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posted: 4/6/2014 3:00 AM

HBO, Mike Judge team up for a comic look at 'Silicon Valley'

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  • Thomas Middleditch and Josh Brener play programmers trying to make their mark in the tech world in HBO's "Silicon Valley."

      Thomas Middleditch and Josh Brener play programmers trying to make their mark in the tech world in HBO's "Silicon Valley."

  • A group of programmers (Kumail Nanjiani, left, Martin Starr, Thomas Middleditch, Zach Woods and T.J. Miller) share a suburban house in HBO's new "Silicon Valley."

      A group of programmers (Kumail Nanjiani, left, Martin Starr, Thomas Middleditch, Zach Woods and T.J. Miller) share a suburban house in HBO's new "Silicon Valley."

 
By Roger Catlin
Special to The Washington Post

Before he created "Beavis and Butt-Head" and "King of the Hill," Mike Judge was working as an engineer in Silicon Valley, writing software for aircraft carriers.

He took mental notes on how weird it all was.

"It's a lot of anti-social introverted people thrown together," he says over the phone in his deep, halting voice -- closer to Hank Hill than Butt-Head (both of whom he voiced). "A lot of these guys would not fit in another workplace."

But together, they make a humorous gang of nerds in hoodies, who spend their days writing code in hopes of becoming the newest startup millionaires -- roles that they are even less suited to fill.

That's the premise behind "Silicon Valley," the new HBO comedy he has made with Alec Berg that premieres Sunday, April 6.

"Silicon Valley" stars a group of mostly young comic actors led by Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr and Josh Brener, playing programmers who share a suburban house -- an incubator -- as they work on their various ideas in a town eager to gobble them up.

Almost immediately, there's a battle between two Silicon Valley giants and corporate seers over a compression app created by Middleditch's character Richard.

"I thought about doing something in this area for a long time," Judge says. But, suddenly, everybody had an idea about it. John Altschuler, a writer on "King of the Hill" who is an executive producer here, "had an idea about doing a show like 'Dallas' or 'Falcon Crest' but instead of oil or wine money, it would be about tech money," Judge says.

Then HBO approached with an idea to do a series about video game players, Judge says. "And I didn't know the gaming world at all. But I did know this world."

But there was a reason there hadn't been a series about the digital boom.

"We've been joking that we're doing a series about something that's inherently unfilmable," Berg says. While it's understandable to have police, fire and emergency room TV shows, where "every 10 minutes a story comes running through your door," he says, "watching guys type is not super exciting."

Judge had heard it before.

"When I did 'Office Space,'" he says, referring to the 1998 cult comedy film, "there was some concern back then about: How are you going to make a movie about people who sit in desks? But I think because there's not obvious action stuff there, it's kind of a challenge that ends up yielding really interesting character stuff. I think that ended up happening with this, too."

Besides that, some of industry's giants, from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to Google creators Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have become more widely known as personalities. In fact, some of their stories migrated to "Silicon Valley."

"We heard a story about Sergey and Larry at Google, when they first started, they got their first seed check for $100,000 made out to Google Inc., but they didn't own the name Google Inc., so they couldn't cash the check until they solved that issue," Berg says. "That became a story."

"The big thing with Mike is satire -- pulling in from what's real and changing as little as possible, just to reflect at how ridiculous most of real life is," says Middleditch.

As such, "it was impossible to clear names for the show because any nonsense arrangement of letters they came up with had already been taken," Middleditch says.

So in a land of Google and Yahoo, they came up with Hooli as a giant tech company run by a megalomaniac played by Matt Ross.

Other times, they'd invent something bizarre only to find out that someone else had come up with it.

It's all about the guys, though, and the only female characters in the opening episodes are a stripper and an executive assistant.

Unfortunately, that's the way it is in Silicon Valley, says Berg.

"We make jokes about it," Judge says. "But we do have female characters coming up in the show."

For now, the cast resembles the kind of nerd gangs that populate the burgeoning industry, and Berg and Judge are happy with the actors they got to portray them, who largely came up from improv comedy groups.

"Casting nerds" is tricky, Judge says. "There's this real fine line between somebody who is kind of cartoony nerdy and somebody who you believe can play intelligent and be funny at same time. And I think we have a pretty amazing cast that's able to do that."

And maybe they're not acting that much. "Between takes of the show, they're actually, literally playing Magic: The Gathering," a trading card game, Berg says.

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