(blogged by @mstem and @natematias)
Today at the Media Lab, Baratunde Thurston is taking a moment out of Vacation Mode to have a conversation with the Media Lab community. How can we describe Baratunde? His personal website labels him a “politically-active, technology-loving comedian from the future.” He was director of digital at The Onion until 2012. His most recent book is How to be Black (2012). He has also started a new company, Cultivated Wit.
Joi Ito hops on stage and tells us about the Media Lab Director’s Fellows program, which aims to make the Media Lab less of a silo and more of a platform, and expand the range of the Lab. People have asked Joi what he’s looking for in a fellow; his answer is that each of them should be wildly different from one another. If you can detect a theme, we’re doing it wrong.
Baratunde is back from his three week, three day vacation from the internet. It was more of a staycation, hanging out in Brooklyn. He’s easing his way back into things.
“Unlike an alien, I wasn’t manufactured. I came from other lives” Baratunde tells us. His grandfather was born into slavery, taught himself to read, and moved the family to Washington DC in the late 19th century, helping build roads in the area. His mother’s mother was a clerk in the US Supreme Court, the first black employee they had.
“My mother was a rabblerouser,” Baratunde says. She was out in the streets, fully down with civil rights, and all over the radio.
“I’ve successfully made a living lying to people, and calling it ‘jokes’”
Across the four generations of his family, Baratunde sees an arc of expression, from a man who taught himself to read in the bonds of slavery, to a woman who entered the halls of power, to a woman who banged on those walls, to Baratunde himself, who plays and redefines those walls.
Baratunde grew up in DC in the 1980s, where his mom foresaw the importance of computers. He was big on taking things apart, and sometimes, putting them back together. Baratunde got into journalism through his college newspaper, and also expressed himself with standup comedy.
As an undergrad at Harvard, Baratunde got the chance to build an 8-bit computer from scratch. “Any time I have to do something hard, I remember, I built a computer out of wires”.
“My areas of most fun over the last few years have been at the intersection of humor, general creativity, and digital technology.”
“The Onion is very specific about who they let into the walls of that kingdom.” After several rounds of interviews and producing his own microsite, he was offered the role of web editor (in addition to the writing position he had applied for).
“We got to pull off a lot of stunts”
There’s a cheap way to express yourself in new formats, Baratunde says. You take what you did in old media, and cut and paste it into the new platform. You take your print headline, and cut and paste it into Twitter with a link. This isn’t real adoption of new platforms. At the Onion, they tried to create stories that carried out a conversation with technology. In the case of “Hot New Video Game Consists Solely Of Shooting People Point-Blank In The Face” they actually built the videogame. People played and reviewed it as they would a real game. It turned out to be a stress-relieving experience for people riding the subway. They built a mobile version, but “Apple rejected it, because they’re fascists.”
“I take FourSquare very seriously…I like being Mayor of places”
Baratunde’s company, Cultivated Wit, is inspired by a quote from philosopher/poet/soldier Horace:
“A cultivated wit, one that badgers less, can persuade all the more. Artful ridicule can address contentious issues more competently and vigorously than can severity alone.
Another project, Comedy Hack Day, takes your typical hack day and adds comedians to the mix.
ShoutRoulette, which won the first hack day, lets you find people on the internet you disagree with, and yell at them.
Location-Based Racism is an upcoming app that helps you find stuff you don’t want. It turns out that a lot of physical locations are tagged with the racist experiences people have had at them.
“Is comedy a user interface for getting your head around difficult topics?” Joi asks. Baratunde thinks of comedy as a language for translating difficult, awkward, and contentious issues, making them more addressable to people.
“Laughter–that’s magic. It’s emotional and intellectual at the same time.”
Comedy can serve the role of sugar-coated pill, where a community can talk about painful issues like police brutality without feeling so powerless.
Baratunde’s early standup riffed on the news. He literally sat at a desk on stage, where he earnestly tried to inform people. He’s evolved since then.
Joi asks, “It feels like comedy is virality of play. Once you want to learn, there are a lot of tools. Getting kids to play in the first place is sometimes hard. Do you think of comedy as a way to pull people into play?” “I love the idea that there’s more science to art than we’ve detected thus far. But too much science kills the art,” Baratunde says. “I hope robot comedy doesn’t take off too much.” He talks to us about techniques in comedy and the need for the unknowable magic parts of humour. Joi responds, “that’s what chess grandmasters said until they got beaten by computers.”
Baratunde talks about a project, Fox The News, where they took real news stories and made them sound ridiculous. Maybe 30% of what they created was legitimately funny, and 70% of it was nonsense.
Joi asks, are we born funny?
Baratunde offers that it’s 13% genetics and like, 5% diet. But he wasn’t a funny child — he was really earnest and political. He had trouble rooting for the Washington Redskins, knowing that a similar team name about black people would be unconscionable.
Baratunde lists some lazy apps created by developers. Some were a little predictable. Developers created an “annoying girlfriend” app, and a “kick someone in the balls” app. The Sunlight Foundation classed things up when they contributed Lobbyists From Last Night, which tells you what dinners and events people in power enjoyed the night before. Baratunde feels it’s important to bridge the earnest information in the Sunlight Foundation’s APIs with the general voting public, who don’t necessarily seek out that sort of information.
Joi points out that The Onion’s funniest stuff is usually teetering on the edge of social taboo, and asks if we need to be able to poke fun at everything. Baratunde stresses how critical context is: the timing, the speaker, the audience, are all very important factors in the line between ‘funny’ and ‘asshole’. You don’t have to look far to see people who have crossed that line: Rush Limbaugh, stand up comics crassly picking on homeless people. But there are intelligent ways to talk about sensitive topics. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, we can target our own ignorance of Haiti as the butt of our jokes, rather than the victims themselves. Don’t use comedy as an excuse to be mean.
“White people reading How To Be Black in public is my favorite thing. The people who buy the ebooks are just cowards taking public transit.”
Joi asks Baratunde, what do we do about the caring problem, where people just aren’t interested in learning about other places? Can humor connect people and help us care about new things? Comedians are often more approachable than politicians, Baratunde tells us, especially across cultures. He tells us the story of a comedy show he did in Amsterdam among Surimanese immigrants. Cadence, facial expressions, and tone come across even if you don’t understand the words. We can build an empathetic connection across massive language divides.
Joi asks about the idea of user-generated comedy. If it takes lots of practice to be a great writer “are people funnier now because of the Internet?”
There’s now more comedy in the world, just like there are more photos than there has ever been. But per capita? Open question. Twitter has raised the bar for the comedy that’s out there. Comedy’s been disrupted just like music and film. Some of the funniest material originates from amateurs, and agents and bookers are now looking to YouTube and Twitter for new talent.
Sure, there’s a lot of crap. “If I see another portrait video, I’m going to lose my mind. Just turn your phone.”
People on Twitter make the obvious jokes immediately after an event, eliminating some of the low-hanging fruit for comedians. Comedians have to react immediately or raise the bar on their stuff.
The Awkward Black Girl series is an example of someone making a show about their life without waiting for permission from an executive.
Technology is changing how people find and share comedy, Joi acnkowledges. He also points to Damn You, Autocorrect, which offers comedy caused by machinery. How does Baratunde see technology and comedy coming together?
Baratunde says that we can’t easily imagine the future– it just happens. He talks to us about the idea of data comedy– the ability to find absurd patterns in data.
Much of comedy is repetition and playing with patterns, so aggregation of material like Damn You, Autocorrect and Texts From Last Night work.
We can have fun with interfaces, too. Baratunde enjoys the Google Voice text composition field. The character counter lets the user know how many SMSes their message will send, and when you approach three messages, the numerical counter turns to “Really??”
Fellow fellow Christopher Bevans asks when Baratunde realized that he could integrate all three of his strengths (comedy, media, and technology).
“Swine flu.” It was more of a media virus than an actual influenza virus. Baratunde looked to see if anyone else had produced a parody Twitter account, and found only useful, scientific accounts. So he produced a Swine Flu account, and thought of it as an actual character, an off-putting little piggy. Baratunde went all transmedia, with Facebook Pages and voicemail accounts and a full personality for the swine flu.
— The Swine Flu (@the_swine_flu) May 4, 2009
The Twitter parody account has become a genre of its own. BPGlobalPR, Invisible Obama, and others now spring to life moments after an event or meme starts to take off.
Does internet sharing force you to constantly produce new material?
Standup is far more complicated than people realize. There’s an entire arch, put together over many experiments with what works and what doesn’t. It takes real time to put together a set. Sarah Silverman has spoken about how realtime sharing has broken the comedic process.
Some react by fighting it. The Oprah show confiscates your phones, NBC tape delays the Olympics. But it takes a special kind of
“No one complains about musicians playing the same song a thousand times. They demand it.” They say, “Play the first song that made you popular! The song that makes you sick at night! I don’t want to hear your innovation!”
To comics, the audience demands the opposite: “Don’t do what you’ve perfected! I want to hear the new, unfunny stuff!”
On multiple identities:
People sometime introduce Baratunde with something like, “Now this black guy is going to talk to you for a bit.” But he’s a lot more than a black guy. Just like the bank executives who destroyed the economy are also fathers, and stuff.
“How does race impact the interpretation of your comedy?” Shaka asks. Sometimes there’s a massive gap between what club audiences expect and what Baratunde does. When people see a black guy, people expect to see a criminal — we’ve been programmed to anticipate that. People might expect a rapper or an athlete — does Yoga count? By talking about race, writing the book, and giving a talk at South By Southwest, Baratunde see himself as part of a trend in which the Internet is broadening what’s possible (including people like Kamau Bell).
Baratunde talks about more recent projects, including cultivated wit and comedy hacks. During the last election, he and his colleagues created worked with Fight For the Future on Your Excuse Sucks, a website that tried to use comedy to shame people and undermine people’s excuses to not vote. It provided videos friends could send you in response to specific excuses.
Someone on the internet asks, “How’d that internet vacation go?”
It was wonderful. Baratunde is usually a promoter of constant connectivity, but realized this brings with it a certain baseline level of stress. He rediscovered word of mouth and eye contact. “We have a 3D, HD, large screen window provided by biology.” It was good to reground himself.