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An interview with Baratunde Thurston: comedian, author and vigilante pundit — May 29, 2011

An interview with Baratunde Thurston: comedian, author and vigilante pundit

Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston walks a fine line, existing at the intersect of politics, comedy and technology.

As the co-founder of the political blog Jack & Jill Politics, NYC comedian, author and director of digital for The Onion, Thurston often uses satire as an expression of his activism and technology as a medium for that expression.

A look at his Twitter profile will display over 95,000 followers in varying degrees of rapturous fanscrollow. In short, he tweets very, very hard. Each tweet gives insight as to how to use comedy to deliver ideas and use new technology tools as comedic performance platforms to communicate thought-provoking social commentary.

This presented every writer’s quandary – how to profile a ‘comedian, author and vigilante pundit’ so prolific and entertaining in his online presence in a way that offers new insights, when the man has so many platforms at his disposal to go forth and conquer? Luckily for said writer, Baratunde delivered the goods and more in this Q&A email exchange, offering an opinion on a range of topics from contemporary black identity, digital strategy at The Onion to personifying the swine flu pandemic on Twitter. As a master of all mediums, Baratunde offers a unique story and valuable information to the Twittersphere, managing to inspire, create and observe. He was called “someone I need to know” by Barack Obama, after all. Please welcome Baratunde to the digital stage.

Describe where you are as you answer these questions. Anything interesting to observe?

I’ve been answering in two different settings. The first is in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico overlooking the Sea of Cortez. I was down there to deliver a keynote address at Surf Summit 14, talking about creative uses of social media. The second setting is my apartment in Brooklyn, NY

It has been said that you “exist at intersection of comedy, politics and technology”. These three elements are great communications tools and are used as frontiers of change. How would you describe the intersect between these three elements – does one complement the other? How does this intersect influence your work and process and what do you find most rewarding about this?

They absolutely complement each other, and I have fun at the overlaps. For 15 years, I’ve been engaged in political comedy. I love politics, political activism and engagement. Comedy is a great wrapper to put around my own political observations and arguments though. Most people would rather hear a joke than a lecture, so comedy becomes a great delivery device for ideas. On the technology side, I love the potential offered by technology tools, especially social and interactive web platforms. However, those can get either boring or overrun by pure “business” interests and conversation. I have a good time taking these tools and using them as comedic performance platforms. For example, on Twitter I created an account called @The_Swine_Flu in which I embodied the virus and satirised the media coverage surrounding it. I’ve had friends create and play out entire comedy shows on Twitter. The case that unites all three of my passions was probably when a friend of mine and I decided to treat a mayor battle on Foursquare as a real political campaign. It was absurd, technological and quite political.

Do you think there will be a time when comedic news outlets will become just as prominent as ‘legitimate’ mainstream news media outlets?

I sincerely hope comedic news does NOT become as prominent as legit news. Comedic or satirical news works as a comment on or contrast to mainstream news programming. If you have more Daily Shows than actual news broadcasts, we have failed as a society. Satirists should never outnumber the satirised.

“… [Baratunde] has often used satire as an expression of his activism and technology as a medium for that expression.” What are the guiding principles for content on The Onion?

It’s got to be funny, and it has to feel like a legitimate news story.

Could you explain The Onion’s digital strategy? How has technology helped you to communicate the key ideas and values?

As with our non-digital strategy, the goal is to dominate the competition and be everywhere our audience is. We use digital platforms to extend our reach, provide more depth to our storytelling and offer the audience at least the pretense of participation. At the same time, we also satirise how mainstream news outlets use digital tools. So, for example, the anchor of our satirical television news show (Onion News Network) not only tweets during the show, but right in the middle of interviews she is conducting.

You are currently writing ‘How to be black’ to be released 2012. What can we expect of this? What inspired you to write this book?

The book is part memoir offering insights into my own experiences being Black in the US. It’s also part “how to” guide offering practical (comedic) advice for certain situations such as “how to speak for all black people” and “how to be the black friend”. The book came about in part from a talk I gave a few years ago about Twitter hashtags, plus a previous project with my friend and Jack and Jill Politics blog co-founder plus conversation with my publisher. I’m writing the book because I think there’s an opportunity to offer an updated view of black identity in America. We seem to be stuck with certain stereotypes of failure, crime, simplistic views of hip hop, etc. My own life story (and those of most black people in the U.S.) is much more nuanced than that. Now, an earnest book about racial identity and stereotypes would just be too boring for me. So I thought I’d make it personal and comedic.

Does The Onion gain strength by refuting the traditional ‘fourth estate’ function of the media? Does The Onion have a responsibility to make consumers of its content aware of its satirical intent or is the reader more empowered by being left to make up their own mind? What is your initial intention when publishing content?

The intent is never to confuse or fool people. The Onion is not a prankster and does not engage in hoaxes. There are a few reasons people sometimes have a hard time distinguishing our news from the real thing.

  • We adhere to journalistic style. So much of our comedy depends on feeling like real news. The contrast between the style and substance is where the comedy lives.
  • “Real” news has gotten rather absurd. Whether it’s ATM machines spewing forth cash on the streets of Sydney or reality TV star Donald Trump insisting he’s the least racist person in the world, real news sometimes seems like a joke.

Just as a standup comic doesn’t have to offer disclaimers after every joke saying “this is a joke,” and a poet doesn’t have to end each verse explaining “that was a metaphor”, The Onion doesn’t need to go out of its way to tell people it’s not actually reporting news. Doing so would undermine the art and the satire of it all. Over time, people have figured out what we do in the same way that comedy club audiences and poetry readers have done for those forms.

How do you judge what content an audience wants?

For The Onion, this is simple. The desires of the audience have very little to do with what content we produce.

You have previously referred to Twitter account use as “super public forums”. How comfortable are you with having such a public profile, particularly through social media?

Overall, I’m quite comfortable with it. I’ve been on physical stages my entire life. Now I’m on a digital one. In both cases, I’m conscious of what I choose to share, and what I choose to keep private. Where it gets a little strange is when people who know my digital persona run into me on the street and know all sorts of things about what I do. It can be a bit jarring, but I don’t have any nightmare stories just yet. The key is that I actually don’t share really personal things online. People just think I do because I produce so much.

Could you please describe your “social media personality” in a tweet form?

I’m me.

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Baratunde was a guest speaker at the Digital Directions 2011 conference, in Sydney earlier this year.

This author is on Twitter: @lbanksanderson

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