10:05 AM CDT, April 4, 2014
For one of the final scenes of the first season of the new HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley," creator Mike Judge and his production designers re-created TechCrunch Disrupt, the intense annual San Francisco conference where computer engineers, developers and programmers compete for attention, pitching nascent startups to trawling venture capital investors and media figures.
Recalling the filming a few months later, Judge said he wanted to get the sequence exactly right, "because I had seen this world, and these people, portrayed so cheaply before." Indeed, before he sold his first "Beavis and Butt-Head" animated short to MTV, before he became known for being a kind of poet of the banal with TV's "King of the Hill" and the cubicle-farm classic "Office Space," he worked in Silicon Valley as an engineer. And the Silicon Valley he has seen portrayed in pop culture ever since has felt static, lacking: "Even in the '80s, well into the '90s, a computer geek was basically a return to the '50s nerd," he said. "Hollywood was still doing the pocket protector thing, the high-waisted pants, and that had disappeared decades ago. Even computer nerds I knew in the late '70s, they had bushy hair and ponytails, and many still do. Either that or a computer engineer (in a movie) was a hot actress — you never believed it a second."
Judge's "Silicon Valley" is a male-dominated place with enormous resources and vague aspirations of changing the world — a sunny, antiseptic place dotted with tech "incubators," the correct word for a culture brimming with needy narcissists. And the show's engineers: As awkward as any Hollywood portrait you can picture, from Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) of "The Social Network" to the engineers of "The Big Bang Theory," with one major difference: They're not quite nerds.
The engineers of "Silicon Valley," a group of Northern California tech developers who live together in a ranch house, are characters handled with unprecedented care, standing somewhere between being captains of industry and the bloated self-importance they think money demands.
That said, the show is actually very Chicago. Call it synergy, serendipity or chance: For a few brief years about a decade ago, three of the five primary cast members of HBO's excellent new comedy series "Silicon Valley" walked among us, worked among us.
Kumail Nanjiani came here from Grinnell College in Iowa to become a stand-up comedian. While he was here, he became friends with a struggling stand-up comic from Denver, T.J. Miller, who was also performing at local improv clubs with a gangly Canadian named Thomas Middleditch.
Shocker: Around 2007, each left town. Middleditch became a character actor ("The Campaign"), while Miller and Nanjiani gathered followings for their stand-up, as well as movie and TV roles in works as disparate as "Cloverfield" (Miller), "How to Train Your Dragon" (Miller) and IFC's "Portlandia" (Nanjiani).
"Silicon Valley" brings them together again. Middleditch is Richard, a programmer whose file-compression algorithm leads to a war between billionaires; Nanjiani is the engineer Dinesh; and Miller, who has never been better, is Erlich, a stoner dot-com millionaire who gathers his friends together under one roof. Which isn't so different from their experiences in Chicago. Each spoke, separately, about those experiences. Edited versions of those conversations follow.
Q: When you lived here, did you live in a house with other comedians?
A: Actually, yeah. I totally did. In fact, even one of my friends from grade school lived with me and ended up going to work for the Onion, then Funny or Die. Comedians are like-minded and tend to hang together well. Socially, we were OK then. If it got awkward ever, it's because some people can't turn it off — they're on all the time. But I was comfortable, I could work a room, I could hold the floor. Kumail, actually, who I had never improvised with before (until "Silicon Valley") — and man, it came so effortlessly, because of all those years watching each other on different stages in Chicago — we would drink together after shows in Chicago. He and I and (comedian) Pete Holmes were close. The thing about Chicago was there wasn't much (Hollywood-esque) industry, so you could casually develop a sensibility and try stuff. Los Angeles would have ground us to dust at that time, but Chicago, we were magnetically drawn to one another, and Chicago was supportive.
You know, I think I got (the) "Silicon Valley" (role) basically because Thomas and I were in the improv community in Chicago together, at Second City, iO, and (Judge) let us improvise together at the screen test and the dynamic was so great. Because we had chemistry already. We actually created this two-man show at iO called "Practice Scaring a Bear," which ran for a while and was this mix of improv and stand-up, then the two of us would close with improv. The iO (administration) went crazy because we were "muddling the integrity of improvisation." In my mind, I'm thinking, "OK! All you improv snobs, see you in 10 years, at your day jobs!"
Q: On "Silicon Valley" you play this eccentric, stoner Svengali figure who comes off like a missing link between the idealism of hippy San Francisco and the visionary, grandiose new-media Bay Area, which somewhat crystallizes your appeal in a way that hasn't been as obvious until now.
A: I've heard "defining role" from people. It's nice. Network sitcoms, they want a funny guy to play stupid.
Q: And Erlich wants a soul.
A: Which sounds a lot like Hollywood. There's a lot of money involved, it's very competitive and some people want to come out the other side with a soul intact. I don't know. The reason I did comedy at all is because I feel very strongly that comedy is actually a public service. I'm completely serious. I never felt as driven by success as by rousing an audience from whatever crisis is going on their lives, if only for the time of a show.
Q: But would you want to be identified solely as an actor now, because of "Silicon Valley"?
A: Well, my brand is — eccentric loose cannon who keeps his madness at bay? Hard to put on a business card. People know me as an actor, but I see myself as a stand-up, which is deliberate, a bulletproof weapon against Hollywood: If they say I'm old news, "Well, I'm a stand-up, I don't need to be anything to you guys."
Q: Yet you're in the next "Transformers" movie.
A: I'm Mark Wahlberg's apprentice, a landlocked surfer type. Don't know where they got that idea from.
Q: You came to Chicago from Canada.
A: Yeah, I was doing underground sketch comedy in Toronto. I was running into walls with the Canadian entertainment industry. I wanted to be in something like "Kids in the Hall," so I went to Toronto and it felt impossible. I was actually not permitted in the Second City program in Toronto, so, youthful arrogance, I thought I could move to Chicago and within a year I would be on "Saturday Night Live" and Lorne Michaels and I would become best friends. I was about 21 when I came to Chicago. I got into Second City, then iO.
Q: Did you audition for "SNL"?
A: Yeah, and it went well. I thought I was getting it. Then nothing happened. As far as I know it's because I look too much like Seth Meyers. That's what I was told. They could have just been polite, though. I found out I'm going on Seth Meyers' show now, so I'm going to hand him an invoice for what I would have made.
Q: So you settled into the comedy scene here.
A: Yeah, except when I started, the revered style of improv was slow and patient, and I was antsy and wanted a faster pace. It couldn't get weird enough — if you call that a style. But I met Kumail through the comedy scene in Chicago, though we became friends playing "Gears of War" together. That's how the friendship really formed. The past couple of years I have weaned myself off video games, but in Chicago it was a serious addiction. It sunk in during my early teens. I binge-gamed: You want to finish the game and soon sunlight is coming through your window and, what time is it? That was taking me away from other stuff. But I'll never not be a gamer. Some of my favorite narrative experiences lately have come from video games.
Q: Did the cast of "Silicon Valley" compete for nerdiest?
A: We did! Kumail hosts a video game podcast ("The Indoor Kids"), I go to Renaissance fairs. In garb. For the past two years. I went in normal clothes three years ago and I was missing out. The next year I went in a costume. It was totally fun. I talked to people about joining guilds. OK, I'm painting a picture as a supernerd. But I have woke up and realized there are other things. Hockey is big for me now. Sports! Who knew?
Q: You came to Chicago comedy after having studied computer science in college?
A: Basically, I watched Jerry Seinfeld on HBO and fell in love with (stand-up). I watched his special hundreds of times. It was the first time I loved anything that much, and I wanted to see if I could be good at it. I came to Chicago because so many comedy people had come out of there, so the plan was to make comedy work for me. The first place I performed was Red Lion Pub in Lincoln Park, which shut down (and reopened in Lincoln Square). I performed at the Cubby Bear. I used to play this place, the Lyons Den, on Irving Park, which had an amazing open-mic: T.J., Hannibal Buress, Pete Holmes, Kyle Kinane, they all did it. Thomas and I became friends because of "Gears of War" on Xbox. We defeated the Locust together.
It's funny how so many of the people I started out with in Chicago are doing really well. My own life is so different than when I was in Chicago. For one, I'm married, I'm sort of a grown-up. In Chicago I would stay out 2, 3, 4 a.m. every single night. I was perpetually tired. I also had this day job (as a computer technician for the University of Chicago), so I would have get up at 8 a.m. Very 9-to-6. Most stand-ups just waited tables.
Q: How were you when you started as a stand-up?
A: I was nervous. Then I decided to play up the nervousness, which became my shtick. The hardest thing was being myself. If you're a character, (an audience) can reject a character. If you're yourself and they hate it, they're rejecting you. It wasn't until I moved to New York that I could be myself. It took me years to enjoy it.
Q: You grew up in Pakistan. Was there pressure to play up your nationality?
A: Not really, because I was emulating comedians — Seinfeld, Jake Johannsen, people I was influenced by were not talking about that stuff. Plus, I had seen more bad ethnic comedy than good. I never saw myself as that kind of guy. I would do it occasionally, to get the crowd on my side, but that was nerves, amateur stuff.
Q: And now you've become this ubiquitous comedy figure. Is there a kind of light panic behind doing so much in different mediums — TV, movies, podcasts, live shows, animated voice-work?
A: There is a light panic behind everything, all the time. It's an industry without job security. As soon as a job is done, you have to find a job. I know people who stop working, and it's terrifying. But I also think doing different stuff makes you better at other stuff: Acting makes you better at stand-up, which makes you better at writing. Right now, it's a good time for comedy, and everyone wants to be playing in everyone's sandbox.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC