in memoriam

Behind Silicon Valley’s Tribute to Christopher Evan Welch

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by HBO

Before Christopher Evan Welch passed away after a three-year battle with lung cancer, he portrayed oddball techie billionaire Peter Gregory on Mike Judge’s HBO comedy Silicon Valley. Despite only appearing in a handful of episodes before his death, Welch emerged as one of the most compelling reasons to watch, drolly perfecting the idiosyncrasies of a visionary investor willing to seed Richard Hendricks’s (Thomas Middleditch) data-compression start-up.

Having ostensibly written around Welch’s passing for the back third of season one — attributing Peter’s absence to an overseas business expedition — Judge and his co-producers and writers realized they needed to address Gregory’s whereabouts more concretely in season two in order to move the story forward [spoilers ahead]. The result was Sunday night’s tribute to both Welch and the role he imbued so colorfully, complete with yarns about hippo invasions and a funeral scene featuring Welch (as Gregory) projected on massive screens overhead. That, and the addition of Suzanne Cryer (she of Seinfeld­-ian “yada yada yada” lore) as new Raviga managing partner Laurie Bream, a bizarre-o, OCD analog to her predecessor Gregory. Executive producer Alec Berg, who co-wrote the premiere, talked with us about balancing humor and pathos, distinguishing Laurie from Peter, and their plot pivot.

You guys wrote stories around Peter’s character toward the end of last season. Was this premiere more about inverting that and advancing the overall story inside of an overt tribute to Peter and, by proxy, Chris?
To use a tech term, we had to pivot the entire story of the show. Everything that happens from this point forward in the show story-wise is not probably what we would have done if we still had Chris around. There was no plan ever to write away from him, ‘cause he was so brilliant and great. So we had to figure out “Where to from here?” And that’s a huge amount of the launch of season two: “We don’t have Chris anymore, so what are we gonna do?”

Now that the season’s airing, do you feel like you pulled that pivot off?
That’s a very hard question for me to answer, simply because when Chris passed away, we were finishing shooting season one, and we hadn’t really done any work on season two yet. I don’t have a control group to know “Here’s what we would have done if Chris were here, and now we have to do this instead.” The timing just happened that when we were actually sitting down to think, What the hell are we gonna for season two of this thing? we knew Chris was no longer with us. So there’s only one version of season two that was written, and this was it. So I hope it’s good. That’s for the audience to decide, ultimately. I’m very happy with the twists and turns we found, and I think Suzanne is amazing, and it won’t make sense to people if they’ve only seen the first episode, but I think Chris Diamantopolous is an amazing, super-skilled, talented guy, and he did an amazing job with the character [brash financier Russ Hanneman] we gave to him.

How did the process evolve from when you initially sat down to address Peter’s season-two whereabouts?
The Peter Gregory character was a focal point for the entire first season, so we had two conversations about it. One was, story-wise, what do we do? And the other one was, how do we pay homage to that character and that actor? If you write somebody off a show, you can kill her character in whatever way you want, and there’s nothing ghoulish or gruesome about it. But the fact that Chris passed away really informed how we ended up dealing with it. There were two approaches. One was, what if Peter Gregory was just gone? He’s on his personal, nuclear-powered submarine, meditating under the polar ice cap, and every once in a while, strange messages would come from the deep. And that was a way to keep the character alive and in the world. And then we just decided fans of the show would know that Chris is not coming back. The simplest and best way to handle it would be to say that the character had passed away as well.

I know Mike Judge spoke with Chris’s family around this time. Did you guys share your idea for the safari-fiasco story with them?
Mike spoke with I think his mom and his sister maybe, but I think the specifics of his untimely demise were still in the works at that point. So I don’t know if he ever said, “Here’s exactly what we’re doing.” But Mike said he talked to them and they said, “Look, just make sure it’s funny.” And I had conversations with a couple of different people who’d worked on shows who lost actors, ‘cause I wanted to know how they dealt with it and if they felt like there were things they screwed up or wished they’d handled better or had done differently. And everybody said basically, “Look, you have to be respectful, but also remember you’re a comedy. You have to do it in a funny way. That’s the best way to honor them.”

And doing it that way is representative of his contribution to the show.
Yeah, for sure. And Peter Gregory was a very goofy, silly, odd, quirky character, so that was part of the math also, just trying to come up with a very goofy, silly way [to explain his death]. You’re dealing with character stuff, but you’re also dealing with the death of a real person, so we had to make it absurd and goofy to make it feel like, “Okay, we understand we’re making a joke here.” The realer the circumstances of the character’s death, the more you’d feel that, “Oh, jeez, this is dark.”

The repetition of the line “Peter Gregory is dead” kind of reinforces that the comedy is addressing the character.
In the context of the Laurie Bream scene where she keeps saying it, that was something we found late in the writing, and that was just more about, “This is a woman who’s kind of panicking that she’s inherited a job that maybe she doesn’t have the best skill set for.” The way we played that scene is that this has happened and she’s coming to grips with it.

Mike Judge described Peter as representing a somewhat “Asperger-y” end of eccentricity spectrum. Was the intent with Laurie to present the opposite, more OCD/type-A end of that spectrum?
We definitely didn’t want to feel like we had just cast a new person to play the same character. We felt like whoever came into that part was going to be held up against what Chris did, so we wanted to push her in a completely different direction. But also, we did odd, quirky characters on the show, so it had to be somebody that was of this odd, dysfunctional world. We had to find a different sort of eccentric. I hope people don’t feel like, “Oh, they took somebody else and put them in the Peter Gregory part,” cause that’s not what our intention was. We tried very hard to write a different character, and Laurie is based on a lot of conversations we had with these super-smart people whose brains go about five times faster than their mouths can go.

Was Suzanne Cryer someone you’d worked with before, or did she come out of auditions?
She auditioned, but I was a writer at Seinfeld many years ago, and she was in an episode — one of our more successful episodes — called “The Yada Yada.” So I’d worked with her years ago and remembered her being phenomenal then, and she is every bit as skilled and great now. She kind of had exactly what we had in mind.

How did you instruct her to create her own character and not worry about measuring up to Chris’s role?
The process wasn’t Peter Gregory–centric. We’d done our work before we got to the stage in creating the character we felt was different enough, but also in the same general spirit. It just was about her playing that character and us playing around with it and finding different, interesting ways to make her interesting and funny.

Are you anticipating people to make the “Yada Yada” connection?
I hope so. She’s done a lot of other things since then, so I don’t know if it’s fair to her to pigeonhole her as “the ‘Yada Yada’ woman.” [Laughs.]

Behind Silicon Valley’s Tribute to Chris Welch