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In HBO's 'Silicon Valley,' The Comedy Is Inspired By Real-Life Tech Culture

The creator, the show-runner and the star of Silicon Valley talk about putting together the HBO comedy about the insular start-up tech world.


Other segments from the episode on June 9, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 9, 2016: Interview with Mike Judge, Alec Berg, and Thomas Middleditch; Review of This is Where I Live by William Bell



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I have three guests from the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley." The show satirizes the creative and cutthroat world of tech startups as well as the tech companies that have become giants and the programmers, coders, marketing people, CEOs and venture capitalists who inhabit that world. Mike Judge is the co-creator of "Silicon Valley" and created the animated shows "Beavis & Butt-Head" and "King Of The Hill."

Alec Berg is the co-showrunner with Judge. Berg has also been an executive producer of "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Thomas Middleditch stars in Silicon Valley as Richard Hendricks, the brilliant but shy and socially awkward creator of a startup called Pied Piper, which has created an algorithm to compress and store huge amounts of data, an innovation that could change the ability to speedily access data around the world.

Pied Piper is funded by a venture capital group that has chosen a board of directors. At the end of last season, after a Pied Piper fiasco, the board removed Richard from his position as CEO of his own company because of his lack of business and leadership skills.

At the start of the current season, Richard was replaced by a new CEO, Jack Barker, and reluctantly accepted the offer to work as Jack's chief technology officer. In this scene, Jack, played by Stephen Tobolowsky, is showing Richard a poster of his business model, which he calls the conjoined triangles of success, diagramming the interrelationship of manufacturing, engineering, sales, growth and compromise.

Richard, played by Thomas Middleditch, speaks first.


THOMAS MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard Hendricks) The conjoined triangles of success?

STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY: (As Jack Barker) I invented that. And now it's taught at business schools. You see what's on the bottom here? The foundation of the whole thing.

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard Hendricks) Growth?

TOBOLOWSKY: (As Jack Barker) Growth. The more brilliant people we can get working here, then the faster we can get whatever's in your head out into the world. Let me tell you a story. In 1999, Google was a little startup just like we are. And when they started bringing in chefs and masseuses, we thought, they're nuts.

But they were attracting the best possible people, and they were able to create the best product. And now they're worth over $400 billion. And do you know the name of that company?

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard Hendricks) Google, right? You said it at the beginning of the story.

TOBOLOWSKY: (As Jack Barker) You're right. I did that wrong. And the whole point is that all of this is a sound investment as long as we are able to get the best people and make the best possible product.

GROSS: (Laughter) This is a scene from "Silicon Valley." Mike Judge, Alec Berg, Thomas Middleditch, welcome to FRESH AIR. Mike, let me start with you. Why did you want to do a show about Silicon Valley? You created "King Of The Hill," an animated series about a kind of old-fashioned, middle-aged, working-class guy who probably wouldn't know how to work a computer.

So, like, the distance between "King Of The Hill" and "Silicon Valley" is huge. Of course, "King Of The Hill's" animated, too - another big difference.

MIKE JUDGE: Yeah, and then "Beavis & Butt-Head" may be even further away from (laughter)...

GROSS: Yeah.

JUDGE: ...Computer geniuses. But, well, yeah, I'd worked as an engineer a long time ago and just have been around the tech world a lot. My ex-wife's from Palo Alto. And I spent a lot of time there and actually lived up there and worked up there. So it's - yeah, I mean, it's pretty far from "King Of The Hill," but it's something that's kind of - I've been close to for a lot of my life.

GROSS: Alec Berg, what is your connection to the Silicon Valley, if any?

JUDGE: (Laughter).

ALEC BERG: Yes, well, going back, my father is a biophysicist who builds his own microscopes. My brother was an electrical engineer who has worked at Microsoft and now works at Amazon. So I have some sort of nerd cred in my bones.

GROSS: Is your family ever offended at the Silicon Valley jokes?

BERG: I don't know that my parents even know that the show's on television, to be honest.


BERG: I get requests every once in a while for VHS copies of the show.


BERG: I mean, I think they're amused that my name is on a television show that goes out to people. But I don't think they're of that world enough to ever take offense at anything we're doing.

GROSS: Wait, was it your brother who works for Amazon?

BERG: Yeah.

GROSS: Is he offended at the jokes?

BERG: Well, in the interest of advancing his career at Amazon, let's say, he polices it very carefully and he speaks up strongly for the rights of Amazon at every possible opportunity.


BERG: And I hope that gets him further in his job.

GROSS: Thomas Middleditch, what's your connection to the real Silicon Valley?

MIDDLEDITCH: Oh, very little, very, very little. I guess my only connection is growing up and, still to this day, (laughter) still a bit of a computer kid. I do like my games and my trinkets and my gadgets. But I never really took time to program or anything.

I mean, I came into this project totally from the point of view as pretty much just an actor, of just trying to get Richard down and not really a good actor 'cause I didn't go to Silicon Valley and, like, research anyone or anything. I just sort of came in there with a - and took a stab at it. And it happened to be on point.

GROSS: So the invention that Richard's company, and Richard's played by Thomas Middleditch, his thing is high compression cloud storage data. So in other words, you could, like, compress all the data in the world into a small amount of storage stored on the cloud. It's not a sexy idea in the way that a new gizmo is sexy.

Do you know what I - it's, like, a hard thing to, like, demonstrate at a show in the way that Steve Jobs would demonstrate, like, the new iPhone or the iPad. So Mike and Alec, how did you come up with, you know, compression as the thing that the show is going to revolve around?

JUDGE: Well, part of the problem originally when we were writing the pilot is you go, OK, well, whatever app they come up with, if it's really to be believable that this app is successful and in demand and huge, you would have to believe it would be that way in the real world. It's sort of like when you do a - if you're doing a movie about a band and then they have a song that's supposed to be a hit, that song has to really be a hit in the real world, otherwise the whole thing seems fake.

And I just remember from school that compression was kind of an interesting thing, that there's different kinds and still, especially in video, there's still probably room for something that could really compress it more. And I think it's realistic. You know, I talked to some of my old engineer friends.

And they said, yeah, it's still possible that somebody could come up with a game-changing algorithm in that space, you know? So it seemed like something that's just, you know, people basically understand file size because that's what, you know, when you buy a computer or your phone, you're paying for that so - and it is sexy, I think. But, you know, what do I know?


GROSS: Well, the nice thing about it for you guys is it's invisible. You know, like, you can't, like, show...

JUDGE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Data storage that - you know, compressed data that exists on the cloud. So you don't have to create a product for us to see.

MIDDLEDITCH: I also think that it being compression, it being sort of like an under-the-hood invention or whatever, that adds to the show's credibility. It makes it sort of for us, by us, (laughter) you know, in terms of engineers and math people, which I think is a huge draw for the show. I mean, there's very little, you know, Twitter hit of like, hey, you got that wrong. If anything, it's like, implausible. Let me show you with my math how it could have been done. But it's never - it's never, you know, a flag on the play, I call foul, absolutely impossible. And some of our consultants - I don't know who we can name. Doughton (ph) maybe?

JUDGE: Yeah.

MIDDLEDITCH: He thinks compression is, like, one of the biggest challenges we're going to face because right now we have massive data storage centers - you know, these big warehouses - and there is a finite amount of space that we can do. And we're exponentially requiring more and more each year. With every new cloud storage service site and every new way to create content, you have to store it somewhere, so some kind of, like, accessible, executable compression is actually a pretty revolutionary thing.

GROSS: So Mike and Alec - I guess it's just Mike on this one - tell us how you hired Thomas Middleditch to play the lead.

JUDGE: The only people I knew in the whole cast before - that I'd worked with were Thomas Middleditch and T.J. Miller. But Thomas we had always thought of as the lead, even though, you know, we weren't sure if HBO would go for it or whatever. But we actually named the character - the character's name was Thomas up until, like, a half-hour before we were shooting, I think (laughter).

MIDDLEDITCH: Thomas Pickering, which is - that's my mom's maiden name. And then when I finally looked at the script, I was like, oh, it's Thomas Pickering. Yeah, I guess that is - (laughter) that is a pretty good shoehorn of me trying to be in there. But I still had to audition. But it turns out - what Mike was about to get to before I cut him off very rudely is that he didn't really realize - right? - that me and T.J. and Kumail Nanjiani and Zach Woods...

JUDGE: Yeah.

MIDDLEDITCH: ...We had all known each other for years. Like, I've known T.J. and Kumail for about 10, Zach for maybe seven, eight. Martin's a new friend, but a good one.

JUDGE: Yeah. Then...

MIDDLEDITCH: ...And turns we're all buddies...

JUDGE: Yeah.

MIDDLEDITCH: ...Who perform live comedy still to this day, which is kind of surprisingly rare for a comedy show (laughter).

GROSS: What are some of the advantages if you're doing a comedy series like "Silicon Valley" and all of your leads are standup comics?

MIDDLEDITCH: I'm sure there are pros and cons. I'm sure there are times where we're throwing stuff against the wall and you're like, that's great and other times where you're just like, please say the line. Stop trying to punch up my script I've worked for months on.

BERG: No, I mean, the tremendous advantage is that these guys have a rapport. And I think their camaraderie is real off screen, so I think that it lends itself to feeling real on screen as well. And also, they're all super funny guys and they're creators of comic material. So you can give them a script and they can nail all the stuff that's in the script, but then they can also riff on top of it and give you value added. Which - of course, it says written by somebody else at the end, so we take credit for all of their work.


MIDDLEDITCH: Yeah, where are our writer credits? What's going on?

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, we're talking about the HBO series "Silicon Valley." My guests are Mike Judge, who created the show, and Alec Berg, who along with Mike Judge is the show's show runner, and Thomas Middleditch, who is the star of the show. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about the HBO comedy series, "Silicon Valley." My guests are Mike Judge, the show's creator, and Alec Berg who is the co-showrunner along with Judge and Thomas Middleditch, who is the star of the series.

Let's hear another scene from "Silicon Valley." And this is a point - like, in the first part of the season, there's a new CEO. Richard, who is the creator of this, you know, high-compression data storage algorithm, it's, like, his thing. But - and he started the company. But he's been fired by the lead investor that controls the board of the company. So another CEO has been hired. And at first he seems like, well, maybe he is a good guy. You know, he's done a good thing. He has a great resume.

So Richard decides to come back, reluctantly, as the chief technical officer. But suddenly, his ideas are getting totally undermined by this new CEO because instead of this, like, high-compression, you know, data storage on the cloud, now the idea is to - no, it'll just be in a box because it's easier to market that way. And the salespeople have been hired before the engineers (laughter) have even been hired.

So Richard is really angry and he goes to see Jack, the CEO. But he has to meet with him at a stable where Jack's prize horse is being mounted and inseminated by a stallion. So that's going on in the background as Jack, the new CEO, and Richard are having this conversation. And Richard speaks first.


MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard Hendricks) Look, Jack, you and I have a problem, OK? Your salespeople are telling me to cut everything cool about the platform just because it's a little bit harder for them to sell. But don't you think because they are such amazing salespeople that it would be OK for them to sell the harder stuff?

TOBOLOWSKY: (As Jack Barker) No. It doesn't work that way. The way you keep this best salespeople is you need to give them something easy to sell. Otherwise, they just go somewhere else.

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard Hendricks) OK, well, Pied Piper could honestly be the global standard for file compression and storage. Every mobile device on the face of the planet could be able to access their data as if they had a fiber optic cable plugged into it - people in the desert, people in refugee camps. People who have nothing could suddenly have access to everything. You know, everybody in this industry - they say that they want to make this world a better place. But we could actually do it. We could do it and make billions of dollars.

TOBOLOWSKY: (As Jack Barker) Richard, listen.

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard Hendricks) No, you listen to me, Jack. You promised me that you would never compromise the product. So do you feel like taking some action and backing me up on this? Because me and my product feel pretty [expletive] compromised right now.

TOBOLOWSKY: (As Jack Barker) Richard, I don't think you understand what the product is. The product isn't the platform. And the product isn't your algorithm either. And it's not even the software. Do you know what Pied Piper's product is, Richard?

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard Hendricks) Is it - is it me?

TOBOLOWSKY: (As Jack Barker) Oh, God, no. No. How could it possibly be you? You got fired. Pied Piper's product is its stock.

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard Hendricks) Its stock?

TOBOLOWSKY: (As Jack Barker) And whatever makes the value of that stock go up, that is what we are going to make. And maybe sometime in the future, we could change the world and perform miracles and all of that stuff. And I hope we do. But, like I told you before, I'm not going to mortgage the present for that. I need to move the needle today. And now if you will excuse me, I paid $150,000 for the semen that's about to come out of that stallion. And I would very much like to be there to see that it happens.


GROSS: (Laughter) And that was Stephen Tobolowsky as Jack and our guest Thomas Middleditch as Richard. I love the way this scene takes this, like, inspirational turn with that cheesy inspirational music in the background and the, like - no, you listen to me kind of dialogue. And then it just totally hits a wall.

GROSS: Can you talk about writing that scene and having that inspirational buildup? And then, you know, ending the inspiration in total frustration?

BERG: I mean, it's interesting. We draw a lot of parallels from show business. And so, all of this stuff about, like, art versus commerce and, you know - are you doing something to make money? Or are you doing something for the art of it? Like, all of that, I think, we relate to as writers. And so it's easy for us to sort of put ourselves in Richard's position. And so that, you know - this whole arc this season of the box versus this kind of Hail Mary, you know, high and mighty platform that's the dream of Richard and the guys to build, I think, is really grounded in this idea of, like, you know, anytime you write a screenplay or a TV pilot or something, you set out to make this brilliant, amazing thing (laughter). And then, along the way, you have to compromise and compromise and compromise. And, you know, you end up making...

MIDDLEDITCH: "Silicon Valley" - Yuck, yuck.

BERG: Yes.


JUDGE: And here we are.

BERG: This dump of a show. But yeah, we drew from a lot of places. I think one of our tech consultants Bob Solomon, who was a sales guy for years and years, was talking about this idea of the best salespeople...

JUDGE: Yeah.

BERG: ...Will only work for a company where the product is incredibly easy to sell. And if the product is difficult to sell, they'll leave and go to a company where it's easier to sell it.


BERG: So there's this weird...

JUDGE: What makes them good? Like (laughter)...

BERG: There's this very weird kind of Catch-22, of, like, you only get great salespeople by giving them something that a donkey could sell.


BERG: So that went in there as well.

GROSS: This season, it looks like your character, Thomas - your character Richard is going to have a girlfriend. Or at least, it briefly looks that way. But...


GROSS: But you have a big fight about whether it's better to use the tab key on the computer or to tap out individual spaces. Would you explain what that fight is about and if people actually have that fight?

JUDGE: There's, like, memes of - it's a big, ongoing battle. I just got an email from my old roommate from college who's an engineer up there for a pharmaceutical company. And he's like, I just want you to know I'm on the spaces side of that.

MIDDLEDITCH: (Laughter) Funny war.

BERG: Yeah, it's funny. When we were talking about the idea in the writers' room, one of our writers texted a friend who works for Apple, just saying hey, is this tabs versus spaces thing real? And his friend who worked at Apple was out at drinks with a bunch of other engineers. And she replied that, A, it is real and B, just talking about it now has sparked a giant, violent debate.


BERG: And they were actually screaming at each other in a bar about whether tabs or spaces were better. So it's very real and, apparently, extremely contentious.

MIDDLEDITCH: Well, that goes - that speaks to the engineer brain that the...

JUDGE: Yeah.

MIDDLEDITCH: The - how do you structure your math? What do you feel is more efficient? And that - I mean, that is how Richard works. And that's how a lot of these people work in programming and engineering. It's, like, you know, I feel like tabs/spaces can be synonymous with, I'm sure, a multitude of hot-button issues. But that's exactly why, I think, the show - these writers do so well at it. It's like they bring in the material that's kind of real and relevant. And it's not like the fake Hollywood version of how people code. It's not like "Hackers," where we go into a 3-D realm...


MIDDLEDITCH: ...And we, like, virtual reality interact with computers. It's, like, no. This is a real debate of tabs versus spaces.

GROSS: Well, you know, and the difference between tabs versus spaces in the show makes it seem like Richard prefers the tabs because they take - they require less compression than the spaces. Is that what the argument is about in the larger world where people fight over this?



MIDDLEDITCH: ...Terry, some clarification here - it's also one keystroke as opposed to, what, eight?

JUDGE: Yeah.

MIDDLEDITCH: Do the math on that.

JUDGE: The argument - I guess what - once it - it goes through the compiler and then it's completely the same thing once it's running, once the - so it's all before that. There was a - Jeremy Stoppelman at Yelp was telling us about a guy - I think that's - who was so anal about it, he went in on - spent entire weekend converting everybody's tabs to spaces or the other way around.

BERG: Yeah, I think when he came in and took over a project, yeah, he spent something like 48 straight hours just deleting spaces and adding tabs even though, as we said, once it goes through the compiler, it's utterly irrelevant apparently.

JUDGE: He just can't stand to see people doing that. And - yeah, and I guess the argument for the spaces is that if somebody else has their tabs set differently and you run it in theirs, then it throws it all off. And it's just - I think that spaces is more pure...

MIDDLEDITCH: I would just - Mike, why would you be adjusting the tab? I mean, what purpose? - is my point.

JUDGE: OK, I'm going to storm out of here.

MIDDLEDITCH: (Laughter).

BERG: But one of the things we always try and do is, even though there is this very kind of technical debate going on, you know, we always try and turn it to what is sort of the most relatable part of it, which is that, you know, as long as the audience understands that these are two different things that are indistinguishable by most people...

JUDGE: Right.

BERG: ...But that people are incredibly particular and, you know, violently specific about them. Like, that, I think, is where the comedy comes from.

JUDGE: Yeah. And, I mean, that could just as easily be, like, oh, I like to cut the butter this way and not dig - gouge the thing with my knife when I do. But, you know, in one of those things with a couple where it's, like, you know, spaces versus tabs could be any of those things like toilet seat up-down or something, you know, and these little things that throw it all out of whack.

GROSS: My guests are Mike Judge, the co-creator the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley," Alec Berg, the co-showrunner with Judge, and Thomas Middleditch, the star of the series. We'll talk more after a break. And rock critic Ken Tucker will review a new album by soul singer William Bell, who cowrote the song "Born Under A Bad Sign." I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview about the HBO series "Silicon Valley," which satirizes tech startups and tech giants, the coders, executives and venture capitalists behind them and the constant clash between idealism and cutthroat capitalism. My guests are Mike Judge, who co-created the series, Alec Berg, who's the co-showrunner with Judge, and Thomas Middleditch, who stars in the series as Richard Hendricks, the founder of the startup Pied Piper, which has created an algorithm to compress and store huge amounts of data.

I want to play another clip from "Silicon Valley." And this features Matt Ross as Gavin Belson, who, in the series, is the head of a company called Hooli, which is this, like, mammoth Google kind of company. And they're trying to reverse engineer the file compression and storage algorithm that Richard's company has come up with.

The character of Gavin Belson is the most, like, narcissistic head of a tech company who wants to be an inspirational leader, but is amoral. And he'll do anything, no matter how underhanded it is, to kind of get ahead of his competitors. So he's very upset that his company's search engine is bringing up negative articles about him.

And he wants that to stop. And this is a scene about that.


MATT ROSS: (As Galvin Belson) How was everyone's morning? Let me tell you about mine. I started my day as I always do, by typing my own name into Hooli search. I enjoy the ritual, which is designed to center me. But lately, it's been doing the opposite. Whose workstation is this? Observe, these are all remnants of a time before I wrote Nucleus down. Why are we allowing our own technology to dredge up our painful past? Why is it that when I type my own name into my own company's search engine, the [expletive] Internet rains [expletive] bolts down on me? I want this to stop.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) These articles are part of the public record.

ROSS: (As Gavin Belson) Your point?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Are you suggesting that we alter the fundamental neutrality of the Hooli search algorithm? That's a clear violation of the public trust. Yelp is threatening to sue Google for this very thing. I can't in good conscience order Hooli search engineers to do that.

ROSS: (As Gavin Belson) I never suggested anything of the sort. No Hooli search engineer will ever be asked to alter the neutrality of the algorithm.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) And so Gavin doesn't want to see any more negative mentions of Nucleus on Hooli search.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) So we're going to alter the search algorithm?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Of course not. That would be unethical.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Then what are we supposed to do? Promote other websites to outrank the bad Nucleus news? Do you have any idea how big of a [expletive] job that is?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Don't you swear at me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) We don't work here anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) For 10 more days you do, unless you'd all like to quit and walk away from your entire severance packages.

GROSS: That's a scene from "Silicon Valley." And we heard Matt Ross as Gavin Belson, the head of the company Hooli. At the beginning of each season, you go on a research trip to various parts of Silicon Valley to see what's happening and what you can learn that you might be able to write in in some way in the new season. So how do you structure those trips?

BERG: We'll try and talk to engineers, we'll try and look at some big companies. We'll tour some small companies. We'll meet with some VCs, some attorneys. We try to sort of cast a wide net because we're finding, you know, we get interesting, really funny, weird story ideas from all different places. And there's no kind of rule as to where they come from.

GROSS: So when you're observing in Silicon Valley, do you pay special attention to what the offices look like? For instance, in this season, Rich's company moves basically from a house - with their new CEO, they move to this, like, big office that has, like, fabulous furniture and little game kind of things around and a professionally curated micro-kitchen (laughter).

JUDGE: Yeah, that was actually - we were at Quora and somebody had taken a watermelon, hollowed it out and put watermelon Jell-O in there and sliced it up like pieces of watermelon. We used that in the show. Yeah, there's a lot of details like that. Actually, Richard Toy (ph) on our production designers goes up there also and takes a lot of pictures.

MIDDLEDITCH: It is amazing when we tour companies how almost exactly like our sets they are. It seems like you can't hyperbolize it for a joke hard enough.

JUDGE: (Laughter) Yeah.

MIDDLEDITCH: I mean, even I - I did a brief visit at Google X. And they have these little push scooters that you can go from one end of the compound to the other. And the floors are very smooth to maximize efficiency of the push scooters. There are kitchens. There's very robust ways of eating (laughter)...

JUDGE: Yeah.

MIDDLEDITCH: ...To quote Tim Valaski (ph) that I want my coders hungry here and never here and pointing to his belly. Like, that's like the - that's the thing.

BERG: I think it was Google - right? - that they never wanted anyone more than a hundred feet from food.

JUDGE: Priceless little food stations all over the place.

BERG: And then when we toured Google, they had this philosophy of they've organized their offices to - and I think their phrase was to hardcode serendipitous moments...

JUDGE: (Laughter) Oh, right.

BERG: ...Which was basically meaning that, I mean, it was incredibly un-serendipitous, you know, way of saying that they wanted people who didn't know each other to be forced to interact with each other because who knows what could happen?

MIDDLEDITCH: Yeah, there's a lot of that. There's a lot of, like, corporate harmony. It's namaste with a logo and everyone forced to be in a circle and say namaste. But, like, it's like...

BERG: Well, but I think that goes back to - and it's interesting - it goes back to, I think, the whole philosophy - I mean, it's the Bay Area, right? It's like hippie culture that has run headlong into rampant capitalism.

GROSS: Well, you've coined several very idealistic-sounding slogans that are used in business models and for corporations within your TV series, "Silicon Valley." Like, one of Hooli's slogans is we can only achieve greatness if we achieve goodness, which is great 'cause this is not, like, a nice company. And, you know, the head of the company is ruthless.

So I'm interested in hearing some of your favorite slogans that you've heard and or about slogans that you've written for the series. And I think as writers, Mike and Alec, your ears are probably especially sensitive to slogans?

BERG: Well, there was a Gavin Belson line in season two that, to me, sort of is the most kind of acute sum up of this sort of competitive altruism thing where Gavin Belson at one point is excoriating the board of the company. And he's saying, I don't know about you people but I don't want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BERG: And to me, that sort of sums up Gavin Belson's kind of mindset, which is, you know, if there's any other jerk out there who's making the world a better place better than us, we better stomp them.

GROSS: Right. And then you have some great, like, business kinds of slogans in there, like Jack, who, for a while, is the new CEO at Pied Piper, Richard's company. He talks about the conjoined triangles of success. And we've all seen those kind of business models with interlocking circles. So what are the three conjoined triangles of success?

JUDGE: Well, compromise is the shared hypotenuse of the conjoined triangles of success.

GROSS: Yes (laughter).

JUDGE: That's the important thing to know.

BERG: Yeah, one of our writers, John Levenstein, sort of made up the conjoined triangles of success. But the birth of that was we just were asking a lot of questions about what would a CEO for hire be like? And a lot of people were saying, well, the big disconnect would be as opposed to engineers who just want to make cool stuff, this guy would have systems.

You know, and he would have ways of doing things. And he would consult org charts. And, you know, he would be very rigid in the way he organized stuff. You know, and a lot of that came from just asking questions about, you know, we were talking to engineers at - like, we went to Yelp and we would ask the engineers about, like, well, what would drive you insane about somebody coming in and imposing stuff from the outside?

And they all said meetings, engineers hate meetings, systems, ways of doing things, rules.

JUDGE: Yeah, they have a thing at Yelp where there's one day of the week where there's just - no meetings are allowed. I think it's a, like, Wednesday or something. We were having a meeting (laughter).

BERG: Yeah, but what was hilarious was that was the day that we went up there and met with them. And so they were saying, yeah, Wednesdays meetings are absolutely forbidden. And we're like, but isn't this a meeting?

JUDGE: And all the engineers look at each other like, yeah (laughter).

MIDDLEDITCH: Yeah, that's more of a therapy session, I guess.


GROSS: Well, why don't we take a short break here and then we'll talk some more? If you're just joining us, we're talking about the HBO comedy TV series "Silicon Valley." My guests are Mike Judge the creator of the series, Alec Berg, who along with Judge, is the showrunner and Thomas Middleditch, who stars as Richard. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley." My guests are Mike Judge who co-created the series, Alec Berg who along with Judge is the showrunner and Thomas Middleditch who is the star of the series. I know some shows like to change the writers every season or every other season so that there's always fresh blood and new ideas in the room. Do you do anything like that?

BERG: I mean, there's always attrition. Certain people leave. We get new people. There's a decent amount of consistency.

JUDGE: Yeah.

BERG: There's a few new people each year, and a few people move on to other things. But we don't have any kind of system in that - you know, it's not like...

MIDDLEDITCH: You don't have any conjoined triangles?

BERG: No. It's not like "Logan's Run" where, you know - oh, this is your 20th episode. Your time is up.

GROSS: Alec, one other show you worked on before "Silicon Valley" was "Seinfeld." And I'm thinking like "Silicon Valley's" about like the high-tech world.

And one of the most famous episodes of "Seinfeld" is where George leaves a message on a girl's answering machine and realizes he wants to erase the message. And he has to like break into the house and try to steal the cassette from the answering machine so that she never gets the message.

And when you think of the difference technology-wise between the answering machine plot and the file compression and storage plot, (laughter) it's such a huge technological gap. Do you ever find yourself thinking about that?

BERG: Oh, sure. And a lot of times technology massively gets in the way of funny and interesting storytelling. Like there's - somebody put together a really interesting supercut on YouTube of instances and movies where people are just looking at their cell phones saying, there's no signal...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BERG: ...Because if you think about it like every kind of farcical story in the history of storytelling would be over if somebody just had a cell phone, right? Like, I'll just call them.

JUDGE: Yeah.

BERG: I don't have to go there. I don't - you know, and cell phones have destroyed so many good stories that people have just come up with this device of, oh, my battery is dead or there's no signal. I mean, honestly, it's like a 9-minute long thing of there's no bars.

GROSS: I never thought about that how cell phones would be damaging to storytelling.

BERG: Well, look, we deal with it all the time. Like, Monica, who works at Raviga, comes over to the house to talk to the guys all the time. The reality is she probably would never set foot in that house. She'd just call them. But scenes are much more interesting to shoot and to play between humans who are interacting with each other as opposed to phone calls. So we're always...

GROSS: She wouldn't even call, she would text, right? I mean...

BERG: Yeah, probably.

JUDGE: Yeah.

BERG: Right. Well, that's actually - it was funny. When we first started doing the show, I remember somebody's - one of the first kind of reviews of it we read was that some angry tech guy was like this show's totally unrealistic because in reality they'd be texting way more. And we're like, all right, so if that's your knock on the show is that people should be texting more...

MIDDLEDITCH: That's what he wants to see.

BERG: Yeah, it's so fake. These people talking to each other and saying things and looking each other in the eye.

JUDGE: Yeah.

MIDDLEDITCH: And with that he crawled back under his rock and went to bed.

JUDGE: At his mom's house.

MIDDLEDITCH: Yeah. That's not my rock. It's actually my mom's rock.

GROSS: What other TV comedies that you each grew up that seemed very state of the art at the time?

JUDGE: For me, like Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart were - when I was a kid were, you know - like she was a TV newsperson. He was a therapist. I don't know. They seemed kind of fresh and new. And - but, you know, I'm old.

GROSS: Do you feel like you've borrowed from their shows in any way that they've been inspirations in what you've gone on to do?

JUDGE: Oh, yeah. I mean, I watched both of those pilots when I was writing the "King Of The Hill" pilot. Yeah, for sure.

GROSS: What was special about those pilots that inspired you?

JUDGE: Well, I mean, those were just shows I loved and, you know - kind of workplace - or, you know, just seeing how they establish the characters right off the bat. I mean, there's actually a moment - the Mary Tyler Moore one is good. There's one moment there, though, that's clearly a network executive note where she says to Rhoda, you seem like the type of girl someone could just really get to love.


JUDGE: For no other purpose...

MIDDLEDITCH: Spoon-feeding the audience.

JUDGE: Yeah, and it's right towards the end in like, oh, we're worried no one's going to like her. But, you know, you already like her and just because she's likable. And that was sort of an interesting, like, kind of lesson and, you know - like, that you don't need stuff like that really.

GROSS: Alec, what about you?

BERG: I mean, to me, Lettermen was a massive, massive influence. Because it just felt like a show where, you know, some kind of ne'er-do-wells had taken over a studio and were doing a show in the absence of any kind, you know, real authority or structure.

JUDGE: He also had such a great attitude toward celebrities that nobody had had before, I thought...

BERG: Yeah.

JUDGE: ...Like, just made it feel like one of us has gone up there and...

BERG: Yeah. But I definitely feel like, you know, we always talk about "Silicon Valley" as a show that's inherently about outsiders...

JUDGE: Yeah.

BERG: You know and that that whole to me - the whole Letterman vibe was this guy was just a perennial outsider. He was never going to be show business establishment, you know?

JUDGE: Yeah.

BERG: You know, and you were just waiting for somebody to come in and throw them out of the studio, and you could get back to work. So Letterman was huge to me. And then the other one - when I was in college, "The Simpsons" came on. And that show was just in terms of just the density and the level of craft writing-wise, I don't think there's ever been a show - the first few seasons of that show are - I mean, I would watch those episodes.

When I first moved to LA and I was trying to become a writer, I would watch "The Simpsons," and it would just be depressing. Like for hours afterwards, I would just be despondent because I could watch those episodes, and I would think, you know, I could write for 20 years and not come up with any of the good stuff that's in that episode. Like they were just incredibly well-written and so funny and so tight.

MIDDLEDITCH: One day - one day you'll get there.


GROSS: And, Thomas, what about you? What inspired you?

MIDDLEDITCH: Well, I mean, I think it's a total departure as, you know, in terms of like what you see with Silicon Valley with Richard at least in terms of what I can play is quite grounded in the - very much in the real world. But the stuff that inspired me, especially when I was younger, is like really crazy, absurd character stuff. Like the "Monty Python" movies really spoke to me, spoke to my anglophile heritage.

And "Kids In The Hall," I think anyone sort of growing up in Canada around my age in the '80s and '90s, "Kids In The Hall" were pretty important. It's one of the few entertainment pieces to come out of Canada that I can feel proud of. And those guys - they just had very absurd, weird sketches. Some of them were like I don't even think supposed to be all that hilarious. Some of them were just supposed to be weird and styly and genrey.

And then later on, you know, like British "Office" and "Extras" and I must admit "Seinfeld" were all sort of like inspirational. But those seminal things were "Kids In The Hall" and "Monty Python" - like really wacky stuff.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank all of you for talking with us. It's really been fun. Thanks for your series. I really enjoy it. And I wish you all well.

BERG: Thank you so much.


GROSS: Thomas Middleditch is the star of the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley." Mike Judge created the series. Alec Berg is the co-showrunner with Judge.


This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has a review of soul singer William Bell's new album, "This Is Where I Live." Bell first had a hit with the song "You Don't Miss Your Water" in 1961. Bell co-wrote the classic blues song "Born Under A Bad Sign" and recorded R&B for Stax Records in the '60s and '70s. Ken says the new album can stand with the best of Bell's work.


WILLIAM BELL: (Singing) There was a time where nothing held you down. You wanted it all, from the sky to the ground. Now all along, you thought you were free, but that's not the way it turned out to be 'cause when you're tired, people want to go home. When you're lonely -

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: William Bell sings with a warmth that remains undimmed more than 50 years after his first hit. He was never a huge star, but for anyone aware of his work he's been a constant, steady source of pleasure, a singer whose sense of intimacy with his audience forms a direct connection. At his best, William Bell can seem to be inside your mind, articulating hopes, fears and doubts you may have had yourself. You can hear that connection on the song that leads off "This Is Where I Live," a song about conflicting aspects of personality called "The Three Of Me."


BELL: (Singing) Last night, I had a dream and there were three of me. There was the man I was, the man I am and the man I want to be. It's not that easy to -

TUCKER: Bell goes over some of the specifics of his career in the album's title tune, one of the rare autobiographical songs that conveys its information without tedium or boastfulness. He also sings with infinite compassion and tenderness on another song, the achingly vulnerable and protective "I Will Take Care Of You."


BELL: (Singing) When all the years have come and gone and laid you low, you should know when you think you're left out on your own, I will be there. I never gave you fancy clothes, no diamond rings or the finer things. But when you feel all alone, don't you despair. I will take care of you. Oh, yes I will. I will take care of you.

TUCKER: The triumph of "This Is Where I Live" cannot be separated from the production by John Leventhal. Leventhal has managed to make the music here sound as though it was recorded just yesterday, but also perhaps a half-century ago. The drums have that classic moist Memphis soul thump. The guitars ring out with a stinging precision that underscores the pain in Bell's voice and lyrics. One great showcase for the sound on this album can be heard on a song Bell and Leventhal co-wrote, the metaphorically clever and poignant "More Rooms."


BELL: (Singing) Remember on our wedding day, I carried you in my arms through the front door of this house, vowing to keep you from harm. In love forever we'd always be. We had plans for family. The fire was burning hot, but ashes was all we got. Don't you know there's more rooms in a house? More rooms in a house, more rooms living than the bedroom?

TUCKER: Listen to the way Bell and his producer take a song by Leventhal and Rosanne Cash, "Walking On A Tightrope," and turn it into something that sounds like a 1960s soul hit you've never heard before. I agree with Greil Marcus' remark - can't Leventhal have Cash and Bell make their next album together?


BELL: (Singing) You can slam the door and walk from here to Georgia. You can burn old friends till one by one they fall. You can spend your last thin dime trying to make yourself feel fine. You can cry through every story, but I've heard them all.

TUCKER: There's no need to approach "This Is Where I Live" as an item of nostalgia. Throughout this album, William Bell sings with a strength and directness that bypasses any suggestion that you might need to make some allowances for a man who's now in his mid-70s. Instead, there's a careful power that uncoils steadily as the album proceeds. It's the sound of a man seizing an opportunity and making it a challenge that he turns into a triumph.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed William Bell's new album, "This Is Where I Live."


BELL: (Singing) Born under a bad sign. I've been down since I began to crawl. Oh, if it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all.

GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Broadway and movie producer Scott Rudin, the lead producer of five shows up for Tonys this Sunday and my conversation with Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer about their new hip-hop comedy, "Popstar," check out our podcast.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


BELL: (Singing) I can't read, didn't learn how to write. My whole life has been one big fight. Born under a bad sign. I've been down since I began to crawl. Oh, if it wasn't for real bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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