BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti — who also co-founded the Huffington Post and Reblog — was given screeners of the first five episodes of HBO’s Silicon Valley. BuzzFeed Entertainment Editorial Director Jace Lacob asked Peretti to share his thoughts about the Mike Judge comedy series, which launches Sunday, April 6. What follows is Peretti’s email to Lacob about the show.
Don’t confuse Silicon Valley for a tech-savvy Entourage. It might be the anti-Entourage, but it isn’t the new Entourage. The characters are too awkward, the interactions with women are too stilted, and it is hard to imagine men, even geeky men, watching this show with the same vicarious pleasure many of them got from Entourage.
As a startup founder, I was very excited to see this show, but didn’t have any preconceptions and hadn’t read anything about it. Watching the first few episodes, it is clear that it will be very enjoyable for people who aren’t in the industry and impossible to resist for people who are.
The world Mike Judge created isn’t very realistic, but it takes many real trends and extrapolates them into hilarious parody. People from the Bay Area startup world will be very familiar with the raw material of Judge’s satire: the cult-like utopian company campuses filled with logos, branding, and free snacks; the earnest insistence that every startup is “changing the world”; the competitiveness of billionaire moguls to win deals; the single-industry town with a tech monoculture where everyone (your grocery store clerk! your doctor!) has a startup idea they want to pitch; the obsession with ownership percentages and stock options; and, as the show develops, the stresses and challenges of actually building a business from nothing.
The show is clearly 100% fictional and I am sure HBO’s lawyers made sure that none of the characters could be confused with real people. But I know the startup world will be discussing the similarities between Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) and Peter Thiel, who are both eccentric libertarian billionaires who invest in startups but make big macroeconomic bets on global markets and give kids grants to drop out of college. (Though Gregory is clearly patterned off of Thiel, he is a more eccentric caricature. Watch this video and judge for yourself.) And the CEO of Hooli (Matt Ross) is clearly patterned after Marc Benioff, since they both run B2B enterprise companies that serve corporate clients while also bettering the world through charity, destroying the competition, and seeking spiritual council from gurus. Silicon Valley — the show and the actual place — has some very compelling characters.
The show covers the entire range of people you see in the Valley — the venture capitalists and tech company CEOs to the incubator hopefuls — but everyone is more colorful and interesting than in real life: Most programmers aren’t as funny or as weird as the ones you see in the show, most tech company “bro-grammers” are actually not that bro-y, most CEOs and VCs aren’t particularly colorful. A documentary about Silicon Valley culture would have lots of VCs riding around on bikes in those tight shorts on the weekend and having meeting after meeting during the week where they “pass” on startups; lots of developers sitting in front of computers for hours without talking; lots of Stanford and Ivy League-educated tech company workers having civilized conversations in conference rooms about technical and business problems; and a few more adventurous folks racing cars on private tracks, flying civilian drones, kite surfing, and skiing too fast in Tahoe. But the real Silicon Valley would be much less entertaining than watching Judge’s show.
There is a trend of more people wanting to be startup founders and more people thinking it is cool to build a company. This is mostly a good development, although it does lead to poseurs who do it for the wrong reasons. It is like a new version of a kid joining a band to say they are in a band and not because they love making music. But the show parodies these wannabes; it doesn’t encourage them!
Ultimately, I highly recommend Silicon Valley and was thoroughly entertained watching the first five episodes in one sitting. But I recommend it for the comedy, not the startup ethnography. The show will not elucidate what Silicon Valley is “really like,” except in a highly fictionalized, exaggerated, absurdist form. But the show delivers real laughs, not just chuckles, and that is almost as rare these days as starting a company that becomes the next Dropbox.