‘Silicon Valley’s’ Humor Is Smart, and Assumes Its Viewers Are Too

Unlike the other "geek-themed" series, The Big Bang Theory, Silicon Valley finds its humor in its geeky characters, rather than at their expense.

The Big Bang Theory was a major disappointment.

The preceding sentence sounds like the lamentation of some nihilist, bemoaning the existence of the Universe and the entirety of life up to this point in time. Yet the same words are often uttered by members from an ill-defined group of geeks, nerds and eggheads when asked, “What did you think of that sitcom — you know, the one with the geeky physicist Sheldon Cooper and his similarly socially awkward scientist mates?”

CBS’s hit television show, The Big Bang Theory, which is currently in its ninth season, follows the lives of five (originally, at least) main characters, three of whom possess PhDs in physics. The other two include an aerospace engineer and an attractive, blonde waitress trying to break into acting. This last protagonist (called Penny) excepted, the show is patently about the lives of intelligent, introverted, and otherwise archetypal nerds.

Given this aim to humorously portray the geek archetype then, the show ought to appeal to viewers who are geeks in real life — real, corporeal geeks with their own obsessive interests and high educational attainment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. Alas, this is where the authentic geek becomes disappointed. The Big Bang Theory may be a show about geeks, but it certainly isn’t a show for geeks.

For a start, the humour is asinine and overly contrived. Too many of the show’s laughs are contingent upon the random interjection of a scientific term or stereotyped nerd reference (e.g., Star Trek or Dungeons and Dragons) at inopportune moments in conversation. And in case such “jocular” phrases fail to elicit a real laugh from the viewer, you can be rest assured there will soon be canned laughter to fill the otherwise silent void. Unlike Arrested Development or Futurama, the script is largely devoid of wit, with the jokes requiring very little knowledge or cerebration on behalf of the viewer, an activity upon which many geeks pride themselves.

It’s not just the dialogue that grates. The characters in The Big Bang Theory seem caricaturised to the point where they become mono-faceted. It’s almost as if the main cast can be reduced to different compositions of the following adjectives: Aspergic, Semitic, sexually naive, Indian. The effect of this is to produce characters that are no longer relatable, especially to the protean, real geeks with their diverse experiences of geekdom.

Comedy for the veridical geek

Thank heavens then, for Silicon Valley, a HBO comedy series following the trials and tribulations of a group of Californian programmers in a start-up called Pied Piper. Pied Piper has created a revolutionary new data algorithm that can achieve “lossless compression”. Put more simply, their programming can make media files smaller without compromising their quality. Such an algorithm has the potential to “make the world a better place“, from facilitating high-quality video streaming, to softening the growing demand for data storage space. In fact, Pied Piper’s algorithm is so good it can reach a Weissman score of 2.89. Make sense?

If not, don’t worry. Firstly, the “Weissman score” is a fictional metric created by the show’s writers. Secondly, you don’t actually require a deep understanding of “lossless compression” or other computing jargon in order to appreciate the bulk of geek-oriented humour in Silicon Valley. Rather, to generate its laughs, the show relies on clever wordplay, relatable characters, and the calculated use of scientific/technological knowledge in ways befitting of real geeks. And that’s why it’s infinitely preferable to The Big Bang Theory.

In contrast to the latter, Silicon Valley’s wordplay puts the cognitive burden on the viewer, thereby pulling the real geek’s favourite strings. Consider season two, episode four. wealthy investor Russ Hanneman (Chris Diamantopoulos) is boasting to Pied Piper founder and main protagonist Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) about being a billionaire. As Russ intimates, a billion dollars can be written as $1,000,000,000: a numerical conformation that requires the use of three commas. To be a billionaire then, is to be part of the exclusive “three comma club”. Thus, when Russ rhetorically asks: “You know what has three commas in it, Richard?”, and Richard Hendricks naively replies,”A sentence with two appositive phrases in it?”, the authentically nerdy viewer cannot help but laugh at a deftly placed linguistics joke.

According to the late essayist David Foster Wallace, jokes

depend on what communication theorists call “exformation”, which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient.

Perhaps it’s this same process of exformation, leaving the viewer to fill the gaps and work out the jokes for himself, that makes the humour in Silicon Valley so enjoyable for geeks.

Augmenting this, when viewers have identified a joke, they aren’t greeted with the patronisingly celebratory klaxon of canned laughter. You’re not waterboarded into finding something funny. As with jokes in Futurama, the writers have not underestimated the intelligence of their audience. You can either take it (and laugh at it) or leave it. Or, as is often the case, you can remember a humorous quote, Google it, and then laugh at it in retrospect — something which real geeks are prone to do. It’s this same retroactive laughter and post hoc understanding of niche references that partly makes old episodes of The Simpsons so great: a funny-sounding phrase from Lisa Simpson may later reveal itself to be a reference to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks or something.

Relatable geeks

Despite their differences in humour style, it cannot be denied that Silicon Valley and The Big Bang Theory are both shows about geeks. Of course, the word “geek” is largely subjective: historically pejorative, but more recently a term of reverence. With regards to the former, many definitions of the word “geek”(and also the subtly different term “nerd”) seem to be tied up with the notion of social ineptitude.

Geeks don’t easily get girlfriends. Geeks are not social butterflies. The Simpsons’ Professor Frink is socially inept, while The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) is clearly far from being some socially savvy Lothario. Whatever the reality of this largely negative “socially inept-geek” stereotype, the truth is that we all, geek or non-geek, suffer from social awkwardness at times. It’s by virtue of this universal socially awkward experience that we can relate to geeky characters on television: George Michael (Michael Cera) in Arrested Development, Will McKenzie (Simon Bird) from The Inbetweeners and, now, Richard Hendricks in Silicon Valley.

It may even be this very Achilles’ heel of social ineptitude that gives geeky shows license to use intellectual and technical humour without coming across as elitist or condescending. Moreover, such vulnerability makes geek protagonists endearing to the viewer. Geeks are socially challenged, but innocuous and therefore likeable.

This is certainly the case with Richard Hendricks. A certain anxiety imbues Hendricks’ mannerisms; he only makes fleeting eye contact, sweats profusely and countless “um”s and “aah”s populate his sentences. It’s redolent of Hugh Grant with his nervous, almost staccato speech in Four Weddings and a Funeral. The result of this anxiousness is to make Hendricks, like the aforementioned Grant, endearingly awkward to the viewer. Yet, while his character lacks social nous, such a deficit is not caricaturised in extremis into something pathological like an autistic spectrum disorder (cf. The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper). In Silicon Valley, Richard Hendricks is someone we can both like and relate to.

If you’re a geek, this resonance with Hendricks (as well as his co-workers at Pied Piper) becomes heightened, and not purely because of an uncomfortable familiarity with their social awkwardness. What separates Silicon Valley from The Big Bang Theory is that the former’s characters behave like authentic geeks. They’re realistic. The characters deploy their scientific knowledge, obsessive interests, and analytical minds not at random, but with a humorous canniness. Consider the following exchange between Pied Piper member Erlich Bachman (T. J. Miller) and Richard Hendricks:

Erlich: You need to completely change who you are, Richard. A complete teutonic shift has to happen.

Richard: Tectonic.

Erlich: What?

Richard: A “tectonic” shift is the earth’s crust moving around. “Teutonic”, which is what you just said, is an ancient Germanic tribe that fought the Romans. They were originally from Scandinavia…

Erlich: Stop it!

A normal person might have merely said “tectonic”, whereas the nerdy Hendricks feels compelled to enter a lengthier discourse on the geographical provenance of the Teutons. This type of naïve intellectual doggedness is hilarious to the real geek viewer. It feels familiar. Even Erlich, perhaps one of the less “geeky” members of Pied Piper, gets in on the act with his knowledge of neonatal cardiology (or atrial and ventricular septal defects, to be nerdily precise about matters): “But there’s always been a hole in my heart. Not a literal hole like you would find in some babies with congenital diseases, but a metaphorical hole”.

Perhaps the best example of such canny deployment of STEM knowledge is the season one finale. With their luck down at a technology conference/competition, Erlich makes a dismissive comment about “personally jerk(ing) off every guy in the audience” in order to win. To most, this would be some puerile counterfactual thought, not worthy of any further deliberation. Yet, given some further variables, such as the amount of people in the audience, the amount of time available, and the amount of hands Erlich possesses, this absurd thought soon becomes a solvable mathematical problem: namely, how does one most efficiently give hand-jobs to 800 men in 10 minutes?

What ensues is an in-depth group discussion of the best engineering solution to this phallic problem. Yes, it’s a dick joke. But it’s a dick joke revelling in geeky over-analysis and riddled with mathematical allusions to “mean-jerk-time” and “complimentary shaft angle” — factors that are actually apposite in the real world. And this real world is inhabited by real geeks who can appreciate, if not understand, applied mathematics; they can envisage themselves partaking in a similarly elaborate dick joke.

Silicon Valley is thus not only a show about geeks, but, crucially, a show written for geeks.

Season three of Silicon Valley is scheduled to air in Spring 2016.

Haran Sivapalan is a popular-science writer and stand-up comedian (under the stage name ‘Haran X’) based in London, UK. He has written chapters in the book House M.D and Psychology, which was part of Blackwell’s Philosophy and Pop Culture Series.