Before creating Silicon Valley— the new HBO comedy that Thursday morning garnered five Emmy nominations—Mike Judge says he “hadn’t had a hit in awhile.” Specifically, he was referring to a pair of high-profile 2009 projects: the ABC animated series The Goode Family and the Jason Bateman-led feature film Extract, both of which were received unenthusiastically by audiences. Despite those hiccups, flops have been the exception rather than the rule for the creator of Beavis & Butthead, King of the Hill, Office Space, and Idiocracy. So when it was announced that Silicon Valley was up for Emmys in Best Comedy, Best Directing and Best Writing (as well as Art Direction and Main Title Design), it wasn’t just appropriate recognition for a deserving show: It was a restoration of order. Shortly after the nominations were announced, Judge spoke with EW about his latest hit.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on the nominations. Where were you when you got word?
MIKE JUDGE: I was in bed, and I had just had a very realistic dream that we got zero nominations. In it, I was in the office and we were all kind of bummed but not really talking about it. Then I woke up—my son was laughing hysterically in his sleep—and I remembered someone saying they were announcing the nominees at 5:30a.m. [PST]. I looked at the clock and it was around 5. I went back to sleep and had another dream that we’d lost. I woke up from that dream and it was 5:45, but that was actually just a dream about waking up. Then I woke up for real at 5:40, and there were a bunch of messages on my phone.
It’s like a Christopher Nolan movie.
I hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep.
What were your expectations going in? Did you feel good about your chances?
I don’t know much about the live-action Emmys. King of the Hill won Emmys, but those a very different thing. Silicon Valley was getting good reviews and I thought “wow, that could be kinda cool,” but when I looked at the number of spots and the number of great shows out there, I didn’t think we had that great of a chance. So this is really great news.
Silicon Valley was a departure from your past TV work, in that you switched to both live action and premium cable, but it’s as satirical as anything else you’ve done. Coming on the heels of Goode Family, did you feel any pressure to do something more broad?
Not really. Goode Family failed not for its satire, but for other reasons. The stuff that people still come up and say they love, like Office Space, is satire. I don’t sit down and think “I’m going to make satire;” it’s just the way I’m wired. I didn’t question that.
It’s always scary with a TV series. In a movie, you’ve written the thing, and then it gets greenlit and you’re making it. It’s a daunting feeling when you know we’re going to have to shoot eight episodes, and then you have to write them. But it’s good to have that kind of fire lit under you. For me, anyway. I find stress and fear to be good motivators.
The freedom that creators get at HBO was realized in all its glory with the finale’s hand-job theorizing. How liberating did you find premium cable to be?
For the most part in work I’ve done, I’m usually not thinking, “I wish I could be more foul and crass but they won’t let me.” With HBO, they’ve been really supportive, more than I’ve ever had with any TV network. Knowing that whatever crazy stuff you come up with, they’re going to make—that’s a good feeling. Also, since HBO doesn’t sell adds, we can name brands like Burger King or Clearasil without somebody flipping out. We could use corporate logos in our animated titles. All these things that you cannot do on a network because they’re all tied up in sponsorships. The show started out with me meeting with HBO, so it was never going to be anywhere else.
In addition to Best Comedy, you got noms for writing (the finale, “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency”) and directing (the pilot, “Minimum Viable Product”). What was it about those episodes that compelled you to submit them for consideration?
We debated on sending the finale because of the dick joke—are Emmy voters fuddy-duddies? That sort of thing. But that was the category I thought we had a chance in because of the reaction to that episode from people who work in television. I’m really glad we picked it. For the pilot, I was advised that pilots tend to get nominated and that that would be a good one to pick. We got some good reviews on it, and I was happy with it, so I was fine with that.
It’s often difficult for shows, especially comedies, to stick the landing when wrapping up a season. That wasn’t an issue with Silicon Valley, which turned in arguably its best episode with the finale. Did you know where things were headed from the start, or did it evolve significantly over the course of writing the season?
It evolved quite a bit. In fact, the TechCrunch Disrupt thing we only learned about when we were well into outlining the third or fourth episode. We found out about the start-up battlefield when we were meeting with incubators. I’d been wanting a moment like the Beautiful Mind bar scene, but with something different and more comedic. One of the writers, Matteo Borghese, was talking about this discussion he had with one of his roommates, saying “no no, you could jack off four guys.” I was out of the room, but Alec [Berg] came to me and said “I think I’ve got the moment.”
That one was really fun to work on and it was fun to write, but what was difficult was figuring out how to make the big moments feel like a sports movie when all we’re showing are progress bars and compression rate, these inherently dull things. That was very tricky, writing, and directing. Alec was the main writer and he deserves the nomination. Really, a lot of people deserve credit, including the guy, Vinith Misra, who wrote the paper about the four-man handjob thing.
It’s hard to complain about your nominations, but was there much frustration about Thomas Middleditch not getting nominated for lead, or Christopher Evan Welch for supporting?
I was really hoping that at least Christopher would have gotten a supporting actor nomination, because I thought he was so incredible and unique. It would have been nice for his family. I was bummed about that. And also Thomas, I wouldn’t take it away from anyone else who was nominated, but the guy is amazing. Down the road, he’ll get nominations. He was up for a Critic’s Choice award.
As Peter Gregory, Christopher stole every scene he was in. His death [in December, of lung cancer, at age 48] was obviously tragic on many levels. What impact did it have on the show’s direction?
I feel really fortunate to have worked with him and to have been able to have him in five of the eight episodes. We were in the middle of shooting five and six, block shooting two at a time. We had written all of the scripts and he was in a big scene in episode six and one in eight. We had read-throughs, which I wish we had recorded, because what he did in episode eight—actually in both of them—was just fantastic even at the table read. In the sixth episode, the thing where Zach’s [Woods] character Jared gets stuck in a shipping crate, that was to replace a scene on a private jet with Peter Gregory.
I was going to ask about that—the shipping crate scene felt like it didn’t quite fit in the episode, as though it had been bolted on.
It’s funny, because I’ve had other people say that, friends of mine, and there’s a couple of things in there, or lines that I was going to change because it felt like it was too broad. I’m curious—did it feel broad?
It felt too pat, like more of a bit than most of the plotlines.
I know what you mean. It was a tough time, obviously, and Alec and Clay Tarver had come up with that and it sounded so good to me. The puzzle we had to solve was that we’d already shot stuff with them saying “Where is Jared?” “He’s gone,” because he was in that private jet story. It was really tricky. I thought , “Yeah, that works perfectly,” and it’s interesting that people can sense that. The scene that was in the finale we were able to lift. It didn’t affect other scenes, though it would have been nice to have, even just for a minute. It was a second part to the awkward standoff between him and Gavin.
How far along are you in planning season two?
We’ve got three episodes outlined and some new characters. We’re not going to try to replace Christopher Evan Welch with anybody, we’re having them go a different route with different people that are involved.Who knows, sometimes we scrap everything and start over again, but right now it’s been good. We’re taking these guys in the direction of a typical start-up, with additions rounds of financing and all the crazy stuff that happens with that. I’ve met more billionaires than I can count now, and they all welcomed us. They want us to come visit their places. We have lots of material, and we’re taking these characters to the level that would naturally follow and watching all the crazy things unfold.