knew what episodes nine and 10 were until a couple of weeks before we shot them. We were very far behind. Whereas season one, we had drafts of all eight episodes before we started shooting. I don’t know whether we’re just a little more comfortable writing from behind or whether we’ve gotten lazy or if it’s just gotten harder to write the show. Season one you never have the problem of going, “You know, we kind of already did that.”
Have you thought at all about how Silicon Valley will end? Matthew Weiner said that he had an idea of where Don Draper would end up in Mad Men, and he figured out how to get there. What fate do you have in mind for Richard Hendricks?
I actually did a panel with Matthew Weiner and he said something really interesting, which was they basically made a deal to do the final 36 episodes and as soon as they knew how many episodes were left, he started thinking about, “Where do we end?” I think he had the idea for that ending pretty early on, but he said that [deal] just changed the nature of the writing.
I don’t think we’re there yet. I still feel like we’re in the middle of the show somewhere.
Larry David recently announced the return of Curb Your Enthusiasm. You’ve worked on the show in the past. Will you be back, and if so, can you talk about it?
I’ve been speaking to them. Larry has been working with one of my sometime partners, Jeff Schaffer. Yeah, it’s funny: That came up right when we were about to go back to work on Silicon Valley and I had Silicon Valley and I also have this show I’m doing with Bill Hader called Barry that starts writing in a few months. So I’m going to do everything I can. I don’t think I’m going to be working on Curb in any official capacity but I’m certainly a friend of the show and I’m happy to read outlines and I’ll throw story ideas at him and if I get the time I’d love to pop in and hang with them and maybe direct an episode if there’s a space for me, but I’m certainly not going to be full-time on that show the way I am on Silicon Valley and on that latter show.