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TV producer and director Mike Judge

'Silicon Valley' Asks: Is Your Startup Really Making The World Better?

Mike Judge's HBO sitcom pokes fun at programmers hoping to hit it rich. It's not the first time Judge has satirized the workplace: His 1999 cult film Office Space explored desk-job-induced ennui.


Other segments from the episode on April 17, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 17, 2014: Interview with Mike Judge; Review of two graphic novels set in New York; Review of The Both's self-titled album.


April 17, 2014

Guest: Mike Judge

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off today.



I've got seven words for you: I love Goolybib's integrated multi-platform functionality. Yeah.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: What happens when young computer geeks who become millionaires live among thousands more who hope to is the subject of the new HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley," created by our guest Mike Judge. Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times wrote that "Silicon Valley" finds comedy in the humdrum annoyances of life on a peninsula overflowing with money, ambition and very little style.

Mike Judge created and did some of the voices for the animated series "Beavis and Butthead" and "King of the Hill," and he wrote and directed the movies "Office Space," "Idiocracy" and "Extract." I spoke to Judge last week, and we began with the scene from the first episode of "Silicon Valley." A young programmer played by Thomas Middleditch has come up with a revolutionary program that he's been offered $10 million for, and his angst over whether to take the money or develop his own company leads to a panic attack and a visit to a Silicon Valley doctor, played here by Andy Daly.


ANDREW DALY: (As Doctor) So you will survive. It's just a garden-variety panic attack. Welcome to Silicon Valley. We see people like you all the time.

THOMAS MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard) Really?

DALY: (As Doctor) Yes.

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard) I just have to make this decision by tomorrow.

DALY: (As Doctor) Yeah, you know, a while back, we had a guy in here in almost the exact same situation: take the money or keep the company.

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard) What happened?

DALY: (As Doctor) Well, a couple months later, he was brought into the ER with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I guess he really regretted not taking that money.

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard) He shot himself because he turned down the money?

DALY: (As Doctor) Yeah. Or no, he took the money. Or no, no he did not - you know what? I don't remember. But whatever it was, he regretted it so much that he ended up shooting himself, and now he's blind.

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard) Blind?

DALY: (As Doctor) Yeah. Just FYI, if you're ever going to shoot yourself, don't hold the gun up to your temple, OK, because that just basically took out both of his optic nerves and then, you know, half of his face. Then his wife left him because, you know, yikes.

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard) Right.

DALY: (As Doctor) You know, he may have been a genius programmer but not so much with human anatomy - or decision-making, for that matter.


DALY: (As Doctor) Now he's got to live with all that and whatever terrible decision he made about the money.

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard) And what do I do if I feel another panic attack coming on?

DALY: (As Doctor) Would you be interested in a device that links up to your smartphone, and it keeps track of your vitals, and it tells you, even before it's happening, whether you're having a panic attack or an actual heart attack?

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard) Yeah, that sounds great.

DALY: (As Doctor) You would, right? OK, that's great news because it's still in prototype phase right now, but my startup partners and I are looking for investors, like today. So will you please let me know? I'm going to give you my number.

DAVIES: And that is from the series "Silicon Valley," created by our guest Mike Judge. Mike Judge, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Everybody's got an app. Everybody's got an angle. Do you want to just say a little bit about what inspired that scene?

MIKE JUDGE: Yeah that - you know, in doing this, we've actually had extras on the set pitching their apps to actors.


JUDGE: We've had - I've had, even before people knew I was doing this, I've had people pitch me apps just because, you know, they think I'm richer than I am or something. And that just came out of - I just figured we had to have something there that as soon as people smell money around the guy, they just start pitching him ideas, and that's kind of a running thing throughout the series, actually.

DAVIES: You know, there are shows about occupations, you know, cops and detectives and lawyers and even Hollywood agents. What's the appeal of a show about the tech world?

JUDGE: Well, the tech world is, it's become really interesting to me, especially in recent years, just watching these personality types, the kind of people I knew in college and in my brief engineering career, just knowing those types and seeing them suddenly have billions and billions of dollars. It's just, there's something about it to me.

DAVIES: You know, maybe you could describe a moment, it's really at the very beginning of the first episode when, you know, a company has been acquired by Google for $200 million, and they have Kid Rock there because why not, if you're throwing a party at that level. And tell us about the interaction with the engineers.

JUDGE: Yeah, well, I mean, that's - back before the first dot-com bubble burst, I actually went to a, it was a party for a website launch that had a lot of money behind it, and I just went because Run DMC was playing. I was just kind of shocked at how, you know, here's Run DMC, this legendary, great hip-hop group, and just the way the audience was just kind of talking amongst themselves. And, I don't know, it was just kind of a funny scene.

So that's - that and also, I have a few rock star friends, and I happen to know that they play parties like this occasionally. They kind of look at it as a paid rehearsal. So I just thought that would be a funny way to open it. And then there's the Goolybib guy, who is kind of...

DAVIES: That's the company that gets bought by Google, right? Yeah.

JUDGE: Yeah, yeah, Javeed, and, yeah, Goolybib is acquired by Google. They're throwing this big party, and he gets up there and tries to, kind of, do - tries to do a Steve Baumer(ph) kind of thing, which is already Steve Baumer was probably trying to do somebody that really is good on stage. But that's what's kind of funny is seeing these people that they have so much money that no one's going to tell them hey, you shouldn't get a microphone and be onstage like that.

DAVIES: Tell us a little about your work as an engineer. You worked for a company called Parallax. Is that right? It sounds like something you'd make up.

JUDGE: No, that was one of the - that was the second company I worked for. All the companies I worked - well, the first two definitely sound like made-up names. The first company was called Support Systems Associates Incorporated.


JUDGE: It's got such a ring to it. But yeah, the second one was called Parallax Graphics. They made these hardware interface cards for the early high-resolution screens, which weren't being sold to the public, it was for very niche, like I think police departments were buying them for fingerprint technology and the military, stuff like that. So these were these things that cost, like, I don't know, around $5,000.

I remember they cost the same amount as a Hyundai did at the time.

DAVIES: And were there ways that you and the guys that you worked with, I assume there were guys, ways that they kind of, I don't know, interacted and what they did with their social time that made its way into "Silicon Valley"?

JUDGE: Yeah, I mean, I never socialized with these guys or much of anybody back then. And what was different then is that the barrier to entry to starting your own company was higher. It would take more money to do that. I think it's easier to do now. If I'd been born 25 years later, I might maybe be doing a startup because, you know, just if you have five people who program, you can get - you can just start doing it.

I mean, everyone owns computers and phones. Back then, hardly anybody even owned a PC, you know, so it was kind of a - it was a different world as far as trying to start your own company, but it was very much the same personality types. But there's not a specific thing that I can think of. That job probably inspired "Office Space" a little more.

I mean, my first week there, there was some - the guy at the - I was a test engineer, and so we were, you know, I won't bore everyone with what exactly we were doing, but I needed a set of schematics from the guy who sat at the station next to me. And I said OK, can I look at the - I need to use the - can I borrow the RT schematics. And he just goes nope.

And I thought he was joking. I just kind of laughed, and, you know, so - and he goes nope, I'm serious, nope. Everyone keeps taking them and not bringing them back. I am not loaning them out. And it was just this - it just kind of made me miserable, just thought OK, so this is the guy I'm going to be sitting next to for 12 hours a day.

DAVIES: Silicon Valley has probably changed a lot since you were there. It was earlier in your career. It's bigger now, and, you know, it's different in a lot of ways. What did you do to kind of update your grasp of it? Did you visit - I mean, how did you research that world?

JUDGE: Oh yeah, I spent a lot of time up there. And, I mean, aside from living there in the late '80s, my ex-wife worked in the tech world and is from Palo Alto. So I know the area that well. I feel like it has - in some ways it's changed, but in a lot of ways, it's not. But to answer your question, yeah. I went up, spent a lot of time up there, actually went up several times, visited startups.

One of my best friends from high school, his nephew works - is a programmer at Google, so I had an inside track to Google and took a tour and all that stuff. So yeah, just lots of just talking to people, going to incubators and just getting a sense of - you know, just finding stories anywhere we could.

DAVIES: My guest is Mike Judge. His new series "Silicon Valley" airs Sunday nights at 10 on HBO. We'll continue our conversation after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Mike Judge, who created the series "Beavis and Butthead" and "King of the Hill." We're talking about his latest project, the HBO series "Silicon Valley," which follows the lives of young computer geeks hoping to come up with the next game-changing program.

The guys are living in a house that's run by this guy Erlich. Do you want to explain what the relationship is?

JUDGE: Yeah, so Erlich, I figure, you know, he sold his company, Aviato, as he pronounces it, for a few million, I don't know, three or four, but when you buy a house in Palo Alto, that doesn't leave you with much, you know, after taxes and everything. I figure he probably still needs to make money. So he sold that, and he has this hacker hostel, where he lets you live there for free and kind of use the resources, you know, the other people there sort of help each other out in exchange for 10 percent of whatever company you're incubating there, which is actually a really bad deal for Richard Hendrix(ph), Thomas Middleditch's character.

But I think he's kind of - you know, people move to Palo Alto, they're a little vulnerable, and that's - we kind of combined, there are hacker hostels, and there's also incubators. So we kind of combined them into this incubator where you live there.

DAVIES: This is something you actually see there, where somebody who has some technical talent goes, get the free room and board and Wi-Fi, and then if he makes it big splits it with the guy who's paying his bills.

JUDGE: Yeah, the guy gets a percentage, yeah.

DAVIES: There's a wonderful scene where, I mean, you have these different personality types, these techies living in this house that it's - the leader Erlich calls an incubator. And to celebrate the money they're going to get for Richard's success, he brings in a stripper. Do you want to give a sense of what happens, where that comes from?

JUDGE: Yeah, I mean that was - the idea with that, and, I don't know, maybe that was - there's been so much scrutiny on this show. It's weird. I didn't expect this kind of attention and people going oh, the only female, and it's not the only female in the series, but the idea there was just to kind of show that, you know, these guys aren't like the guys in "Entourage" or the, you know, the Hollywood guys.

They actually - you bring a stripper, and they just all get shy and want to leave the room. You know, that's what that scene was to show. And, you know, and she's a girl trying to make money doing this, and here she is, you know, that's why she says, God, I hate Palo Alto.


JUDGE: She probably gets called to stuff like this all the time. My first engineering job, somebody, actually a woman working there, it was somebody's birthday and brought in a stripper for this office birthday party. And both me and my boss left the room. It's just like I don't - you know, this is weird. It's - these are people we work with, and yuck.

So I don't know, that was - that was the point of that.

DAVIES: I thought we'd play another clip here. This is from Episode 3, and it's a TV advertisement for one of the big software companies in the series called Hooli. It kind of explains itself. Let's listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) The greatness of human accomplishment has always been measured by size, the bigger, the better, until now. Nanotech, smart cars, small is the new big. In the coming months, Hooli will deliver Nucleus, the most sophisticated compression software platform the world has ever seen because if we can make your audio and video files smaller, we can make cancer smaller and hunger and AIDS.


DAVIES: Well so, do people in Silicon Valley really believe that what they do is going to make the world better, or is that just, you know, some trope they say?

JUDGE: I mean, I suppose some of the stuff they're doing is making the world a better place. It's just what's interesting to me is it always seems to be this obligatory thing that they have to throw in there, and that's why we made fun of it in the series. I mean, there - some people are making the world a better place, some maybe aren't, but it's just funny that most of it, it's just capitalism. They're trying to make their company as big and profitable as possible, which is fine, but it's always shrouded in this we're making the world a better place stuff, which is just - and sometimes maybe they are.

But, you know, I mean like a company trying to put Internet and all these third world African countries, and they're like, oh, we're - maybe they are making the world a better place for these places. They're also making a ton of money doing it. They don't talk about that as much. Which is fine, it's just - I just look at it is just, it's just kind of funny.

And when we got green-lit to series, I took all the writers, we went to an incubator, and they bring out their first company, and it's a company, and it's five guys, and it's one East Indian and one Asian, just like a ratio we have in the pilot. And then they pitch their app, and then at the end of it, the guy just kind of throws in, like he goes, oh, you know, and making the world a better place.


JUDGE: Like oh yeah, I almost forgot, yeah.

DAVIES: Part of the formula, right.

JUDGE: Yeah, and so I just think that's kind of funny to - it's almost like a religion, like that you have to say amen at the end of something, you - oh yeah, and we're making the world a better place, yeah.

DAVIES: There are two fascinating characters in the series here that are heads of big companies and kind of, you know, giants of the software business, and they're different people. Do you want to just talk a little bit about those two characters?

JUDGE: Yeah, I mean, to me, Peter Gregory and Gavin Belson just sort of represent two of the different kind of billionaires that I've seen, and I've met a few tech either billionaires or multi-billionaires or close to billionaires. And it's just sort of - there's the type that's more the introverted genius programmer type and then the type that's more sort of alpha-male aggressive type.

And neither of them are based on any one particular person, although it's interesting to watch who people assume that they were based on, and sometimes they're people I've never heard of.


JUDGE: Well especially the Gavin one because I tended to not - I don't know the VC world as much, you know, venture capital and those kind of...

DAVIES: He's the alpha type, yeah.

JUDGE: Yeah, he's the alpha type, and Peter Gregory is the more introverted kind of Aspergery type, I guess.

DAVIES: Right. Peter Gregory, this - one of these guys who, I guess, as you say, is more the introverted programmer type, is just a fascinating guy, and it's played beautifully by Christopher Evan Welch, who unfortunately died after you taped these episodes, right?

JUDGE: Yeah, yeah, in fact it was kind of during the taping of I guess the sixth, seventh one. There was some overlap. But yeah, yeah, and he - I mean the way he played that, to me it's such a - I mean, it's sad on many levels. He was a wonderful guy; he had a family. I mean, there's the personal tragedy side of it, which was awful.

But, I mean, him doing that character, you know, and we were - we've talked about this. Even, you know, if he were alive, I'd be saying the same thing. It was really, like, kind of a breakout performance. It was just - it's hard to describe, but it's just - it just reminds me of a lot of different people I've known in this world, it was just so real, and just - and it's not how he is.

I mean, he's channeling something there that's just really great, and it was so fun to write for, too. I mean, you know, there was a lot of great stuff we could've done with that. So it's - but yeah, he was really, really just one of those actors I just can't stop watching, you know.

DAVIES: Yeah, well, he plays this guy who has this weird kind of inscrutable charisma. And, you know...

JUDGE: Yeah, exactly.

DAVIES: Let's listen to one - there's a scene where the central character Richard, this young programmer who's happened upon this terrific idea, has come to him, and Peter Gregory is ready to help him out. And they have a meeting, and Gregory makes some demands. Should we listen to that one? That's an interesting scene.

JUDGE: Sure, yeah.


MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard) Well, I - we're just really excited to get going, Mr. Gregory.

CHRISTOPHER EVAN WELCH: (As Peter Gregory) Yes. Who's we?

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard) Myself.

WELCH: (As Peter) And?

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard) The guys back at the house.

WELCH: (As Peter) Guys?

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard) Guys.

WELCH: (As Peter) Who is this...

T.J. MILLER: (As Erlich) Erlich Bauchman(ph). I'm an entrepreneur, much like yourself. Richard actually developed Pied Piper while residing in my incubator. So as per our agreement, I own 10 percent of the company.

WELCH: (As Peter) I'm paying you $200,000 for five percent, yet you're giving this man twice that in exchange for a futon and some sandwiches?

MILLER: (As Erlich) Actually, sir, my tenants provide their own food, and...

WELCH: (As Peter) What other percentages have you apportioned? Can I see your cap table, investment deck, business plan or any other relevant paperwork you may have prepared?

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard) I just was under the impression that we would just be coming by and saying hi, you know, to pick up the check, and I just didn't know that any of that stuff was due yet.

WELCH: (As Peter) Due? This is not college, Richard. I'm not going to be giving you a course syllabus. You turned down $10 million to keep Pied Piper. What did you give up that money for? What is this company? What did I buy?

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard) You bought the algorithm, which...

WELCH: (As Peter) No, the algorithm is the product of the company. I know that. What I'm asking about is the company itself. Who is it? What do they do? Are they essential, or do you just throw a percentage at them like you did with this, - this all must be worked out now.

MIDDLEDITCH: (As Richard) When you said you'd guide us through some of this stuff, I thought that this was the stuff you'd be guiding us through.

WELCH: (As Peter) I cannot guide you until you give me something to guide. This is going very poorly.

DAVIES: And that's the late Christopher Evan Welch, Thomas Middleditch and T.J. Miller in the new HBO series "Silicon Valley," created by our guest Mike Judge. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off today. We're speaking with Mike Judge, who created and did many of the voices for the series "Beavis and Butthead" and "King of the Hill" and has written and directed three films. Judge created the new HBO series "Silicon Valley," which airs Sunday nights at 10.

Well, Mike Judge, the last time you were on FRESH AIR, I mean Terry talked to you about "Beavis and Butt-Head" and "King of the Hill" and you did some great characters there such as Hank and Boomhauer. One thing that you didn't talk about that I want to talk about is the film "Office Space," 1999, which in my family people regularly quote lines from to one another. It wasn't a huge box office hit, but people love it on DVD. It's about life in a workplace, right?

JUDGE: It's kind of - I worked in cubicles and it started out, it was - the very first thing I ever animated that I finished with sound and everything was a two-minute short called "Office Space" and it was in 1990. So it was before "Dilbert." I just have to say that because I don't want people to think I stole from "Dilbert."

DAVIES: Right. You can find that short on YouTube. And it, you will recognize all those characters.

JUDGE: One thing I got to say about the YouTube one, and I, as a user of YouTube, what bugs me is I made that short in my house with, I timed every syllable with a stopwatch, I shot everything one frame at a time, meticulously got the lip-synch really perfect, and it's on YouTube like a second out of sync. For all the world to see, after all my work on that, I - but yeah, you know, check it out and maybe imagine that it's in sync.

DAVIES: I wanted to listen to a scene from "Office Space." And in this we hear Peter Gibbons, who's the main character, played by Ron Livingston. I should say central character; it's kind of an ensemble cast. Peter Gibbons, who is played by Ron Livingston, works at this company called Initech. Hates his job. It seems pointless. He is too many bosses who don't seem to really have much to contribute but are always around. And the scene we're going to hear, he's already heard from several people that there are these monthly reports he has to return and they're called T.P.S. reports and now they're supposed to have cover sheets but he forgot the first time to put on the cover sheet. And in the scene we're going to hear, his boss, Bill Lumbergh, who is played by Gary Cole, comes by his cubicle to tell him about - what else? The sheets. Let's listen.


GARY COLE: (as Bill Lumbergh) Hello, Peter.

RON LIVINGTON: (as Peter Gibbons) What's happening?

COLE: (as Bill Lumbergh) Ahh, we have sort of a problem here. Yeah. You apparently didn't put one of the new cover sheets on your T.P.S. reports.

LIVINGTON: (as Peter Gibbons) Oh, yeah. I'm sorry about that. I - I forgot.

COLE: (as Bill Lumbergh) Mmm, yeah. You see, we're putting the cover sheets on all T.P.S. reports now before they go out. Did you see the memo about this?

LIVINGTON: (as Peter Gibbons) Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I have the memo right here. I just forgot. But it's not shipping out till tomorrow, so there's no problem.

COLE: (as Bill Lumbergh) Yeah. If you could just go ahead and make sure you do that from now on, that would be great, and I'll go ahead and make sure you get another copy of that memo, OK?

LIVINGTON: (as Peter Gibbons) Yeah. No, I have the memo. I've got it. It's right...

COLE: (as Bill Lumbergh) Hello, Phil.

DAVIES: And that is Gary Cole and Ron Livingston from the movie "Office Space," written and directed by our guest, Mike Judge. That's the kind of scene that's funnier the third time than the first.


DAVIES: And I still love it.

JUDGE: Yeah.

DAVIES: When I played here, one of our producers, John Myers, said I love that scene. It's hard to imagine a scene like that in a movie trailer, which made me think, this must not have been the easiest sell to the network.

JUDGE: Yeah. Exactly. I mean that's, I think if I hadn't done animated shorts and if I hadn't had two hit TV shows back to back, that movie never would've happened. I mean it was something where I just, I don't know, I guess I just kind of wanted them to trust me. And then when it didn't do well at the box office right away, it was like, OK, I guess we shouldn't trust you. But then, I mean now it's made them lots of money. It's been a profitable movie. But yeah, that was, and you're right, it's hard to - I mean to be fair to them, like, I think, you know, some people say, oh, well, Fox didn't promote it well. But they, that was a hard one to cut a trailer from, especially - I think you could now, but yeah, it's just a weird, it's a weird movie.


JUDGE: Yeah. A scene like that, I don't know, you don't generally see in a world, yeah.

DAVIES: Right.


JUDGE: If you could just go ahead.

DAVIES: Right. Well, you know, the persona of the boss there, you know, played by Gary Cole, Lumbergh, that whole like, you know, yeah, what's happening. If you could just take - this was somebody you knew or where did that come from?

JUDGE: It wasn't any specific person. It started, it kind of came a few different ways. When I was, I worked at What-A-Burger, which is a Texas, New Mexico chain of - a burger place, and I worked at Jack-in-the-Box. This was when I was young. And me and my brother and a roommate of mine, I was just talking about how it's funny the way a boss will say, when it's the - the worst thing ever at both those jobs is to change the fryers. And the way someone will say, yeah, Mike, why don't you go ahead and change the fryers. And it's, to say go ahead and, it's as if you were just chomping at the bit to go do it and I'm just going to cut you loose and go ahead.


JUDGE: I mean it's just, now it's so commonplace. I think, but that type of boss, I think in the '50s, a boss would say, hey, Milton, move your desk. Thanks. And then I don't know if it's the baby boom generation or everyone has to be cool, suddenly it turn - over - like in the '70s and '80s it turned into like yeah. Mmm, if I could get you to just go ahead and move your desk. And it's just this kind of, oh, I'm casual, I'm cool. I'm not your '50s boss. And I would just prefer someone just coming up and telling you what to do. I would respect more. But I guess to answer your question, you know, that kind of evolved out of that and then also just even, you know, over the years, like just noticing the - the yeah that means no. Like if you say...

DAVIES: Right.

JUDGE: ...oh, did I have Friday off? Mmm, yeah.

DAVIES: You know, I wonder if when you were, you know, pitching this to studios or talking to them about it, one of the issues might've been people in studios, a lot of them really haven't had the experience of, you know, the daily drudgery of an ordinary job.

JUDGE: Oh, well, definitely - I mean really, I mean none of these people I had dealt with had ever worked the really lousy jobs and or even above lousy. I mean, you know, and I respect and like a lot of these people I work with, but people in the studio system tend to, they tend to come from really upper-class families, they tend to have gone to good universities and not have had to work at Jack-in-the-Box and What-A-Burger and just kind of menial just, you know, office data crunching type jobs. So, yeah, a lot of them I think didn't know what it was. But you know, then eventually they wanted a sequel, so...


JUDGE: somebody...

DAVIES: It connected somehow. Yeah.

JUDGE: Somebody out there liked it. Yeah.

DAVIES: I thought we would hear another scene from "Office Space." This is one of them that I remembered for years. The company, Initech, where everyone works, has brought in a couple of consultants, both are named Bob, to kind of figure out how to improve things, which is probably going to mean maybe downsizing the workforce. And I thought we'd listen to the scene where they're interviewing this guy played by Richard Riehle, who is, I'm not sure what he is, a customer service somebody. Do you remember the scene well enough to kind of set it up and tell us a little bit about it?

JUDGE: Yeah. What he does there, he's a person who, they used to call it sales engineer, which is actually one of the things my ex-wife did, which is they, they're the person who goes between the engineer and the customer so that the engineers don't have to deal with - 'cause engineers aren't usually good at dealing with customers. So he's, I sort of based him on a couple people at my first engineering job. There was a guy who had gotten in a little fender bender and he sued the person in front of him and behind him and he was always just really nervous. He was always spreading doom and gloom. He was always going around the office saying, yeah, they're going to lay us off, do you guys know this, you know? And so I kind of based it on him. And, you know, he's a guy who thinks he has people skills but that's just relative to engineers who have zero people skills.


JUDGE: So...

DAVIES: Right.

JUDGE: ...he probably only has some tiny modicum of people skills. And it's kind of sad, actually.


DAVIES: He's a funny character and where he ends up is funny too. Let's listen to this. He's being interviewed by these two consultants, both named Bob, played by John C. McGinley and Paul Willson. Let's listen.


JOHN C. MCGINLEY: (as Bob Slydell) What you do at Initech is you take the specifications from the customers and you bring them down to the software engineers.

RICHARD RIEHLE: (as Tom Smykowski) Yes. Yes. That's - that's right.

PAUL WILLSON: (as Bob Porter) Well, then I just have to ask, why couldn't the customers just take them directly to the software people, huh?

RIEHLE: (as Tom Smykowski) Well, I'll tell you why. Because engineers are not good at dealing with customers.

MCGINLEY: (as Bob Slydell) So you physically take the specs from the customer?

RIEHLE: (as Tom Smykowski) Well, no. My secretary does that, or they're faxed.

MCGINLEY: (as Bob Slydell) So then you must physically bring them to the software people.

RIEHLE: (as Tom Smykowski) Well, no. Yeah, I mean sometimes.

MCGINLEY: (as Bob Slydell) What - what would you say you do here?

RIEHLE: (as Tom Smykowski) Well, look, I already told you. I deal with the damn customers so the engineers don't have to. I have people skills. I am good at dealing with people. Can't you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?


DAVIES: That's Richard Riehle in the film "Office Space" with John C. McGinley and Paul Willson, directed by our guest, Mike Judge. It's hard for me to imagine anybody but these three actors doing this scene. And it, you know, and it seems to me that you get a lot of great performances out of relatively little-known actors. I mean a lot of these people have gone on to bigger careers later, but any particular secret to this? Is it casting? Finding exactly what you want in the casting?

JUDGE: Yeah. I kind of drive my casting directors crazy because I guess I'm very particular. And, you know, that movie I think I drove the studio crazy too because I, they wanted anybody, pretty much anybody but who I cast in that movie.


JUDGE: They - can you just, they were just, can you just get anybody remotely famous, please? And I thought Jennifer Aniston was great in it. She was the only really famous person in there, so that enabled me to cast the other people that I liked in it.

DAVIES: When people meet you, is there a scene from "Office Space" that they tend to recite back to you?

JUDGE: Usually it's just a little bit of Lumbergh doing that, you know, the scene you played earlier, the: Mmm, yeah. And I was in a Starbucks, actually, in Austin with Etan Cohen, who I was writing with at the time. And the people behind the counter started going: Mmm, yeah. An Etan was looking at me like, oh, do they know who you are? And I said no, I don't think so. And then at some point the guy goes, you guys heard of that movie? Have you seen that "Office Space"? And then Etan said, oh, he wrote and directed it and they didn't believe me.

DAVIES: Well, Mike Judge, it's been fun to have you back. Thanks so much.

JUDGE: All right. Thank you.

DAVIES: Mike Judge has created the new HBO series "Silicon Valley," which airs Sunday nights at 10:00.

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews two of the most powerful books she's read this year. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Two historically based graphic novels have caught our book critic's eyes this week. Here's Maureen Corrigan's review of "A Bintel Brief" and "The Harlem Hellfighters."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: "A Bintel Brief" and "The Harlem Hellfighters" are two New York stories. That's why I'm combining them in this review; not because - as some purists still think - they're lesser works of literature because they're graphic novels. If Egyptian hieroglyphics, the "Bayeux Tapestry," and Art Spiegelman's 1991 classic, "Maus," haven't yet persuaded the high-art holdouts of the value of stories told in visual sequence, nothing I say now about these two books is likely to convince them. Which is a shame because "A Bintel Brief" by Liana Finck and "The Harlem Hellfighters" by Max Brooks and illustrated by Caanan White are two of the most powerful books I've read so far this year.

"A Bintel Brief" takes its title from the column of the same name that first appeared in 1906 in the Yiddish language newspaper The Daily Forward. Literally translated as a bundle of letters, the Bintel Brief was an advice column in which Jewish immigrants new to New York City could ask practical questions, as well as give voice to their loneliness, dreams and fears. The Forward's legendary editor, Abraham Cahan, answered the letters himself and the column made The Forward the most widely read Yiddish-language newspaper in the world.

Author and illustrator Liana Finck places herself in this story, as a young woman who opens a notebook of old clippings from The Forward and finds herself confronted with the cranky apparition of Abraham Cahan. Together they walk the streets of the Lower East Side, past abandoned synagogues and pickle factories, talking about the immigrants' letters. Finck has adapted 11 actual letters from The Forward and they range from the daffy, a barber obsessed by a nightmare in which he slits the throat of a customer, to the tormented: I'm thinking especially of the final letter in this collection, written by a desolate young woman whose fiance has died in the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911.

Fink's illustrations intensify the emotional resonance of these letters, invoking the buoyant magic of Marc Chagall but also sometimes descending into the cramped world of the tenements. One page here, for instance, shows a couple despairing over their infertility, sinking and dissolving into their old sofa.

Wisely, Fink appreciates that the power of the Bintel Brief stories derives from the fact that they're eternally open-ended. What happened to that mad barber or that young man in Brooklyn who didn't want to bring his father over form the old country or that baker cursed with a two-timing wife? Cahan gave them his best advice but we'll never know if they took it.

"The Harlem Hellfighters" begins and ends in New York but spends years mired in the trenches and battlefields of France. That's because Max Brooks and Caanan White have dramatized the history of the 369th Infantry Regiment during World War I. This African-American regiment, called the Men of Bronze by their French allies and the Harlem Hellfighters by their German enemies, spent 198 days in combat, longer than any other American unit - white or black - and were one of the most decorated units in the entire American expeditionary force.

They helped make the world safe for democracy, even if, as one Hellfighter in this story ruefully says, democracy wasn't exactly safe back home. As Brooks and White detail in panel after vivid panel, the Hellfighters fought a two-front war: against the enemy over there and racial prejudice everywhere, but particularly from their fellow Americans and their own government.

The Hellfighters' story stretches from enlistment halls in Harlem to training camps in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where these soldiers were handed broomsticks instead of rifles and were confronted with signs in local shops that read: No Dogs or Coloreds. The Hellfighters were deployed to Europe quietly while the rest of the New York National Guard, the so-called Rainbow Division, were given a grand parade sendoff by the city.

The Hellfighters were told that black is not a color of the rainbow. This is a stunning work of historical recovery and a very graphic graphic novel. Bodies explode, rats feed on corpses, men are strafed and gassed. It's not pretty. But the in your face style of "The Harlem Hellfighters" is suited to dramatizing a crucial part of American history that hasn't been thrust forcefully enough into our collective faces.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "A Bintel Brief" and "The Harlem Hellfighters." Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews a collaboration of singer-songwriters Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: The Both is the name for the duo formed by veteran singer-songwriters Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. "The Both" is also the name of their debut album. The two began performing together in 2012, when Ted Leo was Mann's opening act. Mann began joining Leo onstage during his set. They liked the sound their voices together and started collaborating. Rock critic Ken Tucker has this review of "The Both."


THE BOTH: (singing) The ball dropped in the cold like dawn on a cold eastern morning. Not shocked, can't be too (unintelligible) there were so many warnings. I hear you knock, I hear you unlock my door. But I don't want you to have, have my key anymore. Shoes on but the mailbox is empty when there could have been something. The well's dry...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Aimee Mann and Ted Leo harmonizing on a song they co-wrote called "The Gambler." As separate acts, Ted Leo is generally considered a punk-influenced indie musician for the work he's done with his band the Pharmacists, and Aimee Mann as a sensitive singer-songwriter ever since she left the pop star life with the group 'Til Tuesday in the 1980s.

But of course both of these musicians are more than their genre categories. What their work as The Both suggests is that together they've found common ground in confidently precise, propulsive melodies and lyrics that twist with oblique cleverness.


BOTH: (singing) Over the bridge in Milwaukee past the statues of Fonz and the duck with the wind kicking in and the sparrows all running amok and the woman, your friend who was pregnant put your hand on her belly for luck, and I laughed 'cause it's you and I knew that you knew you were stuck. You can tell by your laugh in the dark and the sound of the bell. You can tell it's the nucleus burning inside of the cell. It's the nucleus burning inside of the cell.

TUCKER: That's "Milwaukee," one of the first songs Mann and Leo collaborated on in gradually hatching this plan to perform and record together as The Both. They bring out the best in each other musically: Leo gives Mann zip and vigor; she gives him poetry and hard-headedness. Sometimes one of them takes the lead vocal, at other times they trade off lines and harmonize throughout.

On a song such as "You Can't Help Me Now," they make gloomy sentiments lively.


BOTH: (singing) Any time you establish a world of your own you get thrown. Trying to (unintelligible) I wanted you to know that I put up a fight. But everything goes missing when they draw the line. The catastrophic sinking of the will is kind but even you can't help me now. You can't help. You can't help me now. You can't help.

TUCKER: In interviews, Aimee Mann has said working with Ted Leo has made her feel as though she's in a rock band for the first time, which must make her old bandmates in 'Til Tuesday feel a tad dismayed. But if anything, The Both includes some of the most Aimee Mannish of Aimee Mann songs, the way her best singing captures an urgent longing and pessimism that's redeemed by a prickly self-awareness.


BOTH: (singing) There's a shadow in the room and you let it tell you things. Yeah, you plant it on the ground but you don't make a sound. No, sir. No, sir. All the helicopters fell...

TUCKER: "The Both" works so well as an album because its songs cohere as the documentation of the ways a new creative partnership revitalizes the familiar habits, tics, tricks, and talents of the collaborators. It sets their individual talents in a new context that compels the listener to form a new appreciation for these musicians. They may begin the album singing about a gamble that didn't pay off, but their own musical collusion really has.


BOTH: (singing) You're going to make me pay for it. You're going to make me wait for it. You're going to make me pay for it now. You're going to make me pay for it. You're going to...

DAVIES: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed "The Both," the new album by Aimee Mann and Ted Leo from their band also called The Both.


BOTH: (singing) Well, I laid our bread and I laid out clothes and I made our bed when you finally rose and I, I was never alone. Well, you win again, you held on hold while I held your head while I caught cold and I, well, baby, I should've known. You're going to make me pay for it. You're going to make me...

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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