With ‘Silicon Valley,’ ‘Office Space’ creator pokes holes in tech’s shiny exterior

HBO gave a sneak peek in its show’s namesake to see if people from the iconic tech hub can take a joke. Turns out they can.

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"Silicon Valley" actors Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr, Thomas Middleditch, Zach Woods, T.J. Miller HBO

Before the premiere of HBO's new television series about life in California's tech world, the network wanted to see if real people living and working in Silicon Valley would laugh along.

They did. At a screening last week of "Silicon Valley," a series that makes it debut at 10/10:30 p.m. (ET/PT ) Sunday, members of the tech community in and around San Francisco laughed at the comedy, which mercilessly pokes fun at all things having to do with the technology hub.

Turns out, there's a lot to make fun of: the never ending list of male CEOs who proclaim they are "changing the world" with their products, the awkward parties, the socially-inept engineers living like sardines inside tech "incubators," and the eccentric investors out to exploit young thinkers with promises of fame and fortune. "Silicon Valley" offers up Peter Gregory, an investor who pays kids to drop out of college -- an obvious homage to eccentric Silicon Valley entrepreneur and billionaire Peter Thiel (who actually has a foundation for this cause and who himself holds undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford University).

"Go work at Burger King, go into the woods and forage for nuts and berries," an alarmed Gregory tells the main character, Richard, when he mentions he's thinking about going back to school. "Do not go back to college."

#SiliconValleyHBO show was well done. realized I just laughed for an hour on an accurate portrayal of what I do for a living..

-- Peter Pham (@peterpham) April 3, 2014

At a time when Silicon Valley's biggest companies --- Apple, Google, and Facebook -- have found themselves on top of the world again, techland has been an easy muse for the entertainment business. In 2012, Bravo offered up a "Start-Ups: Silicon Valley, " a reality show conceived by Facebook Mark Zuckberg's sister Randi, while Amazon created "Betas," a comedy series about a social media startup. But with overt portrayals of tech wealth and the obnoxious behavior of young entrepreneurs, neither show found success. Zuckerberg's Start-Ups was canceled after just a month, with one reviewer writing that it could make you "want to throw your TV set through a window." Amazon's most recent lineup announcements didn't even mention "Betas."

HBO, on the other hand, is billing "Silicon Valley" as a more careful and realistic portrayal of the tech scene. The creators, including "Office Space" and "Beavis and Butthead" creator Mike Judge, have said they plan to eventually tackle hot button issues like wealth disparity and women in tech. With this project, Judge says he's not trying to create a satire of Silicon Valley. Instead, it seems he's taking the logistical extreme of the Valley's most treasured values.

"Silicon Valley" is centered on Hoopli, a made up company that is an exaggerated Google with not so exaggerated office hijinks and protocols that involve CEO worship, bike meetings, and virtually no women. The show, follows six roommates, all programmers, all men, living the tech dream in Palo Alto, Calif. (There is one woman character who probably will play a bigger role down the road. She's the assistant to Peter Gregory.)

For the screening Wednesday night, HBO tried to bring Hollywood to Silicon Valley, namely the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, Calif. Media outfits lined up with cameras and bright lights to interview stars on the red carpet, with California palm trees swaying in the background. It was hard for HBO to re-create star-studded glam in the quiet streets of Redwood City. But that didn't matter.

Inside the historic landmark theater, the real stars of the Valley -- including Tesla founder Elon Musk, Zynga CEO Marc Pinus, and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark -- mingled with a about 200 members of the tech community -- press, engineers, investors, and executives, alike.

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HBO holds a screening of "Silicon Valley" in Redwood City, Calif. Nick Statt/CNET

To set the mood for the screening of the first two, 30-minute episodes, co-creator Alec Berg, known for shows like "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," told a story about Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. More specifically, the making of a documentary film about Amin's life made by a French filmmaker.

When "Idi Amin the man watched Idi Amin the movie," Berg said, he flew into a rage. He threatened the lives of French citizens living in Uganda while demanding the filmmaker cut out parts of the documentary Amin didn't approve of.

"And that's what happened when Idi Amin watched Idi Amin. And now, Silicon Valley is going to watch Silicon Valley," he said, his dry humor in fine form. Co-creator Judge continued the joke, saying he was expecting to be escorted out by security guards for his own protection.

"I hope you guys like it," Judge said. "Idi Amin, meet Idi Amin." In the same way that ruler wouldn't want to see himself through other people's eyes, maybe the Valley couldn't accept how outsiders see their world.

But the creators didn't have to worry. People in the theater had no problem laughing at the absurd nuances of working in tech. Well, most people.

Apparently, Elon Musk didn't find the portrayal accurate enough. Musk, who actually lives in Los Angeles, had a few choice words about the show at the after-party, according to tech site Recode. He also said that if Judge wanted to know the real Silicon Valley, he should go to Burning Man, an arts and culture festival held in the middle of the desert nearly 400 miles away from the Valley.

"I really feel like Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley," Musk reportedly said in front of a crowd at the after party. "If you haven't been, you just don't get it."

Luckily for HBO's writers, Musk probably won't use his army of nerds to hold Hollywood's writers hostage -- just take them to Burning Man.

 

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