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September 01, 2014

A Gentleman Farmer and His Anti-Entourage

With Silicon Valley, Mike Judge proves today’s tech culture is fertile ground for comedy.

Bob Makela
  • Mike Judge

  • From left, Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods, Thomas Middleditch, Amanda Crew, Mike Judge, Alec Berg, Josh Brener, T.J. Miller and Martin Starr at the spring 2014 premiere of HBO series Silicon Valley in Los Angeles.

It’s less than 3 hours before showtime on a Monday morning in March, and writer-director-animator extraordinaire Mike Judge is calmly discussing... farming.

This afternoon, inside a makeshift screening room at the Austin Convention Center, Judge will join a sold-out South by Southwest crowd for the unveiling of Silicon Valley, his new HBO comedy. The red carpet screening is such a hot ticket that even Judge, Austin’s adopted hometown hero, was able to procure only 5 tickets for friends and family.

Yet here, in a quiet meeting room at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel, tucked away from the massive crowds that throng the SXSW interactive, film and music festival, Judge talks about what led him to buy a fertile piece of property less than an hour east of Austin.

“One of my best friends from high school is a farmer out in Lubbock, and I was out there visiting him,” recalls Judge, who became a household name more than 2 decades ago when his animated MTV hit, Beavis and Butt-head, exploded onto the national scene.

“There’s something about growing stuff. I hadn’t done it since I was a kid [in Albuquerque]. We grew things in the backyard — corn, tomatoes, that kind of stuff. Then my ex-wife and I were remodeling this house, and there was all this dirt. It was raining, and they hadn’t finished landscaping. Someone said, ‘Just throw some rye grass out there.’ So I did. And then I was like, ‘Oh... it’s growing.’”

Judge lets out a muted laugh, and for a moment one can’t help but notice a hint of Beavis in his bemused wonderment. “There’s some kind of primal thing it sparks,” he says. “It’s just really nice.”

The experience eventually fostered Judge’s desire to become, as he puts it, “a gentleman farmer.” It may happen one day, but for now, Judge is based in Los Angeles, cultivating a different kind of seed — the seed of yet another hit TV show. Along with John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, 2 of his King of the Hill collaborators, Judge has created what many are calling HBO’s best comedy since Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Silicon Valley deftly skewers digital-age billionaires and the eccentric work environments they’ve created, while hilariously following the plight of a houseful of wanna-be Wozniaks (“Jobs was a poseur,” one character proclaims) whose social skills can’t come close to matching their programming prowess.

Thomas Middleditch stars as Richard, one of 4 startup hopefuls living at the modest home-turned-”incubator” of bong-ripping upstart Erlich (T.J. Miller) when his new compression algorithm sparks a bidding war between Gavin Belson (Big Love’s Matt Ross), a type-A tech wizard who runs the fictional internet giant Hooli, and Peter Gregory (the late Christopher Evan Welch), a billionaire venture capitalist and visionary who may or may not have Asperger’s.

Thanks to its HBO pedigree and male bonding set-up, Silicon Valley has been compared to Entourage. But it’s really the anti-Entourage. While Vince and his confident posse existed in a world of show-biz parties, beautiful women and multi-million-dollar Hollywood homes, Richard’s gawky gang of misfits chase a techie fantasy from their hacker hangout in suburban Silicon Valley.

Pretty girls are scarce — in one scene, 2 beauties show up thanks to an app that supplies attractive females to chat up socially awkward males at parties — but the promise of wealth and women looms large, fueled by dweeb brainpower and moxie.

“For thousands of years, guys like us have gotten the shit kicked out of us,” Richard points out to his brethren. “We could be the Vikings of our day!”

For Judge, the show is not only a chance to revisit the workplace milieu he so brilliantly spoofed in Office Space, a cult classic shot mostly in Austin 15 years ago. The new project also allows him to cast his sharp satirical eye on fabled Silicon Valley, where he worked as an engineer briefly in the 1980s.

“Mike’s not just sharing an observation about a world he doesn’t understand,” points out Amanda Crew, the lone female regular in the cast. “He gets it. So it’s an informed, objective view of this world.”

Judge didn’t rely solely on his own memories of Silicon Valley — he and his team did extensive research.

They met with venture capitalists, visited tech incubators and paid multiple visits to Google and other internet companies. Then they hired tech wiz Jonathan Dotan, who helped create and vet the technical jargon that flows naturally throughout the show and also helped land Silicon Valley insiders like journalist Kara Swisher for cameo appearances.

This commitment to verisimilitude gives the show an air of authenticity that seems to have won over the notoriously prickly tech crowd (with the high-profile exception of Tesla founder Elon Musk). “I think we already have a head start in getting good buzz about getting it right,” says the uncommonly humble Judge.   

All that realism and great writing would’ve been for naught without Judge’s strong ensemble of actors.

“Mike is amazingly good at casting,” executive producer Alec Berg says. After an 8-episode first season, Berg calls Silicon Valley the most fun he’s ever had creatively — and that’s coming from a guy who spent years as a writer-producer on both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

“He’s a musician, and you can tell,” Berg says. “There’s a rhythm to what he likes, a tone to what he does.”

In addition to Middleditch and Miller — whose improv act played to minuscule Chicago crowds nearly a decade ago, before the duo reunited for Silicon Valley (and the forthcoming film Search Party) — this startup dream team includes a trio of comedy maestros.

Stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani (Portlandia) and Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks, Party Down) actually inspired Judge to rewrite his original pilot script after they auditioned for the role that Miller eventually won. (“All of them had very different interpretations,” Judge says. “So I went back and shaped it for those guys after the casting process.”)

And Zach Woods’s comedy chops, previously seen on The Office, prompted the show’s producers to expand his role as Jared, the stuffy MBA type who, Berg says, “likes to take the shape of whatever foot is put down upon him.”

“These guys all click so well that it’s like a party when we’re on set,” Judge says. “That’s the good and bad of it.”

To keep the party going after the show wrapped in January, the 5 lead actors — who were featured in Steve Jobs–like poses on billboards all over America — rented a hotel room to celebrate. “I know that lots of people on TV shows say this,” Miller quips, “but they’re lying — or they don’t really know what friendship is. But we really are friends.”

Meanwhile, their beloved comedy guru is content to stay relatively anonymous behind the scenes, cultivating yet another satiric seedling into full bloom.

“We were on the same flight out here,” Woods recalls. “And as we were walking through the airport I was thinking, ‘This is so crazy. Nobody recognizes Mike.’ And I wanted to be like — ‘Do you people know who this IS?!’”

Yeah. It’s Mike Judge. Comedy genius. And future gentleman farmer.

Originally published in Emmy magazine issue no. 5-14.

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