HBO‘s newest comedy series Silicon Valley has the honor of debuting just after the best lead-in on television: Game of Thrones. Silicon Valley is a smart, engaging comedy about life in the fastest of fast lanes: Internet Startup Land. Zach Woods (The Office, Upright Citizens Brigade), who plays Jared on Silicon Valley sat down to speak with me the other day about comedy, the state of television, and of course his new HBO series.
Woods explained the premise of the show. “There’s all these young, sort of 20-something, enterprising tech guys who are [all] living in this kind of dirty house.” A high-tech incubator in the jargon of the day, overseen by the owner of the house, the slightly older–and successful Internet startup guy, Erlich (T.J. Miller).
“All of the guys,” Woods noted, “have aspirations to be tech innovators of one sort or another. And one of them [Tom, played by Thomas Middleditch] stumbles on — doesn’t really stumble on, he sort of — some combination of stumbles upon it, engineers compression software.” The application has the potential to revolutionize the way people download music. But its developer, an awkward, somewhat meek, but very geek 20-something has no idea just how revolutionary is his invention.
Once the corporate tecchies get their hands on his code, the application is up for grabs, and Tom has to make decisions and think like he has never had to think. He has gone from pipe dream to reality to potential multi-multimillionaire in 60 seconds flat, and what he does next will affect not only his future but that of co-inhabitants. It gets more and more complicated as the application gets the “interest to sort of big players in Silicon Valley — big tech billionaires.” Tom is totally unprepared for the unexpected success.
Caught between the CEO of Huli, hot to purchase the new application for millions, and a brilliant venture capitalist, who only wants a small cut of the company for a six-figure investment, Tom must decide between selling his next-best-thing outright or remaining in control of his creation, albeit for a lower immediate payoff and many more headaches. It’s a dilemma few have to face: a crapshoot that can change your life forever.
Silicon Valley is the brainchild of Mike Judge (Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill, Idiocracy, and no the series isn’t animated.) It’s a great show, and whether you are Internet savvy, are into geek culture or are simply looking for a situation comedy about the consequences and pitfalls of a life-altering event, you’ll enjoy Silicon Valley.
For Woods, the draw of doing the series was working with Mike Judge. “I mean, Mike Judge is like such a comedy juggernaut,” he said. “He just has made so much of the stuff — from the time I was a kid. I’d see Beavis and Butthead when I was a kid, and I thought it was really funny. And then, and then Office Space was like one of those movies that I saw where I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I didn’t know that there were comedy movies like this that resonated so much with what I think is funny.” And then there is King of the Hill.
Woods considers Judge to be one of the satirists in the business, able to get the point out, without gratuitous meanness, often present in TV comedy these days. “I think a lot of comedy is very mean, a point of view that people are shitheads ‘look at what an asshole everyone is.” Acknowledging that it can be funny, and that he likes some of those types of comedies, he noted that he more likes comedies that lpoke fun at people, but the characters retain their humanity, even when they’re being assholes or shitheads, or whatever.”
One of things I like best about the series is that, indeed, although there is occasional mean behavior in the plot, it’s never mean spirited. Zach noted, “I think Mike Judge strikes that delicate imbalance where he makes fun of people, and the characters are certainly like ridiculous a lot of the times, but he doesn’t dehumanize them.”
Woods makes a great point. There’s a really fine line between snarky and mean-spirited. And part of Silicon Valley’s appeal is that it’s definitely snarky, and sometimes the characters (unsurprisingly for some, and more surprisingly for others) are jerks, but they never really cross that line. Woods noted, “On a show where everyone is despicable — if you can’t empathize with the characters — I think it’s harder to be funny long term, I guess. What makes Mike great is that I feel like he’s always both super funny, kind of cutting, but also not cruel.”
On the show, Woods plays “a guy who works for Google-esque company (Huli), and he defects from that to the startup. Jared’s fired-up by their passion and gives up his job to join them.” Jared gives up a secure job as assistant to the CEO for the vagabond life of this little startup. Of all the characters on the show, Woods’ Jared seems the most put together–at least on the outside. He comes from a corporate environment, and is solicitous to an extreme degree. Perhaps it’s a remnant of his years living in the shadow of his mega-star former boss.
Woods enjoys playing Jared. “I feel like he’s had kind of a difficult time of it and continues to have a difficult time of it in certain situations. He’s not necessarily the most socially fluent or popular guy. The other guys have like a really healthy, sometimes overdeveloped sense of confidence. I think Jared doesn’t have that. He tries to be unobtrusive, except when it’s in the interest of the company to be more assertive. I think that the only time Jared can really assert himself is when he feels like he’s doing it for the good of the company or the good of one of the guys. I feel like he just like loves those guys a lot, and I think he loves the company a lot. And I think he’s sort of excessively self-deprecating, which I think is funny.”
Jared definitely seems to want to please everyone all the time, to fit in–a social misfit among an entire group of social misfits. Woods explained, “Jared is one of those people who are just so willing to forego any sort of personal comfort and who are overly generous in their assessment of other people, but at the same time incredibly exacting and rigorous with themselves. I think there’s something about that.”
Jared is indeed the nerd of all of these nerds who are sort of like cool in their nerdiness, while he remains socially awkward even in their midst. “I also think his form of nerdiness is different. He’s not a tech guy [like his comrades]. I feel like there’s like there’s a way in which he feels like distant from them, but also like loves them so much.”
Jared is also the nicest character on the show, which is different for Woods. “He’s almost never mean to anyone. like past — in the past I’ve played characters who are either kind of like aggressive, or kind of, you get the sense that there’s some sort of deep-seated creepiness to them. I like playing a guy who I feel like at his core is very, very intuitive, generous, kind-hearted guy.
Knowing Woods’ background with the Upright Citizens Brigade, I wondered how much improvising goes on in creating the very organic interplay between Silicon Valley’s characters. “Well, the scripts are complete, and amazing, but we would improvise a certain amount. They were really good about that. You know, some writers can be sort of proprietary and weird, and [the series writers] seem to have the confidence of people who have written like really kick-ass scripts. The scripts are so good so they’re not like defensive; they’re not wringing their hands too much, and they’re allowing us to improvise. So we shoot everything that’s scripted and then we play around.” Woods has only seen the first two episodes so far, so he’s not quite sure how much of it has actually made it into the final cut.
Woods noted that, “it’s helpful to sort of loosen up as an actor when you’re improvising. I think, in the first season of a show, if you’re improvising, it helps the writers sort of learn your voice. And it helps collaboratively develop a character. The writers sort of can take your temperature about what you feel like is interesting and fun about the character, and you’re using their landing as a jumping off point for your improv. So it puts you and the writers in conversation about who the character is. That’s helpful and freeing, and then it’s ultimately at their discretion what they want to use, if any of it, in the actual takes. But even if they don’t cut it in, I think that still has a benefit, in the sense that it sort of gets you aligned with the character you’re playing.”
If I have one quibble about Silicon Valley, it’s that the cast is virtually all-male. Admittedly, in the real Silicon Valley, women are equally underrepresented. But I was curious about how the cast all get along with all that testosterone in the air. “It’s interesting. I was sort of anxious about that when we started. All those young comedy guys–all men. That can lead to a kind of a testosterone-fueled dick weighing contest. But I was so surprised and relieved that actually everyone is such a softie in that cast, like everyone is so like sweet, that it was actually like one of the most supportive working environments I’ve ever been in.”
That’s a great environment for any show–comedy or drama. “You just got the feeling,” Woods explained, “that people sort of had each other’s backs. It’s hard to explain. You just felt like — it felt quickly very, very close and very open. People were like surprisingly — like demographically, young comedy guys are like the least likely to be like vulnerable with each other. But it actually was like a very, you know, perhaps to a nauseating degree, a very lovey-dovey, you know, environment a lot of the time. Not that there weren’t like moments of tension or whatever.” They even hang out between shoots.
Although he plays one in the series, I wondered if Woods was geek in real life. “Yeah” he said, quickly adding, “but not like that. I don’t know anything about computers or technology or any of that stuff. I like jazz and I like musical theater, and so that’s pretty — pretty damning in terms of nerdiness, but it’s not the nerdiness that’s represented on this show.
In terms of technology geekiness, Woods confessed he doesn’t even own a Twitter account, not really wanting to open himself to sometimes harsh comments of the social media universe. For the same reason, he shies away from reading reviews. “I’m so reclusive because I just — I’m too much of a delicate flower,” he laughed. “I’m more and more of a Luddite these days.”
You can catch Zach Woods on HBO’s delightful comedy Silicon Valley, premiering Sunday night at 10:00 p.m. ET, right after the season four premiere of Game of Thrones.
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