Startups:The best tech Drama Series for Tech and business startups,HBO Silicon Valley : Rules of the game
“Silicon Valley,” now in its third season, is one of the funniest shows on television; it is also the first ambitious satire of any form to shed much light on the current socio-cultural moment in Northern California. The show derives its energy from two semi-contradictory attitudes: contempt for grandiose tech oligarchs and sympathy for the entrepreneurs struggling to unseat them. In the pilot episode, Richard Hendricks, a shy but brilliant engineer, designs a compression algorithm—an ingenious way to make big files smaller. He later turns this innovation into a company, which he insists on calling Pied Piper. (Richard: “It’s a classic fairy tale.” Employee: “It’s about a predatory flautist who murders children in a cave.”) As his company grows, Richard becomes a nerd David beset by Goliaths: duplicitous board members, corporations trying to steal his intellectual property. Can he succeed without compromising his values? The deep irony of Richard’s situation—that his ultimate goal, presumably, is to become a Goliath himself—either has not yet come up in the writer’s room or is being tabled for later.
“Real startups go through all the shit you see on the show, as well as even crazier shit,” Roger McNamee, a venerable venture capitalist and a consultant to the show, told me. “If anything, the writers might have to leave out true things in order to seem more realistic.” Both Judge and Berg have an eye for authenticity. In Judge’s movie “Office Space,” from 1999, he enlivened his subject—white-collar drudgery—with details he had experienced or observed: a boss’s onerous attention to the formatting of T.P.S. reports, a chain restaurant that forces its servers to wear at least fifteen pieces of “flair.” Similarly, many of the shows that Berg has written for, notably “Seinfeld,” harvested story lines from real life. “On ‘Seinfeld,’ the same thing happened again and again,” Berg told me. “Someone would pitch ten ideas. The first nine would be wacky, silly things, and the tenth would be genuinely funny and interesting. You’d go, ‘That tenth thing—where’d that one come from?’ and the person would say, ‘That one actually happened to a friend of mine.’”
When you’re writing a show about nothing, or a movie about cubicle culture, it’s easy to collect realistic details. But if you want to know how a non-compete clause would be structured, or what kind of car a typical brogrammer would drive, or whether Richard’s firing would trigger an afternoon of malaise or a personal crisis, then you need to do your homework. TV writers have long consulted experts—a doctor to demonstrate how to hold a defibrillator, a military officer to make sure the uniforms are the right color. In the past, these consultants were often akin to fact-checkers, brought in near the end of the writing process to make sure that nothing looked glaringly wrong. These days, TV is taken more seriously, and everyone’s a critic with access to Twitter and Wikipedia. “You can’t fool audiences with unrealistic schlock anymore,” Jay Carson told me. Carson was the press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign in 2008; he then served as the Chief Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles. In 2011, his friend Beau Willimon hired him as a political consultant on “House of Cards.” “I helped us pass a smell test, both with D.C. insiders and the general audience,” he said. “Even during the five years I was there, the audience got more sophisticated every season.”
“Silicon Valley” is a reported sitcom. “We do plenty of silly jokes, but we also go to great lengths to make the world feel real,” Berg told me. “The hope is that someone in the Valley”—a scrawny coder, a billionaire, or someone who fits both descriptions—“will be able to watch it and go, ‘I might not like that they’re taking shots at us, but at least it’s grounded in truth.’” Richard has now been reinstated as the C.E.O., and, after several episodes devoted to lawsuits and succession crises, Pied Piper has returned to the simple joy of building its platform. “In the writer’s room, I talked a lot about how the founder of a company has a moral authority that no other C.E.O., no matter how accomplished, will ever have,” Costolo told me.
The show’s signature gag, from the first season, was a minute-long montage of startup founders pledging to “make the world a better place through Paxos algorithms for consensus protocols,” or to “make the world a better place through canonical data models to communicate between endpoints.” This scene was set at TechCrunch Disrupt, a real event where founders take turns pitching their ideas, “American Idol”-style, to an auditorium full of investors. Before writing the episode, Judge and Berg spent a weekend at TechCrunch Disrupt, in San Francisco. “That’s the first thing you notice,” Judge said. “It’s capitalism shrouded in the fake hippie rhetoric of ‘We’re making the world a better place,’ because it’s uncool to just say ‘Hey, we’re crushing it and making money.’” After the scene aired, viewers complained about the lack of diversity in the audience. Berg recalled, “A friend of mine who works in tech called me and said, ‘Why aren’t there any women? That’s bullshit!’ I said to her, ‘It is bullshit! Unfortunately, we shot that audience footage at the actual TechCrunch Disrupt.’”
Berg and Judge have backgrounds that enable them to understand Silicon Valley culture better than most laypeople, and they tend to hire writers who are similarly equipped. In the late eighties, before the first tech bubble, Judge worked as an electrical engineer in Santa Clara, designing graphics cards. Berg’s father is a biophysicist at Harvard; Berg told me that his brother, a coder and entrepreneur, “went to grad school for computer science at Stanford, a few doors down from Sergey and Larry”—Brin and Page, whose graduate work turned into Google. Dan Lyons, a writer on the third season of the show, was a tech reporter who left journalism to work for a startup, then got fired and wrote a memoir, “Disrupted,” about the experience. Another “Silicon Valley” writer, Carrie Kemper, graduated from Stanford in 2006 and worked in Google’s H.R. department. At Google, Kemper noticed that her boss’s morning routine included Googling himself. That joke made its way into a recent episode. (“I started my day, as I always do, by typing my own name into Hooli search. I enjoy the ritual, which is designed to center me,” the C.E.O. of Hooli, a Google-like company, says. “Lately, it’s been doing the opposite.”)
When I was on the Sony lot where the current season of “Silicon Valley” was being filmed, several people encouraged me to talk to Jonathan Dotan, an entrepreneur who is now the show’s lead technical consultant. “He’s the one who looks like a con man in Havana in 1947,” Dan O’Keefe, a writer and producer, told me. This turned out to mean that, in contradistinction to the writers, crew members, and actors, who tend to wear jeans and sneakers both on and off camera, Dotan favors tailored blazers, pocket squares, and colorful dress socks.
I waited for him in the offices of Raviga, the show’s fictional venture-capital firm. The décor—exposed brick, burnished steel, geographically ambiguous throw rugs—felt eerily similar to actual V.C. offices I have visited, the way a Hyatt in Toronto might exhibit an aesthetic entanglement with a Hyatt in the Houston airport. To give the show’s directors the freedom to point the camera wherever they like, the set designers built a whole floor of office space and covered it with realistic touches, from the plaques on the walls to the issues of MIT Technology Review fanned out on a waiting-room table. Compounding the paramnesiac effect was the fact that many of the rooms actually were being used as offices—production staffers who weren’t needed elsewhere sat behind closed glass doors, typing or making phone calls.
Dotan led me to Raviga’s boardroom. He tried two fake outlets before finding a real one, then plugged in his laptop, opened it on a blond-wood conference table, and launched a PowerPoint presentation he had prepared about the show’s research process. “The first part of the job is making sure we get the specifics right, because our audience won’t tolerate any mistakes,” he said. “Silicon Valley,” a show about computer nerds, has a fan base that is particularly attuned to minutiae, and particularly apt to argue about them on the Internet. If a Post-it, URL, or line of code is legible on the show, it will be screengrabbed and scrutinized. Last year, a few hours after an episode aired, a Reddit user with the handle HeIsMyPossum started a thread called “Why did the writers just obliterate all the good karma they had built up with their core audience?” He made an impassioned argument that a plot point—the accidental deletion of data from Pied Piper’s servers—was implausible. “So the files were being converted live while coming through an FTP? And that affects disk deletion speed?… Come the fuck on guys.” Rob Fuller, a software engineer and a consultant on the show, logged on to Reddit to defend his work, mostly by displaying his own nerd plumage. “Stuff like this happens,” he wrote. “I think even Amazon had an outage because one of the admins fat fingered a DNS or ACL change at one point.” Another user responded to Fuller: “Thanks for engaging us here, we really appreciate it.” The thread amassed nearly three hundred comments. “Sorry for being a dick,” HeIsMyPossum wrote.
Dotan worked part-time for a few weeks, but then came on full-time. At first, he oversaw a staff of four: an expert in file compression; a user-interface engineer, to help write the code on the characters’ screens; a C-level tech executive; and a Silicon Valley lawyer, to draft realistic contracts. By the end of the first season, Dotan’s staff had grown to twelve. “If someone is holding a document on the show, that document is written out, in full, the way that it would be in real life,” Dotan said. “We don’t think of it in terms of, ‘How little can we get away with showing on camera?’ It’s more, like, ‘Let’s go through the process of making the world as complete as possible and see if that process leads us to better stuff.’ Which it usually does.” He is now one of the show’s producers, weighing in on the plot and tone as well as on abstruse technical matters.
The first season ended with a climactic competition: Pied Piper’s compression algorithm pitted against that of its rival. “The writers wanted Richard to have an epiphany that would suddenly make his tech an order of magnitude better,” Dotan said. “So we had to invent a breakthrough—something that would be huge, but realistic.” Dotan called his compression expert, Tsachy Weissman, an engineering professor at Stanford. “He spent hours walking me through the very dense history of lossless compression,” Dotan said. “The way I understood it, basically, was that Claude Shannon, in 1948, worked on compressing files from the top down, using coding trees, whereas David Huffman, a few years later, approached it from the bottom up.” He made a PowerPoint presentation about this and delivered it to Judge and Berg. “They thought about it for a while, and then they said, ‘You mentioned top-down and bottom-up. What about starting in the middle of the data set and working from the middle out?’ So I asked Tsachy, ‘What about middle-out? Is that a thing?’ He didn’t say, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ He said, ‘That’s intriguing, actually. It might work.’”
In the show, Richard’s “middle-out” epiphany is inspired not by a Stanford professor but by the most elaborate dick joke in TV history. To distract themselves from work, the Pied Piper engineers debate the quickest way to “jerk off every guy” in a crowd. (It’s a long story.) They belabor the point, drawing diagrams on a whiteboard. Eventually, one of them suggests that it might be maximally efficient if he “jerks off four guys at a time,” by aligning “two guys on either side, with their dicks tip to tip”—in other words, “from the middle out.” Richard’s eyes light up, buoyant strings begin to play in the background, and he walks to his computer and starts to code.
In 2015, Weissman convened the Stanford Compression Forum, which resulted in a forty-page white paper outlining what middle-out compression might mean. One of his graduate students, Vinith Misra, worked out the math more explicitlyin another paper. “Clearly, middle-out compression doesn’t work as well as it does on the show,” Dotan told me. “If it did, we’d all be trillionaires. But we do have an arrangement where, if Tsachy and Vinith ever perfect it, Mike and Alec will share the Nobel Prize with them.”
Dotan now oversees more than two hundred consultants. Some work on set with him; a majority are available on an ad-hoc basis. Most are unpaid and uncredited. They include academics, investors, entrepreneurs, and employees at Google, Amazon, Netflix, and several other tech firms. “I might ask a quick, specific question, or we might just riff for a few hours,” Dotan said. Many of the show’s best jokes, if not most, emerge from this ongoing collaborative process. “I send links, tip them off to things I’ve heard, list the mockable buzzwords of the month,” Aileen Lee, a venture capitalist in Palo Alto, told me. “And I’m hardly the only one. For all I know, they have eyes and ears all over the Valley.”
“Silicon Valley” is larded with brief appearances by tech-world mini celebrities that most viewers will miss, or will notice only by the incongruously stiff acting. But even careful viewers might not understand the complexity of the invisible web of communication between Silicon Valley and “Silicon Valley.” In addition to Dotan’s roster of consultants, Judge and Berg maintain informal conversations, both on and off the record, with several Silicon Valley bigwigs, including a few billionaires with either a sense of humor or an axe to grind. This kind of back-channel relationship—satirists texting casually with the satirized—is a departure from much of comedic history. Juvenal, whose “Satires” were published in the second century A.D., did not seem to be chummy with the Roman emperors he mocked, one of whom sentenced him to exile. It’s hard to imagine drunks in eighteenth-century London sitting for satirical portraits by William Hogarth, or King George II submitting jokes to Jonathan Swift.
Swisher said that she still introduces Judge and Berg to Silicon Valley insiders such as Dick Costolo, who might prove useful to the show, “and who won’t be too full of themselves to take a joke.” One such person was Mark Pincus, who founded the gaming company Zynga. “When they said they wanted to meet at our office, I briefly went, ‘Are they just trying to collect the ammunition they need to make us into caricatures?’ And I cringed a bit when they saw our—we have this programmable tunnel thing that you walk through. It’s sort of hard to explain. Later, I did see something similar to the tunnel on their show. But, look, a lot of what happens out here is ridiculous. That’s fair game.” The relationship is symbiotic: the consultants get a small jolt of non-local fame—both Costolo and Pincus have cameos in an upcoming episode—and a chance to seem self-deprecating; the show’s creators can gather material, even when they don’t have their notebooks out. “Mike seems quiet and unassuming, but his brain is always clicking away, recording everything,” Swisher told me. “Which is a skill I covet, as a reporter.” Why, I asked, would it be in the interest of anyone in the tech industry to talk to Judge? Swisher responded with a rhetorical question: “Why do any of them talk to me?”
Every summer, when the previous season has just ended and the next season is about to be written, “Silicon Valley”’s writers and producers take a research trip to Northern California. They spend a few nights in a San Francisco hotel and fill their days with meetings: a morning tour of GitHub’s office, where the foyer is a full-size replica of the Oval Office; lunch with Barry Schuler, a former C.E.O. of AOL; an afternoon on Sand Hill Road, in Menlo Park, visiting the world’s most valuable venture-capital funds; dinner with Reid Hoffman and Mark Pincus at LB Steak. “We’ve had a few meals where it was me, Alec, and three or four billionaires,” Judge told me. “We sit back and observe the dynamic. One of them might be the alpha billionaire. Or one of them will go to the bathroom, and the others will lean in and start talking shit about him while he’s gone.” In an episode from the first season, two tech titans—former colleagues, now rivals—encounter each other at an LB Steak-like restaurant. A specific kind of awkwardness ensues: these are men who make million-dollar decisions without hesitation, but who struggle mightily with pleasantries. It’s the kind of interaction that is difficult to get right unless you’ve seen a version of it in real life.
“They’ve asked me questions about Richard’s fictional company, like whether it would actually be fundable,” Marc Andreessen, a Web pioneer and a prominent venture capitalist, told me. “The technology, as described on the show, would certainly have a major impact if it existed. Could you turn it into a viable business? Unknown. But, in fairness, you could say that about half of the companies we fund.”
Between the show’s first and second seasons, the writers waited in the lobby of Andreessen’s office, where photographs of hydrogen-bomb blasts hang on the walls. (“They’re a good way to make sure people are awake,” Andreessen’s spokesperson told me.) Then the writers were ushered into a conference room, where, for more than an hour, they sat around a blond-wood conference table while Andreessen pitched them jokes. “They weren’t terrible, either,” one of the writers told me. “I have eight dense pages of notes from that meeting. I have never heard a man speak as fast as Marc Andreessen.” None of his jokes appeared on the show in their original form, but a concept he explained—the downside of accepting too much free money from investors—became a scene in season two. In the TV version, the venture capitalist is a young woman, and the conversation begins with her interrupting Richard while he’s in the bathroom.
During one visit to Google’s headquarters, in Mountain View, about six writers sat in a conference room with Astro Teller, the head of GoogleX, who wore a midi ring and kept his long hair in a ponytail. “Most of our research meetings are fun, but this one was uncomfortable,” Kemper told me. GoogleX is the company’s “moonshot factory,” devoted to projects, such as self-driving cars, that are difficult to build but might have monumental impact. Hooli, a multibillion-dollar company on “Silicon Valley,” bears a singular resemblance to Google. (The Google founder Larry Page, in Fortune: “We’d like to have a bigger impact on the world by doing more things.” Hooli’s C.E.O., in season two: “I don’t want to live in a world where someone makes the world a better place better than we do.”) The previous season, Hooli had launched HooliXYZ, its own “moonshot factory,” whose experiments were slapstick absurdities: monkeys who use bionic arms to masturbate; powerful cannons for launching potatoes across a room. “He claimed he hadn’t seen the show, and then he referred many times to specific things that had happened on the show,” Kemper said. “His message was, ‘We don’t do stupid things here. We do things that actually are going to change the world, whether you choose to make fun of that or not.’ ” (Teller could not be reached for comment.)
Teller ended the meeting by standing up in a huff, but his attempt at a dramatic exit was marred by the fact that he was wearing Rollerblades. He wobbled to the door in silence. “Then there was this awkward moment of him fumbling with his I.D. badge, trying to get the door to open,” Kemper said. “It felt like it lasted an hour. We were all trying not to laugh. Even while it was happening, I knew we were all thinking the same thing: Can we use this?” In the end, the joke was deemed “too hacky to use on the show.”
In a Paris Review interview in 1991, Tom Wolfe discussed his satirical novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” He wanted the book to capture a recent historical moment—“New York in an age of money fever,” as he put it—and, in his view, the only genre equal to his ambition was Zola-esque realism, grounded in observation. He visited holding pens, and interviewed prosecutors and ex-convicts. “I don’t think the unaided imagination of the writer—and I don’t care who the writer is—can come up with what is obtainable through research and reporting,” he said. Dave Eggers, in the 2013 novel “The Circle,” addressed his moment—the South Bay in an age of high-tech fever—using a purely fictional approach. “I’ve never visited any tech campus, and I don’t know anything in particular about how any given company is run,” he told the Times Magazine. “I really didn’t want to.” Whereas Wolfe’s book was marked by a superfluity of hyperspecific detail—brass bibelots in a Wall Street office, “the condition of the mint” in a vodka cocktail—Eggers could only guess at the kind of event a tech employee might organize for his peers (a brunch for people interested in Portugal?), which resulted in a dystopian cautionary tale that felt more like a fever dream than a prophecy. Eggers clearly thought that he could use his imagination to critique the Internet. The Internet disagreed. According to Felix Salmon, “Eggers strays so far away from verisimilitude that his book barely even feels like satire”; Jessica Winter wrote that “Eggers has written a nearly 500-page satire of the tech world while appearing to have little interest in the actual tech world.”
In 2014, Judge attended Code, a conference organized by Swisher. The following year, a version of the conference appeared on “Silicon Valley.” Swisher, playing herself, interviewed Gavin Belson, the C.E.O. of Hooli. Belson, the show’s main antagonist, is a composite character—he shares attributes with Marc Benioff, Larry Ellison, Jeff Bezos, and others. In the interview scene with Swisher, he defends tech billionaires against charges of élitism. “Look at history,” he says. “Do you know who else vilified a tiny minority of financiers and progressive thinkers called the Jews?” This was satire as near-stenography. In 2014, the Wall Street Journal published a letter by Tom Perkins, a billionaire venture capitalist: “Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich.’” If anything, Belson’s outburst looked tasteful by comparison.
Sometimes, transposing a real event into fiction is all that’s necessary to convert a news headline to an effective joke. It can also happen the other way around: the writers of “Silicon Valley,” like all the best satirists, occasionally try to stretch the truth and end up anticipating it instead. In the pilot, a sexist programmer invents an app called NipAlert, directing users to the nearest “woman with erect nipples.” “When I read that, I thought, Does that seem real or is it just a silly joke?” Berg said. Between when the pilot was filmed and when it aired, two actual entrepreneurs released Titstare, “an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits.” In a recent episode, Gavin Belson asks his lawyers to invent novel legal strategies that can silence a blogger who has treated him roughly. Again, given the timing, this couldn’t have been a response to the legal actions that the provocative venture capitalist Peter Thiel has taken against Gawker, but it certainly felt like one.
In the first season, in the show’s most direct portrayal of a real person, Thiel was lightly fictionalized as Peter Gregory, a smart but socially graceless V.C. “I’m sure he was offended by it, because he’s offended by everything,” Swisher told me. “It’s amazing how thin-skinned some of these people are.” However, Thiel later invited some of the show’s creators to a party he was hosting in L.A., and he treated them politely. “He said he liked the show, which we were surprised to hear,” one of the producers told me. “He was not nearly as awkward in person as we’d been led to believe.” Maybe Thiel actually likes the show. Maybe he wants to prove that he can take a joke, even if he can’t. Maybe, calculating that it would be difficult to sue HBO out of existence, he prefers to hold his enemy close. Or maybe it’s like any other relationship in Silicon Valley: part personal, part business; part genuine, part transactional; part carrot, part stick.
Roger McNamee, who has been a successful tech investor since the late eighties, told me, “When I first met Mike, I asked him, ‘What’s the gestalt you’re going for with this?’ His answer was, ‘I think Silicon Valley is immersed in a titanic battle between the hippie value system of the Steve Jobs generation and the Ayn Randian libertarian values of the Peter Thiel generation.’ I had never articulated it that well myself, and I lived it!” McNamee recently wound down his most recent venture fund, which he co-founded with Bono; he now spends most of his time touring the country with his two jam bands, Moonalice and Doobie Decibel System. He continued, “Some of us actually, as naïve as it sounds, came here to make the world a better place. And we did not succeed. We made some things better, we made some things worse, and in the meantime the libertarians took over, and they do not give a damn about right or wrong. They are here to make money.”
In an upcoming episode, McNamee’s name appears in a soliloquy about the dopaminergic rush of competitive fund-raising. I was on set while this scene was being filmed, and T. J. Miller, the actor performing the speech, had to stop several times, having mispronounced “McNamee” or “Vinod Khosla.” “Are these real people, or are you fucking with me?” Miller asked a script supervisor. By the sixth take, he was inventing proper nouns: “I talked to McMeenan Bartman Associates and let a call from Jim Goebbels go straight to voicemail.”
When the scene was finished, Miller walked back to his trailer, where he used a steam inhaler to lubricate his throat. “Because of this role, I now intersect with the tech world in weird ways,” Miller said. “You never know how they’ll react. By satirizing them, you’re holding up a mirror. Some of these guys look in the mirror and go, ‘Fuck, we look silly.’ Others look in the mirror and go, ‘Wow, I am so fucking handsome.’” Miller plays Erlich Bachman, a pot-smoking blowhard with ludicrously sculpted facial hair whose house in the Valley is a tech incubator. Because Richard founded Pied Piper while living in the house, Erlich, without doing much work, is entitled to a minority stake and a seat on the board. “Multiple people have told me, ‘I’m the Erlich of my company,’” he continued. “I actually tell them, ‘You know that’s not a good thing, right?’”
The first public screening of “Silicon Valley” took place in Redwood City in 2014, with dozens of tech luminaries in attendance. At an after-party, while caterers passed trays of hors d’oeuvres, Elon Musk delivered a negative review to a group of people, including a reporter from Recode: “Most startups are a soap opera, but not that kind of soap opera.”
A “Silicon Valley” writer later told me, “The more self-important these people are, the more likely they are to elide the difference between a sitcom and a documentary about their lives.” But the writers seem to want to have it both ways: when they get something right, they brag about the show’s verisimilitude, but when they don’t they mock anyone who would mistake a comedy for facts.
“Some Valley big shots have no idea how to react to the show,” Miller told me. “They can’t decide whether to be offended or flattered. And they’re mystified by the fact that actors have a kind of celebrity that they will never have—there’s no rhyme or reason to it, but that’s the way it is, and it kills them.” Miller met Musk at the after-party in Redwood City. “I think he was thrown by the fact that I wasn’t being sycophantic—which I couldn’t be, because I didn’t realize who he was at the time. He said, ‘I have some advice for your show,’ and I went, ‘No thanks, we don’t need any advice,’ which threw him even more. And then, while we’re talking, some woman comes up and says ‘Can I have a picture?’ and he starts to pose—it was kinda sad, honestly—and instead she hands the camera to him and starts to pose with me. It was, like, Sorry, dude, I know you’re a big deal—and, in his case, he actually is a big deal—but I’m the guy from ‘Yogi Bear 3-D,’ and apparently that’s who she wants a picture with.”
The three biggest public companies in the world, as measured by market capitalization, are Apple, the Google parent company Alphabet, and Microsoft. Are they enlightened agents of philanthrocapitalism or robber-baron monopolies? “In the real Silicon Valley, as on the show, there is a cohort of people who have a real sense of purpose and actually think they’re going to change the world, and then there’s a cohort of people who say farcical things about their apps that they clearly don’t believe themselves,” Sam Altman, who runs the startup incubator Y Combinator, told me. The show accurately reflects this complexity because the people who make it—like all thoughtful people, including the most powerful people in Silicon Valley—can’t decide how they feel about Silicon Valley. “I swing back and forth,” Clay Tarver, one of the show’s writers and producers, told me. “The more I meet these people and learn about them, the more I come away thinking that, despite all the bullshit and greed, there actually is something exciting and hopeful going on up there.”
In an upcoming episode, Pied Piper’s sales department commissions a pompous, vacuous ad. “Any person can sit at a table,” the voice-over goes. “Tables are for people to be together and share. And that is why tables are like Pied Piper.”
Around the time this scene was filmed, Uber released an ad in a similar rhetorical register: “Consider the atom. Born 13.8 billion years ago, the atom is responsible for everything from the B.L.T. to moms everywhere to New York City.… Until a few short years ago, atoms and bits existed in entirely different worlds. But then something happened. At Uber, we asked, What if we brought these two worlds together?” Between takes, Thomas Middleditch, who plays Richard Hendricks, and Zach Woods, who plays Pied Piper’s tenderhearted chief financial officer, watched the Uber ad on a smartphone, chuckling incredulously. Woods sat down next to Tarver and Dan O’Keefe, who were sitting in canvas director’s chairs, watching a set of video monitors. Woods showed them the Uber ad and asked, “Is this what you guys based it on?”
“Actually, this came out after we wrote the episode,” Tarver said. “We were thinking of a different one, a Facebook one.”
“‘Facebook is chairs,’” O’Keefe said.
“No way,” Woods said. “Really?”
“All the big companies make these now,” Tarver said. “It reminds me of the first Viagra commercials, where they wanted to be as vague as possible because they were embarrassed of what the product actually was.”
“I think it’s a combination of the pretentiousness of the people involved and their total market penetration,” O’Keefe said. “It’s no longer necessary to tell you what the product is. Now the goal is just to make you feel better about using it.”
Woods and Middleditch were called back to set for another take. Tarver said, “I’ve been told that, at some of the big companies, the P.R. departments have ordered their employees to stop saying ‘We’re making the world a better place,’ specifically because we have made fun of that phrase so mercilessly. So I guess, at the very least, we’re making the world a better place by making these people stop saying they’re making the world a better place.”