Nine to Five: ‘Silicon Valley’, Mike Judge, and the Workplace Comedy

     April 27, 2016


There are quite literally dozens of reasons not to like the Blue Collar Comedy explosion that opened up in the aughts and is, in many ways, still thriving. Most prominent amongst them is that, with the hugely important exception of Ron White, the laughs were desperate as all get out, relying on catchphrases and repetitive hooks that recalled cheesy sitcom humor than anything like observation or insight into the life of people who capital-w Work for a Living. John Oliver, a British comedian who graduated from freaking Oxford, has shown more interest in the livelihood of those who are barely scraping by than Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, or, heaven help me, Larry the Cable Guy ever did. White’s “coupins” line even edges towards something more hokey than actually relatable, but his delivery is so distinct, so seemingly careless yet effective that he’s been able to overcome.


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In Mike Judge‘s classic Office Space, Diedrich Bader supplies a heartfelt yet deeply comical glimpse at the lifestyle of blue-collar workers as a construction worker who is neighbors with Ron Livingston‘s protagonist, Peter Gibbons. Bader’s character, Lawrence, embodies much of what the members of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour were attempting to get across in far more convoluted and outwardly false ways. He wanted little more than to come home and drink beers until he passed out, and despite having a clear issue with boundaries and being generally pretty obnoxious, proved to be pretty endearing to both viewers and to Peter. His interest in watching an infomercial about checking one’s self for breast cancer in the interest of catching some female nudity said more about the otherness of the blue-collar, lower-middle class in relation to white collar society than any single joke that Larry the Cable Guy has ever made in his life.

The tension between blue collar and white collar has been at the heart of Judge’s comedy for quite some time, and it’s as much about the pull between the seemingly civil and faux-sophisticated as compared to the jovially crass and shallowly self-certain as it is about where people work. What Judge has never done is given either side a leg-up on the other, refusing to suggest that either group is better or more honest or more essentially American than the other. A character like Lawrence may be more straight-forward than Peter, who expresses his dislike for his job and the company that employs him, Initech, by stealing money from them via the infamous Superman III trick, but that’s not a sign of his moral or societal superiority in Judge’s script. Even as he’s become more fascinated by, and openly critical of white collar work and the tech boom, the multi-hyphenate has remained on an even-keel when it comes to commenting on the morality of his characters.


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In the season three premiere of Silicon Valley, Judge’s exceptional HBO comedy, and arguably his magnum opus, Thomas Middleditch‘s Richard, the inventor of the revolutionary data-compression system known as Pied Piper, is forced out of his role as CEO, which makes him nearly quit the business altogether. He’s on the brink of moving over to another company, which is producing an app that lets you add “realistic” mustaches onto video chat sessions and images, when the new CEO of Pied Piper, played by the great Stephen Tobolowsky, asks to speak with him. After a short conversation, Richard is seduced back by Tobolowsky’s Jack Barker, a “hitter” behind a number of billion-dollar evaluated companies, and Judge makes this enticement feel convincing and legitimate in every possible way.

For Richard, it’s a moment of letting his pride go, and thinking of the company and his colleagues before himself, and it turns out to absolutely be the wrong decision. In nearly any other series or film, the act of thinking of the bigger picture would be portrayed as inarguably the best idea, an act to show a distinctly moral brand of humility, but Judge sees the other side of the coin. The terrible risk of compromising one’s vision does, sometimes, end in ruin, humiliation, and a complete perversion of your intentions, and Judge allows that idea to play out. What he doesn’t do is overtly underline that negativity. Barker’s twist on the business model for Pied Piper limits the creativity and liberating action of what Richard saw, but it will also, in effect, make his company immediately invaluable to the corporate world and make him a billionaire overnight.

extract-affleck-batemanIndeed, the good of corporate America is not strictly a cynical bee in society’s bonnet under Judge’s attentive eye, though he remains as critical of corporate overseers as he is of anyone else. Sure, a character like Gary Coleman‘s Lumberg, Peter’s passively manipulative bossman in Office Space, does not offer much of anything humane or even vaguely positive, but in Extract, Judge’s last proper feature, Jason Bateman‘s Joel provides a far more complex vision of the managerial type. Here, Judge openly criticizes the misguided notion of the worker as an immediate symbol of the righteous and pilfered, showing the group of employees at Reynold’s Extracts, a small but lucrative local business looking to go big, as a group of self-indulgent, gossipy, and greedy malcontents. Silicon Valley breakout T.J. Miller appears as a preachy metalhead on the ground floor of the company, who is constantly worried about his free time and material possessions being taken away from him, while the invaluable Beth Grant portrays a line worker who won’t stop offering her empty-headed suppositions.

Joel must contend with these people while also fighting off a lawsuit from his would-be floor manager (Clifton Collins Jr.), after a workplace accident results in him losing a testicle, and a cuckolding wife (Kristen Wiig). Joel is hardly altruistic or the proverbial sharpest knife in the drawer, but his aim is ultimately to do well by his employees and live a decent life with his wife, and through Collins Jr.’s character, Judge also tips his hat to employees who genuinely have interest in growing as employees and moving beyond their station in life.


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Joel is finally not all that different from Hank Hill, the middle-aged protagonist of Judge’s King of the Hill, voiced by Judge himself, who works as the assistant manager of a small propane company in the fictional town of Arlen, Texas. Both characters are denoted by a serious temperament for work that many people would consider silly or even inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, and a love for something you could call the simple life. Both characters see emotional restraint, even repression, as one of the key elements of surviving in the working world, with Hank famously describing how he literally swallows his emotions. In both case of Hank and Joel, Judge openly alludes to the damage that emotional repression can cause – marital strife, infidelity, coldness, etc. – but also suggests that the best employees and employers must practice restraint and patience if they are to ensure longevity in their business and find substance in their day-to-day toil.

In other words, good work requires a little tension. When Richard compromises with Barker, he is doing the right thing, but Barker, as we will find out, is not interested in meeting Richard halfway or relinquishing control in any meaningful way. Without equal word from both sides, and equal indulgence, the world becomes something like what Judge envisions in Idiocracy, wherein the world is overrun by the dump and horny after smart people decide not to have children, or are too self-involved to fully commit to something like marriage. One can even see this in skeletal form in Judge’s breakout hit series Beavis and Butt-head, where the world at large is at once too smart and too dumb for two teenagers with seemingly no parents and an unhealthy addiction to MTV.


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What’s different about Silicon Valley is that a creative enterprise is involved, a business that works off of creativity and a liberated mind, which potently suggests a reflection of Judge’s  own trials and tribulations as an artist. One does not have to have the greatest memory to recall the small hell Judge went through when his distributors, 20th Century Fox, refused to release the film due to its … let’s call it unfavorable view of the American public’s belief in its own exceptionality. It’s not hard to locate the frustration, exhaustion, and disbelief of being a creative person in a creative industry that is ruled over by businessmen and high-level investors who are looking at highest possible profit rather than seeking a healthy one while letting artists utilize and challenge their talents and abilities within Silicon Valley‘s dramatic DNA. As the series begins to hit its stride and find real cohesion in Season 3, there’s an unshakeable feeling of Judge opening up more directly and cuttingly than ever, retaining his skepticism about what the tech boom has given us but remaining hopeful about where all this might lead us eventually.


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