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Awkward and Absurd: How HBO's 'Silicon Valley' Nailed Startup Culture

'Silicon Valley' Executive Producer Alec Berg spoke with Inc. about researching the Valley's views and values for the upcoming show.
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What led "Office Space" director Mike Judge and "Seinfeld" writer Alec Berg to land on Silicon Valley for their forthcoming HBO sitcom? 

"Initially, when Mike was talking about doing this show, the things that sort of fascinated him were the behaviors of these tech billionaires," Berg told Inc. "There are these incredibly socially awkward guys, who are suddenly authorized to act on every socially awkward impulse they have." 

But that's not who the two executive producers ended up making the center of the comedy series aptly called "Silicon Valley," which debuts April 6th.

"Those are the guys that our guys are battling," Berg said of his underdog protagonists. 

The show follows an introverted, Zuckerbergish computer programmer named Richard, who, as a side project, develops a valuable algorithm while working for the tech giant, Hooli. An intense bidding war between Hooli's founder and a well-known venture capitalist ensues. In the end, Richard takes the VC's investment and cluelessly sets out to establish a business.

Ripped From the Headlines

Berg said he and the show's other producers spent an "enormous" amount of time trying to get the culture -- as well as the tech jargon -- right. "We have half a dozen paid technical consultants on the show -- VCs to hard-core programming wonks -- whose brains we picked for a lot of details on the show," Berg said. 

Pre-production, Berg and his colleagues spent days touring venture capital firms and startup incubators. He also learned about life as a VC from some of his good friends who work for investment firms including Blackstone, Elevation Partners, and Silver Lake.

Additionally Berg started to follow tech sites like TechCrunch and PandoDaily religiously. Every time he found something that made him laugh, he filed the story away, possibly to be used later for inspiration.

"We heard a story about Sergey and Larry getting a check written to them, their very first seed check for a hundred thousand dollars, made out to Google Inc., which apparently they couldn't cash for two weeks because they didn't own the name or have it registered yet," Berg said. Viewers will see that Richard has a similar experience.

But you need not be a startup geek to get every one of the show's references. As America has become more fascinated with the Googles and Twitters of the world, plenty of the tech details written into the show have made national news.

"One of the things that's very interesting about this show is, since I started working on it, a lot of of these kinds of stories cropped up in the news like Tom Perkins comparing the one percent to Jews and Nazi Germany, the Google bus and the backlash there," Berg said. "A lot of these stories that have become sort of mainstream news, are right in our wheelhouse. So we can see where we sort of guessed right."

But sometimes the shows storylines or outlandish details emerged as a complete coincidence. 

For example, in the pilot episode, one of the main characters develops a useless app called NipAlert, which tells users the location of a woman with, er, erect nipples. Months after that detail was written into the script, Berg learned that something similar actually existed. Turns out, last year two contestants at a TechCrunch hackathon submitted a "fratboy and juvenile" app called TitStare, which allows users to upload pictures of themselves starting at women's chests, Berg said.

"People who watch the pilot who know about TitStare are going to assume that this is our nod to that," he said. "We just made that up, and sure enough months later there's someone in the real hacking world who also made that up."  

The Likeability of Nerds 

The producers of Silicon Valley have at least one foreseeable challenge ahead, provided the show gets renewed for a second season. That is keeping their fumbling and endearing characters likable, especially when and if they achieve massive success.  

"Part of the appeal of these guys is they're outsiders. And that's what you sort of like about them is you like to see them try to win," Berg said. "But once they, if they get acquired for $5 billion, and they're walking around lighting $100 cigars do they just become loathsome?"

While that remains to be seen, Berg and his colleagues can at least be sure of one thing -- they won't be running out of new material any time soon.  

"The more research we do and the more we read and meet people and talk to people and hear stories, the larger we realize the trove of kind of craziness and funny stories there are," he said.

IMAGE: HBO
Last updated: Mar 27, 2014

LAURA MONTINI | Staff Writer

Laura Montini is a reporter at Inc. She previously covered health care technology for Health 2.0 News and has served as an associate editor at The Health Care Blog. She lives in San Francisco.




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