7:50pm PT by Bryn Elise Sandberg
'Silicon Valley' Showrunners Talk Ending HBO Series: "It's a Different Kind of Comedy Now"
Silicon Valley ended its run on Sunday night with a surprise time-jump, hundreds of rodents and one big-name guest-star (but not T.J. Miller.)
HBO’s Bay Area satire, which debuted in 2014, delivered its series finale in the form of a faux documentary. Ten years into the future, older versions of the main characters share their perspectives on what went down with Pied Piper — and where they all ended up. Richard Hendricks (played by Thomas Middleditch) and the rest of the crew finally make a deal to sell their new internet company — to HBO parent company AT&T, no less — but quickly realize that there’s a dangerous element to the encryption that puts the future of humanity at risk. In order to save the world, they need to make sure Pied Piper fails immediately after its launch.
Showrunners Mike Judge and Alec Berg tell The Hollywood Reporter they felt like it was the right time to end the comedy, the latest of a few veteran HBO shows to wrap up in the last year following Veep and Game of Thrones. Part of Judge and Berg's reason for ending the series was the serious turn certain tech companies have taken in recent years. “When we started out, it was absurd in more of a funny way … but it has gotten a little more serious now,” says Judge. “Facebook’s motto back then was ‘move fast and break things,’ and it’s little less cute now that they actually have moved fast and broken things.”
Berg compares it to his former writing partner David Mandel’s plight making Veep in the Trump era. “It made it a lot harder to just be fun and loose and goofy and just make jokes because there was a real weight and import to what was going on,” he says. “You get to this place where people are making very sustainable arguments that Facebook and Twitter and these other companies have torn the fabric of society irreparably … and it ceases to just become a goofy, fun little show.”
Ahead of the finale, Jude and Berg (who wrote and directed it) break down the extra long episode, spill on how they lured a real-life tech titan on the show and reveal whether there’s potential for more Silicon Valley in the future.
Why was now the right time to end the show?
ALEC BERG Well, that’s a very complicated question. I was there at Seinfeld when Jerry [Seinfeld] made the decision to end after season nine after they had thrown a gazillion dollars at him to do seasons 10 and beyond. And he always felt like, “Look, it’s better to get out on a high note than feel like you stayed one day too long.” The cast are all in a very different place than they are when we started. They’ve all got other things going on and I’ve got other things going on and Mike’s got other things going on. And I think everybody just felt like it would be a shame if it started to decay as we were doing it.
MIKE JUDGE It just felt like we can only have them keep failing for so long without it getting old. I didn’t want to run it into the ground. And hopefully we didn’t. We started the season keeping an open mind about possibly having a seventh, but once we started writing, it felt like this was the right time to bring it all to a head.
BERG I also think the tech industry has changed in a way that is kind of fascinating. Dave Mandel was my writing partner for 25-plus years and he had very similar things going on at Veep where when the show started, politics was one thing and you could make fun of somebody who was completely vapid and narcissistic because that was the exception to the rule. When we started, it was just guys trying to make their little thing work and make some money. And by the end, it had evolved into this thing where it was a group of people who are literally trying to save the world. Narratively and dramatically, that helped us a lot. It gave us a lot of story weight and there was a lot of gravitas to what they were doing. But it made it a lot harder to just be fun and loose and goofy and just make jokes because there was a real weight and import to what was going on. You get to this place where people are making very sustainable arguments that Facebook and Twitter and these other companies have torn the fabric of society irreparably. Facebook is destroying the world, you could argue. And it ceases to just become a goofy, fun little show.
JUDGE When we started out, it was absurd in more of a funny way, seeing these young programmers and tech types suddenly becoming billionaires so quickly. But it has gotten a little more serious now. Facebook’s motto back then was “move fast and break things,” and it’s little less cute now that they actually have moved fast and broken things. So it's a different kind of comedy now. If we had started the show today, we’d have to approach it a little differently.
When did you know that this was how you wanted to end the series?
BERG Obviously at certain point in the life of a show you start to think about, “How do we want to bring this thing home?” And we had an idea that was similar to this that for a couple of years we thought, “Oh, that’s probably how the show ends.”
JUDGE Yeah, we had a series ending in mind really since season two or three. It was not this one, but it had a similar thing to it in that it was Richard (Thomas Middleditch) basically sacrificing [his company.] But it was about him open sourcing it and giving his algorithm to the world as opposed to keeping it for himself and making tons of money. Our actual ending came along just when we were writing this season when our tech consultants told us about this theoretical possibility of the end of encryption. It just seemed like that would be a stronger, more dramatic ending.
BERG But the whole documentary part of it was kind of late to the game. I just thought it was going to be an interesting way of bookending the show and it just gave us some structure that we could play with. Once we came up with the idea that they were going to have to publicly project the idea that they had failed but quietly they all knew that they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, that just seemed like that went really well with the documentary idea.
Alec, you make your onscreen debut in the episode as the documentarian. How did that come about?
BERG Yeah, well, we couldn’t find the back of anyone else’s head that met our needs. No.
JUDGE We were originally talking about getting some real good improv person to be the documentarian and then ultimately we just started thinking that if Alec is directing, he’s going to be telling lines to the actor playing the documentarian, so why doesn’t Alec just play the documentarian? I thought he did great. It’s one of my favorite episodes of the entire series.
BERG I’m not much of an improv-er, but at least I know what answers I want out of them so that I can use them in the edit room. And ultimately, I assure you, it’s not because I was the most qualified candidate performance-wise. It just was I was going to be there the entire time anyway. And it being a documentary, if I wanted to turn to one of the camera guys and say, “Hey, go wider here,” or whatever, that would have been completely in keeping with the spirit of a documentary because that’s what a director would do. So it just felt easier.
Mike, you didn’t want to get in there, too?
JUDGE Oh, no. I’ve managed to make it through the entire series without being on camera and I’m fine with that.
BERG I got to be honest. Having been with this show the entire run, to actually be sitting across from our actors and trying to keep a straight face while I was looking into their eyes on camera was so unbelievable. I have such appreciation for how these guys kept it together. Staring into Zach Woods’ eyes when he is going on a riff, it’s hard. It was really hard. All of them — every one of them — made me lose it.
The season started out with Richard testifying in front of Congress and then days later Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg did the same. What other real-life parallels did you draw from for this episode?
JUDGE Yeah, well, obviously there’s that one. We are always drawing from real life.
BERG Yeah, all the time — but we never really did any kind of one-for-one things. The closest we ever got was that a guy named Tom Berkins had written this op-ed about how billionaires were being persecuted the same way that Jews in Nazi Germany were being persecuted and that ended up word-for-word in Gavin Belson’s (Matt Ross) mouth. There were little stories here and there and real stuff all the time that found its way into the show. That’s one of the great things about satire is that you can just take real things and put them in and you get credit for writing jokes. Like Gabe’s (Aristotle Athiras) wearable chair this season — we didn’t invent that. I just saw that online and I went, “Oh, some asshole in the office has to have that. It would drive those guys nuts.” That’s the beauty of the tech industry in general is it’s full of a bunch of very privileged nuts and they do privileged, nutty things.
JUDGE Another that comes to mind, believe it or not, is the rats. Todd Silverstein, one of our tech consultants, lived in an apartment and I guess the person underneath him was using one of these sonic devices to get rid of rodents, and all it was doing was driving them up into his apartment. And he was telling that story and one of the writers, Sarah Walker, pointed out, “Hey, that’s like the Pied Piper.” It just seemed like this perfect thing that landed in our lap.
BERG It just was one of those things where it was like it seemed like that was intended from the beginning. But those are the happy accidents where you look like a much smarter writer than you actually are.
JUDGE Yeah, I would love to be able to say that way back at the very beginning in the pilot we named it Pied Piper because we knew we were going to end the show with some sonic noise causing rats to come out, but that was just one of those lucky moments.
What was it like to be on set with so many rats?
JUDGE It smelled really bad. It smelled like a pet store but with something else mixed in it that wasn’t good.
How did you decide where each of the main characters ended up in life?
JUDGE We had a lot of discussions about what we wanted for the characters and we thought they deserved. I think as an audience member you might say, “I just want to see them all get rich.” We thought about that at one point and it didn’t seem as satisfying as you might think. But we also don’t want to see them ruined. We want them to all be happy. And what is happiness to each one of these characters? That’s kind of where we ended up. We had talked about having one person, we didn’t know who when we first discussed it, in an orange jumpsuit being interviewed in prison and we never say why. And we just settled on that being Laurie (Suzanne Cryer).
For a moment, it seems like T.J. Miller might make a return appearance as Erlich Bachman. Was that intentional?
BERG Yeah, that was what we were going for there, for sure. We were hoping to catch some people leaning. But of course he was not going to come back. So we thought that was a fun way of teasing that.
JUDGE Yeah, we wanted to deal with that character one way or another. And we went around to a lot of different versions, including one we came very close to where it was pretty clear that Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) had actually murdered him. But we backed off from that one and decided to leave it. It seems funnier that you don’t know what actually happened to him.
BERG The more definitive ending of what Jian-Yang had done to him and just felt a little ghoulish and it didn’t feel like our show. So this way I think it’s up to interpretation. Is he working in concert with Erlich? Is Erlich buried in the basement? We don’t know.
HBO’s parent company AT&T is the communications giant ends up partnering with Pied Piper. Did you pick them because of the corporate relationship?
JUDGE Oh, my god, no. I hope people don’t think [that]. We just wanted something where they’re going to be on millions of phones. None of us were thinking about any of that. We just needed a giant phone company. In fact, at one of the read-throughs I think it was Verizon and then we realized, “Oh, yeah, Thomas.” (Laughs.)
BERG Yeah, Thomas does these Verizon ads, so it would have felt weird if it was Verizon. So we wrote, “Hey we’re making a deal with AT&T,” and I’m sure we ruined somebody’s weekend, but it didn’t come back to us.
What was the intention with the scene with Richard?
JUDGE We had talked about the idea that, like the end of a horror movie, the monster still might be out there somewhere. It just seemed like we needed one extra hint that maybe it’s not over. That if this encryption software that could end all encryption still exists on the thumb drive and that if that got out, it could still lead to anarchy. That was our way of leaving a little bit of a door open to future stuff. I think Alec came up with that.
BERG It was just like, “Well, what if it’s in the desk drawer and then he can’t find it?” There was a version of it where it just ended and then cut to credits over black, but we just thought it was more fun to watch him look for it as the credits were going. So it plays like, so the show is over — or is it? There is definitely a version of, “Oh the thing is out there, what is that?” And at some point, should we choose to pursue that thread, maybe that’s something we could do.
What do you mean? A Silicon Valley spinoff?
BERG Well, I don’t know. I’m open.
Do you have actual plans?
BERG No, no. We had a running joke whenever we would cut stuff we were like, “OK, save that for the Silicon Valley feature. It was mostly a joke where it’s like, “Well, there you go, there’s your Silicon Valley feature: The search for the thumb drive.” But no, just to be very clear, there are absolutely no plans to proceed with any of that.
Was there a dominant theory in the writers room about where the thumb drive has gone?
BERG No. I don’t think we got past [that] it’s funny that he has this thing that in theory could destroy the entire world and he has lost it.
How did you convince Bill Gates to make a cameo?
JUDGE Alec and I met with him in person in the summer of 2017. He wrote a great blog post about our show.
BERG Jonathan Dotan, our head technical advisor, had been touching base with his people on and off over the years and a few of us went up to Seattle a couple years ago and spent an hour talking to him about his thoughts on the show and what are we missing. He was super gracious.
JUDGE I had always thought it would be great to have him do a cameo — and he was open to it. We kept trying to find the right place for it and at one point we had him possibly in that congressional hearing scene at the beginning of this season, and then we started to think that we ought to save that for something better. At one point, after T.J. left, I thought, “Boy, it would be pretty funny to say we’re replacing him with Bill Gates.” But that wasn’t going to happen, either.
BERG We just thought it was really funny that Bill Gates is the one guy who isn’t buying what they’re selling and just knows that something is up.
What was it like directing Gates?
JUDGE I wasn’t there, but Alec was. I know it was very quick. It was 20 minutes and Bill was completely prepared.
BERG He didn’t need much direction. We went up there and shot it at the offices of his foundation. I did a little bit of like, “Hey, let’s do one more but maybe you’re a little bit more puzzled about this.” But he knew his lines and he was great. He was super engaged and focused and prepared and he totally understood what was funny about it. He’s going to make something of himself, that guy. He’s going places. Keep your eye on that Bill Gates fella.
JUDGE I thought his acting was really good, actually. There will be a couple more little bits of him we’re going to release after on what’s sort of like what DVD extras used to be. There will be a version of that entire documentary, and it will have a little more Bill Gates in it.
BERG Yeah, we had so much funny documentary footage that didn’t fit into the show that we ended up cutting a stand-alone documentary that’s probably a half-hour long. As we were shooting it, we were like, “There’s just way too much funny stuff here to ignore any of this.
Anything you wish you’d gotten into the show that you couldn’t?
BERG When Elon Musk’s cyber truck thing happened and those windows broke, no joke, nine people texted or emailed me that day saying, “Is it too late to get this in?” Because that was just a gift. And now I’m hearing rumors that that was all staged to elicit the response that it got. But I’m thinking, “Is he starting the rumor that it was staged so that he can defend how dumb he actually looks?” It’s like, “OK, this is embarrassing. What if I start a rumor that it was staged so that people think that this was actually subversive genius?” And, like, all the sudden, you’ve got three beats of a Silicon Valley episode.
JUDGE The WeWork thing, too. But, like we were saying, things have taken a darker turn in the tech world. So it is probably for the best that we’re stopping when we are.
What’s it feel like to be ending the show after seven years?
BERG Somebody pointed out to me once that when the writers talk about the show, they talk about how much improv there is, and when the actors talk about the show, they talk about how little improv there is. And I have always thought that that was such an incredible metric of the respect we had for each other. I have worked on shows where there’s this real adversarial relationship between the writers and the performers, where the writers feel like the performers are screwing up their gems and the actors feel like the writers are serving them slop. And I’ve got to say, it is so the opposite on this show. And that I will really miss.
JUDGE I feel incredibly lucky or blessed or whatever you’d say. I’m just really fortunate to have gotten this group of people together to do this show. It’s just been pretty magical. And I think the finale is maybe one of the best, if not the best episodes of the entire series. I’m not generally a big fan of series finales. Sometimes they feel self-conscious and forced, but this one seems perfect to me. I hope I’m right. Hopefully everybody likes it as much as I do.