Baratunde Rafiq Thurston is a writer, comedian, and entrepreneur mixing cutting-edge technology with old-fashioned social justice. Thurston co-founded the black political blog Jack and Jill Politics, whose coverage of the 2008 Democratic National Convention was archived in the Library Of Congress, and was director of digital for The Onion. In 2012, his book How to be Black became a New York Times bestseller. Part memoir, part satirical self-help guide, HtbB challenges a country that elected its first black president to think more expansively about race. One of his latest ventures is Cultivated Wit, a marketing company with a strong conscience and a great sense of humor. He’s often seen in print, online, and on flat screens at the same damn time making room for the marginalized, the dispossessed, and that good, good stuff that goes down smooth.
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My short bio: I am a co-host of TakePart Live on Pivot TV and co-founder of Cultivated Wit. I wrote the New York Times bestseller How To Be Black and served for five years as director of digital for the satirical news outlet The Onion. I also write the monthly back page column for Fast Company and contribute to the MIT Media Lab as a director’s fellow.
Hello, and thanks for doing this AMA -
Chris Rock recently came under fire after people claimed his SNL monologue had crossed a line, and many comedians like Jimmy Carr or Frankie Boyle constantly get criticized for their edgy and (what some believe to be) offensive material. Do you believe there are some topics that shouldn’t be joked about, or is anything fair game?
I hadn't seen the monologue until just now, so thanks for bringing it up and sorry for the delay. Short version: everything in the human experience is available for comedic interpretation.
Longer version: it depends on how you approach it, who the person is, what the context is. Specifically with Chris Rock, I haven't read any of the chatter about his monologue, but I laughed out loud, and thought he made a strong case while reminding us that it's a bit hypocritical (for example) to criticize a 9/11 joke while turning Jesus's birthday into the most commercial time ever.
WHAT one is joking about makes a big difference. Who's the target of the joke? Is it 9//11 victims (shitty) or is it the overreaction of our security theatre apparatus (fair game)?
There's no simple way to think of "joking about" a topic. The target. The presenter. The context. All those matter heavily.
Can you talk a little bit about Comedy Hack Day and how it got started? What are some of your favorite projects to come out of it?
So one of my co-founders Craig Cannon came up with the idea two years ago. We were just noodling around with what Cultivated Wit could be and were leaving The Onion (he was a graphics editor there). He had run the satire publication at NYU and was increasingly involved in coding and developer stuff so proposed this event where awkward devs and awkward comedians could make beautifully awkward apps together. We did the first one in NYC with the immense help of Jon Gottfried (formerly of Twilio; now of Major League Hacks).
Some of my fave projects: My Real Puppy (simulated caretaking of a puppy), Wearable Furby (with a custom API to boot), Timesify (makes trashy websites look like NYT), iCare (you give it an issue; it cares about it for you), XcuseMe (routes you to appointments through delays so you can justify your lateness), Lobbyists From Last Night (lets you taunt your congresshuman about their time spent fundraising)
more at http://comedyhackday.org
Do you have any plans for a sequel to How To Be Black? Also, can you please hold the next SF Bay Area Whiskey Friday in the East Bay?
wasup Erica! it's been forevah. ForEVah EVah? Forevah evah.
That's a great idea. I can't promise the "next" one will be there, but I do promise I'll host one in Oakland or Berkeley in the not too distant future
I have three questions:
Were you/are you a member of Jack and Jill (the social group)? Do you think those elite and exclusive black groups (like Jack and Jill, Links, etc.) are an antiquated system for black Americans? Did you see the film Dear White People? What did you think? (I guess that is four questions).
I read How to Be Black and really enjoyed it.
I was not a member of Jack & Jill. It wasn't even on the radar of possibility. My family wasn't plugged in to that society, and my only exposure to the group made me highly skeptical. It just felt like better-than-thou-ness.
Having not been a member of any such group, I don't know if I can say they're all "antiquated." I get the need to preserve some racial culture in an upper class environment where histories and values can be overwritten. So I guess I'm saying they do have value. Well, look at that! New opinions developing LIVE IN FRONT OF YOU.
I not only SAW Dear White People. I have a cameo in it and am friends with the director. I love love love LOVE the movie. If you ever read or held a copy of How To Be Black, you're contractually obligated to see Dear White People. It's in the Terms Of Service you didn't read.
Last week Harvard University released its Survey of Young Americans. One of the findings is that 42% of Millennials think community service is a better way to solve U.S. problems, versus 18% for political engagement. Do you think this is a good thing for our nation? Do you think media, digital, comedy can/should work to increase millenial support for political engagement?
Juicy question! Now let's squeeze that juice out. I don't know why I'm running so hard with the juice metaphor.
Is it good? I don't know. But it makes sense. It's real. Our political system is so officially corrupted by money and bullshit that the lack of faith in it is quite reasonable. When members of congress spend up to 70 percent of their time fundraising and bending to the will of the increasingly wealthy, it's natural to be like, "nah, i'm just gonna go over here and plant this here garden on my neighbor's roof." I think it's a sad fact of life. I think the work of folks like Larry Lessig with http://mayday.us is a great step, and so I've supported things like that.
As for part two, yes indeedy. One of the reasons I joined Pivot TV and TakePart Live (plug: http://takepart.com/live) is I consider it "news that gives a damn." The idea is to marry entertainment, information, and ACTION. Giving people something to DO (other than get mad) is an important way to close the democracy loop. Jacob Soboroff, one of my co-hosts, is obsessed with voter participation and drives that hard on the show. Honestly he would probably be happy LIVING in a voting booth. that's how much dude loves voting.
But I just want to add that "political engagement" means far more than that. I answer a resounding YES to your second question if that media/digital thing/comedy thing gets people to go to a community board meeting, or volunteer in a school, or tend a community garden, or hold businesses to a higher civic standard by ensuring their profits bolster people and the planet rather than exploit them.
And now that I've thought more through my fingers, back to your first question. It's NOT a good thing for masses to opt out of the political process in favor of "community service." Because I don't think community service ends mass incarceration or rising oceans or growing poverty. Many of these challenges are too big and too connected to policy and incentives to be solved without heavy political engagement too.
What did you think of the movie "Dear, White People"?
Edit: I see you answered this question above, so my question now is how do you get friends who are skeptical of the movie to go see it?
answered below but can't repeat enough. I love it. i especially love that it deals with the intersection of race and sexuality. often those topics are handled in silos but having the main character be a gay black man set up some great commentary and comedy
What is your favorite kind of whiskey and why is it not Jameson?
Also: whisky or whiskey?
Real question: What are the secrets to building a following? Not just personally, but you helped grow #whiskeyfriday into a GLOBAL phenomenon and How To Be Black into a KIND OF global phenomenon. What elements are integral to building a loyal following?
Also hey BT come back to NY already
whiskey favorites rotate with season. right now: Basil Hayden's
whisky for scotch. whiskey for Irish and bourbon
building a following: not so much secrets as lots of experiments on the wall. attempting to push the same point of view through different platforms. luck. can't overstate that! supporters who rep and promote you behind the scenes.
having some kind of core belief or point of view is likely most important. knowing what it is you stand for and want to say so if the mic comes your way, you can use it effectively.
Thanks for doing the AMA, Baratunde! Two things:
The gush - You are so great! I first heard you say words into a microphone at Railsconf this year and it was phenomenal so then I went to CHD4. I really admire how well you're able to contextualize your comedy. The range makes you feel all the more real and present. You do a great job setting tone as honest and genuine in a way that typically seems reserved for space alone with friends. I really admire how comfortably you advocate for feminism and social justice as a part of regular life.
The question - How do you think discourse can become better on the internet? I tend to be completely silent on all social media because linear broadcast just isn't how I think to communicate. My medium of choice is the heart-to-heart, but I'm leaving communities dangling by not adding my internet voice to the masses. Still, that feels like non-real action. I feel unsatisfied with just signal boosting but is that the future of discourse? I think comedy makes conversation more palatable but pockets of internet discussion are still super scattered. I like the direction you all are going in with TakePart Live, but what about random internet folk who want to argue about arbitary anything? Please state your answer in the form of an over-funded startup company.
I am noodling on this one. This is the best question by far. Take note, Redditers, @funnyjokesdotjpg JUST RAISED THE BAR.
Back later with answers.
quick update. i'm deep in prep for tonight's show, and this question requires more response time than i have right now. i WILL return to add thoughts, but not before 8pm PT. thanks in advance for understanding. in the meantime, just yell at your neighbors and coworkers, record it, and paste to the internet. bam.
ok I'm back! so WHICH over-funded startup should I point to?
disclosure: I know several folks at Branch/Potluck but don't use either service actively anymore. Met a founder at State at some conference in the UK a while back but never really checked it out.
this article does a great job of outlining limits and recommendations for improving commenting on news sites. http://www.journalism.co.uk/skills/how-to-improve-the-online-comment-experience/s7/a553756/
Now for my opinions and not just links....
It's hard for "random internet folk" to engage in heart-to-heart online if that context isn't established early. I ran a political blog for many years, and I think we underestimated the work it takes to set reasonable tones and expectations for online discussion behavior. You gotta stop the trolls and call people out FAST when things start to descend. You've got to set an example of what sort of discourse you're encouraging and create incentives for people to engage in that and not the "DERP YOU'RE GAY" kind.
I also think the generic callout of "WHAT DO YOU THINK?!" is pretty useless. The way we frame opportunities for online discussion should be a lot more targeted and full of context. I like the way Medium sets up discussions as well as Quartz.
Twitter is nearly impossible to have deep discourse because the speed of the stream and lack of threads just makes it mentally and physically hard to even maintain a topic.
Facebook, OTOH, is full of crazy relatives and long lost schoolmates who like to surprise you with their not-so-well-thought-out positions. But the threading does improve things, if you also set an expectation of what you're looking for and tolerating from folks. I've seen people do that effectively like "Look people, I'm curious what you think about this article, but I'm not tolerating any nonsense, personal attacks, or unsupported claims. Those will be deleted with the quickness!"
If you've really got the time, you could find different discussion forums on the same topic but varying the platform. See ArsTechnica vs The Verge vs TechCrunch, for example. Often they report the same things, but their communities are quite different. Part of the journey is finding the discourse that best suits you.
The thing I'm hearing from you is that you want a place that's actually thoughtful and not just repeating talking points or attacks. I may be reading too much into it, but that's how it appears. Making discourse better on the internet overall isn't a goal shared by everyone on the internet, and I think lots of companies thought that putting a "what do you think box" on their pages counted as "community engagement." But like any other commons, we need to set norms if not rules and show positive examples, or else people will trample all over it. Hell, public parks also don't clean themselves. We employ people (including volunteers) to go in there and get out that dog poop.
The internet is full of dog poop discourse because we've underinvested in maintaining much of that commons.
You began your career being a consultant, then became a comedian. Is Cultivated Wit a comedy consultant company?
million dollar question! really. give cultivated wit one million dollars, and we will answer your question.
it's not a "comedy consultant company," no.
It's a company that believes that combining the power of humor, especially with tech and design, can make the world a better and more fun place. The two ways we do this are
a) helping orgs and companies tell stories, primarily through video/animation, that are THOUGHTFUL and FUN/NY.
(e.g. http://blowminds.org to help recruit more STEM teachers)
b) creating a platform (through Comedy Hack Day) to encourage new forms of creativity at that tech/comedy intersection. So far that's through our public events, but it's also something we offer inside an organization or on a theme (FOR ONE MILLION DOLLARS ;)) http://comedyhackday.org
Think about the Cultivated Wit formula as this.
power of humor to tell the truth
+ power of design to empathize
+ power of technology to connect and amplify
= Cultivated Wit's mission.
this TEDxKC talk I did makes a longer case for what we are
I'm on your cultivated wit list, and I've always wanted to come to a whiskey friday. However, I'm a scared person. How much whiskey would you recommend I imbibe BEFORE coming to Whiskey Friday to make up for this?
oh boy. this is a public forum, and i cannot in good conscious encourage over-drinking!
To be real, Whiskey Friday isn't really about whiskey, and it's definitely not about getting wasted. It's mostly about (DRAMATIC PAUSE) the people.
We don't actually do too many Whiskey Fridays of the public kind, so I would encourage you to show up and lighten the pressure on yourself. You're not expected to recite speeches or "network" or prove anything. It's just a good place for interesting folks to gather, and you can come and go as you please. No rope lines. No checkins. No pretense.
Be not afraid.
Do you enjoy the amount of pictures posted online of people holding your "How to Be Black" book as a self-explanatory joke, as if reading the book should be innately awful or good? I thought it was excellent, and I'm happy for any of the free publicity the book receives.
I love it. I regularly look at #howtobeblack on instagram and use the images in my shows and talks. Part of the design of the title and book cover was to encourage conversation.
Lauren White captured it beautifully in this piece in Guernica Mag. https://www.guernicamag.com/daily/lauren-a-white-how-to-be-the-black-person-reading-how-to-be-black/
I loved watching you on Popular Science's Future of and really miss the show! Do you ever think it will come back and what did you learn from doing the show that helped you in other future projects?
I seriously doubt it will return. Unsurprisingly, I think that show was head of its time. Get it? FUTURE! oh boy.
That was my first real TV show. I learned to learn things very very quickly. I learned how to interview much better and pull out nuggets often from people not used to being on camera (hey hey scientists of the world!). I learned that Japan has such a strange relationship with robots as to make me uncomfortable.
Lots of that helps with my current gig on TakePart Live. It also helped tremendously in the series Cultivated Wit did with AOL on crowdfunding http://www.cultivatedwit.com/projects/funded/ and the work we did with GE explaining science there. http://www.gereports.com/post/100245119480/what-happens-when-you-give-a-pineapple-an-mri
What's a Pivot TV?
http://pivot.tv is a new TV network. It's owned by Participant Media who have made tons of docs and films dealing with social issues. Besides my own show, I'm really excited by Freestyle Love Supreme getting a show http://www.takepart.com/freestyle-love-supreme Those dudes are soooooo damn talented.
Baratunde - I was at the Social Media Today conference in ATL and you were awesome! Highlight of the show for me. You talked a lot about "adding play" to digital comms. A lot of that was centered around adding humor. What advice would you give if the brand you work for insists it is not funny? I get being more human (humility, transparency, honesty), but how do you recommend adding unexpected "delight" without humor - particularly if there's not really a GREAT reason for the brand to not be funny (aside from it being the status quo)?
Would you recommend always being funny if there's no good reason not to be?
I do NOT recommend "always being funny" because a) that's competition for the professionals ;) b) it's probably not genuine and c) it's like over-using a very powerful weapon. You shouldn't play an entire game using cheat codes the whole time!
I also think there are soft ways of adding what you call "delight" without it having to feel like you're shoving jokes down people's throats. Hipmunk isn't LOL funny, but it's pretty delightful to sort your flight options by "agony."
Even the way you bid a customer farewell can offer a chance to be real/kind/human.
Super cheap way is to simply reference humor related to the topic at hand. One of the greatest highlights of working at The Onion was finding how many office places and other organizations cite Onion articles to relieve tension, including among deployed troops overseas. The tension relief humor can provide is valuable, and a "brand" doesn't have to start from zero. Someone's already done it most likely.
wait there are free drinks??
You gotta do the right shows man!
Being a Black author and actor, how does quirks in the industry that are obviously not orientated towards to the African community affect you?
Slight correction: I'm not an actor. I mostly just "play" myself, but I'm not out there auditioning for character roles and such, so I'm less directly affected by casting decisions and stereotypes, for example.
That said, there's one thing that comes right to mind. U.S. media culture still has this idea that THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE! when it comes to representing certain types of minorities in media. It's what I'll call The Highlander Model.
So if there's a latina with a TV show, the industry historically has been like, "CHECK THE BOX!! LATINA SHOW IS COVERED. NEXT!" and it's harder for the second latina to get a shot.
I'm actually seeing that change for at least two reasons.
1) more media fragmentation and media-making power. Basically, folks can make their own stories and distribute them (waves at Issa Rae / Awkward Black Girl)
2) Traditional industry perspective is shifting to reveal that "diversity" isn't just some charity case, but it's also really good business. Like, there's money and stuff in showing a world that (GASP) looks like THE WORLD.
I bought your book (How To Be Black) after watching this video!
Anyway, it doesn't seem like a joke about an epidemic would be funny these days anymore. What do you think has changed with the media and society in the past five years? Do you think people are more sensitive today?
I do think there's a tonal shift in social media where the instant hyper reaction can drown out the assumption of goodwill. Flash groups of anger and judgment trump a more thoughtful response.
I also think what I did with Swine Flu was a bit lucky in that the hype around swine flu was so much greater than the actual viral impact. If thousands had been dying, people may have reacted more negatively even back then, and I might have stopped sooner.
There is humor in the over-reaction to Ebola, for sure. It's just a delicate act to dive in there and not be targeting people who are already victims. But Chris Christie and the goons selling fake Ebola cures. They're just asking for it.
All I wanted to say was for a college composition course, I used "How To Be Black" as one of my sources discussing race and comedy. Thanks for a fantastic book!
And, apparently since I need to ask a question, did you get the chance to check out Aaron McGruder's Black Jesus?
Yoooooo!! That is amazing. Thank you thank you. It's been strange to see my book assigned to folks in high school and college. I'm glad you chose it. I hope you didn't totally ruin my life's work! :D
I have just started to watch Black Jesus. I'm so behind on TV thanks to Scandal, Sons of Anarchy, How To Get Away With Murder, Key and Peele plus finally watching Fringe (just finished Season 3)
What's your reaction when people don't realize the onion is satire?
How do I be black?
have at least one black parent
Why do you hate Libertarians? Is it all Brian Brushwood's fault?
ha! I actually LOVE brian brushwood, so there's hope yet.
I think a lot of Libertarianism works well "on paper," but we live in a world that requires real cooperation and social connectivity, and the implicit selfishness of libertarianism troubles me. The idea that we'll all just privately fund our needs ignores the strength we can have together. The idea that markets alone find equitable balance has already proven so false (waves at growing wealth inequality and privatized political process! hi!).
on the other hand, it's not a blanket negative reaction. the civil liberties preservation is high high HIGH on my list. and of course I have a healthy distrust of government. because history.
Hi Baratunde big fan from France !!!
Do you know that How to be Black is relevant as fuck for the Black Community living in Europe ?! did you planned ( French ) translation I will gladly do it !!!!
sadly i'm not in charge of the internationalization of the book or it would have been released all over the world in short order! good to know it's resonating though. I'll email the publisher right to this comment as proof, and that should solve all europe's race problems amiright??
What's the best thing about doing comedy?
That feeling of knowing you've connected with an audience, whether in the room or online or on a page, is really powerful. It's better when you know that those people don't know you at all. It's not like making your friends laugh. So yeah the best thing is that human connection that might not have been forged any other way, and though it may be fleeting, it's awesome.
Oh dang. also the free drinks!
Hey Baratunde - Thanks for doing this AMA!
What's your favorite hack to come out of Comedy Hack Day?
so glad you asked! Like children, I love all the hacks to come out of comedy hack day. But if I had to pick one (which every parent secretly does), it would be Truth For Humanity. http://www.comedyhackday.org/mit-2013
It was so so funny in the room and still works at parties.
I know you love pb&j's. Crunchy or creamy?
creamy peanut butter makes me sad. it's like we just took everything wonderful about peanut butter and beat it into submission.
How to be black is a great book. How long did it take to write it and what was it like?
Thanks for saying nice things!
I started writing in Spring of 2010 and submitting the manuscript July 2012. So basically a year but it wasn't full time. I did MOST of the writing in the summers and was also still working at The Onion.
as for what it was like: HARD in some places and super easy in others.
The most interesting part was how the book changed during the writing. I thought it was going to be a most satirical book but it ended up being mostly memoir. I have Deb Stier (then of Harper and the one who brought me in) to thank for that.
The second most interesting part was interviewing my black panel. I will always be indebted to Jacquetta Szathmari, damali ayo, Cheryl Contee, Derrick Ashong, Elon James White and Christian Lander
I loved it when you were a guest on TWIT. Do you plan on returning for any episodes soon ?
There's nothing in the books yet but i always come back to TWIT. love going on there especially if I can banter / battle with Nick Bilton or Brian Brushwood. (see: libertarian comments below)
search this page for that. answered twice! thanks for asking though.