'Silicon Valley’s Russ Hanneman: Why He's Funny
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When it comes to HBO’s Silicon Valley, there are any number of awful people who make us laugh. Dinesh? Gavin Belson? Gilfoyle, Richard? Erlich? Okay, we’re just listing the main cast at this point, but they’re all hilarious, they’re all funny and awful as hell. It’s just a brilliantly funny show full of terrible people!
But, there is one douchebag of laughs that's particularly memorable, probably because he’s a secondary character rather than a lead (a good secondary character is always super memorable): Russ Hanneman, the one who wants his car doors to open like this.
Today, we’re considering the deeply epistemological question: why is this a-hole funny?
Russ is played by Chris Diamantopoulos, whom we all might remember from that weird and sort of super unnecessary subplot on the last season of The Office – he’s the boom guy Pam has a thing for but like, doesn’t really have a thing for?
Anyway, Chris brings that obnoxious faux swagger and deeply lacking-in-self-awareness/unearned self-confidence to his performance, and that makes the character work. He speaks his mind in every scene he’s in… it’s just unfortunate for the people around him that what’s on his mind is techbro nonsense and crude big dick energy, dick here being his personality rather than the other thing.
In a show satirizing the ridiculousness of the Valley’s shallow entrepreneurialism, there must be inspiration for the satire. In the case of Russ, there are a number of specific candidates for who he is supposedly based on, such as Dan Bilzerian. But the key source of inspiration and lampoonage is none other than famed Shark Mark Cuban.
Russ and Mark made their fortunes in similar ways: Russ “put radio on the Internet” and Mark sold Broadcast.com to Yahoo!, “a costly purchase” which is “now regarded as one of the worst internet acquisitions of all time.” Both men then leveraged that success to become investors in many tech startups using the money they made from one dumb idea very early in their careers.
Mark is a known quantity – we’ve all probably seen clips of him, if not full episodes, on Shark Tank, where he gives honest advice and makes most contestants dreams not come true. Mr. Mark has a big personality, so it makes sense that Silicon Valley would base a similarly large, uh, personable character on him.
So, other than poking fun at a guy with too much money, what about Russ is so funny? Well, as we’ve said, it’s because he’s an a-hole. For some reason, we mere humans find certain kinds of a-holes funny, except when we know them in real life. But Silicon Valley is a show absolutely bursting with a-holes, so what makes him stand out?
The answer is in the specific kind of a-hole he is.
Most of the dicks on the show are of a less boisterous type – Richard, for instance, isn’t totally a bad guy, but he does bad things. Most of his faults stem from a sort of narcissism developed over the course of the series, never willing to compromise his vision or way of doing things until absolutely forced to. Dinesh, similarly, does bad things out of insecurity.
Most of the main cast are geeks, nerds, and losers – they’re guys who have been crapped on all their lives and are jaded and bitter because of it. So, when they do bad things, viewers sympathize a bit, even as we recoil from their garbage behavior.
Russ, on the other hand, is that sort of a-hole who comes from an infuriating place. He’s the business major bros we all knew in college, the ones who make their careers out of networking and connections and dumb luck. His cocky self-centeredness would always be there no matter how successful he became. He is Erlich Bachmann, if Erlich was super successful.
In a cast of terrible people doing mean things for our amusement, each kind of terrible person has to fill their own terrible niche. The main cast each covers some angle on the insecure, petty jerk side; Gavin Belson occupies that same role as Richard or Dinesh, if Richard or Dinesh were successful (proven by that time Dinesh was briefly the successful CEO of Pied Piper). We see the same sort of person from two angles, much as Erlich and Russ are two sides of the same, insufferable coin.
That’s one of the next-levels of the show: outside its parody of actual Silicon Valley culture, it is an exploration of a-holery from every angle.
We the viewers see how success takes what was already bad in these characters and amplifies it loud enough to kill the lawn. We laugh at how awful they are, and we sympathize with the unsuccessful a-holes because, well, they’re slightly less dickish than the successful ones, if only because they don’t have the resources to flaunt their dickishness, like making terrible, terrible tequila.
So the reason Russ Hanneman is funny sorta boils down to this: he's just simply a higher wattage a-hole than anybody else.
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Top image: HBO