Like almost everyone else on the writing team behind HBO's wildly hilarious and wildly successful Silicon Valley--which debuts its Season Three on April 24--Clay Tarver's background has nothing to do with tech or Silicon Valley.
And yet, that team and Tarver, a co-executive producer whose work for the show won him a Writer's Guild award last year, have created a shockingly realistic and hilarious series. The first two seasons of Silicon Valley successfully evoked both the most outré absurdities of life in the tech-zillionaire bubble and the scrappiness of a mismatched bunch of socially inept coders striving to create the Next Big Company. While Inc. doesn't traffic in spoilers, let's just say that the new season's first episodes live up to the high standard the series has already set.
This week, Tarver spoke to Inc. while pacing around his neighborhood in Los Angeles. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of that conversation.
Let's back to the Season One premiere, in August 2014, when Elon Musk went on that mini-rant. That whole, "I feel like [Silicon Valley creator] Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man. If you haven't been, you don't get it." Then he started making fun of parties in L.A.
Have you ever been to Burning Man?
Has anyone else on the writing team ever been to Burning Man?
We had one writer who had been, I think, but I'm not sure. Elon Musk suggested Mike to go there with him. But, goddamn it, I didn't get invited.
That was sort of indicative of the out-of-touchness of Silicon Valley. It's a very insular place, and they all think everyone understands what's going on there. We had no idea what he was talking about: "Burning Man? What does Burning Man have to do with anything? We've never mentioned Burning Man."
I think it was about people being pirates in their own eyes. Which is weird, because that place is just out of control. It's so huge--this weird mix of young startups and new innovation and big gigantic corporations with billionaires. Our job is to have you root for a young group of people who are just starting out in that world, but also to make fun of people who have gotten a little bit cushy, and don't quite see how ridiculous it's gotten. It's not like we set out to make fun of one person or Peter Thiel [Ed. note: widely believed to be a role model for Season One character Peter Gregory] or Elon Musk. I don't even think we really know that much about them.
But eventually people realized they were in largely good hands, and that we did our homework for the most part. It's like that moment when heavy metal bands went from "Is This Is Spinal Tap making fun of us?" to "It's the funniest thing ever. Let's have it playing in our tour bus all the time." So I think [Musk] bristles a little bit, but I can make fun of the tech press and say they took him out of context a little bit.
How did the press take him out of context?
He was just going off, and he retracted it immediately.
He didn't retract it. He said he didn't hate the show.
He didn't hate the show! Congrats!
And pretty much a month later, [Facebook's Mark] Zuckerberg was seen wearing a Pied Piper T-shirt.
Fair enough. But a bunch of us at Inc. have run into Valley types who were offended or bummed out by the show. How often does that happen to you?
There are a few holdouts who are so earnest that you can tell from the tension, when we meet with them, it's like, "Fuck you, we do make the world a better place. Don't make me feel bad about that."
I can't tell you.
(Grumbling) OK then! How about prominent founders or investors in the Valley who have tried to get cameos--after all, Snapchat's Evan Spiegel and Eric Schmidt, among others, have appeared on the show--but with them it seems like a naked ploy for publicity and/or buying protection from you guys?
Sorry. I can't.
Generally, these people are remarkably smart and perceptive, and know so much more about how the world works than we do. Except for comedy. Shockingly few get comedy, thank God. I'm not sure they'd be the right people to disrupt humor.
Fine. But let's note that Elon Musk hasn't been on the show yet.
My take on that Silicon Valley vibe is that it's like, "We're this genuine place of innovation, and we're so smart, and we have all the best intentions. How dare you not trust us?" Any criticism hurts their feelings, which, of course, means they're ripe for it. I feel like our job is to rattle them all a little bit--those people who take themselves too seriously.
The whole place is such a weird mix. You have all these sort of hippie roots, these nerd roots, and also these strong libertarian roots, and, at the same time, this is capitalism. They don't all quite go together. When you point out the inconsistencies, people's feelings get hurt. But that means we're doing something right.
You grew up in Texas, you lived in Boston, you lived in New York, you live in L.A. now. You do not have any tech background. How did you get up to speed?
I paid no attention at all. What did it have to do with me? I skipped over the tech section of every newspaper I was reading at the time. Then I just started reading a few books, like the one about Facebook. We went on field trips in L.A., to local incubators.
The questions we had were so rudimentary: "So what do you do when you start a company? Like, who does what? What is seed money? What is a Series A? So, I don't understand, what is a valuation? Is that like when you're on the stock market?" Jonathan Dotan [Ed. note: an associate producer of the show] ended up being the liaison between us and everybody in Silicon Valley. He had started a bunch of companies, he invested in a bunch, and now he was super old. Meaning, like, he's 34.
We were searching for "How does the first season end? What are they building for?" And someone from the Launch Pad-- an incubator out here [in L.A.]--said, "Oh, there's this tech startup competition called TechCrunch Disrupt." And we were literally like a), "Really? There's a fucking contest?" and b) "What does 'disrupt' mean?"
We went to TechCrunch Disrupt a few weeks later, and Jonathan introduced us to young startups. We would talk to the big guys like Evan Spiegel, who told us and Mike and Alec [Berg, Silicon Valley executive producer] what that experience was like--being nowhere, and then being somewhere so huge with huge potential.
Once a year, we do a trip to San Francisco for a pretty intense four or five days where we just meet with a bunch of people who've been through this experience. Sometimes big companies try to use us to issue press releases, and that can be a waste of time. But for the most part, everyone is really enthusiastic to help. So far it's worked pretty well. I don't think we've hit anything that was crazy off-key so far.
What's one crazy nugget that you heard from your research and used?
There was a woman who worked at a startup, and she was the only woman there. And we asked, "Was that the worst?" And she said, "No. It's worse if there were two women, because everyone would assume you'd be best friends with them when you had nothing in common." And Dropbox had a thing where they presented--I think at TechCrunch Disrupt--and every single thing they used didn't work.
There's a lovely scene in one of the TechCrunch Disrupt episodes in which someone pitches this completely bonkers idea about a "human heater" that warms the skin through microwaves.
That's because we saw a guy at the TechCrunch thing who presented this device. Basically, you plugged the thing into your phone, and it used radio waves to locate the phone and send a beam of energy to charge the phone around you--without going through you and giving your balls cancer. You could have this thing in your house, and never have to plug anything in because it would always be charging...
...and you're walking through radiation all the time.
So the judges said, "Ah, yeah, this isn't safe." And he's like, "No, no, no, I promise you." Then the judges said, "You can say that, but I don't believe you, and no one will ever go for this."
That was lifted almost directly.
I still have a hard time believing that, when you run into someone and they ask what you do and they're in this world, that no one in tech is offended or bummed out.
The only tension I've ever gotten is about the lack of female representation. Which I understand. At South by Southwest, I think, someone was saying how it was bullshit that we didn't put any women in the TechCrunch Disrupt audience. It was literally footage from the actual event.
We felt like our job was not to show Silicon Valley the way it should be but to show the way it is, but that reaction was understandable. Diversity issues are pretty pronounced there. It's one of those things where, yeah, they think they've engineered this perfect society, but there's a whole host of unintended consequences when your blind spot rears its ugly head. That's one of them.
You spent many years playing in punk rock bands, which is also in a very male milieu. What resonances are there between that world and tech?
There are so many. Scraping it together and putting in all these hours. The absolute unknown future of it all. And a sense of people losing their way and believing their own bullshit once they have success.
The people who are successful almost always start out doing something that they and their friends think is cool. They do it for themselves, and that's often the big leap forward, as opposed to pandering to try and make a gajillion dollars. Not that people look for authenticity in tech the way they look for authenticity in music, but you have to be living closer to the bone to know what people really want, and what really moves other people is often the thing that moves you and your friends.
And then, of course, the dangers of business in a one-dream town, where people are out to make it in this one industry--like Nashville or L.A.-- and that hyper-insular thing means good news for someone else is bad news for you, and you're jealous of their success and happy at their failure. All of that happens in bands.
Then, one day, you're doing something else and a friend is headlining Coachella.
You've mentioned Evan Spiegel, but who else is part of your show's kitchen cabinet?
Dick Costolo. He stayed the writer's room with us last year.
He has a comedy background.
He was amazing. He had to wait, I guess, for all of the stuff to go through regarding his departure from Twitter. He was one of the few people that got it, because he understands comedy and he understands business. We'd all come up with some idea and we'd turn to him and ask, "Would that even remotely happen?" And he'd say, "Oh my God. All the time. Are you kidding?" It wasn't like he was giving us Twitter secrets, but just the craziness of starting a business and running a business and getting it going.
I'm sure he'll be massively successful and won't be back next year.
But he already was massively successful.
I would make him CEO of any company I had. The guys at Dropbox are funny. Pied Piper is roughly in the same field as them, and they have been super cool with us. They see themselves as being the next generation of a company, and they had to deal with the specter of stodgy sales guys. [Ed. note: this is possibly a plot point in Season 3.]
Does Costolo have any writing credits on Season Three?
He didn't. He came in halfway through, and we have too many writers and not enough scripts. And he has way too much money to write.
Or: He can actually afford to write.
If I didn't know who he was, I would hire him as a writer. He was fantastic.
Who knows? He might need a hobby.