‘Super Pumped’ Is Based on the Real Life of Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

Uber has become so ubiquitous, it’s been showing up in movies and TV shows for almost a decade. Now it is the subject of a Showtime TV series. Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber tells the real story of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It’ll take seven episodes to do so, but if you can’t wait, Showbiz Cheat Sheet is here to help. 

In a scene from 'Super Pumped,' Uber CEO Travis Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) opens his arms wide in a boardroom
Joseph Gordon-Levitt | Elizabeth Morris/Showtime

‘Super Pumped’: Who is Travis Kalanick?

According to an Inc. profile, Travis Kalanick dropped out of UCLA to work on the tech startup, Scour. A file-sharing platform that predated Napster, Scour went bankrupt after a 2000 lawsuit against it. Kalanick moved home with his mother (played by Elisabeth Shue in Super Pumped) while he developed another file sharing service, Red Swoosh, which he sold for $19 million. 

In 2009, Kalanick started Uber. Try to imagine a world in which if you didn’t drive, you either had to take public transportation, call or hail a taxi. Uber, originally called Ubercab, put all that in the power of your phone. People needing rides could call people willing to drive, and the transaction benefited both parties and Uber. But, not everybody loved Uber. City taxi commissions especially fought Uber for horning in on their territory and undercutting their pricing structure. 

Is ‘Super Pumped’ based on a book?

Mike Isaac wrote Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber, which was first published in 2019. This came two years after Kalanick resigned from Uber. The New York Times reported that Kalanick came under fire for many things during his tenure at Uber. Early episodes of Super Pumped show Kalanick suggest a safe-ride surcharge to guarantee vetted drivers. This added money to Uber’s bottom line and did nothing to increase riders’ safety.

The Times noted other controversial Uber policies like a “God view” function, which tracked riders without their consent. When local agencies fought back against Uber, Kalanick issued a “Greyball” banning anyone in law enforcement from finding drivers. Sexual harassment and discrimination allegations within the company came to light, too.  

Co-creator David Levien spoke with the Television Critics Association on Feb. 23. Levien said Uber became as corrupt as the taxi establishment it disrupted.

“The taxi medallion and the livery commission system was very corrupt,” Levien said. “It was set up to administrate this industry, but in the end, it ended up putting a huge surcharge on the drivers and exploiting them and making them pay huge entry fees to get into this business,” he said. “And when a company like Uber comes along, they had all of the best intentions to flip that and to do better as they do in the beginning with the incentives and make things better for the drivers. But as often happens with humans, the revolutionaries become the fascists once they get into power.”

What happened to Travis Kalanick at Uber?

With pressures mounting, venture capital investor Bill Gurley (Kyle Chandler in Super Pumped) led his fellow investors to oust Kalanick. Kalanick officially resigned in 2017 and remained on the board of Uber until 2019. Super Pumped co-creator Brian Koppelman was also on the TCA panel and spoke about Gurley. 

“Mike Isaac’s book really draws Bill Gurley in a way,” Koppelman said. “Mike sets up this dynamic that Bill has a moral choice to make and that he does. Maybe in some way, it’s a choice that serves him as the show will explain. But according to the book and all of the research Mike did, and then that we did, that seems a fairly accurate representation of what happened.”

Even without Uber, Kalanick remains a billionaire. His current projects include a real estate company and building ghost kitchens. Uber is still widely in use, now under Dara Khosrowshahi as CEO. Uber claims 118 million active users monthly worldwide.

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