When HBO's Silicon Valley first premiered in 2014, the hyper-anxious mannerisms of the show's tech savant hero, Richard Hendricks, as played by Thomas Middleditch, made him unlike any other lead protagonist of any other show on television. In Silicon Valley speak, Middleditch disrupted the TV nerd archetype, and got an Emmy nomination in 2016 to show for it (fans would argue he was snubbed this time around). Of course, he had a lot of help with a stacked ensemble cast of funny people: Kumail Nanjiani, who has become a indie film darling with The Big Sick; the genius improviser Zach Woods; the master of disgust Martin Starr; and the larger-than-any-scene chaos of T.J. Miller, who departed the show recently. It's no wonder that Silicon Valley, which might be laugh-for-laugh the funniest show on TV, is up for an Emmy this Sunday. Here, in an interview with Lynn Hirschberg, Middleditch reflects on how he got to be a comedic leading man.
Were you always funny?
I wasn't necessarily always funny, I don't know if I necessarily am—some would argue not—but I was definitely, always been a strange one. Definitely always an odd duck. [Laughter.] And there was some point where the odd duck got capitalized on in more commercial endeavors and such.
How did your odd duck-ness manifest itself when you were younger?
Well, I was just a bit of a loner as a young boy. And very, very sensitive. Ever the emotional young thing. And you know kids are often quite cruel and will exploit that for their own masochistic gain. So yeah, I was a little bit of a loner and got teased a bunch; an eighth grade drama teacher by the name of Ken Wilson put me in a play, and it was this lead part. Turns out our whole school and community had these huge drama festivals and play competitions and I got really involved in community theater, and then I became the class clown and within a year all the kids who were making fun of me were now my allies.
And did you love it the minute you stepped on stage?
Actually yeah, I have a very profound moment of that. It was the first time we were performing it for the actual festival, I came up with this bit where I sort of popped out from the side, it was kind of a bit that middle schoolers would like: see the audience, like, "Whoa," get scared and dart back in. And you know they're a supportive group of seventh graders to 12th graders, and they go absolutely nuts. And I remember thinking like, 'Wow you hear that, that's approval.' And I love this relationship where I can do that one thing to elicit that response and from then on I was like if I just put my weirdness on stage, now instead of you just being a weird guy in the corner of the classroom, you're the weird guy that everyone has to pay attention to and hopefully will like.
That's sophisticated, that you were able to see it so objectively.
I'm sure it wasn't as articulate and my eighth grade mind. I'm sure in my eight grade mind it was like, 'Wow. maybe someone will kiss me. [Laughter.] As I said, all the cool guys were my friends by the end of that year. I had made out with my first girl at a movie, Tin Cup, starring at Kevin Costner and Rene Russo. Things were really looking up for me. And by 12th grade I was valedictorian, and it wasn't based on grades; it was just a vote. No, I was just the coolest kid in school.
This is an inspirational story for thespians everywhere.
Yeah, eat it Zuckerberg. What does he have to do with this? [Laughs.]
So did you go to college or did you immediately think, 'I'll go to L.A. and ply my trade'?
In a small town in Canada you ask your guidance counselor, and he says, "Oh, I don't know, I guess you go to college and get your degree, eh?" And so you're like, "Okay sure." [Laughter.] I took a year off because my parents are intrepid travelers and they encourage seeing the world. I went to Australia, Thailand, was an 18-year-old kid causing a ruckus. Went and came back a virgin. [Laughter.] And then, yeah, went to the University of Victoria and their theater program. I sort of felt like it wasn't enough, wasn't conservatory enough, and also after you know, seven or eight years of doing theatre, became a little disillusioned with it. So I went to Toronto to enroll in a more hoity toity theater program, and the summer before being accepted and starting I met all these kids doing comedy, and I was like, 'Oh you can just go do it? Okay well screw college.'
So you moved to Toronto?
Yeah, did a tour of Toronto, did really weird sketch and improv there. I'm a young 20-something, hungry, nothing's happening quick enough. After being denied acceptance into Second City in Toronto, I was like, 'Okay, here's what I'll do. I'll try Second City in Chicago. If I get accepted probably take me a year to revolutionize comedy, and then I'll be on Second City mainstage, and then after that I'll be on SNL. Not all those things happened according to plan.
Did you audition for SNL?
I did eventually, yeah. It was a few years after my initial plan. And I got pretty close. It tested and it went real well, but I think at the time either I wasn't funny and people made up the excuse that I looked too much like Seth Meyers, or I just look too much like Seth Meyers.
You do look like Seth Meyers.
I don't see it.
Have you been interviewed by Seth Meyers face to face and experienced the Seth Meyers twin syndrome?
Yeah. I don't think it's risky to say that Seth and I are friends. We kind of became friends after that audition. He was championing me. And I've been on his show and stuff, and we've called out the similarities. I just think it looks, we just have two long faces and we have noses and eyes and teeth.
And you're tall and thin.
Tall and handsome. Model bodies. Absolutely hilarious. Insatiably clever.
The sex symbols of America.
So, then you eventually got to L.A.
Yeah. I mean out of Chicago. Then I worked on a cruise ship. Second City has a deal with Norwegian Cruise Lines that on their flagship ships they do sketch comedy, a little bit of improv—you know, just a comedy show.
That must be a very different audience.
Yeah. Some people got like a European audience that did not even get sketch comedy. But actually we got a ship ported out of New York City, and for a good chunk of it we went out to the Bahamas, Bermuda, Norwegian's private islands, which was a mound of sand with a coconut tree on it. And we had working-class Bronx, Jersey, Staten Island folks. And so when we had sketches about girls are good at Pictionary and guys are not good at Pictionary, they were like, "That's amazing, that's my family too. Second City, hey, let me buy you a shot. So f---ing funny, when am I going to see you on SNL? You f---ing prick, I love you baby." We had a great time, very debaucherous that bunch. And then halfway through we went to Boston, Bar Harbor, Newfoundland, and Quebec, and the clientele totally changed and everyone is like 60 and older. Everyone was in bed by 9. It was a total trip, I loved it.
And then I lived in New York. Hoofed it around and did commercial work a lot, and then I moved to L.A.
How did Silicon Valley come about? How did [creator] Mike Judge find you?
How I got involved with Mike Judge is very roundabout, and kind of a great example of how creating your own opportunity will beget a serendipitous outcome of Hollywood. That makes no sense but it does to me. So essentially, I've made a cartoon and pitched this cartoon, and had this little, short little demonstration of a cartoon. I'd illustrated it, did all the little voices and stuff like that. And of the people I pitched to, the people that really liked it were John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, and they are producers who work on a lot of projects with Mike Judge, and Mike liked it. It just so happened that at that time Mike was bringing back Beavis and Butthead to MTV. And so we spend a whole year working on animation, I even did a voice for the new version of Beavis and Butthead. And my show didn't get picked up, we made a whole pilot and stuff, but as that was happening John and Dave and Mike were saying, "Hey, you know we're writing this show for HBO. It's about Silicon Valley, and we think you'd be really great for the lead so we're kind of writing it with you in mind."
And you hear that, you know, with my credits at the time, and you're like, 'Okay sure.' I'll believe that when I see it, which is most likely never. You're telling me you're writing a part for me for an HBO show? That's kind of like my dream, so no way. And sure enough they were serious. So eventually I had to audition for HBO, because you always have to prove yourself and that's fine. But even in the script it wasn't initially Richard Hendricks—my character's name was Thomas Pickering; I told them that my mom's maiden name was Pickering. So they had to sort of change that on set on the first day of shooting.
And all your friends on the show were your friends before they were on the show.
I made most of them. You know Zach [Woods] and Kumail [Nanjiani] I've known for a long time. I've known TJ [Miller] for a long time, too.
Zach and you are phenomenal together.
I love Zach. He is so funny. He and I have been improvising for a very long time. I love improv and I do it, I consider myself somewhat decent at it, but I pale in comparison to his cleverness and wit. He is just so quick. You throw something up and he's got not only a response, but it's like layered, referencing something totally obscure, we'll come back and feed into it. He'll say something that you would have trouble writing. He's very smart. He's terrible to get along with. He's very sexual predatory kind of, it's a little much. [Laughs.] But other than that he's nice.
I like that you guys are so fast together. Most television does not go for the highest common denominator, and I feel like your show tries to be as smart as possible.
And I get two types of compliments, which I both love equally. One: "I love your show, it's so funny. It's like you had a camera there in my life and oh my god that's great." And then two: "I can't watch your show. It reminds me of the traumatic experience that's a startup. It's like you had a camera there, and I can't stand it." And I love that. I think as a nerd, but in a different circle within the Venn diagram. I've seen a lot of TV, film, whatever media portray nerds like Steve Urkel, essentially. But this one just kind of is a little bit more true.
Who did you love on TV when you are a kid?
I didn't watch TV. Probably like Alf or something. No, the shows that I liked outside of trashy reality TV like The Bachelor or Forged in Fire, which is a blacksmith competition on History. Love that show. I know all about the tang and the hidden tang. [Laughter.] It's all about the quench. It really is, guys.
How did you find that show?
I mean, it's so up my alley. They make weapons from history. Ever known to rock a little D&D in my time, and I know military history and swords and I got to Ren Fairs.
You go to Ren Fairs?
What do you go as?
I won't tell you. Even if I go in my costume with a mask, people are like, "Hey bro, can I get a selfie." So it's turning into a walking nightmare. But I really like a show on TBS called Search Party, with Ally Shawkat. Everyone on that show is really, really good. Really good character actually going on. Hats off to TBS of all places, where a few years ago it was just known for Seinfeld reruns. But I hope they still play Seinfeld, I like it. But yeah. I was really impressed with that and I was happy that a show like that could exist on network, because that feels like a cable show.
What TV or movie makes you cry? Since we know what makes you laugh.
Saving Private Ryan does. I'm a military history buff. I know the story is insane. People going behind enemy lines to get a brother, I know, I know. That's dumb. But when Tom Hanks is on the bridge, and he pulls Matt Damon in and he's dying and the war's going on around him... That's a big one for me.
Other than blacksmith work, do you have a secret skill that you would like to share with the viewing public?
Well, I draw. Mainly Dungeons & Dragons characters. But this happened recently, and this is really going to fuel the fire of Hollywood elitist scum, but I got my pilot's license.
Oh cool. Was it fun?
It was great. It was great. It was a challenge, and it's been a very rewarding. It's not that inaccessible. I mean it does cost money, but it's not only for the rich.
And have you jumped out of a plane?
I have once. Not the plane I was flying, thank goodness. No, this was years ago, while shooting a New York Lotto commercial [Laughs.] that involved a guy jumping out of a plane, like Scratch and Win. And at the end of the day they were like, "Hey do you want to go up?" I said, "Heck yeah." It was crazy. If you've never jumped out of a plane, do it. The whole time you do it, your brain is like, 'I shouldn't be up this high.' I shouldn't be free falling at this height. And so it kind of goes into this weird exciting shock. Which is just a real thrill. Don't watch videos of failed jumps though, before. [Laughter.] Save that for after.
What was your favorite birthday? Did it involve a Renaissance Fair?
What was a good birthday? I haven't really had an epic birthday. I'm a bit of a curmudgeon. I don't like Valentine's Day and New Year's and Halloween. If it's all supposed to be special, and you're supposed to have this incredible time with this one day—or Valentine's Day, you're supposed to let this person know you love them, and it's like, What about all the other days? So I'm sort of like, "Bah humbug." I'm a real scrooge. So most of my birthdays have been like, don't do anything. But my 30th birthday we went to Medieval Times which was a great time, because a lot of people showed up and that show is just ridiculous. It's WWF with swords. Or WWE, I'm sorry.
I've never been to Medieval Times.
You've never been to Medieval Times? You go there, you get a plate. If you want to a preview, see the popular Jim Carrey movie, the Matthew Broderick movie, called The Cable Guy. You see this whole show, there's a story going on, they joust, it's totally ridiculous. A lot of telegraphed moves
Is there fake blood?
No. But there is some fake blood at the Renaissance fair, it's why I like it. [Laughter.] Yeah, but you could have a thing of pheasant and mashed potatoes which you eat with your hands. And you're like, "Need more diet soda." It's insane. You root for your knight and your knight will probably lose, but hey you could be like me, I'm three for six. That ain't half bad. Actually, that's exactly half bad, that's 100% half bad.
What do you get if your knight wins?
Pride. Pride, honor, and a good time.