Writer, director, and producer Mike Judge has a talent for bringing an almost anthropological understanding to his subjects, from the vacuous teenage boys of Beavis and Butt-Head to the disaffected cubicle dwellers of Office Space to the proud Texans in King of the Hill. With Silicon Valley, now in its sixth and final season on HBO, he has turned his gaze to twentysomething startup engineers navigating the world-building narcissism of Big Tech. A former engineer himself, Judge somehow finds the real players of Silicon Valley—despite it all—rather decent.
Fast Company: Season 5 of Silicon Valley ended on an optimistic note, with the show’s protagonists walking into this huge, amazing new office for their suddenly successful company. After years of letting viewers watch the team flail, why did you decide to conclude the season this way?
Mike Judge: I was in a coffee shop recently, and [the barista] recognized my name on my credit card and asked what I’m going to do now that Silicon Valley is done. I said, “No, there’s another season.” I guess because last season was so positive, he thought that was the end of the run. We had gotten a little fatigued with always beating these characters up. They’re fun to watch, and you care about them when they’re like the Bad News Bears. But as we were getting toward the end of the run, we thought, Let’s just see what it’s like to take them to the next level.
FC: What originally drew you to Silicon Valley as a topic for parody?
MJ: My interest started in the months leading up to the dotcom bust in 2000, when there was this frenzy of [digital entertainment companies] trying to sign people to animation deals. Companies like Icebox and Z.com were putting tons of money into it—and they had sort of lost their minds. I was going to these meetings where people were saying, “In two years, you will not own a television.” Even I knew, from my engineering days, that all the stuff they were talking about was technically a lot further away. I saw how absurd it all was and thought about doing something with it. It just took me a long time to get around to it.
By the time we started writing the pilot [in 2012], I thought that maybe we were too late. I was always saying that I had never seen anybody portray programmers the way they are. Then I saw The Social Network, the Facebook movie. There was also the movie Primer, where the engineers seemed like real engineers. But as we started doing the show, the tech world began blowing up and was more in the news and the public consciousness, so the timing worked out.
FC: When you started writing the show, the public perception of Silicon Valley was still pretty positive.
MJ: Definitely. It’s shifted very much in the past two years. Cambridge Analytica was a turning point, but leading up to that, the public was getting a little tired of [people in] the Valley constantly pinning bouquets on themselves for how much better they’re making the world.
Something about Silicon Valley has always triggered my bullshit detectors. But there are a lot of good, well-intentioned people there. In the world of Wall Street, people are there to make money—it’s pure unadulterated capitalism. Silicon Valley has people who are actually interested in the technology, so it’s a little different. As much as I make fun of Silicon Valley, I prefer its personalities to pure Wall Street people. [But] it can be frustrating when you see these basically decent people who believe that their technology is going to make things better, but who are not quite in touch with humanity. A lot of this technology that we’re living with is designed by not-social people.
FC: At one point in season 5, the show’s lead character refers to the internet as a “shitty addictive parasite.” Does that reflect your view?
MJ: Yeah, but I’m on it all the time. I’m addicted. Look, I don’t have any answers: There’s good and bad that comes along with technology. Take YouTube. For the first animated short I ever made, I shot it on a 16mm camera and timed the lip sync with a stopwatch. It took me forever to animate it frame by frame, but I got the lip sync perfect. And now it’s on YouTube for the world to see—and it’s completely out of sync and I can’t shut it down. That infuriates me. But I’m on YouTube all the time myself. I will think of a commercial from the ’70s and wonder whether it exists just in my imagination, and I can go look it up in one second. So if I were a dictator and could take YouTube down, I probably wouldn’t.
FC: Has it been hard to keep the show funny while the stuff going on in real Silicon Valley has become so fraught?
MJ: It is a little scary what’s happening, and we talk about it in the show: For the sake of having things be easy, people have given up a lot of freedom and access to their data. We try to find the funny part of it, but not make light of anything that is too serious. Also, having our [characters] pivot to something that’s trying to counteract what’s going on—[their company] shifted to this peer-to-peer internet thing before Cambridge Analytica happened—kind of set us up perfectly to speak out against that stuff, which we do in this final season. . . .
We want the show to be realistic about the way these technologies affect the world and the people who build them. At the same time, we want to root for our main characters. I like them, and I don’t like to see them building something that’s wrong without realizing that it’s wrong.
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FC: Silicon Valley is legendary for anticipating products and trends before they appear in real life. What’s your favorite example?
MJ: In the pilot, which we shot in March 2013, we had this really horrible app called Nip Alert. After we went to series, while we were still writing, we went to a TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon, which at the time was like a high school science fair but with billions of dollars. Some douchey Australian programmer guys had something called Titstare. It was still the early stage of people realizing that there’s some pretty heavy sexism in the tech world, so the app made the news. When our show came out, the following March, people were like, “Oh, you got that idea from Titstare.”
FC: Elon Musk reached out to you early on to discuss the show. Do you have ongoing dialogues with people in the industry?
MJ: Yeah. [Venture capitalists] Marc Andreessen and Roger McNamee have sent me ideas. Evan Spiegel, [founder and CEO] of Snapchat, will tell us stories. We’ve gotten some good stuff from him, along with Drew Houston from Dropbox and the Winklevoss twins. There are some others who have asked not to have their names mentioned. There’s a woman from Facebook—not anyone famous—who’s given us a lot of stories, and one from Dropbox. Both of them have been really helpful.
FC: What’s it like to get story suggestions from tech billionaires?
MJ: These are highly intelligent people who have good ideas. We have these dinners where it’s me, [Silicon Valley executive producer] Alec Berg, and a couple of our other producers, and four or five billionaires. The last time, we went to Seattle and met Bill Gates.
FC: Do they get that the joke is kind of on them?
MJ: Most have a pretty good sense of humor about themselves. I liken it to Spinal Tap. When I saw the movie, I thought heavy metal bands would hate it, but they loved it. They know they’re being made fun of [as a group], but they’re always thinking that you’re making fun of the other guy or girl. Almost every company we meet with, they say, It’s great the way you’re making fun of the whole “make the world a better place” idea. And then they’ll say, Now we’re going to show you how we actually are making the world a better place.
FC: Do you own a Tesla?
MJ: Yeah, but there are just as many things that drive me crazy about it as things that I like. There’s no need to have handles that pop out. Mine has broken twice, and I’ve had to get in on the passenger side or jam a key into it to pull it out. But not having to go to the gas station is good.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.