Guest of Honor

Thomas Middleditch Shows Off His Nerd Range

The "Silicon Valley" star laments the commercialization of nerd culture, shares a few aviation investment tips, and fondly recalls his time with a cruise ship improv group.

Photo Credit: Koury Angelo

Improviser, actor, and all-around funny fellow Thomas Middleditch has earned an Emmy nomination for playing Richard Hendricks, the hero of the HBO comedy series “Silicon Valley.” The character is a shy computer genius who invents the greatest data compressor ever… but in the weird, cutthroat world of Silicon Valley can’t quite seem to earn the billions he deserves for it.

The show launches its fourth season on April 23. When Rico up with Thomas to talk about the series and about all things nerdy, things got off to an interesting start.


Rico Gagliano: And it is a pleasure to have you, sir.

Thomas Middleditch: It is a dis-pleasure to be here.

Rico Gagliano: That’s terrible of you to say!

Thomas Middleditch: I like to come in super-aggro.

Rico Gagliano: That’s great. OK, fine. Interview’s over!

Thomas Middleditch: OK. I rescind my previous statements and say it is a total bummer to be here.

Rico Gagliano: What?

Thomas Middleditch: [In a silly voice] We’re doing bits, man [laughs]. We can’t stop doing these jokes!

Rico Gagliano: How do I pivot from this into my actual questions now?

Thomas Middleditch: I don’t know, with a solid, “Hey, here’s the first question.”

Rico Gagliano: Here we go.

Thomas Middleditch: Hey-oh! Aren’t we going to do that sound effect? [Makes air horn noises, then distorts his tone.] “First question.”

Rico Gagliano: It’s going to suddenly sound like Top 40.

Thomas Middleditch: Yeah. Isn’t that what NPR has to do now in order to stay afloat? More airhorn?

Rico Gagliano: Here we go. It’s fun. You’ve really come to be identified with this character of Richard. How much is he like you?

Thomas Middleditch: Well, I — ugh I’m going to say something very cliché that most actors say about this kind of thing — there’s probably an element of me in just about any character I’ve ever played and will ever play, including when I finally play…

Rico Gagliano: Hamlet?

Thomas Middleditch: Hamlet, a serial killer version of Hamlet, set in [imitates cockney accent] 1980s London. “Oy, I’m Hamlet,” you know? “Tosser!” You know?

Rico Gagliano: I hope that’s not true. I hope you’re not a depressed maniac if that’s what you’re saying.

Thomas Middleditch: Well, there are many sides to every coin. Actually, there’s only two. Well, there’s three, technically, with the edge.

I’m hopefully not identically like Richard. I think that would be a very socially crippling way to live. But, yeah, I’ve had my experience with nerdiness and that type that is a programmer-type. I’ve been to and hosted many a LAN party — Local Area Network party.

Kumail Nanjiani, Thomas Middleditch, Martin Starr, Zach Woods in a scene from "Silicon Valley." (Photo Credit: John P. Johnson)
Kumail Nanjiani, Thomas Middleditch, Martin Starr, Zach Woods in a scene from “Silicon Valley.” (Photo Credit: John P. Johnson)

Rico Gagliano: That’s when you get a bunch of people together and you play games over a little network you create.

Thomas Middleditch: Yeah, you physically connect your computers together.

Rico Gagliano: It’s a little sexy. It’s a little sublimated sexuality.

Thomas Middleditch: Ooh, yeah. If you’re thinking there weren’t any girls at those things, you’d be 100 percent correct, sir!

Rico Gagliano: And you were also kind of a D&D [Dungeons & Dragons] player, I think, in your youth?

Thomas Middleditch: Oh, yeah. The Venn diagram is almost a complete circle of my nerdiness.

Rico Gagliano: I did want to ask you, actually, what character did you play in Dungeons & Dragons? For those who don’t know, the role-playing game set in a fantasy world of dragons and dungeons.

Thomas Middleditch: Yes, it’s true. if there’s a role-playing game and it’s set in a fantasy world, I tell you, I usually get those wizard types.

Rico Gagliano: You were a wizard? Really?

Thomas Middleditch: Give me some magic and some spells.

Rico Gagliano: But, see, looking at you, I would go, “Yeah, there’s a wizard type.” You’re a slender man. You’re a bright and intelligent man.

Thomas Middleditch: I fit the profile of a wizard?

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, that’s what I would think.

Thomas Middleditch: You’re sure not a bard?

Rico Gagliano: Maybe, but I would think that maybe you would have been like me when I was a slender, brilliant, young man. I would always want to be the fighter.

Thomas Middleditch: Well, I tell you, to ping your pong just there. A common question is, “What were your favorite comedic influences growing up?” And it’s not as if I don’t have them. I do. “Monty Python,” “Kids in the Hall,” “Mr. Show,” all that kind of stuff, right?

But when I was a boy, my favorite things were action movies: Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren. Anyone who was muscly and at the end of the movie, they’d throw down their guns and be like, “Let’s just fight with our fists!” And they’d smash each other. That is what I coveted most of all.

Rico Gagliano: All of this stuff is cool now: being into Dungeons & Dragons. Being into coding. Being into popular culture, even, in this way, is now mainstream. Do you miss the time when it was a subculture? A real subculture?

Thomas Middleditch: Oh, man. You’re talking to the right guy about that, about the… yeah. Or maybe the wrong guy because I might get too angry.

Rico Gagliano: How so?

Thomas Middleditch: Well, I mean, not that I enjoyed being part of this loser club that it was like, “Oh, you have to be ultimately uncool to be a part of this!”

But I think what’s happened is that larger entities — whatever, studios — they’ve realized that you can make a ton of money off of it. And so, I’m relatively new to Comic-Con, I never really went there, but I’ve been going for the past few years. And it’s essentially people lining up to watch promotional material. And that rabid fandom that just says to anyone peddling their wares, like, “I’ll buy it as long as it’s in the wheelhouse” I think kind of dilutes it a way.

I’ve also experienced a pretty negative aspect of this nerd culture. It’s like, “Now we’re on top, and we don’t have to take any more crap anymore! And, in fact, if you’re not on board, we’re going to get pretty angry with you.” And it’s just sort of like, “Did we learn nothing?”

Thomas Middleditch in a scene from "Silicon Valley" (Photo Credit: John P. Johnson)
Thomas Middleditch in a scene from “Silicon Valley” (Photo Credit: John P. Johnson)

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, we were beaten up all the time. Now we have to beat up? That’s not cool.

Thomas Middleditch: Yeah. Did we learn nothing? It just reminds me that we’re all human. It’s not like nerds are this special sensitive breed. We’re just human beings that like a different thing, but in the end, we’re just dark little chimps with suits on dragging our butts along the ground and throwing banana peels at everybody.

Rico Gagliano: In a way, that’s kind of what the show is about, right?

Thomas Middleditch: [Laughs.] Is it? About being chimps?

Rico Gagliano: No, not about the chimp part. But the idea that these are these awkward, anti-social guys in a lot of ways, but they just happen to be around at a point where they could become the owners of the world. They could become billionaires.

Thomas Middleditch: True. I think now, having encountered a lot of these people — the super bright programmer types — what I’ve noticed is that they’ve kind of got this burden of intelligence that they have to deal with. I mean, they are hyper-smart, and I think it comes, potentially, at a price with sociability. But also, if you had to carry on a conversation with an ant all day… it’s tiring, I think.

Rico Gagliano: Everybody is, on some level, a cut, intellectually, beneath them.

Thomas Middleditch: Yeah, and I don’t even think they approach those situations with a lot of judgment. I have conversations with them, and they’re not like, “Ugh, what a dummy.” It’s just, they’re racing at 300 miles an hour and I’m at 80 and totally comfortable with being at a speed limit.

Rico Gagliano: I know that they spend a lot of time on the set of your show, trying to get the math right. There’s a guy from Stanford that apparently checks all the equations.

Have you actually processed any of this stuff and become smarter? Can you code much better now than you did when you started the show?

Thomas Middleditch: I have no need to make any more websites, thankfully. What’s even more interesting and what I actually have a higher degree of interest in is the investor side of it all.

Rico Gagliano: The business side?

Thomas Middleditch: Well, yeah. It’s like, you get a little bit of pocket change by being on a TV show, and now you’re like, “Well, I’ve got to go do something with it!” But this is kind of unique in that, through the show, I’ve got direct access to Silicon Valley and various VCs, and funds, and angel investors, and all kinds of stuff.

Rico Gagliano: Are you actually getting advice on investing?

Thomas Middleditch: Well, here and there. I mean, it’s a steep learning curve, but it’s been interesting.

Rico Gagliano: What kind of things are you interested in investing in?

Thomas Middleditch: Well, one was aviation, just because I’ve always been a big flight nerd, [whispers] and I’ve got my pilot’s license.

Rico Gagliano: Really?

Thomas Middleditch: You know, I think there’s room for innovation in general aviation and then also commercial aviation. Boom, a supersonic startup that’s kind of like the Concorde 2.0 that just got funded and is taking off. You see my point?

Rico Gagliano: Oh, my gosh!

Thomas Middleditch: And there’s another company called Wright Electric who are trying to short-haul commercial flights with a completely electric drivetrain, powertrain, power plant.

Rico Gagliano: OK, sure. I’m in radio, but I’m kind of like an ant right now to you, aren’t I? I feel like an ant.

Thomas Middleditch: Buddy I want to squash.

Rico Gagliano: But listen, we have a question we ask everyone on this show. You’ve kind of already answered it, but I’ll pose it to you anyway. Tell us something we don’t know, which could be about anything, a piece of trivia.

Thomas Middleditch: Well, I already told you I’m investing. I worked, at one point — here’s a fun fact — I worked as an entertainer with Second City on a cruise line. Norwegian Cruise Lines has a deal with Second City where if you go on some of their main stage shifts, you’ll see Second silly… Second Sillies Comedy Show Revue!

And at one point, I was a player on there. I think this is more… It’s not necessarily my favorite memory because that’s probably for a podcast and not public radio, you know what I’m saying? But one thing I thought was kind of funny and very indicative of me.

So, for the first half of the cruise ship, we ported out of New York City and went to Bahamas, Bermuda, Norwegian Cruise Lines’ private island.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, my God.

Thomas Middleditch: It sounds nice, but it was kind of like, you know those Sunday cartoons where it’s just a mound of sand with a coconut tree on there? It was that, plus a bar.

So, that was kind of a summer vacation vibe, and since it was porting out of New York, we got a lot of Jersey/Bronx/Queens folk. And they’re all very nice, and you were anonymous until you did the show, and then they’d recognize you and they’d be like [imitates Jersey accent], “Oh, Second City! let me buy you a shot! Unbelievable, this guy. When’s he going to be on ‘SNL’? Unbelievable! What do you want? What do you want? What do you want?”

It was that and very debaucherous. It was pretty wild.

Cut to, halfway through, we switch up the cruise. It’s the fall tour to watch the leaves change, and we go up to Bar Harbor, Newfoundland, Quebec City and stuff, and most people are retirees. They played Andrews Sisters on the PA [imitates a boogie-woogie era trumpet notes]. I mean, it was a totally different thing. And I like the second one more because I was like, “The scenery! Oh, God, if you haven’t been…”

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, and it feels classy. The Andrews Sisters makes anything classy.

Thomas Middleditch: It was a longer tour, too, so you just really get to soak it in.

Rico Gagliano: I thought what you were going to say was, “And they change it, and it’s fall, and it’s mostly retirees, and they’re like, ‘Hey, look at this guy! Come over here. I’m going to buy you a shot!'”

Thomas Middleditch: It’s just a bunch of older…

Rico Gagliano: Just exactly the same.

Thomas Middleditch: Yeah, it’s just all background from the movie “Casino.”