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Mike Judge dives gleefully into the tech world with 'Silicon Valley'

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There was a time when Mike Judge feared that he'd missed the Google bus to the tech boom.

The writer-director, best known for creating MTV's "Beavis and Butthead," first thought of a TV series about the digital world in 1999. At the time, he was in talks for an online animation show to be hosted by one of the numerous new websites looking to provide original programming, but less than a year later the bubble had burst and the notion of a satirical series about a new California gold rush in the world of tech (as well as his animated series) evaporated.

Fast forward a little more than a decade, with the 51-year-old executive producer and writer poised on Sunday to launch "Silicon Valley," a half-hour, live-action HBO series that lampoons the land of goofy apps, nerd millionaires and the cult worship of tech titans.

"I started out thinking, 'Are we doing this too late?'" Judge said on a recent afternoon in his rather spartan writers' room at the Culver Studios. 

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A look at the recent headlines of excess and eccentricity rolling out of Northern California seem only to confirm Judge's instinct that the tech culture is ready for mockery. Longtime San Francisco residents are incensed by Google's private bus system, Facebook continues to gobble up small companies for billions of dollars, and venture capitalist Tom Perkins compared the treatment of the richest one percent to that of Jews in Nazi Germany.

"I think this time is even crazier than the first tech bubble," said Judge, who was also behind the 1999 comedy film classic "Office Space." "Now is an even better time to do it."

The series, which is already collecting early positive reviews, follows the struggles of a small group of programmers as they found a start-up company called Pied Piper in a business landscape where even doctors have an idea for the next billion-dollar app. Thomas Middleditch stars as a panic-attack prone, low-level programmer at tech giant Hooli (think Google) who stumbles onto a compression program that can deliver massive amounts of information online without quality loss. A bidding war among tech giants ensues.

Suddenly, Middleditch and his low-level programmer friends, played by Martin Starr, Josh Brener and stand-up comedians T.J. Miller and Kumail Nanjiani, are scrambling to found and sustain a start-up company. 

"One moment where [the series] clicked for me came when we visited an incubator and they brought out a group of guys to pitch us," said Judge, a former software engineer. "They pitched their whole thing, it's making the world a better place, etc. Then it came out they got the whole thing funded for $100,000. Five guys in a two-bedroom apartment. You have this much time before you burn through the money. That's the first season." 

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Comparisons to HBO's "Entourage," about the Hollywood adventures of a wealthy movie star and his friends abound, and the parallels aren't lost on Judge.

"In Hollywood, you sell a script, you become a movie star and suddenly you're driving fancy cars, buying nice houses, going to fancy parties," he said. "[In Silicon Valley] it's just 'How do we have fun? I don't know.' It's all these introverts. It's not the kind of people who used to become rich 80 years ago."

Alec Berg, an executive producer for "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" who will help Judge guide the series after the pilot, sees the dude-heavy, big-money tech world as even more pretentious than Hollywood.

"I don't think most people in Hollywood hide behind the mask of 'I'm doing this to make the world a better place,'" Berg says. "To watch people in tech garner billions of dollars and deny that it's about the money at all, there's a disconnect."

With the creative freedom afforded by a premium cable channel, Judge and Berg promise the show isn't going to hew to standard sitcom conventions. Since the characters are completely shaped by the future of their company, from pipe dream to reality, that's where the show will live entirely in the first season. Don't expect any vacations, these guys are all about work. 

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However, for the task of making code interesting to watch, Judge and Berg recruited Jonathan Dotan, a digital entrepreneur and investor, as their tech consultant. Dotan got the writers into business incubators, helped solicit input on their fictional product from real venture capitalists and even helped facilitate cameo appearances from Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and influential tech journalist Kara Swisher.

"We have tried incredibly hard to get all that stuff right," Berg said.

Along with the laughs, the show runners hope viewers can also become better educated on the finer points of such software development mainstays as Scrum. For those who have never coded a day in their lives, Scrum is a process of managing a software project that, among other things, encourages programmers to interact physically with face-to-face communication.

"We went way deep into Scrum for awhile there," Judge said. "We thought this is just a process no one is going to care about. But the way it works, especially in the sixth episode, it becomes intense drama."

One of the immediate standouts of "Silicon Valley's" cast is Christopher Evan Welch, who plays a strange venture capitalist who drives a car no bigger than a restroom stall and whose ability to show emotion is on an Asperger-like level.

When Welch, a character actor known primarily for this work on Broadway, auditioned for the role, "that kind of tipped the scales for me" in getting excited about the potential of the project, Judge said. "It reminded me of when I was making 'Office Space' and Gary Cole came in to read for Lumbergh [the film's much-hated boss]." 

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Sadly, the 48-year-old Welch died of lung cancer last December midway through filming the first season. He was even shooting scenes three days before he died. (Judge and Berg said they aren't going to address the character's sudden absence in the season's final episodes, but will next season if the show is renewed.)

"I've met tech billionaires just like that," Judge said. "When we show the pilot at tech places, they say Chris really got it right."

As even the show makes fun of itself, the world of "Silicon Valley" is largely male. Amanda Crew plays a head of operations, but for the most part this is a geeky man's world.

Judge has heard the potential criticism before — and rejects it.

"I took a picture of the audience at TechCrunch Disrupt," Judge said. "It's maybe 2% women. Don't shoot the messenger."

Fans seem thrilled to see his keen eye for satire back on TV. Judge, as much as his reserved demeanor will let him, seems equally thrilled to be back, heaping praise on HBO. It seems to be a happy marriage for the "King of the Hill" co-creator, whose last original TV effort, "The Goode Family" in 2009, was canceled on ABC after just 13 episodes.

"What's cool about [HBO] is they want and support filmmakers and original voices," Judge said. "I think some of these other networks could learn from them."

He paused. "I won't mention names."

patrick.day@latimes.com 

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'Silicon Valley'

Where: HBO

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)


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