Why Can’t Silicon Valley Take a Joke?

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Laugh, people! It's a joke!Photo: Bravo

This is a momentous week for the denizens of Silicon Valley. Yes, there's an election. But the real action will be on cable TV, with tonight's premiere episode of Start-Ups: Silicon Valley, a reality series about tech start-up culture. It's the sector's first moment in the pop culture spotlight since The Social Network came out two years ago. And, like that movie, the show will expose the hilarious self-seriousness of an industry that has no idea how to laugh at itself.

Start-Ups: Silicon Valley is produced by Mark Zuckerberg's sister Randi. And as with all Bravo reality shows, it is over-the-top flamboyant and contains sexy, half-naked cast members making all manner of moronic pronouncements. Its basic mode is caricature and reductionism — painting the young geniuses of tech as entitled brats who pass their time going to toga parties, searching for million-dollar VC investments, and saying things like, “Geeks are definitely the new rock stars." No one should believe that it accurately portrays Silicon Valley, just as no sane person thinks Snooki and the Sitch are perfect representatives of the New Jersey populace.

But that hasn't stopped "real" Silicon Valley from whining. Since the show was announced last spring, tech types from Coupa Café to the Creamery have been filled with anticipatory outrage at the prospect of their lives getting the reality-TV treatment. “The entire thing is just horrendous,” tech blogger Francisco Dao told me a few weeks ago. Dao, who wrote a screed against the show back in April, has revived his ire for the actual premiere. “The real people in tech are out building companies, doing real work, and along comes this show that is just a terrible misrepresentation of their lives, and it hijacks their work.”

The waah-mbulance didn’t stop there. It kept going to TechCrunch, where editor Alexia Tsotsis tweeted, “The thing that people hate most about that 'Silicon Valley' show is how egregiously it diminishes all our hard work.” Then it stopped by Gizmodo, which called the show’s cast members “failed actors” who “are just stringing together tech buzzwords.” Finally, it parked at Bloomberg Businessweek, where Sam Grobart said that the show's cast of characters was "shallower than a dinner plate."

Oddly, unlike other shows in which a self-aware audience mocks a clueless cast,the cast members of SU:SV themselves who seem to be in on the joke. “We’re in this really self-important bubble, where everyone is telling us how special we are, and how we’re changing the world,” Kim Taylor, the show’s resident bombshell brunette, told me. “I, for one, don’t have a problem laughing at myself.”

Silicon Valley, of course, is far from the only insular subculture to have cried foul when faced with a reality-TV portrayal. Chefs hate Chopped, real estate moguls aren't crazy about Million Dollar Listing, and there are likely more than a few housewives in Orange County who don't see much reality in their reality-TV counterparts.

But none of those populaces share Silicon Valley’s thin skin, or its insistence on its own superiority. This is, after all, a sector in which companies “pivot” and “reiterate” rather than admit failure, in which extreme successes are called world-changers and duds are whispered out of existence. It’s an industry filled with the ministrations of tech evangelists like Jack Dorsey, the Twitter co-founder who, at a conference this summer, told a group of tech entrepreneurs — with a straight face — that their work was comparable to the lives of Gandhi, the Founding Fathers, and the revolutionaries at the Bastille. It’s a world, in other words, that desperately needs to be taken down a peg.

The first episode of SU:SV, which airs tonight, is no magnum opus. I watched an advance pilot screener this week, and while the show's party scenes,  intra-cast feuds, and disastrous VC pitch meetings are occasionally amusing, very little sticks out as inspired or novel. (Grobart was mostly right when he said that watching the pilot “felt like I could be sitting through any Real World episode that ever aired.”)

But novelty isn’t really the right rubric here. Nor is reality. Bravo, as a network, excels at injecting humdrum subcultures with sex and flash, and populating those simulacra with memorable characters that inspire emotional reactions in viewers. Put another way, it's a finely calibrated trolling machine. And more importantly, the shows it produces are caricatures by design — a message the self-serious start-up defenders insisting on verisimilitude haven't quite absorbed.

“Silicon Valley needs to get over itself,” Mark Suster, a venture capitalist and former tech entrepreneur, told me several weeks ago, when I asked if he was dreading the show. "Look, people in Silicon Valley know there are a lot of talented, hard-working engineering folks keeping their heads down and building new technology here. But let’s be honest, there’s a lot of bullshit, too.”