The bumbling success of Big Head on Silicon Valley: Q&A with Josh Brener


Josh Brener.

photo: John P. Johnson. Acquired via HBO Media Relations site.

Big Head on Silicon Valley is a lovable idiot, but how does he keep stumbling into success? We looked to Josh Brener for answers.

From day one on HBO’s comedy series Silicon Valley, Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti has thrived. Played by actor Josh Brener, Big Head is a loyal, friendly guy who – despite having what appears to be sub-par intelligence and a raging addiction to sugary sodas – has been handed opportunity after opportunity in a world full of geniuses who struggle to be taken seriously.

(Caution, spoilers follow for Silicon Valley S4E3, “Intellectual Property”.)

On the most recent episode of the series, Big Head unintentionally woos over a Stamford admissions officer and somehow ends up with a job as a guest lecturer at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. It’s yet another comical twist for a character who has done barely anything of note other than just exist in the insanely competitive world that surrounds him.

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We were wondering what makes Big Head such a magnet for opportunity, so we turned to the actor who plays him, Josh Brener. Just like  Big Head, Brener is polite, kind, and friendly. However, that’s where the similarities end. Brener definitely has motivation and the brain power to back it up. In a recent conversation, he eloquently walked us through his experience so far as Big Head, why he thinks Big Head has been so successful in the narrative of the show, and whether or not we’ll be seeing more of him in the coveted role of Stamford professor as the season progresses.

Hidden Remote: We’re so happy to see Big Head back with the guys in the incubator on Silicon Valley this season. As a character, his trajectory has been pretty insane. What has it been like so far in Big Head’s shoes on the show?

Josh Brener: Because we have the best writers on television, it’s always a jolt of adrenaline to get a new script. You never know what’s coming, and you always know it’s going to be hilarious. So I just think Big Head’s journey is definitely indicative of that. Just from season to season, not knowing how they’re going to find new ways to put the dum-dum at the top of the heap. One of my favorite things about it is that no matter how high he skyrockets, and no matter how far he plummets, he doesn’t seem to mind. It’s all sort of the same to him, which is fun to do. He’s unconcerned with these mortal trifles.

HR: Exactly! He’s just kind of riding the wave.

Josh Brener: Absolutely. He’s a grain of dust in the wind.

HR: For all his faults, Big Head is arguably one of the nicest guys on the show. That personality gets him into a lot of interesting situations. You already said he’s kind of a “dum-dum”, but would you say that he’s gullible, dumb, or a combination of both?

Josh Brener: I think so much of it can be attributed to a complete and utter lack of ambition. Which I think when juxtaposed to the other guys not only in the house, but also in the Silicon Valley community writ large is definitely an anomaly. There are valuations that literally give people their social status and there’s this drive to achieve, not only financially, but also by making the world a better place, and he just doesn’t seem to care. So I think just by virtue of being one of very few people who doesn’t strive for anything that makes him very different. And, yes, I think there’s probably some significant dum-dum to it all also. That’s all relative too, because he’s surrounded by literal geniuses. [laughs] So it could be that he’s just regular and everyone else is just really freaking smart.

HR: You also starred in the film The Internship, which is also set in Silicon Valley, and you played a bit more of a motivated character in that movie. In your opinion, what makes the tech world so ripe for comedy?

Josh Brener: People in tech just aren’t in on it, which makes them super fun. They don’t seem to have an awareness of why they’re hilarious, which makes them a million times more hilarious. I know this is a favorite thing amongst the crew on the show and observers too, that the real people in the real Silicon Valley tune in to watch the TV show Silicon Valley excitedly to laugh at the crazy silly things on their screen, but it’s literally just them. It’s cognitive dissonance or something. They’re not quite in on the joke, which is the funniest thing. They’re ripe for comedy.

HR: It’s funny because awhile ago a tech blogger wrote a Medium post about all the real-life analogs to the people on the show, but Big Head on Silicon Valley doesn’t really have a parallel in the real world because he’s so rootless.

Josh Brener: My guess is that you don’t hear about the real Big Heads so much. But as far as I know, the resting and vesting is a real thing that actually happens. I do know that for every one Elon Musk who makes a gazillion dollars and moves forward, there’s probably a few hundred Big Heads who made all that money and went, ‘well, I just made a bunch of money, and now I’m going to sit back!’ Those people don’t necessarily make headlines, but they’re out there.

HR: Well I guess unless you’re Big Head, you make twenty million dollars and you’re set for life.

Josh Brener: [laughs] Yeah! For most people, twenty million dollars is not easy come easy go.

HR: On the show, Big Head just falls into success over and over again. Why do you think people are so quick to brand him a genius?

Josh Brener: The writers and some people who have written about the show have made this Chauncey Gardner comparison, and I think there’s something to someone who just doesn’t say a ton and seems to just be observing and intently listening. I don’t know if you saw John Oliver’s segment on Jared Kushner – and I have no idea if that segment is based in reality – but it is a funny thing that if you’re in a room full of people who are trying to push their agenda and are talking without saying much, you sort of gravitate toward the quieter person who’s just agreeing.

HR: Definitely. When there are a lot of minds trying to be heard, you kind of look for the one person who’s just apt to agree with you. And Big Head is always that person. He’s got a go with the flow attitude that’s attractive to people in power.

Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods, Thomas Middleditch, Jimmy O. Yang, T.J. Miller, Josh Brener.

photo: John P. Johnson. Acquired via HBO Media Relations site.

Josh Brener: Yeah, he’s not going to rock any boats. He doesn’t make waves, and there’s no ego there. Aside from that he’s always getting into these situations that end up financially benefitting him. He’s not going to contribute anything, but he’s definitely not going to rock any boats.

HR: Big Head always has the Big Gulp in hand, which is an amazing visual. But do you think those giant sodas have anything to do with his success?

Josh Brener: He’s severely diabetic, yeah. And, again, I think it’s one of those things where everyone around him is playing at such a high level and they’re all assuming that high level of each other. Then, they look at this guy who has a profound simplicity, and no one thinks that he’s light years behind everybody, so he must be light years ahead of everyone.

HR: So it’s an eccentricity that he has that makes people think he knows something that everyone else doesn’t.

Josh Brener: Exactly. It’s like the opposite of Steve Jobs and his apple, right? For Steve Jobs, the apple was his superfood, and for Big Head it’s a giant cup of soda.

HR: Well, Big Head is doing something right, because more success just keeps coming his way. This week we saw him handed an opportunity as a guest lecturer at Stamford. How did you react when you got the script for that latest plot twist?

Josh Brener: As always with the writers on the show, I opened the script and it was just the most perfect and most brilliant next step in the progression of Big Head. He’s reached a financial apex, a corporate apex, and now he’s going to tackle academia. I thought it was a perfect new direction for him.

HR: It’s funny too because we see him come back into the incubator and he announces that he’s teaching at Stamford, and Erlich (T.J. Miller) basically goes, ‘of course you are.’

Josh Brener: It is the next logical step in Big Head’s journey. His inability to comprehend what’s going on is perfect. He’s just trying to find a couple of credits at a university, because he obviously didn’t finish college, and he comes out as a professor. It’s just right on the money.

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HR: We didn’t actually get to see how Big Head reacts after he’s introduced as a professor to the class, so did you shoot that scene? Or will we get to see him in action in later episodes?

Josh Brener: I know there was some improvising around the initial reaction, for sure. I think that with Big Head there’s always a deer in the headlights reaction, and then it’s funny to go to everyone else’s reaction, like, ‘of course you’re a professor.’ [laughs] But without offering any spoilers, I’ll say that maybe some of the interest in seeing Big Head teach a class will be satiated in future episodes. Not that first class but, whatever you’re thinking, you’re probably not far off in terms of what you might expect him to be doing as a professor.

HR: That’s very exciting. I’m sure the students will love him.

Josh Brener: I’m not sure it works out great for a driven Stamford student who’s seeking an actual education but, in terms of someone you might want to hang out with during a lecture class, I think it turns out ok!

‘Silicon Valley’ airs Sunday nights at 10/9c on HBO.