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Mike Judge

For holding a fun-house mirror up to the tech industry.

Mike Judge
Valley cat: Judge’s portrayal of startups is both exaggerated and eerily accurate. [Photo: Dan Monick]

Fast Company: Did you feel more pressure with season 2 of the show, after your well-received first season?

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MJ: It’s definitely there. But it’s also kind of cool. It was fun going, “Okay, people get the characters, they work.” The first season, if it didn’t work at all and nobody liked it, for the most part it would quietly disappear.

And that brought you comfort?

[Laughs] Not exactly comfort, but a slight ease of the pressure, whereas if nobody likes it this time, it’s a very public, loud failure.

Still, you seem outwardly pretty chill. Do you meditate?

No, never did. I probably should. I had a swim coach once who taught us meditation–and sometimes if I’m trying to sleep I’ll do a little bit of what he taught us. I really should do yoga–my daughter says it’s great. I was at the point for a while during the first season where I could barely bend over to put my shoes on. Back pain from stress, I guess. I go surfing and swimming–that kind of stretches me out a little bit.

When you started doing research for the show, what surprised you about the tech industry?

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I was surprised how much that [group-demographic] ratio, which we talk about in the pilot, shows up. The very first incubator we visited with all the writers, they bring out the first company to pitch to us, and it’s three white guys, an Asian, and an East Indian, all living in a two-bedroom apartment. They had three months to burn through $100,000 for their startup. And it ended with [the guys in the company] saying, “You know, we’re making the world a better place.” And nothing had aired yet. We’d shot the pilot. All the writers were like, “How did you know?”

How did you know?

There’s a Yahoo campus right around here. I was actually taking pictures sometimes from my car, because I’d drive right past and go, “Wow, there’s another group.”

There are no women in positions of power in the first season of Silicon Valley, which in many ways reflects the real-life diversity dynamic.

This is satire, so if you’re going to take shots at that industry for not having women in it, then you tend to exaggerate things. It’s kind of the same thing that happened on Beavis And Butthead–you’re making fun of something and people think you’re endorsing it, and that is just not the case. My ex-wife worked in tech. I used to work in tech. I always wanted there to be more women in it.

In the first episode of season 2, almost immediately we see a managing partner at a VC who’s a woman.

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The percentage of female VCs who are [partners in firms], it’s alarmingly low, like 5%. We thought about it in the first season, but if one of [the show’s main characters] was getting mixed up in a relationship, you wouldn’t respect him. We have a female coder join the team in the fourth episode. It makes for some comedy–how these guys deal with a woman in the house and how they deal with a female VC character.

The biggest tech company in the world has an ambitious new product due out this year–do you think you’ll buy an Apple Watch?

Yeah, maybe. I did not think Google Glass would ever catch on or come close to catching on. Apple Watch I think could. I kind of like it.

You’re not just saying that because of the recent HBO–Apple deal, are you?

Oh, no. Although I think that’s going to be great–why not compete with Netflix?

At the Silicon Valley premiere, Elon Musk said, “I really feel like Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley. If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it.” Have you been yet?

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I’ve not been–he was right. He’s a very smart man. I actually talked to [Musk] on the phone after that, and he said I hadn’t worked in Silicon Valley for a long time and I should do some more research. I said, “Yeah, you’re probably right.” This isn’t like a propaganda film for Silicon Valley to promote it or make it seem great; it’s just a comedy and it’s about these characters, it’s not about every character. I mean, look, I’d rather go to parties with [Valley] people than with Hollywood people. They’re much smarter than anyone in Hollywood and more interesting to watch.

You worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, and you said on Marc Maron’s podcast that when you first arrived, it felt really cultish–has that aspect changed?

Maybe I’m too sensitive to it. In another life, if I started my own company I’m sure I would be a cult leader and be fine with it. Being an engineer, it just rubbed me the wrong way. I worked one job and when I finally quit, they had the VP bring me in to ask why. I said, “Well, if you want me to be honest, I come in here on Monday and I’m completely miserable. I have no rapport with anybody. By the end of the day I want to shoot myself.” He looked at me and he said, “What if we offered you stock options?”

So, not a great fit.

Yeah, but it wasn’t just the company. Back then, there would be a full newspaper ad with the word “Push” across the top. Then underneath it: ”. . . yourself harder than you ever dreamed possible, past all existing goals, up to the level of Sun Microsystems.” And there are people going, “Oh, I want to work harder! I’m going to work 16-hour days without getting paid more because I’m that devoted.” And people trying to out-devote each other. I didn’t want any part of it. I feel like it’s still that way now. But now at least you’re working for Facebook or something that’s famous and connecting people all around the world. I think it’s a little better. I would probably last longer now.

And now they create these amazing places to work–but the dark side of that is, between the hair salon and the free food, you can’t leave even if you want to.

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Alec [Berg, a Silicon Valley writer, producer, and showrunner] likened it to sci-fi movies from the 60s or 70s where the aliens come down and say, “Look, we’ve built you the perfect world–why do you not want to be here? All you have to do is give us your soul.” There is that sort of thing. But it is really nice.

You once said that while you were working on King Of The Hill, an MTV exec said it was great but he wanted you to make it more like The Simpsons. Has Hollywood gotten better at embracing innovation since then?

The networks haven’t, from what I hear and see. They always say they want to, but then when it comes down to it, they’re just scared. Chris Rock once said, “The executives have two gears: kissing your ass and panicking.” And it’s so true.

Judge pulls himself out of creative ruts by doing mundane tasks, like washing the dishes or mowing the lawn.

How would you describe the vibe in your writers’ room?

It’s actually really good–one of the best writing combos I’ve ever had.

What makes it so good?

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We complement each other well–some people are great with straight comedy, some are more into story. It’s never easy–it’s always just sitting around a room, staring at each other, trying to make things up and getting frustrated and starting over. It’s not an easy show to write, but writing something that’s difficult, you get the advantage of coming up with things that are unique. I mean, there’s a reason there are all these medical and police dramas. Every week you can bring a new story in the door. This is guys sitting in front of computers.

And you have to dramatize things like term sheets and algorithms.

That’s the struggle. What does make it easier is that we are living in this time when guys and girls are doing things that could potentially impact history and really change the world. That drama playing out among people who just learned to program computers is all interesting stuff. That’s what we try to keep in mind. It’s not about the algorithm.


Bonus Round

Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?

From when I first making animated shorts, I would say: ‘By any means necessary.’ I think the Malcolm X movie was coming out and I kept thinking that: ‘By any means necessary.’ I’d search my brain for any scrap of memory for any funny story, any interesting thing. And then I was getting writer’s block, getting frustrated just siting around the house and no ideas were coming. So I thought: ‘Well, I’m not getting any ideas, so I’m just going to wash the dishes. Go mow the lawn.’ And then ideas started coming to me. So washing the dishes was the first breakthrough.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

I get coffee, and check email, and then I shave. And then sometimes I walk out and look at the ocean for a minute. It’s at the end of the block. That’s my routine.

What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?

How unglamorous it is. Someone I know said I should take a picture of the writing room. Just like four people and dry erase boards with scribbles all over it. So that’s all it is. Sitting there, wracking our brains, trying to make stuff up.

What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?

I was really liking Florida Man for a while there. You know, ‘Florida Man arrested for…’

How do you keep track of everything you have to do? Can you send us a snapshot of your to-do list?

I go in and out of keeping track. Let me see [looks at phone]. Sometimes I write it down. This is all just boring stuff: Get my motorcycle registered. Email my sister. Go to the dermatologist. Not super glamorous.

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

Doing the dishes or cleaning the garage. I get this thing where if I feel really unproductive I think, ‘Well, if I do something menial, at least I won’t feel crappy at the end of the day.’ Sometimes, I just go walk around for a while. Just go snap out of it. Nothing that magical. I don’t play video games. I play piano a lot. I play bass. I’ve always been a musician, so that’s something I actually do. I actually do that in the mornings sometimes, too.

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

I don’t know if this is the best example, but Richard Feynman, the physicist, has a lot of really great lectures on YouTube. I really like the way he thinks. It’s kind of simple and honest. There’s a great one on there where this BBC guy asks him how magnets work and he gets a little frustrated and is just very honest and says, ‘To really understand it, you need to know all this stuff and math, and you don’t know that, so I’m not going to explain it to you.’ He does this whole thing–if you came from a different planet and didn’t know anything, and if your aunt slipped on the ice and broke her hip, and if you didn’t know anything you’d keep asking why. It’s this long-winded thing but it’s really interesting to listen to. It’s hard to explain how he thinks. I’m not good at articulating it. Eminem, actually. Love Eminem. I love a lot of hip-hop. The Geto Boys, that’s another thing I used to listen to all the time.

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About the author

Mac Montandon

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