BAMcinemaFest Takeover: John Magary (The Mend) Talks Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley

Were it not for its boyish, entrepreneurial spirit, Silicon Valley might be too depressing to bear.

Were it not for its boyish, entrepreneurial spirit, Silicon Valley might be too depressing to bear. It is a post-post kind of TV show, its first words (“Don’t you wanna go doooown?”) sung by Kid Rock, one of the foremost nothing-there-there’s of our hopeless newish century. It is set in a world (a tech “incubator”) with all drive and no religion, so far removed from an original sin that the very concept of “sin” has turned into something sort of jokey and irrelevant, just another platform or module, bundled with a patent, a ™, and an army of fuckwit lawyers. This is a show about explorers without frontiers, inventors without customers, applications without any clear use. Consequences are vague, numbers are massive: it’s capitalism as a video game.

Why does this show make me laugh so hard? I suppose I’ve given up, maybe a little, and the people behind Silicon Valley have too, just a little, and that sad little commonality makes me laugh. Its stance towards pretty much every character is, “Now watch this likeable shithead try and fail to explain how things work.” Mike Judge, the show’s creator, as well as the creator of many of the smart, usually naughty laughs I’ve had the past twenty-odd years, has honorably discharged himself from the world of dreams and wishes, and has done it with a sly, easy intelligence and a grudging fondness for humanity. Crucially, unlike Entourage (RIP, forever hopefully), another HBO show about a group of men who live and work together, Silicon Valley doesn’t buy its own sociopathic bullshit. The satire is omniscient. Characters will often be undercut by the insufferable corporate-technical jargon coming out of their own mouths, or the idiotic slogans of their own T-shirts. And while Judge’s work is sarcastic and broad and very dense with jokes, it also always feels effortless, even warm. No matter how tense and complicated the aspirations of the people behind the show’s central business venture, Pied Piper, the blood pressure of the comedy stays low. The dick and fart jokes keep rolling in.

It’s all quite pleasantly cathartic: a steady stream of despair wrapped in jokes and jabs and eye rolls. Judge, himself a former physics major and Silicon Valley cog, and his very talented stable of writers, directors, editors, and tech-speak consultants have taken in the hyper-complexity of bubble economics and decided: this is all just kind of ridiculous, right? And the ridiculousness is kind of okay, right, because we couldn’t possibly win, right? Are we, as a people, really saying (to use a couple of the show’s depressingly spot-on fake brand names) “Hooli” and “Gitawonk” and “Aviato” now? I guess so, because “Hooli” and “Gitawonk” and “Aviato” are what we want. Right? Do we even want what we want any more?

Look at all the TV comedy pitfalls, gleefully avoided! It’s easy to under-appreciate how deft the navigation is here. But there are so many ways a narrative comedy can go wrong. In no particular order:

Problem A: giving all the characters the same voice and/or thinly drawing each character as a walking joke-delivery system.
Problem B: allowing the critique within the comedy, the substance of the parody, to curdle, so that it becomes too mean-spirited to feel honest.
Problem C: letting the jokes get in the way of story or pacing or both.
Problem D: getting greedy and reaching for humor when humor is not needed.
Problem E: hastily building a world that would, in the absence of jokes, collapse like a sad soufflé.
Problem F: relying on talented actors to “sell” stale humor by mugging or falling out of character, or (even worse, I think) allowing an actor to simply improvise and “riff” his/her way into little routines of fuzzy half-jokes.
Problem G: getting confused about whether the show’s world is naturalistic or sitcom-satirical or both.

(Regarding that last Problem: one difference between the real world and the sitcom world is, when someone tells a joke in the real world, the response is (usually) laughter. But when someone tells a joke in the traditional sitcom world, the response is almost always just another joke. It’s sad, this absence of real laughter in the sitcom world, when you consider it, which you’re not really allowed to, because it’s a sitcom and there’s not enough time to consider anything very deeply. There is almost no genuine laughter among the characters on Silicon Valley, and very little good-natured ribbing of the type you might find among the bros on, again, ugh, Entourage. Here the absence makes a lot of sense. The main characters, all but one a man, are hyper-awkward and hyper-competitive. Laughter might risk giving off the impression of a generous spirit, and so it’s avoided.)

The show’s key directorial triumph is how thoroughly it crushes Problem A. The casting is impeccable. The actors fit into the world so glove-tight it makes you wonder if the roles were written for these specific actors. T.J. Miller, playing the incubator’s pompous ringleader, Ehrlich Bachman, has combined the physique of Ignatius J. Reilly with the gait of an ostrich and speaks with a raw, open-mouthed dialect (“pushy Chicago”?) that, like many things on the show, comes off as both obnoxious and appealing. (When his emotions rise, Ehrlich sounds like sort of a young-techie version of Will Ferrell’s Harry Caray impersonation.) He is unabashedly crass, a fearless and self-serious buffoon, and he’s hilarious. Thomas Middleditch (full disclosure, Thomas and I are friendly; fuller disclosure, we met years ago on a cruise ship) is painfully funny as Richard, the founder of Pied Piper, one of the slightest, most anxious heroes I’ve seen on TV. He almost never makes eye contact, and his limbs move like a constipated marionette’s, but you find yourself rooting for him, again and again, to solve some new, essentially meaningless, highly profitable problem. An emblematic bit happens early in the season, when Richard, determined to rally his hapless team of coders, cycles through corporate slogans (“Think different…just do it…”) until he comes up with an encouragement that’s vaguely original.

So, the cast, rounded out by Kumail Nanjiani (frightened deadpan), Martin Starr (sneering deadpan), and Zach Woods (reigning master of geek deadpan), is excellent, and has developed a chemistry and rhythm that would make any director salivate. But the real revelation of the series is Christopher Evan Welch, who plays the group’s Jobs-like seeding mentor, Peter Gregory. Welch died just a few months ago of cancer, midway through production, having shot five of his eight episodes.

I first noticed Welch in The Master, as a skeptic at a party questioning the quasi-Scientological tenets of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. His voice jumped out at me: studious but firm, both rich and nasally. Totally ignorant of his long film and stage career, I’d thought maybe Paul Thomas Anderson had cast a friend or an unknown. There was just something about the way Welch carried himself that felt easy and unvarnished — a very un-actor-like carriage. “Oh, he’s probably just a real person,” I thought. “He’s just too good.”

A lot of incisive stuff has been written about Welch since his untimely death — many recognize Peter Gregory as the show’s brightest creation — so I thought I’d try something a little different and write out some lines of his dialogue from the show:

“Who’s we? Guys? What guys? Who is this?”
“No. Not the sandwich. This seed. Atop the breading.”
“Have any of you ever eaten at Burger King?”

You might notice these aren’t really jokes. And yet, in the hands of Welch, each line is screamingly funny. He was able to make even the most mundane, tossed-off CEO proclamations sound exotic, alien, even godly. That first line? Welch puts eight miles of air between “What” and “guys.” “Due?” becomes “Dyoo?” “Burger King,” in Peter Gregory’s voice, sounds like a phrase translated from Vulcan. Every one of Welch’s line readings claps to the downbeat. Every one comes out new.

Even the best movie scripts give us so little on the page. Looking through the first five episodes of Silicon Valley, seeing what Welch could do with even the quietest line, I’m reminded again of what a truly great actor brings.

John Magary grew up in Dallas. He attended Williams College and Columbia University. The Mend, a feature film he wrote and directed, premiered this year at SXSW. His films as director and/or editor have screened at Sundance, BAMCinemaFest, San Francisco, Maryland, Edinburgh, and New Directors/New Films. He lives in New York City.