For one of the final scenes of the first season of the new HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley," creator Mike Judge and his production designers re-created TechCrunch Disrupt, the intense annual San Francisco conference where computer engineers, developers and programmers compete for attention, pitching nascent startups to trawling venture capital investors and media figures.
Recalling the filming a few months later, Judge said he wanted to get the sequence exactly right, "because I had seen this world, and these people, portrayed so cheaply before." Indeed, before he sold his first "Beavis and Butt-Head" animated short to MTV, before he became known for being a kind of poet of the banal with TV's "King of the Hill" and the cubicle-farm classic "Office Space," he worked in Silicon Valley as an engineer. And the Silicon Valley he has seen portrayed in pop culture ever since has felt static, lacking: "Even in the '80s, well into the '90s, a computer geek was basically a return to the '50s nerd," he said. "Hollywood was still doing the pocket protector thing, the high-waisted pants, and that had disappeared decades ago. Even computer nerds I knew in the late '70s, they had bushy hair and ponytails, and many still do. Either that or a computer engineer (in a movie) was a hot actress — you never believed it a second."
Judge's "Silicon Valley" is a male-dominated place with enormous resources and vague aspirations of changing the world — a sunny, antiseptic place dotted with tech "incubators," the correct word for a culture brimming with needy narcissists. And the show's engineers: As awkward as any Hollywood portrait you can picture, from Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) of "The Social Network" to the engineers of "The Big Bang Theory," with one major difference: They're not quite nerds.
The engineers of "Silicon Valley," a group of Northern California tech developers who live together in a ranch house, are characters handled with unprecedented care, standing somewhere between being captains of industry and the bloated self-importance they think money demands.
That said, the show is actually very Chicago. Call it synergy, serendipity or chance: For a few brief years about a decade ago, three of the five primary cast members of HBO's excellent new comedy series "Silicon Valley" walked among us, worked among us.
Kumail Nanjiani came here from Grinnell College in Iowa to become a stand-up comedian. While he was here, he became friends with a struggling stand-up comic from Denver, T.J. Miller, who was also performing at local improv clubs with a gangly Canadian named Thomas Middleditch.
Shocker: Around 2007, each left town. Middleditch became a character actor ("The Campaign"), while Miller and Nanjiani gathered followings for their stand-up, as well as movie and TV roles in works as disparate as "Cloverfield" (Miller), "How to Train Your Dragon" (Miller) and IFC's "Portlandia" (Nanjiani).
"Silicon Valley" brings them together again. Middleditch is Richard, a programmer whose file-compression algorithm leads to a war between billionaires; Nanjiani is the engineer Dinesh; and Miller, who has never been better, is Erlich, a stoner dot-com millionaire who gathers his friends together under one roof. Which isn't so different from their experiences in Chicago. Each spoke, separately, about those experiences. Edited versions of those conversations follow.
Q: When you lived here, did you live in a house with other comedians?
A: Actually, yeah. I totally did. In fact, even one of my friends from grade school lived with me and ended up going to work for the Onion, then Funny or Die. Comedians are like-minded and tend to hang together well. Socially, we were OK then. If it got awkward ever, it's because some people can't turn it off — they're on all the time. But I was comfortable, I could work a room, I could hold the floor. Kumail, actually, who I had never improvised with before (until "Silicon Valley") — and man, it came so effortlessly, because of all those years watching each other on different stages in Chicago — we would drink together after shows in Chicago. He and I and (comedian) Pete Holmes were close. The thing about Chicago was there wasn't much (Hollywood-esque) industry, so you could casually develop a sensibility and try stuff. Los Angeles would have ground us to dust at that time, but Chicago, we were magnetically drawn to one another, and Chicago was supportive.
You know, I think I got (the) "Silicon Valley" (role) basically because Thomas and I were in the improv community in Chicago together, at Second City, iO, and (Judge) let us improvise together at the screen test and the dynamic was so great. Because we had chemistry already. We actually created this two-man show at iO called "Practice Scaring a Bear," which ran for a while and was this mix of improv and stand-up, then the two of us would close with improv. The iO (administration) went crazy because we were "muddling the integrity of improvisation." In my mind, I'm thinking, "OK! All you improv snobs, see you in 10 years, at your day jobs!"
Q: On "Silicon Valley" you play this eccentric, stoner Svengali figure who comes off like a missing link between the idealism of hippy San Francisco and the visionary, grandiose new-media Bay Area, which somewhat crystallizes your appeal in a way that hasn't been as obvious until now.
A: I've heard "defining role" from people. It's nice. Network sitcoms, they want a funny guy to play stupid.
Q: And Erlich wants a soul.
A: Which sounds a lot like Hollywood. There's a lot of money involved, it's very competitive and some people want to come out the other side with a soul intact. I don't know. The reason I did comedy at all is because I feel very strongly that comedy is actually a public service. I'm completely serious. I never felt as driven by success as by rousing an audience from whatever crisis is going on their lives, if only for the time of a show.
Q: But would you want to be identified solely as an actor now, because of "Silicon Valley"?
A: Well, my brand is — eccentric loose cannon who keeps his madness at bay? Hard to put on a business card. People know me as an actor, but I see myself as a stand-up, which is deliberate, a bulletproof weapon against Hollywood: If they say I'm old news, "Well, I'm a stand-up, I don't need to be anything to you guys."
Q: Yet you're in the next "Transformers" movie.
A: I'm Mark Wahlberg's apprentice, a landlocked surfer type. Don't know where they got that idea from.