In the new season of HBO’s Silicon Valley, the often hapless Pied Piper CEO Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) testifies before Congress about his company’s plans to build a better internet. When the committee chair asks him a question, Hendricks freezes. He gets up and paces while he speaks into his microphone, which is attached to a box. He misses his chair when he sits down. “He looks like a child in a messy custody hearing,” his colleague Bertram Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) says, watching him on TV. “But, like, you don’t feel sorry for him,” Dinesh Chugtai (Kumail Nanjiani) observes. “You just want him to go away and not have any parents at all.”
HBO says the Washington First Amendment lawyer Marvin Ammori was a “key consultant” on the show’s testimony scene as well as on legal issues. Reached by phone, Ammori clarifies that he usually does not advise people to accidentally pull the bunting off the table when they testify before Congress, as Hendricks does. “I would advise not looking like a deer in the headlights,” he says. “I would recommend not standing and pacing.”
Ammori was a natural pick for Silicon Valley because his work on behalf of issues like net neutrality, both in the policy world and on TV—he consulted on John Oliver‘s famous 2014 segment about the issue, which the Wall Street Journal called “key moment in the net neutrality debate.”
Ammori says he met Silicon Valley co-creator Mike Judge at an event about the decentralized web in San Francisco last year. (In the show’s last two seasons, Hendricks pivoted Pied Piper toward a decentralized new internet that will bring it back toward its anarchic initial promise rather than something at the mercy of large companies.) “The company I work for is pretty similar to Pied Piper,” Ammori says about Protocol Labs, where he is general counsel. He and Judge clicked, and Ammori soon began advising the writers what the characters could expect when they are called before Congress.
The “techlash” has begun in the show as it has in real life. “What they’re trying to do is essentially be part of a conversation about has tech become too big and powerful,” Ammori says. Silicon Valley so accurately lampoons the real-life tech biz, that it can be “painful to watch if you work in the industry,” he says. “What I helped them do was to figure out how to make it as authentic as possible.” That advice didn’t include the slapstick, obviously, but he did identify lots of comic potential, including the silly pomp with which members of Congress address one another and professional line-standers.
Mostly, though, he told them what they could expect in a hearing room: “What you’re trying to mirror on the show is that sense of unpredictability” that comes with tech CEOs unused to being challenged on their “genius,” members who don’t necessarily understand the technology at hand, and how politics is often about avoiding difficult issues and talking about dumb fixes instead—“Instead of talking about immigration,” for instance, he says, “you end up talking about a wall.”
So what advice would he give real-life participants in such hearings? “One of the things when you’re prepping a witness, you kind of want him to be boring enough that none of his answers will become viral,” he says. Ammori cites the testimony Facebook’s head of cryptocurrency David Marcus gave before Congress this summer as a success of sorts: “He wouldn’t say yes or no, he would give the same answer over and over, which left it to the Congress members to try to figure out.” Though, he notes, “If you put that in front of America on HBO, it would be really boring.”
Silicon Valley’s sixth season debuts on HBO on Sunday, October 27.