Cracking the Joke Code with Silicon Valley's Production Designer

Richard Toyon's humor is hidden throughout the show.

by Beckett Mufson
01 September 2015, 2:15pm

Peter Gregory's memorial, Season 2, Episode 1. Courtesy HBO

Ah, the sight gag: favorite joke of binge-watchers and internet sleuths whose greatest thrill is combing a sprawling episodic narrative for background jokes to boost their fan cred. Inserting the subtle Post-Its, joke logos, and, in the case of tech start-up satire, Silicon Valley, a chalkboard filled with math equations about masturbation. If it sounds smart, that's because it all falls onto the capable shoulders of all-too-talented production designer Richard Toyon, who has been nominated for Outstanding Production Design For A Narrative Program at this year's Emmys. 

It's Toyon's job to pack as many jokes into a single episode as possible while still portraying a realistic vision of the world the show skewers, so we asked him about how to crack the ideal visual gag, why Reddit is a production designer's best friend, and some of the funniest moments in Silicon Valley.

Do Your Research:

"I get a lot of information from reading a lot of tech rags online. Every year I go to TechCrunch Disrupt and I see what's going on. When you're not working in it day by day, it's hard to stay on top of it, but I think we do a pretty formidable job."

Don't Be Afraid to Generalize:

"When you get to those areas of California, it's true that you see a lot of people who dress a certain way, they eat a certain way, they drink certain things. They're very health-oriented and they have the income to support that; they have enough income to buy flashy cars, but they're not very flashy."

Make Jokes for Redditors:

"One of the places I keep tabs on is Reddit. Those people have, uh, a lot of time on their hands. They stop the DVR. They look at whats on the screen, the Post-Its, what people are eating and drinking and all that stuff. And they see the mistakes. While I don't know any of those people, you could say I have sort of a working relationship with them."

Work with Other Funny People:

"One of the things that Mike Judge, who actually lived and worked in Silicon Valley, brings to the table is his wit, comedic genius, and cynicism. So we try and clear every thing we bring onto the set with him. We'll throw in the occasional little surprise and Mike will either nix it or think it's funny. He's a pretty smart guy. When we staged our own version of TechCrunch, one of the things we came up with came from the art department. It was the 'human heater,' and Mike liked it a lot."

Be Honest:

"As a production designer, my job is essentially to show the truth. The comedy comes from the actors, it comes from the dialogue, but it comes when it contrasts against the truth."

Be a Sleuth:

"In the pilot, Peter Gregory drives away in this skinny little car. We were also looking at the AirCar, from France, which are these funny little cars which run on compressed air. But it was too much to import it in time, so we found this manufacturer called Triago who's still trying to get his company off the ground. We found him in Seattle and he was able to ship it to the set in time. And it totally would have been something Peter Gregory would be investing in. In fact, I think Mike got in and drove it around a bit.

But when you're trying to find something like that, you've got to do a lot of sleuthing."

You Don't Always Need to Be Subtle:

"When Dinesh and Gilfoyle are working in Homocide and the scrumboard where they've written 'Let Blaine Die.' And Blaine walks in and is apologizing to them, and in the background are all the reasons why Blaine should die. That cracked me up."

Don't Shy Away from Humor, Even When You're Sad:

"From the first to the second season, it's been completely different, and that's partly due to Chris Welch's death, which changed the direction of the story considerably. His comedy was such a big element of the show, and when he died the writers and Mike Judge felt compelled to not just avoid it, but actually pay homage to Chris. So when we staged his memorial service—even though there was a lot of comedy in it, there were a lot of heavy hearts because he was such a nice guy on top of everything else. When we were prepping the set, we hung the big banners of Chris Welch as Peter Gregory, and it felt odd, because he wasn't going to be there.

And then we were talking to his family and his wife said, 'Have fun with it. Because Chris would have had fun with it.' So we felt it was important to send him off correctly. It was tough—we had a moment of silence and then we got back to work. After that point everything changed direction."

Work. Hard.

"Once we had to come up with a whole imagery campaign in a matter of a week. We had to fully flesh it out, creating giant banners, logos, and a rocket car. And once we make a decision, we commit. It was a lot of work."

Gavin Belson explains what its like to be a billionaire. Season 2, Episode 3. Courtesy HBO

It's the Little Things:

"When we're looking down on the Hooli campus, a guy with a tray from the cafeteria is in the background, and there's five recycle bins, all with different requirements, and he's standing there trying to figure out all the pieces from his lunch. It's the little things.

And this is real—at Google they have four of them, at Facebook they have four, and yes, one company we visited did have five."

Excessive Camp Is Whack:

"I always look for shows that avoid gratuitous violence, and when you find one, it's really a lot of fun."

Silicon Valley Season 2 is now available on Digital HD (iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, etc). Season 3 returns in Spring 2016.


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Silicon Valley
Production Design
Mike Judge
richard toyon