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Mike Judge, the Bard of Suck

“I agree,” Judge said.

“He was [expletive] ahead of his time. As always. As always.”

“I should’ve made it 10 years later and set in the present.”

Rothman turned to me. “He had it. You’re gonna see it. How absolutely. Terri-fy-ingly. Prescient it is.” He was picking up momentum. “Right now? ‘Idiocracy’? One of the great documentaries of our era!” he said, physically punctuating his point in such a way that he managed to thump a diner sitting behind him with the lacrosse stick.

Calling “Idiocracy” a documentary is one of those jokes about Donald Trump that was made constantly in the latter months of 2016 and now reeks of a certain strain of ineffectual liberal smugness. Still, it’s an observation not entirely without merit. As recently as two years ago, the movie felt like a relic of the jingoistic Bush years, but then history shuddered in such a way as to render it clairvoyant. In “Idiocracy,” the secretary of state is sponsored by Carl’s Jr., a company whose chairman very nearly became our current secretary of labor. In 2505, the Oval Office is occupied by an ex-wrestler and porn star named Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho; our president has been on the business end of a Stone Cold Stunner and once appeared in a nonpornographic segment of an otherwise soft-core Playboy VHS tape, dumping sparkling wine onto a limousine. His name is a brand name, too.

Judge has been exploring the contours of American suckiness for his whole career, so it’s no surprise that in what most Americans would consider a difficult year, his vision resonates. But Judge has spent much of his time as a satirist focusing on less self-evidently stupid targets. In “Office Space,” it was the micromanagers who turned a central aspiration of the American dream — white-collar work — into a fluorescent-lit nightmare. Now, on “Silicon Valley,” entering its fourth season on HBO, it is the upward-failing sociopaths of the tech industry, who envelop their monopolistic ardor in homilies about changing the world. (As the show’s billionaire villain, Gavin Belson, once put it: “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.”) The not-so-hidden brutality of our managerial class has always fascinated Judge. It may even help explain the sudden interest in “Idiocracy” around the election: Of course those people would come to love such a meanspirited movie after losing to a guy capable of misspelling the word “tap.”

After lunch, Judge and I made our way back to his editing bay on the lot. HBO rents space from Sony for the production of “Silicon Valley,” and Judge was there putting together the first episode of the new season, working from a room with blackout curtains over windows that would otherwise look out onto a small warren where the R.V. from “Breaking Bad” is parked — alongside, somewhat less impressively, Walter White’s Pontiac Aztek. Judge sat down with his co-showrunner, Alec Berg, their assistants and his editor to watch the episode for what might as well have been the thousandth time.

“Silicon Valley” concerns a small start-up called Pied Piper that is constantly bullied by a tech giant called Hooli, when it is not being brought low by its own employees. The fourth season opens with Richard Hendricks, the lead character and company founder, trying once again to turn his visionary compression algorithm into a viable business. We all watched as he paid a visit to Monica, a partner at the venture-capital firm that backs him, but found that someone else had taken over her office. It’s immediately clear that this new occupant is less a dreamer than a destroyer of dreams, which is no simple feat considering he’s onscreen for all of 10 seconds. But the job of comedy writers, sometimes, is to draw in bold lines, as you would with stage makeup. The perfect details were all there: The guy leans back in his chair with a smug smirk, seated beneath a framed Tom Brady jersey, and — amazingly, considering the scene was shot weeks earlier — in his hands, he holds a lacrosse stick.

Video

Clip from ‘Silicon Valley’

A scene from the new fourth season of Mike Judge’s HBO comedy, “Silicon Valley.” (Courtesy of HBO)


Publish Date April 11, 2017.


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Mike Judge started his career as an animator working out of his house in Dallas in the early ’90s, and two very different shorts defined, early on, the twin poles of his comedic universe. The first cartoon he ever completed, in 1991, was called “Milton’s Office Space”; it runs about 90 seconds and begins with a man at his desk, saying to the camera, “I told Bill if they move my desk one more time, I’m quittin’.” Bill shows up — hair slicked back, suspenders — and, of course, asks Milton to move his desk. “If you could go ahead and just get it as far back into that corner as possible, that’d be terrific,” he says, leaning on the door frame, coffee mug in hand. “That way, we’ll have room for some more of those boxes.” The short ends with Milton alone once again. “Well, O.K.,” he says to no one in particular. “But I’m gonna set the building on fire.”

The other pole of Judge’s work can be found in the 1992 short “Frog Baseball,” his first starring the adolescent goons Beavis and Butt-Head. The two venture out into the Texas chaparral, strip malls fading into the distance, the landscape seeming to ask: What do you expect to happen? They catch a grasshopper and stick a firecracker “in its butt,” celebrating its demise by shouting the chord progression from “Iron Man.” They find a frog and hit it with a bat, its corpse coming to rest amid crushed beer cans and spent shotgun shells; the boys do “Smoke on the Water.” Then they find a poodle.

A consistent theme in Judge’s work is the problem of agency: People like Milton have too little; people like Beavis and Butt-Head have too much. But all of them are united by the destructive impulses that arise from their predicament — and by the fact that they’re based in reality. Frog baseball was something Judge once overheard a guy talking about at work. First, he thought: That stuff happens. Then he thought: Who would do this? Beavis and Butt-Head offered an answer to that question. As for Milton, he was based in part on a guy Judge worked with shortly after college, at an engineering firm in San Diego. “Milton” was an employee in the logistics department, and no one ever seemed to talk to him. One day, passing by on the way to the restroom, Judge decided to say hi, not realizing that doing so would unleash a torrent of rage. “If they move my desk one more time, I’m quittin’,” the man told Judge, before delivering a rant about his fish tank and its sunlight needs. Judge remembers thinking: “He’s not going anywhere. You could move his desk a hundred times; he’s not gonna quit.”

Judge did quit that job, after a year. It was his first after graduating from the University of California, San Diego, in 1985 with a degree in physics, and he hated it. He moved to Silicon Valley, where he lasted three months each at two different jobs. In a way, he felt tricked. When he was growing up in Albuquerque, everyone told him that if he wanted a lucrative and satisfying career, all he had to do was get a technical degree. “Guidance counselors just pound it into us: science, college, science,” he says. But he had a technical degree and could barely afford his rent. His next-door neighbor worked as an auto mechanic, and not only did he make more money than Judge, but he kept flexible hours and seemed to be substantially happier. (He would serve as inspiration for Lawrence, the construction-worker neighbor in “Office Space”; Judge’s neighbor in the other direction helped inspire Butt-Head.) “For so long,” Judge told me, “I was wondering how I was going to make a living that wasn’t going to make me miserable. That was my main concern in life.”

He had an out: For a few years, he made a living playing stand-up bass with the blues guitarist Anson Funderburgh’s band. He moved to Dallas, where he bought a home for about $85,000 with his wife at the time. Back then, banks were still offering high-interest CDs that paid about 10 percent a year. Judge sat down one day to calculate how much he’d have to plow into one of these to avoid working for the rest of his life, living on interest alone. It was $360,000. This early-retirement scheme would be made irrelevant by the colossal success of “Beavis and Butt-Head,” which thrived in part by savagely roasting both MTV (the channel that aired it) and the generation its programming had spawned.

But Judge’s frustration with his early experience in the white-collar work force had only temporarily receded, and it would soon come rushing back in the form of “Office Space.” The 1999 film reprised the characters from the “Milton” short and expanded on the theme it explored: the way work not only robs you of your free will but also refashions that will in its own image. It’s such a brutal portrayal of workplace misery that its most useful points of comparison date back to when office culture was first unleashed on humanity. Many liken it to Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (a story Judge has not yet read), and I still recall a high-school English teacher invoking the movie in an effort to impress on the class what Franz Kafka’s life was like, toiling away by day at an insurance company in the twilight of the Hapsburg empire.

If you set aside his long-running TV show “King of the Hill,” which is much too loving to be considered satire, Judge’s corpus of work cleaves neatly into two pieces. In one, people are driven nearly to ruin in their efforts to escape the crush of immense managerial apparatuses (“Office Space,” “Extract”). In the other, we see the opposite — imbeciles left completely and terrifyingly to their own devices (“Beavis and Butt-Head,” “Idiocracy”). “Silicon Valley,” remarkably, fuses both of these impulses. The tech world it skewers is the most dynamic sector of our economy, possibly representing the greatest concentration of brainpower and capital ever seen in human history, creating products that insinuate their control into every last corner of our lives. And yet it’s nevertheless lousy with man-children who seem to want nothing more than the ability to prolong adolescence, theirs and ours alike, and have the means and the license and the asinine product ideas to do so. If “Idiocracy” imagined that America would one day amuse itself into ruin, then “Silicon Valley” offers a compelling case for how we’ll go about doing it — not in spite of our best and brightest, but because of them.

On a Tuesday morning in February, I found myself in a nearly empty Los Angeles Convention Center, where the “Silicon Valley” production team had fashioned about one-third of one hall into a mock industry convention. Staged for a scene in the show’s coming season, the event had 28 booths, among them Pied Piper’s and, across from it, one for a fictitious mobile game. The other 26, however, were completely real, with many staffed by actual employees. Square was there, along with Roku and Oculus and Nest, which brought a fire truck that had been painted baby blue by the guys from “Pimp My Ride.” There were companies I’d never heard of, like FLIR (thermal imaging), Mophie (portable chargers) and Equinix (“Interconnection to connect, protect and power the digital world”). A drone company called DJI had set up what can perhaps best be described as a go-go dancer cage for one of its quadcopters.

Looming above me was a 15-foot-tall four-legged mech, a full-body prosthesis fashioned from trellised white steel beams and hydraulic pumps. Behind it was a red R.V. with a helicopter on top of it, and all around were high-definition TVs playing promotional loops of other high-definition TVs installed in sumptuous settings. An employee of the company responsible for all this, Furrion, was explaining to me and a few “Silicon Valley” writers how this grab bag of contraptions all fit under the Hong Kong-based firm’s umbrella. Furrion had been involved mainly in yachts and then high-end audiovisual installations before deciding to “move toward lithium technology,” which led to robotics and to the mech, which he claimed, rather incredibly, could run 20 miles per hour. “The military actually wanted to, uh, arm it,” he told us. “But that’s not — we don’t — you know, we want to stay away from the military.” Then he paused and hedged: “As much as we can.” (Later, he said it was a previous project of his own that a military contractor had been curious about — a giant mechanical spider he created for Burning Man.)

In the middle of all this was Judge, whose appearance sits somewhere in the overlap between “aging surfer” (which he is) and “off-duty cop” (which he is certainly not). At 55, he’s trim with a powerful-looking upper body and somehow presents a sense of calm despite quivering with nervous energy. He sat at his monitors, eyes darting back and forth between the two feeds, legs pumping like pistons, chewing gum so furiously that I could, at times, see the muscles in his temples pulsating like an exposed heart. He has the habit, when making decisions, of clutching his skull as if it might otherwise split open. Anxious as he seemed, he never raised his voice and still laughed at the bits he liked, even on repeat viewings. (I asked him later, half-kidding, if directing stresses him out to the point that he still harbors fantasies about leaving the work force completely. “Oh, no, I do,” he said. “Totally.”)

The portrayal of the tech world on “Silicon Valley” might scan as absurd to anyone outside the industry, but within the valley the show is known and appreciated for its verisimilitude. Not only does it have a technical adviser in the writers’ room and on set; it also has a small research staff. Judge and Berg frequently meet with a network of contacts in the valley for material, in subjournalistic fashion, offering anonymity or compositing as cover to protect their sources. Thomas Middleditch, who plays Richard, told me he gets two responses from people in tech: They either love the show for its accuracy or find it so accurate that it’s too stressful to watch.

It could be said that a satire so beloved by its target must be a failure, but the valley’s embrace of the show underscores, in a way, the accuracy of the critique — a dynamic apparent at the convention. “You have to be careful,” warned Clay Tarver, a writer on the show, “because if you start talking to them, then they’ll start pitching you their thing. So I just don’t talk to anyone. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb here.” The actors, he said, are pitched all the time, wherever they go — which would be the equivalent of Christopher Guest being handed demo tapes by aspiring musicians who enjoyed his performance in “Spinal Tap.” Between takes, I watched a bearded employee of an electric-skateboard company enter full mall-kiosk-tout mode, aggressively selling Hollywood actors and extras on the merits of his product. Martin Starr, who plays Gilfoyle, took one for a spin and was then shown how the board’s battery popped out, making it convenient for air travel.

I tried to heed Tarver’s advice as I wandered around the faux-convention in the late afternoon, but I wound up failing. The initial pressure of the morning had given way to boredom among the extras and start-up employees. At the edge of the set, a man sat in a three-wheeled conveyance called a Vanderhall Laguna, looking vaguely disappointed. I walked by the Roku booth, where the “employees” were lounging on the carpet, looking at their phones. They were extras, it turned out, and when I asked why Roku hadn’t bothered sending real employees, their answer was interrupted by a voice from the next booth: “Because Roku doesn’t have an exciting product to talk about!”

It was the skateboard guy again. Though his prop lanyard identified him as Chris Riddle, he introduced himself as Dave. I couldn’t help liking him, and we fell into conversation as Judge and the cast prepared a shot at Pied Piper’s booth. Dave was impressed with how true to life the booth was, especially its use of AstroTurf. He had just been at the CES trade show in Las Vegas, he said, and AstroTurf was definitely the hallmark of a shabby booth. (Unknown to him, the “Silicon Valley” team had been there, too.) It would’ve been even more accurate, he said, if it had Ikea furniture — and from there, all of a sudden, I was being pitched. Dave had run to Ikea that very morning, he said, because a Best Buy in Mountain View had decided to sell his product, and he’d had to give them all his promotional fixtures; in fact, Dave said, he had big plans to place the board in dozens more stores. Then he added something strange: He said he’d spoken with a procurer for a Police Department about using the skateboards for patrols.

The entire conversation seemed to bolster Judge’s case for verisimilitude-as-satire. The implicit suggestion of “Silicon Valley” is that if you want to see how the tech world’s ostensibly freewheeling nature conceals a willingness to be party to systems of bureaucratic and governmental control — not to mention how it runs on a crass sort of huckerism, and how it might represent a terrible misallocation of wealth and intellect — all you really need to do is look straight at it.

When Judge was casting “Silicon Valley,” nearly every actor who wound up in the principal cast first auditioned for the part of Erlich Bachman, the Falstaffian stoner who, in his avarice, chauvinism and arrogance, epitomizes Silicon Valley’s strange id. Judge held auditions in a conference room with frosted glass windows, and when T.J. Miller — who eventually landed the part — walked by, Judge saw his silhouette pass and started laughing. “If someone’s silhouette can make you laugh,” he told me, “they’re probably pretty funny.” We tend to think of funniness as a quality inherently tied to extroversion. But Judge isn’t like that at all. He’s surprisingly reserved and — while often funny — doesn’t really crack jokes. His is a sense of humor that renders the expression literal: He knows funny when he sees it, but he tries not to get in its way.

A couple of weeks after I visited the set of “Silicon Valley,” we met for dinner in Santa Monica, at a restaurant on the Third Street Promenade. We drank Coors Lights, and for the most part, Judge entertained me with anecdotes, including one about meeting Andrew Mason, who founded Groupon. Mason had played in punk bands, and the company he started, originally called the Point, was intended to help people organize around social causes. Early on, though, its users realized they could band together to save money, so Mason reoriented the company around that purpose. Eventually he realized he could just go directly to other companies to ask for discount deals, then sell those to groups of users. “Before I knew it,” Judge recalled him saying, “I was selling coupons.” Judge sympathizes with members of the tech world, he explained, because they’re not like Wall Street guys — they actually build things people use. “They don’t seem to get into it for the purpose of pure greed and trying to make money,” he said. “They end up there.”

In “Silicon Valley,” Richard’s efforts to avoid “ending up there” act as the propellant for the show’s drama. He outmaneuvers a frivolous lawsuit from Hooli, copycat products from better-capitalized companies and a Pied Piper chairman who wants to turn quick profits by putting his revolutionary algorithm in a boring piece of hardware. The valley is portrayed as adept at just about everything except fostering innovation — it would rather squash it, steal it or cram it into a box. It isn’t until the second half of Season 3 that Richard finally overcomes the venality of his peers to release a consumer version of his supposedly world-changing technology — which is when he discovers that most civilians just aren’t sophisticated enough to understand what it does or how to use it.

Judge has said that one reliable source of comedy for him is the way humanity simply isn’t prepared for modernity, which ensnares us in vast systems of control in order to sustain itself. What he couldn’t have imagined while making “Idiocracy” in the early 2000s was that technology was about to thrust humanity into an era for which we are even more ill equipped. It was around that moment that Silicon Valley inventions — blogging platforms, social media, YouTube — began sweeping away old orders and gatekeepers in a way that was both exhilarating (because we were more in charge of our destiny than ever before) and mortifying (because we were, well, more in charge of our destiny than ever before). “Idiocracy” was released the same year that Time magazine heralded this new age by naming us all the Person of the Year. A decade later, Donald Trump earned that honor, along with the presidency. If anything can explain the short time horizon on which “Idiocracy” and reality merged — if you believe they have — perhaps it is that technology left us completely, terrifyingly, to our own devices.

Over dinner, Judge told me that he now fears “Idiocracy” was a little optimistic — maybe the country won’t even exist in 2505. Then he told me the best story of the night. He was location-scouting for the movie at a reform school, though he didn’t know it was a reform school at the time. He looked around and thought the students there looked, in his words, “kinda stupid,” and figured they might be of use to him. In the “Idiocracy” universe, the most popular movie in America, and the winner of eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, consists entirely of a man’s buttocks, passing gas intermittently for 90 minutes. Judge had made a 35-millimeter print of this movie-within-a-movie — just a few minutes of it — for a scene that takes place in a theater, and he wound up recruiting 250 of the “juvenile delinquents” to fill the seats. Judge figured he’d have to do a bit of directing to get the proper response from these extras — that context-free flatulence wouldn’t actually be that funny — but the kids surprised him. “They just start laughing,” he told me. “And they just keep laughing.”

He turned to his director of photography and wondered aloud why they were even bothering with “Idiocracy.” Couldn’t they just release this?

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