Inside HBO's 'Silicon Valley': How the Creators Nailed Tech Culture
In researching the startup scene for their new HBO comedy, executive producers Mike Judge and Alec Berg lured real-life tech gurus -- including Eric Schmidt, Michael Arrington, Kara Swisher and Howard Morgan -- onscreen.
When HBO's Silicon Valley premiered in front of 400 of the tech industry's finest in Northern California last week, it was to overwhelmingly positive reviews.
From remarks about how the jokes were "on the money" from Craiglist founder Craig Newmark to multiple women approaching Amanda Crew (who plays the head of operations to fictional tech billionaire Peter Gregory) to tell her, "I do your job, and that's exactly how it is," the majority agreed that the freshman comedy captured the essence of the startup scene.
To achieve such on-point satire, creator Mike Judge and executive producer Alec Berg worked tirelessly to learn the ins and outs of modern tech culture. They attended the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, visited incubators, consulted with Stanford grad students, read books and articles on various companies and relied on their own relationships and experiences in the industry. (Judge previously worked as a test engineer in East Palo Alto; Berg's brother is a Stanford computer science grad student who’s worked for Microsoft under Paul Allen.)
They also hired digital media strategist Jonathan Dotan -- who they credit for reaching out to several of the industry's power players -- as a tech consultant on the series. It was he who convinced Re/code blogger Kara Swisher, along with Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, venture capitalist Howard Morgan and TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, to make cameos in the series.
According to Berg, Dotan would assure each of them, "This is real. We’re actually doing research and we’re actually trying to figure out the right way to do these things ... we’re not going to make you look like a jerk." Both he and Judge suggest the comedy is intended to take shots at Silicon Valley but remain respectful at the same time.
Dotan even pitched Pied Piper, the fake startup idea that the show's plot hinges on, to real venture capitalists to gauge their reactions in order to ensure accuracy.
Because the guest stars play themselves -- something Judge likens to Brett Ratner's appearance on Entourage -- their roles have come about organically. They are often used to add credibility to the scene, like Schmidt mingling at a tech party in the first episode or former TechCrunch writer Jason Kincaid hosting a tech conference later in the season.
"It’s not like we’re shoehorning people in," says Judge, with Berg adding: "We haven’t spent a lot of time sitting down saying, 'OK, how do we get Elon Musk into the show?'" (Which is, perhaps, a good thing, considering Musk's less-than-favorable reaction at the Bay Area screening. He was name-checked in the pilot, but did not appear onscreen.)
"Hopefully, it just becomes a thing, like being on The Simpsons or something," Berg says about his goal of getting more tech luminaries to appear in an episode or two if a second season is ordered. "My hope is that enough people have done it that the waters are safe and people go, 'Oh yeah, I’m happy to be goofed on.'"