Pied Piper founder Richard Hendricks was praised in Silicon Valley for his pioneering “middle-out” algorithm that could very well revolutionize file-compression technology. But at the end of season 2, the big headline for Richard was “top out.” As in he was unceremoniously ousted as CEO by the Pied Piper board, led by dispassionate Raviga managing partner Laurie Bream.
What hilarity happens when an eye contact-avoiding genius is asked to return to the place that he started as an employee with his ragtag bag of semi-friends? You’re about to find out, as season 3 of Silicon Valley debuts Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO. For those wanting a preview of the tech comedy’s action right now, read on: EW downloaded 500 terabytes of teases and intel from Silicon showrunners/executive producers Mike Judge and Alec Berg.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you think of season 3, what are the first three words that come to mind?
ALEC BERG: Richard was fired.
MIKE JUDGE: There you go.
Last season ended with a double twist: Pied Piper seemed to lose before ultimately winning its arbitration case against Hooli, but then the Raviga-led board voted to fire Richard as CEO. The season 3 trailer showed Richard being incredulous at Laurie Bream’s offer to return as a employee and not as CEO. What is his journey this season — and does it start with a lot of pride-swallowing?
BERG: Every year we start by doing a ton of research, and really what we started with was just asking a lot of different people: “If a founder were fired from a company like Pied Piper, what would they do? How would they react?” We talked to a few people who’d been in that situation. And what was really interesting is: When you talk to engineers about whether Pied Piper would be viable without Richard — Would the company function at all? Would they try to bring Richard along? — all the engineers would say, “Well, there’s no company without Richard. Pied Piper without Richard is nonsense, so they’d have to figure out a way to keep him in the company.” And then we’d talk to venture capitalists and they’d be like, “No, we fire founders all the time! We don’t care.” Even the industry experts we talked to disagreed on what would really happen. [Laughs] So we had free rein. We could have made a bunch of things work, but we decided the big thing was: Does it make sense to have Pied Piper without Richard Hendricks in the company? And ultimately from a story standpoint, the answer was no.
JUDGE: Like Alec said, we talked to both VCs and engineers with their different opinions, and for a company like this, the investors would want to keep Richard involved. And that standard thing seems to be a CTO position. Yeah, there’s a lot of swallowing of pride and, “Do you really want to have somebody else who’s running the company?” But what tends to happen — and it happens a lot — is that the programmer types, the people who invent the genius thing, aren’t necessarily the best kind of people at running a company. Those are two different skills. So they tend to get split off. And one VC firm even said, “There’s a saying: ‘It’s never too early to fire the founder.’” And, yeah, the engineers say, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense. They really wouldn’t do that anymore.” But yeah, we just went with that. There are plenty of stories to draw from, companies like Twitter — actually, dozens of them.
After winning Tech Crunch Disrupt at the end of season 1, things got tougher for the guys in season 2. How would you sum this next section of the roller coaster ride for Pied Piper in season 3?
JUDGE: They’re on a better roller coaster, but better roller coasters have bigger ups and downs sometimes.
BERG: If that one was a wooden roller coaster, this one is a steel roller coaster where your feet dangle free and it goes upside down.
JUDGE: I guess it’s true in Hollywood, too: When there’s more at stake, there’s more pressure. The higher the stakes, the more it’s like, well, you’re either going to go down in history as the person who set the new world standard for compression and video files, or you’ll just be forgotten — a footnote, if that. And that all depends on the decisions you make, and if you stick up for yourself or not.
BERG: This show is interesting because it’s really about outsiders. Our guys are sort of the Bad News Bears and there’s a worry that if they ever win the championship, it’s like then they’re just the Bears. So we have a lot of discussions about: How much can we allow them to win? How much can they progress? They came off this big victory at the end of season 1 and we started to write season 2 when they were like the hot startup in town, and everybody wants a piece of them. And we’re like, “We’ll just do a few episodes where they’re the belle of the ball.” And it was really hard to write those shows because there’s no comedic premise there. It’s just people getting what they want, which is ultimately not that satisfying from a storytelling point of view. [On the other hand], we’re obviously very concerned about making it Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football, and a certain point it’s like, “Oh my God, how many times can these guys trip and fall on their faces? They’re just idiots!” The trick really is finding new and interesting ways that their journey is complicated. I don’t know that we’re ever going to get the point where they’re a $10 billion company and everybody is flying helicopters to work.
JUDGE: Living happily ever after, that’s maybe when the series is over.
Stephen Tobolowsky plays Acton Jack Barker, an accomplished tech exec who is brought in to run Pied Piper. What can viewers — as well as our Pied Piper guys — expect from him?
BERG: Jack may have slightly different priorities than the guys do. And he may try to take the company in a direction that the guys aren’t entirely comfortable with.
JUDGE: if you had an algorithm like this, there’s the way to quickly grow the company and the stock, get to [the] revenue [stage] fast. Or do you try to make the big play? Those are the decisions that have to be made and argued over.
Would you say things get pretty oppositional and heated between Jack and the guys?
BERG: if you find opposition to be highly entertaining and hilarious, then yes.
JUDGE: if you enjoy disharmony …
BERG: If you enjoy dysfunction and vitriol …
JUDGE: … we’ve got plenty of it.
Any other new faces this season?
JUDGE: We have a saleswoman who’s the king of sales named Jan the Man [played by Erin Breen]. We have horses, robots …
BERG: Bulldogs. Turtles and rabbits.
JUDGE: He’s not even joking.
BERG: It’s a very animal-heavy season.
JUDGE: There’s a little bit of romance, as much as you could expect in this world.
BERG: Attempts are made to speak to women. [Laughs] … We shot our first graphic sex scene.
I was just going to ask: We’ve seen several outrageous moments, such as the dick-math joke in the season 1 finale, and the bionic masturbating monkey in season 2. Which scene in season 3 might wind up rivaling those? Would you point to that one?
BERG: Yeah, certainly upfront. As far as the first few shows. As far as graphic, penile-related humor.
What can you say about that moment?
JUDGE: That we will have explicit, graphic sex in the show.
BERG: Richard will be involved in a scene in which there is graphic intercourse. Technically, it’s involving Richard and another man. … It’s extreme. You’ll be tempted to look away, but those who watch every frame will be rewarded.
Is there a geeky moment a la season 2’s amazing “Let Blaine Die” SWOT board, which mocks the corporate idea/jargon? What can you say about the so-called Conjoined Triangles of Success that we will see this year, and anything else in that vein?
BERG: There’s a long-standing argument among coders, about formatting, whether they use spaces or tabs.
JUDGE: We deal with that very sensitive issue.
BERG: Actually, it’s funny, when we were doing the research for that episode … one of our writers has a friend who works at Apple. He texted her and said, “Hey, we’re doing this thing about spaces versus tabs …” And she texted back that she was at drinks with a bunch of engineers that she worked with, and his text had started a violent angry argument about spaces versus tabs among them. Apparently it’s a real hot-button issue, so we play with that a little bit in one show.
JUDGE: There’s a new word you can use — a shorthand for saying all the nice things about a person when you’re going to say something bad that can make it so you don’t have to say as many words to other people when you’re having a conversation. My daughter and her friend were saying they were going to start using that when they were talking about a certain person.
BERG: The Conjoined Triangles of Success we made up.
JUDGE: “The compromise is the shared hypotenuse of the conjoined triangles.”
BERG: Actually it’s funny, right after I wrote that, I took my daughter to a volleyball tournament, and they had John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success on the wall. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but it’s the least graphically pleasing help aid you’ve ever seen. There’s just too many words in each box.
JUDGE: It’s confusing. There’s no reason it needs to be a pyramid.
BERG: The guy was a motivational genius, but if you just look at the Pyramid of Success, it’s really overwrought.
JUDGE: The Conjoined Triangles makes a little more sense.
The show always puts a spin on real-life technological breakthroughs. In the first trailer, we saw the Bambot, which looks like one of those frightening Boston Dynamics inventions. How did that come about and did T.J. [Miller] have fun kicking that thing?
BERG: DARPA had engineered that arm to give injured veterans mobility and we thought the comedic use of it obviously was to let a monkey masturbate and hurl his own feces. [Laughs]
JUDGE: We had the actual Boston Dynamics team there with the robot, and they instructed T.J. to only kick it in certain places and directions, and he kind of ignored all that. And not only that, he actually kicked into a big lighting thing that knocked some stuff over that almost injured me; I was sitting right behind it. And we used that, actually. When you see Thomas [Middleditch] pulling him off the robot, that’s really Thomas pulling him off the robot. Because he was just unleashing all his anger on that thing. But yeah, he broke it a couple times, and we had two of them there, luckily. [Laughs] But it’s all good now. That thing is weird, though. I know that it’s all just motors and pistons and solenoids, and yet I feel sorry for it. And when I kicked it myself, I felt bad kicking it because it moves like a real animal.
BERG: Also when you stand next to it, it’s a little scary because you sorta feel like you’re standing next to a wild animal that has a brain of its own and could get spooked and attack you.
JUDGE: And the fact that it doesn’t have a head makes it even creepier. When the guy would turn it toward me, it was a little freaky. It would make you feel uncomfortable. Yeah, I hope those things don’t take over.
BERG: Yeah, the robopocalypse is going to be even scarier than I imagined.
NEXT: Judge and Berg on 3-D holographic mustaches