"Silicon Valley" star blasts tech’s women problem: "What kind of culture do we bring these men up in?"

We spoke to T.J. Miller about iconoclast-to-be Erlich Bachman, awful tech billionaires and sexism in Silicon Valley

By Anna Silman
April 24, 2015 8:20PM (UTC)
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T.J. Miller in "Silicon Valley" (HBO/Frank Masi)

T.J. Miller’s swaggering, mutton-chop sporting entrepreneur Erlich Bachman is “Silicon Valley”’s resident Steve Jobs-wannabe. The biggest personality of the group, Erlich is a hustler, an agitator and a born leader, who has no qualms about doing what it takes to get to the top — including laying his scrotum on the table at a venture capital meeting. Or, as Miller puts it, he’s “the only one with balls in the group.”

We chatted with the established actor, improviser and stand-up comic — who was recently cast in “Transformers 4” and the new “Deadpool” franchise — about the show’s second season, Erlich’s ambition and the show's oft-criticized gender imbalance.

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Miller — who has showed his disdain for the tech world before, famously offending half the industry during an incendiary “Crunchies” hosting gig — feels that problems like the lack of women in the "Silicon Valley" portrayed on TV spring not from the show itself, but from the industry it satirizes. As he tells me: "These billionaires think they're impervious to any sort of criticism or that they should be revered as some sort of deity that is infallible — and the people that they are associated with kind of are above the law. That’s the point of the show -- we’re trying to show those people that they are not."

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

I saw that your costar Kumail Nanjiani says that a lot of the fans yell dirty things at him in public places. Is that something that happens to you as well?

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Oh yeah. What I get especially is, “how long would it take you to jerk off all the guys in this room?” or “what’s your D to F, how far away is the floor from your dick?” It’s often guys that are with their wives, middle age guys — not teenagers or twenty-somethings. It’s pretty much everybody. After a stand-up performance, if I take pictures afterwards, everybody thinks that they’re the first ones to say it and I hear it like twenty times: "Thanks for the show it was really funny, by the way, just wanted to add, how long did it take you to jack off every guy in this room? [laughs]. Just kidding, we got to get home to our kid."

Do you have a lot of fans in the tech world?

Yeah, I’ve made some real friends in Silicon Valley. The guys from Dropbox, Drew Houston and I are pretty friendly, and this girl who works at Facebook compression. That’s been really interesting. For the first part, people who have done start-ups or are in start-ups always say the same thing, which is that the show’s really true to life. It's really cute because everyone starts saying: just to let you know, you guys are really on target, you’re really getting it. And that’s crazy because, that’s what we need to do. Effective satire has to be almost identical to the subject that it is skewering. It can be hyperbolic, which ours is, but the archetypes [are real]. A lot of people say to me, “In my start-up, I’m you!” “So you’re an abrasive drug-user, an intellectual, but abuses that to his own advantage?” “Yeah, I’m you, I’m high right now!”

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When you were building that character, how much of it was on the page and how much of it is based on your personality?

What was on the page was this guy who owned an incubator, had an inflated sense of self-importance, and really felt honestly and bluntly that to get what you need in life, you’ve got to take it, and some eggs are going to be broken. And always talking about his start-up, and all that stuff. And he smoked weed. But I think for the most part, actually the character that he became kind of a hyperbolic version of myself.

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Zach Woods and I were taking a four-hour walk, as we are wont to do, and he brought something up through the course of that that I thought was interesting. This is only something Zach Woods would say, as we’re kind of mulling over existential crises versus, like, work ennui, and like that. He said: “Do you think we could name him Erlich Bachman because he’s sort of this Bacchanalian type of man?” And I said no, I never thought that before. And that I bet it’s just a name that cleared, and sounded funny. But there is a parallel between Erlich and I, in that he’s sort of this very seize-the-day [kind of guy], and he’ll tell someone what’s on his mind, even if it will come across as abrasive. He’s intellectual, but he can be dirty or sophomoric when it’s called for. And then he kind of has the balls, the only one with balls in the group. Guilfoyle has conviction, but Erlich is the only one that can get them into the club, get on stage, all that kind of stuff.

Well yeah, he literally puts his balls on a conference table.

Yeah, he put his balls on the table. But he could see that was maybe not the best approach. I think in his mind — I don’t know quite how much Richard has gotten to this point yet — but Erlich is in pursuit of becoming an iconoclast. He wants to be an icon. And that’s really important. I think that’s what people really identify with on “Silicon Valley,” that their main objective is becoming iconic.

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Right, the sort of Steve Jobs-ian ego thing.

Yeah. We have these archetypes now, quite a few, that are icons that change culture. And there’s never been anyone before them who’s done what they’ve done. And Erlich really believes that he has that potential in him, and in a way he does. It's dissimilar, but it’s somewhat like [what Hooli CEO] Gavin Belson [has].

We begin to realize that Erlich has a very particular skill set, [not unlike what "House of Cards" protagonist] Francis Underwood used to get to the White House. And Erlich will do whatever it takes and kick anyone out of the way that he needs to get there. But then you also see that he admires Richard’s innovation, and respects Richard’s desire to do something on his own. He’s not just in the Pied Piper crew because it’s riding the coattails to success, he believes that he’s as smart as anybody, that he incubated it.

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And also, those are his friends. There’s plenty of speculation as to who else these guys are hanging out with, and I think ultimately it's only themselves. I think Erlich has friends and goes out and drinks and chases women and things like that. But also, these are his co-workers, and friends, even if they don’t like him. Which is the real show.

I get the sense that there’s a real camaraderie between you guys when you’re not shooting.

Yeah, that’s for sure. That’s the luckiest thing about the show. I’ve known Thomas [Middleditch] for over ten years. I’ve known Kumail for over ten years, through the stand-up scene in Chicago. And Zach I knew through UCB and improvisation, because I'm also an improviser. And then Martin [Starr] and I have had friends in common for a long time, like Jay Baruchel and Lizzy Caplan. We’re all friends and there’s very little jealousy or frustration.

Actually Zach and I, on that walk, we were talking about how lucky it is because we are all funny, just in general. They really have purposefully shuffled people around, and as you'll see over the course of an episode, they re-cast somebody and they're trying to make sure that everyone that surrounds us is very very funny and a good improviser and that just couldn’t always be the case. But among the five of us...I think Zach Woods and Thomas Middleditch are probably the two best improvisers alive right now, including everybody, including Amy Poehler and all those people. They’re so quick and so unique. And then Martin Starr is the dead-pan comedian of our generation and Zack Woods is just a Proustian savant, this novel-consuming, lightning-quick, weird, soft-spoken, tender-hearted, neurotic, bizarre — he gives mind to something that’s really interesting to delve into.

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I wanted to ask about some of the criticism the show faced in the first season about the lack of women on the show. I know that there has been an attempt to balance that this season with the introduction of the Laurie character. Do you think that these criticisms are fair?

It’s ridiculous. We’re trying to reflect Silicon Valley to the rest of the world accurately, and [in] making fun of it, obviously we had to take some liberties through comedy. But I thought it was so interesting that people attacked the show for not having enough women, instead of attacking Silicon Valley for not having enough women. We’re doing the same thing. We’re on the audience’s side. We’re on the side of the people who should be examining Silicon Valley and why there aren’t so many women, why it’s not very diverse. Should that be something we talk about? Yeah, apparently! [The show] is an easy target, instead of looking at themselves, looking inward.

And there’s so many journalists in general, and quite a few female journalists, that will say “You gotta show women in these parts.” And I get that, if it’s an original story — which there aren’t anymore in the film industry, as I’m beginning to find out, since I just joined the fourth installment of “Transformers” and the “Deadpool” franchise. But when there is an original story and there’s not any women, that’s not a real reflection of life. Half of the people involved in everyday life are women.

But in “Silicon Valley,” that’s purposeful. We’re trying to say isn’t it strange — and what kind of culture do we bring these men up in, where they literally not only have awkward interactions with girls, and computers are their best friend, but they don’t have any women to interact with? So that creates a very strange schism in that culture, where you got these guys who want to work with and be with women, but are not facilitating that.

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I was surprised no one said, well, it’s a really accurate representation. They just said: “Why don’t you just stick more women in there?” That’s really the grossest thing. To to be like, “put some fucking women in there! Who cares, just get some women. We need a couple more women objects in the thing. Go grab some women props, put them in the show.” That’s the weird thing for me, it’s like: Why not wait? And what has happened in this season is we’ve responded to that, but in a way that is reflective of how a woman would come into the fold in that world. Suzanne Cryer, who plays Laurie, is fantastic, totally an energy that you feel like would work well with Peter Gregory, and also so unique in what is uncomfortable about her. And not to give anything away, but there will be more female characters in the show.


Anna Silman

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