Mike Judge is always 10 years ahead of the cultural zeitgeist. It’s his cross to bear.
He moved to Silicon Valley in 1987 to work for a startup, a decade before the dot-com bubble; he released Office Space in 1999, only for it to become a cult classic a decade later; and his 2006 film Idiocracy, depicting a future America overrun by morons and lorded over by an ex-wrestler, seems timelier than ever.
“It’s surreal,” he told The Daily Beast of these Trumpian times. “I didn’t want Idiocracy to get popular by the world getting stupider faster. I guess I was 450 years off! But yeah, it’s a tad bit scary!”
Fortunately, he’s had far more luck in the TV arena—helming the animated classics Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill, and recently wrapping up the third season of his hit HBO series Silicon Valley. The show, a hilarious send-up of the tech world, is up for a whopping 6 Emmy Awards this year including Outstanding Comedy Series.
“When we were doing Silicon Valley I thought, man, we might be five years too late,” he says. “So maybe that’s how I should operate from now on—do it if I think it’s 5-10 years too late. It is nice to have something be a hit right away.”
The Daily Beast spoke to Judge about his critically acclaimed series, the real-life Silicon Valley, Peter Thiel’s crusade against Gawker, and much more.
Must be nice to have Silicon Valley be appreciated while it’s on the air. I feel like so many of your movies, from Office Space to Idiocracy, are only fully appreciated years later.
[Laughs] It’s nice! It’s been really great. I’ve had other stuff do well but it’s been a while. I think I’ve enjoyed seeing this do well maybe more than I’ve enjoyed anything doing well in my career for a long time—except maybe the Beavis and Butthead movie. I always operate best when I’m motivated out of the fear of something being horrible. That’s usually the best motivation: Having my name on it and thinking, Oh my god, this could be horrible and it has my name on it!
Let’s talk about Season 3 of Silicon Valley. Where the hell did you come up with the idea of the dead elephant? Was that inspired by a real-life story?
We had a whole other plotline involving the story of Erlich’s demise and a big expose on greedy tech jerks that became a big story, and she was going to sell the book rights to it. That was going to be the scoop. We were having trouble making it work and struggling with it in the writers’ room, and then Dan O’Keefe just pitched, “What if that elephant dies and they have to cover it up?” It also came before Harambe.
[Laughs] Yeah, it came out before Harambe, too. In Season 3 you had the tech blog Code/Rag, which though it seemed to be named after Re/Code, struck me as more inspired by Gawker or Valleywag due to its snark.
With the tech blogs, some are more sensationalistic than others, so we were saying that in our universe this is our version of Gawker or Valleywag—the more tabloid-style ones.” So many of the tech blogs have their tongues so far up the tech companies’ asses, so it’s nice to see an honest satirizing of it all in Silicon Valley.
A lot of them are owned by VCs! From when we first pitched it and it got green-lit, I saw this opportunity and could hardly wait to get in there and make fun of Silicon Valley. There was so much, and it hadn’t been done. The movie Social Network I liked—it wasn’t satire, but a true story—and it was encouraging to me because I felt they did a really good job and I believed those people were engineers (which Hollywood usually doesn’t get right, in my opinion).
The Social Network really inspired Silicon Valley? Well, I’d wanted to do something about a tech billionaire as early as 2000, so I’d wanted to do something in this area for a very long time. John [Altschuler] and Dave [Krinsky], who I co-created the show with, we had talked about [the movie] as a soap opera like Dallas or Falcon Crest—but instead of oil or wine money it was tech money, and a comedy. With Social Network, I watched that and got a little inspired by just the drama of it—that people programming computers, if done right, can actually be compelling. In the ’90s, they kept trying to make computers sexy in all these movies, like The Net, and I felt they always missed the mark. But Social Network really got it right.
Silicon Valley couldn’t have come around at a better time. We are living out Revenge of the Nerds, where the geek shall inherit the earth.
It’s really true, and I think it’s affected social behavior, in a way. I get the feeling that nerds and straight-A students don’t get their asses kicked the way they used to in high school. I get that feeling. You also, in L.A., see really, really good-looking people constantly talking about what big nerds they are in a fake, self-deprecating way. It seems to be related to how much money and power there is now with people in the tech world. At the same time, there’s also this troubling communication deficit due to tech. A lot of people are walking around now with no concept of how to interface with people in real life.
It’s jumped up a whole other level. When I walk around Santa Monica on Ocean Avenue you can just see all these people hunting Pokémon—because I guess there’s a lot of water Pokémon by the pier. I don’t know… I don’t have the app. What are your thoughts on Pokémon-Go? I mean, my daughter got it immediately and I have some friends who play it. I get why it’s so popular. If I had more time on my hands I would probably download it and play with it, but I think it will spawn a whole new wave of games like that. It’s the very beginning of something that will get much bigger. We explored invented reality and visited some AR and VR companies, and yeah, there’s a whole new wave coming of this stuff. And we might do some of it on the show. Something Pokémon-Go inspired, too? No, not necessarily. Just the whole VR world that’s blowing up right now. We’ll explore that.
What about the whole Peter Thiel vs. Gawker mess? That seems like a gift for you guys on Silicon Valley. So ripe for satire.
Well, we’ve kind of done a little of that with Gavin buying that blog. But it’s crazy—the material just keeps coming. You know, [Thiel] didn’t do anything illegal, it’s just interesting to see… I find the whole behavior of billionaires as just funny to me. They’re all…
Yeah. From the get-go on the show, it’s billionaires with big egos, or even better, billionaires who are really sensitive. It’s really interesting. I don’t know the whole story, but what they did to [Thiel] was pretty unethical and uncool. They’re not really good people, it seems like.
You need to have Peter Thiel cameo on Silicon Valley.
Yeah, I mean we’ve talked with him. I have met him and we’ve talked about that but it hasn’t happened yet. But there’s basically Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk… that’s kind of it… and maybe Peter Thiel now, as far as people recognizing who these guys actually are.
The vindictiveness of the tech billionaire seems to be an overarching theme here, from The Social Network’s Zuckerberg to Peter Thiel.
Yeah. Not everybody, but I think a lot of us are capable of being petty—we just don’t have billions of dollars to back it up. That’s why it’s fun to watch from the sidelines. Also, I find it funny how a lot of these guys have the desire to build, like, a private island out in the ocean where you don’t have to deal with the government—and going to Mars. You can look it up, but there’s this thing called The Last Resort—which is a doomsday resort where, when the nuclear holocaust goes down, the billionaires will have a place to go. All of this stuff I think is really funny. Have you heard any criticism from Silicon Valley about the show? I’ve heard Zuckerberg is a big fan and occasionally wears Pied Piper shirts to the office.
Yeah, I heard that too. I haven’t met him but Thomas [Middleditch] and I think Kumail [Nanjiani] have met him. But yeah, Sergey [Brin] and Larry [Page]—the Google founders—wore T-shirts from our show when they did the Ice Bucket Challenge online.But have you heard any feedback, positive and negative, from Silicon Valley bigwigs?Oh, yeah. Well, Marc Andreessen was live-tweeting during the show. We’ve met with—a lot of them are very private—but Dick Costolo from Twitter actually came on as a consultant after he left Twitter last summer and was with us for several weeks. We’ve actually gotten a lot of love from them. Drew Houston and the Winklevoss twins were on our show, and it’s been overwhelmingly positive.What about Zuckerberg? Any feedback?Not directly, no. I’ve just heard from mutual people we know that he likes it and I’ve seen a picture of him in a Pied Piper T-shirt. We tried to get him to do a cameo but were told that he doesn’t do that. I think it would be great to get a cameo like that. Now I guess people might recognize Peter Thiel, too.
What are your thoughts on the state of MTV? The network’s been shoveling shit for so long, but with the new MTV Classic it seems they’ve finally begun to realize that their brand is in crisis.
They’ve had an identity crisis going back to when I first started doing the show there. They were already concerned because people weren’t watching music videos as much as they used to. When Judy McGrath was in charge—I always liked Judy—but her struggle was always keeping it about the music, because she was all about the music. They did a lot of great stuff back then, I liked it in the ’90s. Except the MTV Classic channel, from what I’ve seen, plays just the Beavis and Butthead episodes from 2011. I hope they’ll start to play the older ones. We can’t put the music videos on DVDs or anywhere for fans because the bands only cleared them for the MTV channel, so in order to put them out you have to clear the music, the people, the bands, etc. It’s just impossible.
Have you thought about revisiting Beavis and Butthead? I think it’d go over like gangbusters.
It comes up every now and then. I think to do it again now, because we kind of did it again in 2011 and it did really well, but I think we’d have to find some new way to do it. It would be fun to bring it back in some way and keep it alive, but I was glad to see that they’re doing this MTV Classic. I’ve watched it a little bit and it’s a nice little flashback.