PASADENA -- Will "Silicon Valley," the upcoming tech-centric sitcom from HBO, be a love letter to the region, or a poison pen? Probably a little of both, creator Mike Judge says.
Judge is known for an irreverent brand of humor that fueled films such as "Office Space" and the animated TV show "Beavis and Butthead." Having worked as an engineer in Palo Alto during the 1980s, he has a soft spot for the region, but he also views the valley -- and the billionaires who populate it -- with a cynical eye.
"It's funny: The Bay Area is where the whole hippie movement started, and there's still a lot of that lingering around," Judge said Thursday during a panel session at the Television Critics Association tour.
That makes some of the tech billionaires so uncomfortable, he explained, that they "shroud their capitalism with this 'We're-making-the-world-a-better-place' thing."
In the past few years, Hollywood has ventured into Silicon Valley with mixed success, ranging from the Oscar-nominated film "The Social Network," to the critically bashed and low-rated Bravo reality TV series "Start-Ups: Silicon Valley," along with recent films such as "Jobs" and "The Internship," and Amazon.com's online series "Betas."
Judge's "Silicon Valley," set to launch an eight-episode season April 6, follows the misadventures of an introverted computer programmer (Thomas Middleditch) and his brainy pals as they strive to hit it big with a new site-search algorithm.
The series, according to production notes, "takes a comic look at the modern-day epicenter of the high-tech gold rush, where the people most qualified to succeed are the least capable of handling success."
This week marked the launch of HBO's promotional campaign for "Silicon Valley," starting Wednesday with a special screening of two episodes that provoked substantial laughter among a small audience of TV critics. That was followed by Thursday's media session attended by Judge and fellow executive producer Alec Berg who, like his partner, harbors a bit of scorn for the dot-com billionaires.
Some of them "take themselves too seriously, so they have to come in for a little kicking," Berg said.
Among those spoofing tech titans on the show was veteran actor Christopher Evan Welch, whose death last month from lung cancer at 48 forced some minor rewrites.
"We had to cope with it not just on a production level, but also on a personal level," Berg said. "He was an amazing guy and super talented, and we loved writing for him."
"Silicon Valley" is one of two new HBO comedies set in the Bay Area. The other is "Looking," about a group of gay friends searching for love and happiness in San Francisco. It debuts Jan. 19.
If "Silicon Valley" succeeds, it could be to the local startup world what "Entourage" was to Hollywood. To pull that off, Judge knows that he has to win over not only a wide general audience, but the hard-to-please techies who often heap scorn on Hollywood depictions of their community.
"I was really concerned about getting it right," Judge said after the media session. "And it's not a matter of trying to get it right just for the sake of avoiding bad reviews. It's just a really interesting world, and it feels better when you're putting something together and have it be believable."
To that end, Judge and his team worked with grad students at Stanford to develop what would come across as an authentic compression algorithm, then had it mock-pitched to real venture capitalists to get a feel for the kind of conversations that would spring up. The show, though primarily shot in Los Angeles, filmed some scenes in the South Bay last year and has enlisted a technical adviser to help with the jargon and other aspects of valley specifics.
"We really studied that world," Judge said. "We went deep into it."
During their research, Judge and Berg were pleased to discover that the tech culture yielded more comedic fodder than they had even expected.
Said Berg, "It's always a good thing when you're doing the research and the craziest stuff that you can think of is not half as crazy as the real stuff you're finding, in terms of the absurdities and eccentricities."