HBO’s Silicon Valley is known not only for precisely roasting the country’s ever-growing tech industry but for its bold, unforgettable, and sometimes slightly crass jokes. Think about its famous horse sex scene or the season-one finale, where the crew spends minutes figuring out the “tip-to-tip efficiency” of the quickest way to, how can we say this, simultaneously pleasure a room full of horny men.
For the season-five finale we have another one of those moments, when Richard (Thomas Middleditch), seemingly triumphant that his Pied Piper decentralized internet is finally taking off, dismisses a gaming executive who recently fired him. Searching for a creative way to tell him to go screw himself, Richard comes up with the awkward “kiss my piss,” including a nifty little dance that looks like a drunk bed bug trying to do the hokey-pokey. We talked to series executive producer Alec Berg, who wrote and directed the season finale, about how the joke came to be and how Silicon Valley is like his other HBO comedy, the contract-killer-turned-actor yarn Barry.
I have a very important question: Where the hell did “kiss my piss” come from?
It was just one of those things where we liked that Richard did what, for him, was a badass thing. I think it was one of those things where somebody just pitched it in the room and it’s like this is a lame thing he would say, and we all laughed and put it in.
So you were looking for a lame thing and that was sort of the winner?
Yeah. Sometimes you have got these placeholders, and in fact, in season one, the whole jerk-off equation was one of those same things. We knew we needed some silly thing that becomes the inspiration for this big rewrite of their platform. Then one of our writers was talking about how he and his roommate had an argument about who could jerk off the most guys at once. Then it was like, Oh my God that’s the thing that goes in there. Here, we just knew we needed to say something stupid, and then it would come back around at the end to be the thing he used on Gavin.
Did you write stage directions for the dance?
No, no, that was entirely Thomas. Thomas Middleditch, for all of his verbal dexterity, gets very little credit as a physical comic. He is an unbelievable physical comedian. Every once in a while he gets to do something. There was a scene a couple years ago where he kicked a hole in the door and his foot got stuck in the door. The face-plant he did on the desk in season three was one of my favorite moments.
So, that was one where you get to a point where you just know he’s going to come up with something. You throw it at him and he figures it out, so then he does a silly dance.
You directed this episode as well. Was that a part of the episode you were looking forward to?
Those always, as a director, are natural. The simplest scenes to shoot honestly are ones where it’s just like just, Okay, point the camera at the actors and let them perform and be funny and sell the scene.
What are the hardest scenes to direct?
There are a bunch of scenes in that episode, where Richard and Gavin are on Hooli chat with Yao and Laurie and then somebody calls. You have to worry about the screen direction and who’s looking what way. So all that technical stuff is a real chore to shoot.
We see in this finale everything we’ve watched all season — like Dinesh and the Tesla and Gavin’s boxes — all come together in this perfect storm. How far in advance did you plot out that whole end game?
Usually, the way every season works is you know where you’re starting, which is, you’ve dealt yourself a hand from the season before. You’re thinking, Okay, we’re going to go this way and then as you’re doing that, you’re always thinking ahead. About halfway through the season, generally we know where we’re going to end, and then it just makes everything much easier. When we write just far enough in advance that if there’s something you need to set up for episode eight, if you’re writing episode four or five at the time, you can start sneaking things in so that you seem a lot smarter than you really are. By the time that you get to episode eight, ideally people think, Oh my God they knew the entire time that’s where they were headed. I assure you sometimes that’s far from the case.
One of my favorite parts in the finale is when Richard goes to Gavin’s house and Gavin, says to him, “Oh is this where you’re going to give me the ‘stand up and fight for the innovation’ speech,” which is what we come to expect from one of these finales. But instead Richard is like, “No, we’re just going to screw everybody over.” Does that signal sort of change in ideology for Richard?
No. He’s got a little bit more fluid with morality. There was a scene in season two where Gilfoyle stole a password and Gilfoyle basically said, “Let’s walk the lefthand path. Let’s do this. How far are you willing to go to succeed?” Since then, we’ve been playing with this idea of Richard’s goody-two-shoes morality, and how dirty is he willing to get his hand in order to succeed? And, you know, does the end justify the means?
What’s funny was, this is the place where if left to his own instincts Richard would give that rousing inspirational speech. And really he just knows Gavin well enough at this point that he’s like, “Forget about all the goody-two-shoes stuff, you want to fuck somebody over and I can help you do that. Let’s do it.” We always love those scenes where its like you almost feel like you want to cue the music and you start to get inspiration, and then you undercut it.
It almost seems like a relief for you as a writer to be like, “Oh well at least I don’t have to write that this year.”
That’s part of the fun of this show, right? That these guys are awkward and clunky. One of my favorite things in the finale is Gilfoyle and Monica saying “I like you” at the end, where it’s the closest Gilfoyle can come to saying something genuine. So uncomfortable with emotion or with honesty or with being complimentary that he sort of stammers and it becomes this really uncomfortable moment.
I love that moment too, and for a minute I was like, ‘Oh no don’t make them get together!’ I was afraid of what having a romance would look like on Silicon Valley.
You know, it’s funny. There was a moment in season one in the middle of the finale, where Richard and Monica said something like, “Oh we’re not working together so let’s go grab a drink.” Just because we felt like maybe that’s something that would happen. As we were watching the finale back, we thought, I don’t want to see that. That just seems like where everything would go on any other show.
Amanda [Crew, who plays Monica] said as much. We did a panel like a month ago and she basically said, the fact that she hasn’t been anyone’s love interest on the show is so refreshing, and I agree. It just seems like so obvious. That no, I wouldn’t worry about that. She’ll never find love on my watch. I promise you that. She’ll be alone and miserable as long as I have anything to say about it.
Since the show started there have been a lot of changes in the tech industry. We’ve seen there’s a lot going on at Uber. There’s all this new Facebook and Cambridge Analytica stuff. How does that affect what you’re seeing and doing for the show?
If there is a silver lining to all of that, it’s that the world is certainly doomed, but it’s little better for the show. When we started this show it was about, can these people succeed in a top business and can they make money and can they make their dreams come true? Now, as we get deeper and deeper into all the dark, nefarious shit that the Googles and Facebooks of the world are actually doing, trading on people’s information and possibly changing the course of American political history and thus global political history, you could make an argument that — without disappearing up my own ass — these guys are fighting to save the world in a way now.
The season ends with them looking at this giant space. The business is doing better than ever. Where does that leave us for the next season?
We’ll see. We haven’t started writing. But like I said, we generally try to embrace whatever we’ve done before. I don’t like playing something at the end of the season and then immediately going, “Just kidding we take that back.” So, we have to embrace it.
This is the constant sort of discussion we have on the show: What is the show and what makes the show the show and how far can you bend it before it becomes not the show? And one of the interesting things we learned this year is that we were fairly nervous about taking the guys out of the house and putting them in offices.
The show is about guys who live and work together in a house. So if they get an office, does this just become Parks & Rec or The Office? Can you make it Silicon Valley and not have it be guys working out of a house? And the nice thing about this season is that our fears about breaking the mold of the show were unfounded. The fact that they work in this office gave the show a real new energy and new ways of launching stories, and there’s a bunch of fun powerful characters we can play with. There are more animals in the forest now.
But it also still feels like totally our show and our characters, and it does tell us that we can bend it further than we thought. Which means I’m not as wary of, if they become successful, does it just become a bunch of rich people crying over bags of money? I think we just have to be diligent about rendering what the challenges of the next phase are, and just because they’re more successful doesn’t mean they got it made and that they have no problems.
You also have Barry, which is wrapping up this week, too. How does making the Silicon Valley finale five seasons in compare to making the first season finale of Barry?
Well, first seasons are always interesting because you don’t know what the show is. So season one is a lot of like, “Well maybe this is the show. Maybe this is the show. I don’t know, this could be the show.” There’s a freedom to that. And then if you’re lucky enough to get season one out there and people respond to it well, you get a season two.
If someone at Pied Piper had to hire Barry, what sort of job would you give Barry at Pied Piper?
That’s never happening. There will be no Silicon Valley/Barry crossover episode, I assure you. I have to keep them as separate as I can, for my own sanity. I will say, that’s what’s really fun about the two — it’s a totally different math for each one. On Silicon Valley, the big worry is, is this real? Would this actually happen? What does the technical consultant say?
When we’re doing Barry, it’s like, “How do we keep this person alive? Do we have to kill this character? Wouldn’t he just shoot that guy?” I never worked on a comedy where characters die before. I mean, Susan, George’s fiancé, died on Seinfeld, but that was the one character I killed in my years of doing this. And now in Barry, people are dropping like flies. It’s intense.
You’re going to hit your quota if you’re not careful!
I know! We’re going to run out of actors. Its funny, we did a screening for the cast and crew for all eight episodes, and at the beginning of it Bill [Hader, who stars as Barry and co-created the show with Berg] and I just got up and said a quick introduction. It was weird to look out at the season-long cast of that show and go, “Man, there are a lot of dead people here.”