Mike Judge, the sardonic wise guy who gave the world "Beavis and Butt-head," "Office Space" and "King of the Hill," has some advice for the eccentric billionaires of the high-tech industry: Chill out and get over yourselves.
Judge's latest dose of satirical snark is "Silicon Valley," an HBO comedy series about a group of young computer geeks with big dreams. But while the show mostly focuses on these underdog outsiders, it also takes lots of shots at the superrich CEOs that Judge believes are too full of themselves.
"There's a sense of self-importance that permeates that community," Judge said in a phone chat. "It's not enough that they just make billions of dollars. They also have to proclaim that they're making the world a better place in various ways, and that's kind of funny to me. ... They continually feel the need to shroud their capitalism in altruism."
In "Silicon Valley," which gets a sneak preview Wednesday night at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City and airs beginning Sunday, Judge and collaborator Alec Berg gleefully mock the tech titans. They're depicted as humorless dolts, wealthy enough to hire Kid Rock for their private parties, but too uptight to rock out. They drive goofy cars, wear weird clothes and spout eye-rolling bromides like, "We can only achieve greatness if first we achieve goodness."
Berg, who wrote for "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," is convinced there's a "rampant smugness" in the valley that is ripe for skewering.
"It's like the whole Google shuttle thing," he said. "You can gentrify the neighborhood and drive out the middle class, but you get a pass, because, apparently, you're not an (expletive) if you want to make the world a better place and you're playing with house money.
"And all this talk about trying to get everyone online. Sure, that has great global benefits, but aren't you really just trying to get your products in as many places as you can?"
'Lighten up, guys'
Michael Whalen, a professor of communications who studies film and pop culture at Santa Clara University, is a big fan of Judge's work. He compares him to maverick film director Robert Altman, an astute observer of American mores, and believes he's just the guy to do an "irreverent, cutting-edge" sitcom that holds a mirror to the tech world.
"People in the valley can be sensitive, but let's face it, some of them do take themselves a little too seriously," Whalen said. "This is a great way of saying, 'Lighten up, guys.'"
But will it resonate with viewers? In recent years, Hollywood has embraced Silicon Valley with mostly dismal results. While "The Social Network" did earn some Oscar attention, "The Internship," a buddy comedy set at Google, and "Jobs," a biopic about Apple's Steve Jobs, were box office duds.
On television, the short-lived reality series "Start-Ups: Silicon Valley" was trashed by critics and tech insiders alike. Meanwhile, "Betas," an online-only comedy from Amazon.com, generated decent reviews, but little buzz.
Conversely, "Silicon Valley" seems to have a lot going for it, including Judge's impressive track record and the clout of a premium cable network known for quality TV. Also, early reviews have been positive. After a sneak preview at the South by Southwest festival, critics called the show "searingly funny," "hysterical" and "uncommonly insightful."
Perhaps it helps that Judge and Berg are no strangers to the tech community. After graduating from UC San Diego with a degree in physics, Judge briefly lived in East Palo Alto and worked as a test engineer before realizing he "really didn't fit in." Berg's father was a biophysicist and his brother is an electrical engineer who attended Stanford.
That familiarity, they say, was an impetus for them to work extra hard to capture the rhythms, jargon and inside jokes of the tech culture in their show.
"We were really concerned about getting it right," Judge said. "And it wasn't a matter of trying to get it right just for the sake of avoiding criticism (from techies). It's just a really interesting world and it feels better when you're putting something together that feels believable. We went deep into that world."
So deep that they worked with Stanford grad students to devise what would realistically come off as a groundbreaking compression algorithm developed by the show's lead character, a stressed-out software engineer (Thomas Middleditch). They then had the algorithm mock-pitched to a group of actual venture capitalists to get a feel for the dialogue it would spawn.
Still, the producers admit that it's a daunting challenge to whip up a viscerally engaging show from the world of programmers, coders and investors.
"There's a reason you see a ton of cop shows and hospital shows on TV," Berg said. "They've got lots of interesting stuff going on. But watching people type is not all that fascinating."
When: 10 p.m. Sunday