Karl Marx famously remarked that “history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce.” As the Bay Area rides out its second tech boom in two decades, the hilarious, profane, and merciless television comedy “Silicon Valley” has been mining the economy-disrupting, culture-changing tech industry for laughs. Now in its third season on HBO, the show follows the triumphs and tribulations of Richard Hendricks, a geekily brilliant programmer whose data compression startup Pied Piper finds sudden success, only to send him on an Homeresque odyssey through the wilds of VC investors, gyrating valuations, litigation, and outright theft.
On May 12, the “Silicon Valley” writer and producer Carrie Kemper spoke to the Center's American West undergraduate course about turning the tech world into entertaining television. Kemper graduated from Stanford in 2006 with a degree in American Studies, and soon afterward found herself working at Google. Her experiences, along with those of series creator Mike Judge (who worked as a developer in the late 1980s), inform the show.
Trying to Keep it Real
How realistic is the show's portrayal, asked Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a renowned Mark Twain scholar and chronicler of literary and theatrical satire. “I went to visit some Stanford friends of mine,” said Kemper, “They have a company called Gridspace, and one of the founders said, ‘I cannot watch your show because it stresses me out too much, it’s too real. I deal with this every day, I’m sorry’– and that was like the greatest compliment!”
The show takes a “ripped from the headlines” approach to portraying the tech industry, mixing real brand names with fictional companies like Hooli, whose hypercompetitive founder consults with a guru and confides, “I can’t live in a world where someone else is making the world a better place.” But some of the characters in the real Silicon Valley are so over the top, said Kemper, that “there are people who are almost too on the nose to satirize.” She described an intense meeting with an R&D executive during a “research trip” the writers took to the Bay Area. “At the end, he arose and rollerbladed to the door. It was like, you know what? If it were in the show it would just be too stupid,” Kemper laughed.
A friend told Kemper, “I cannot watch your show because it stresses me out too much, it’s too real. I deal with this every day, I’m sorry.”
Booms and Busts
Given out that booms and busts are a recurring feature of western American history, Fisher Fishkin asked Kemper if the specter of another tech bust haunts the show.
“When we were writing Jack Barker,” said Kemper about Pied Piper’s new Steve Ballmer-esque CEO, “that was our way of acknowledging the incoming bust. He’s preoccupied by it.”
“It will be interesting to see next season how it will affect the show,” she added. “But it’s also funny because I caught myself saying, ‘Man, it would be such a shame if the bubble bursts because the show won’t seem realistic!’” to which her friend interjected, “Yeah, and like, the economy will collapse.” “Oh, right, yeah, I know, I know,” allowed Kemper sheepishly.
Silicon Valley forms an important chapter in the story of the American West, whose study the Center has nurtured through the support of projects like the Silicon Valley Archives at the Stanford Libraries, and the research of former Center scholars like Margaret O’Mara, whose work traces the origins of Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry.
In the background of it all, of course, is Stanford University, which groomed many of today’s titans and contributes mightily to the tech industry’s workforce. “I am constantly pitching things Stanford-related,” said Kemper, “There was going to be a big intro sequence with Richard and Jared trying to find an old CS professor of Richard’s, and I was really pitching hard for a huge bike collision in the background. I was like, ’Guys, it’s going to be very funny.’”