At the end of Silicon Valley‘s first season on HBO, the guys of struggling startup Pied Piper were practically launched into space when their compression algorithm unexpectedly performed at unheard-of levels and crushed the competition at TechCrunch Disrupt. But anyone who knows the show, co-creator Mike Judge, or Silicon Valley itself knows that something has to bring Pied Piper hurtling back down to Earth.
On Wednesday night, the real players and personalities of America’s tech mecca gathered in San Francisco for an advanced screening of Sunday night’s season-two premiere, which starts off as Pied Piper is being wooed in every ridiculous way by every VC on Sand Hill Road. The HBO-hosted screening was followed by a Q&A with Judge, executive producer Alec Berg, and members of the cast including Thomas Middleditch, Martin Starr, Zach Woods, Kumail Nanjiani, and Matt Ross (notably missing: T.J. Miller, who plays the fantastic boor Erlich Bachman, who may be laying low in the real tech world after causing a scene at February’s Crunchie Awards). The theme of the discussion, hosted by Re/code’s Kara Swisher: how do you know us so well, and do you love us or hate us?
Judge spent some time in the Bay Area in the late 80s as a programmer, but left not much later to pursue music and film-making. Seeing how the industry has grown though, he says, “I think I fucked up, maybe I should have stayed here.” The show’s modern-day storylines, he says, come from intensive sessions not only with hired consultants, but real companies and members of the press. “People are really eager to share their stories,” says Judge. “And then we make stuff up.”
One of viewers’ favorite games is to try to figure out which real-life people the characters might be based on. When the late actor Christopher Evan Welch transformed into eccentric Pied Piper investor Peter Gregory in season one, people were quick to speculate he was based on PayPal cofounder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel. In the new season, a new highly competitive, socially detached female character immediately urged Swisher to ask if the inspiration was Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.
While Berg denies any one-to-one correlation between characters and real people, Judge says, “I get it. When we were creating her, we were thinking about these super-intelligent people who think faster than they can talk. So you’ll ask them a very simple question like, ‘I hear you were a math teacher,’ there’s this delay and then a bunch of fast sentences come out, because their brain is just going so quickly. I suppose Marissa Mayer is . . . we didn’t base the character on her.”
The creators also discussed the fate of Peter Gregory’s character, which was a difficult subject after Welch’s sad death from cancer in late 2013. No spoilers, but the season two premiere deals with Gregory’s departure in a direct and even hilarious way. “It was really rough,” says Judge. “We talked to [Welch’s] family, and his mom said to me when she asked how we were dealing with it, ‘Just make it funny.'”
Swisher asked if this season of Silicon Valley would tackle any real-life hot topics like diversity or gender discrimination, especially after Ellen Pao’s lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins. “We started writing last June, so it’s very hard to be super topical,” says Berg. “That started becoming a much bigger story while we were shooting, so hopefully we can address some of these things next season.” He notes, though, that Nippler, a fictional app in season one that “shows you the location of a woman with erect nipples,” seemed like an extreme parody of sexist startup culture until two guys introduced TitStare in real life just before the show aired.
“You could have a CEO get ousted and come back, like Mark Pincus,” adds Swisher, waving to the real Zynga CEO in the crowd who had been reinstalled that same day. “Hi Mark.”
To Swisher’s question, “so do you like Silicon Valley itself?” Judge says: “Honestly, I like these characters, and I like the real characters in this world. It’s like other stuff for me that I’ve done–like King of the Hill, it’s the way you’d make fun of your friends. There are some characters that I don’t like as much. But it’s not like a big ‘fuck you.’ It’s a little ‘fuck you.'”