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Twitters, Titters, and The Onion

 
Baratunde Thurston fuses politics, portals, and punch lines.
Photograph by SXSW / Matthew Wedgwood
With a front page from The Onion projected in the background, Thurston emcees the 2009 SXSW Interactive Web Awards.

Extra

Listen to a March 12, 2009 interview with Baratunde Thurston.

The interview was recorded by DJ Marcus for Portrait of a Comedian, a regular program on BreakThru Radio (and used here with permission). BreakThru Radio is an independent radio station based in New York and online at http://breakthruradio.com

Keywords

comedy, politics

You’re saying, “Not another one of these techno-geeky black guys with political passions who does stand-up comedy and blogs.” But that’s Baratunde Thurston ’99. “I operate in three major spheres: comedy, politics, and technology,” he explains. “An ideal zone for me is where all three overlap. Politics is the heart; comedy and technology are tools to amplify or deliver a message. Humor is a really effective way to talk about what I really care about: politics and justice.”

The energetic Thurston (baratunde.com/blog) has a job that taps his triad of passions: since 2007, he’s been Web and political editor of The Onion, the satirical weekly newspaper that appears free in sidewalk boxes in eight U.S. cities and online globally (www.theonion.com). Like Jon Stewart and Andy Borowitz ’80 (see “April Fool Every Day,” May-June, page 35), The Onion invents untrue-but-funny news stories, often based on current events. “It’s ridiculous that I work here,” says Thurston, in his SoHo office. “I’m still giddy about it.”

Last year, he directed The Onion’s coverage of the tumultuous 2008 election; with the political intensity now dialed down, he is focusing on its online presence, including Twitter and Facebook pages and partnerships with YouTube, iTunes, and Google. He led a redesign of the website and is working to extend The Onion’s voice into new online outlets and platforms like the iPhone. 

“All that conversation about newspapers online,” he says. “I love being a part of it.” His media tastes are certifiably twenty-first century: “Twitter and Facebook are my primary means of following people and institutions.” He has been booked to host a 10-part television series premiering in August on the Science Channel, Popular Science’s Future Of, which will examine how technological innovations of today will reshape our lives five, 10, or 25 years in the future.

Thurston grew up in Washington, D.C., in Columbia Heights, where drugs and police activity were common. (His father was killed attempting to buy drugs when the boy was very young.) His politically active mother, who worked as a computer programmer in the office of the Comptroller of the Currency, raised him and his sister “with a keen sense of history and justice,” he says. “Every week we worked in a soup kitchen, actually getting our hands dirty.” They also had the first computer on their block.

Life changed in seventh grade when, helped by a scholarship, Thurston entered Sidwell Friends, the Quaker private school where President Obama’s daughters are now enrolled. He was already addicted to news and would keep one earphone plugged into National Public Radio or the BBC during class, “just in case I got bored with school,” he says, smiling. Sidwell was “a major reorientation, the critical thing that sets up your life,” he says. “When the Rodney King verdict came out, we protested with the support of the school. Most of the students at Sidwell are liberals from elite families who worked for places like the World Bank or the Clinton administration. They felt good about their politics. The challenge in a place like that is the denial. We had issues like the disproportionate punishment of black students, the traditional curriculum, hiring more black faculty. It was a little version of America, with an extra dose of self-righteousness.”

At Harvard, Thurston was “into” computer science and math, but concentrated in philosophy, which was more fun, he explains. “I see things in structural, analytic ways and found a very comfortable home in analytic philosophy. Logic is so clear, like [computer] code. But in programming, a mistyped semicolon can break down the whole thing—that’s too sensitive. Philosophy made my mind a lot sharper. You learn to suss out the main point in a body of information, and to recognize an original thought after sparring with so many unoriginal ones.”

He also joined the Signet Society and the Crimson, on both the photo and news boards (“I couldn’t choose. I’m like Winnie-the-Pooh, I’ve always got my hands in many pots of honey.”) He was shocked that “smart Harvard people didn’t know what was going on in the world—revolution in Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers,” so he launched an e-mail newsletter called NewsPhlash for his black classmates, and started “to put my own attitude into the coverage,” he says. “It became my satirical take on the news, and that’s when people started responding. That’s when I got funny.”

After junior year, Thurston had lined up a dream summer internship at the Washington Post, where he had once been a gofer. But a repetitive-stress injury made him unable to type; he had to forgo the internship and worked instead with the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, playing Iago’s confederate Roderigo in Othello. “That summer shifted everything,” he says. “I had a lot of fun being onstage, interacting with an audience.”

 After college, he tried management consulting in the high tech/communications area before he and two partners started their own venture-capital firm with an ill-timed 2000 launch that collapsed along with the dot-com bubble. Thurston returned to consulting with his old firm in Boston, CSMG. “I was the young, hip guy who worked on cool, techie things,” he recalls. “Online video distribution, the shift from landlines to mobile communications, instant messaging, social networks, fragmentation of media.”

In December 2001, he had a crucial conversation with his then-girlfriend, singer/songwriter Mieka Pauley ’02, who asked him which he liked more, theater or writing? When he said he loved both, she followed up: “Then why aren’t you doing either of them?” Thurston made a commitment to himself to write every week, and enrolled in a standup comedy course at the Boston Center for Adult Education and a comedy-writing workshop at Modern Humorist in Brooklyn, the entertainment company founded by Lampoon alumni John Aboud ’95 and Michael Colton ’97. Every Tuesday night for eight weeks, Thurston left work in Boston early to catch a 6:00 p.m. shuttle flight to La Guardia, where he’d rent a car and drive one-way to Brooklyn for the two-hour workshop at 8:00. Afterwards, he’d hang out in midtown until the 3 a.m. train left for Boston. He’d catch a few hours of sleep aboard Amtrak, then go straight to work and shower there. 

What grew from that was an active performing career as a politically oriented standup comic, whose first home base was the Comedy Studio at the Hong Kong Restaurant in Harvard Square. (He had to pay dues, of course, like performing in places where “you were required to bring 10 people in to get six minutes onstage—a $15 cover plus a two-drink minimum. My friends got tired of showing up, so I would offer to pay their way. You end up paying $25 apiece in order to perform—for free!”) He eventually worked with Laughing Liberally, a New York-based politically themed comedy collective, and has also played many conferences, like those of Netroots Nation. (“I’m a conference whore now,” he says.)

Besides self-publishing three humorous books, Thurston, in 2006, helped launch Jack & Jill Politics (www.jackandjillpolitics.com), a blog that offers “a black bourgeoisie perspective on U.S. politics.” He confesses that burning so brightly on five hours of sleep per night—and consecutive weekends in Austin, Boston, and Amsterdam, for example—has one downside: he gets “pretty ill” every 18 months or so, including one bout with tuberculosis. Even so, he says, “I really do think I’m among the top 100 most fortunate people in the world.” He hopes to have children, and to emulate his comic heroes, including Dick Gregory, George Carlin, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jon Stewart. “The point of being funny,” he says, “is in having something to say.”