The Baratunde Thurston Interview

April 13, 2012

Last week I phone-chatted with today’s interviewee, who co-founded the black political blog, Jack and Jill Politics and serves as Director of Digital for The Onion. He has written for Vanity Fair and the UK Independent, hosted Popular Science’s Future Of on Discovery Science and appears on cable news regularly. Then-candidate Barack Obama called him "someone I need to know." Baratunde travels the world speaking and advising and performs standup regularly in New York. He resides in Brooklyn, lives on Twitter and has over 30 years experience being black. His first book, How To Be Black, was published earlier this year by Harper Collins. I by and large lifted this bio from his website, where you can find much more about him.

What have been the most memorable encounters on your book tour?
In Austin, I gave the opening keynote at South by Southwest Interactive, the biggest audience I’d ever addressed. I wasn’t talking about the book, but about the power of comedy to provide some understanding in a complex world. Being on a stage in front of 3,500 people and an overflow world with another 1,500, Twitter unusable for several hours, I thought, “They like me, they really like me!”

The next day I did almost the opposite type of event. I did a very intimate and small diner for the book that a company called iMeet had sponsored in one of the tall buildings in downtown Austin with a view of the surrounding area It was at sunset and this guy Dante is rethinking black food--its labeling and its content. He doesn’t call it soul food, he calls it Trans-Atlantic African food. It’s sort of the chef version of How to be Black. So we did this dinner and I didn’t do any formal presentation. I sat him down for interviews with my friend James Andrews. I sat with him on the couch and there were thirty people in the room. He asked me questions and we took questions from the audience.

When you write a book or put anything out in the world, you want people to read it or view it or touch it--assuming it’s not your body--and get something from it. In that moment seeing the very emotional reaction of a lot of the people in the room to the book was beautiful and humbling and almost frightening like, “Oh wow, people care.” I got an email from a parent a few months ago who really identified with my mother through the book and was going through some challenges of her own with her kids and private school, and the cost of tuition and asked me what would your mother do? I was like, “I don’t know.” So when I did this private dinner in Austin, I relayed that in answer to a question that someone asked me about significant moments and it got very quiet in the room and the next question was “so what do you think your mom would do?” And I was like, “I just told you I don’t know!” (laughs) But I thought about that and I actually provided an answer. That was not a funny moment, it was a very touching and challenging and significant moment.

When you get home, what do you most look forward to doing?
Sleeping. Spending time on my couch in front of my television. I went home last week for five days in a row which was luxurious and I came out of Penn station and I was like, “Oh, New York, I forgot how great you are and how much you smell like pee.” Love it. And it made me want to go pee on something. So I did. ‘Cause you have to do that. I like being in New York. I have really good friends there who I don’t see enough of. Just walking around Brooklyn, eating brunch, drinking whiskey, just being in that city. I moved there because it’s so exciting and dynamic and full of people, but I leave so much, especially over the last few months, and it is exciting to see the world, but it’s also exhausting. I have almost no stability in my life right now. I think of myself as geo-spatially unstable. I don’t know exactly where and when I am sometimes, waking up in all these different beds, so I just look forward to very simple things, waking up in my bed, my couch, my friends, my city.

You must get a lot of people asking for advice as to how to break into comedy either through The Onion or standup. What do you typically tell them?
I tell them it’s hopeless and don’t even try. We’re all doomed and then I wish them luck half-heartedly and I don’t mean it. No, I tell people, we’re in a stage where creating your own opportunities is almost the default setting. The era of asking permission, following a predetermined path, those days are if not fully over, they’re numbered. So for folks who are like, “How do I get a  job at The Onion?” Well you don’t, and I don’t even know if you want to. Not because there’s nothing wrong with The Onion, but because you can wait in line for that opportunity for years and never get called; meanwhile you could have been building your own world and attracting people to it and creating your own version of what you think you want to do at The Onion in your own way and maybe some other opportunity will come to you, maybe The Onion will come to you. So I generally try to advise people to just start and do something. Take a step toward what you think you want to do rather than waiting for the perfect moment. There are no perfect moments that we don’t create incrementally along the way.

When you do write humor, how do you know what to use for your own books versus The Onion or podcasts?
My writing contributions to The Onion are very limited. In the past I’ve written a bunch more, I’ve written headlines and they’ve gotten published. I’m very proud of those moments. I have a dance that I do. I’ve written maybe a few articles over the years, but that’s a whole other time commitment to do that, a whole other level of respect I have for people who do that regularly. My role there is to advise on digital strategy and on some of the political content possibilities. There’s very little competition creatively in terms of, here’s what I give The Onion versus myself. As far as what do I write about, I don’t have a system. It’s not that regimented where I’m like, now I’m in stand up mode and I will think of jokes that are appropriate for a live audience with a microphone and alcohol versus a column. I’m not writing another book right now. I blog loosely and I prepare my talks for book events or my public speaking events. In all those cases the audience determines in large part what I write about. If I’m doing a conference about the future of digital media or inclusive innovation I just think more about what is appropriate from my life and what I’ve seen in the world that fits that. There are two outlets I do think a little more consciously about--there’s my email list, and in that case I’m trying to go deep into a personal story that I haven't shared before and provide a behind the scenes window into where I’ve come from or how I see things. This past week I wrote about the lottery, this whole mega million situation.

As a kid I remember my mom driving out of state to go play this record jackpot and I had a terrible bike accident while she was gone. There was a powerful metaphor; I had to go home and clean my own wounds and apply the antibiotic ointment and deal with the shock of the injury all by myself and then not go to the hospital because if she came home and I wasn’t there she’d be freaked out and it was all because she went off for a very limited chance at getting a big pile of money.

I do an audio podcast that started off as a behind the scenes of a book tour. Every day I would sort of check in with the podcast: Here’s what I did today, here’s the crazy thing I saw happen and you can kind of hear as I get to week three the level of fatigue. My voice gets raspier and raspier as I’m recording them at one in the morning and then two in the morning and then three. So in those cases I do think about the content as something I want to be heavily personal and somewhat revealing.

How often do people come up to you knowing you work at The Onion and do standup wanting to submit jokes to you?
Too often. Rarely do people have suggestions for my own act, but they have too many ideas about what The Onion should do, like “I got a great idea for The Onion, you guys should totally...” and we almost always should not. They’re wrong. More importantly, people kind of think they understand what The Onion is but they mostly don’t. “Oh, it’s funny fake news.” It sort of is that but there’s a very particular sensibility. I didn’t even respect it until I was actually getting my healthcare from the organization and I had to be fully immersed in it. It’s its own language like Spanglish. Once you’re there, you’re like, oh this is an Onion headline, this isn’t. For those people, it’s like you should just go ahead and post that on Facebook.

On tour or at home, what typically is the first media you encounter in the morning?
Twitter, Twitter, Twitter. I sleep with Twitter. I make some love with Twitter. I fight on Twitter. It is more my home than my home. It’s that stable interface that I can somewhat rely on. I subscribe to a bunch of people and kind of dive in immediately. I try to pay attention to emails from Politico. For the purpose of feeling terrible about American democracy, I try to tune into that in the mornings. Mostly it’s just what I happen to see on Twitter and a little bit on Facebook.

Who are some of your favorite Twitter accounts that you follow?
I just started following Chavez Official which is a satirical account of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. I also love Pourmecoffee, a fun political comedic perspective. Olivia Ma on YouTube, an old high school friend of mine. She doesn't tweet very often--there are a few accounts I’ve opted in for SMS updates--She is one of the accounts that I get on my phone. I don’t even know if she knows this. She’s about to find out. Her, the president. I love to know what the president is up to. And breaking news on Al Jazeera.

Do you ever get sucked into flamewars on Twitter or on the blogs?
Yeah. I try not to now. I was really good at fighting on the internet, like I would stomp your ass.  I grew up in the era of the email flame war overlapping with black culture, like in college me and my black friends would just get into it. Big epic email battles and I so looked forward to them. It’s like training for a prize fight. My goal is to make you never want to use the internet again. Like when you see the Twitter login button you’re going to feel nervous and ashamed and maybe you’ll cry. That’s the goal.

You know, now I really don’t have time. There are some moments that I choose to engage with an idiot because it’s good to flex those muscles. I had a moment a few weeks ago that I captured on my Storify account. If you go to Storify you’ll see a collection called “because you didn’t tweet me I’m not going to finish reading your book.” There was some dude and he was like “Hey, I sent you a really complimentary tweet, didn’t get a response, thinking twice about finishing your book.” I wasn’t even sure if he was being serious. I have made the mistake of going nuclear on people who were just joking because I have this very warlike position with internet battles. They’ll be like, “Dude I was just joking” and I’ll be like, “Well A) It wasn’t very funny and B) I’m sorry.” I murdered your family virtually because you had a weird sense of humor. I checked with him first but he was serious about moving my book down in the queue of things he was reading. I did a whole podcast about it. That’s the worst of internet culture, that idea of I’m so important you have to stop everything you got going on in your life and if you don’t acknowledge me then you’re bullsh*t.

I wonder how effective that is. Is Jonathan Franzen like, "Please, finish The Corrections!”?
I was like, I assume the author you are replacing me with has responded to all of your tweets.

What’s funny about flame wars is that the real world is both victory and the admission of defeat. Like, if I step away from the computer, I realize I have a real life. But at the same time you wonder if the person at the other end is thinking, “Oh she’s not responding, I beat her!”
That’s a dangerous game. On Twitter, if someone starts attacking you there, the first thing I do now is I go look at their profile. Who is this person? This one person, he was talking so much trash, he has zero followers. I was like, the market has spoken! You are not worth my time. Not even your friends--you have people who love you and they’re not following you. I’m going to let this one go. You realize they just love baiting everyone. When I do engage I’m not necessarily trying to convince people. It’s a fun rhetorical exercise and it helps me burn off testosterone.

Speaking of enjoying fighting, what are your favorite politicians who you love to hate?
Oooh. Um, golly. To some degree Romney but hate involves caring. I almost feel nothing for him. He hasn’t even managed to get a rise out of me. Palin is on a perpetual list of people who I shouldn’t know exist and so I by default will always be annoyed with John McCain for inflicting her upon America. So his legacy wasn’t his military service or his attempts to normalize trade relations with Vietnam; instead it’s what he did to America by throwing Palin at us. He’ll have to live with that for the rest of his life and sadly so will we.

Who are your favorite stand up comics?
I have a lot of young/contemporary people who I love right now. Hannibal Buress is one of my favorites. Hari Kondabolu.

You’re the second person in a row I’ve interviewed who has mentioned him.
Yeah, he’s great. Who else is rocking my sockage right now? Morgan Murphy is ridiculous. She’s so absurd but she’s very very funny. I’m a big fan and there’s have you seen MC Mr. Napkins, aka Zach Sherwin. Funny dude. I had him on my “How to be Black” show in L.A. He’s very not black. He does have a Jew fro and that qualified him. He’s also a great MC. This dude can rap for real. These are the people who when they get super famous it will be because of this interview. You’re welcome, Earth.

Do you believe in tolerance on a sliding scale based on age or location? When The Help came out there was a  lot of discussion about the way it was patronizing. But I was thinking, you should probably expect an educated audience to recognize that problem, but what if there was some 85 year old formerly racist white lady in Mississippi who saw the movie and it changed her perspective? Is the issue of racism a little milder in that case? Will you cut people slack depending on where they’re from?
Yeah. That sounds reasonable. I didn’t actually see The Help so now let me weigh in on it. It’s terrible! (laughs). Yeah, that feels like the right way to think and talk about it. People see things differently based on where and when they’re from. I find no fault with your logic. I don’t have a whole lot to add to it. You could even say “he said yes.” That’s a beautiful question.

I spend too much time online and people were getting really riled up about that. I was just thinking someone’s grandma might have seen that movie and maybe come out a little more enlightened even though the movie wasn’t perhaps as enlightened as it should be.
I don’t know about that specific movie, but I think the way stories are told is due for some change. I’m trying to think of another example... Kony was another example. Very good intentions. I actually saw the screening right before they uploaded it. I happened to be at this private screening in L.A., didn’t know anything about it. I was crying; it’s a really emotionally manipulative video, well done. I ended up posting a link to it on my Facebook and then all this criticism started pouring in and I was like, “Whoa,what’s going on here?” The most meaningful and substantive criticism was, it wasn’t just an act of oversimplification. Simplification is part of making a movie, right? You can’t actually tell, in real time, the story of millions of people and all their value.

That’s why we have stories; they’re shortcuts to the truth. It was the idea that the real offense and crime was that the actual people in Uganda are not happy with this and they’re the ones ostensibly in whose name this is being done. The absence of their voices in this--it’s not that hard--we live in an age of near instant global communication so you could have sent an email or a text or just dropped in, you know, by the way, what do you guys think? So the presumption to speak on behalf of others in an age when people can increasingly speak for themselves, that is an interesting problem. We have created a world for so long where we design a media system that requires folks to have spokespeople. Oh, we’re going to have Edward R. Murrow tell us everything that’s important in an hour. That world is over. Now people can tell their own stories. It still requires synthesis and analysis, cause it’s a lot of noise.

For me that’s the most interesting part of something like The Help or like Kony. Cause it’s like, that’s cool, Americans you feel good, but the people who actually live through it, they can talk now. Can we create a system and build a platform to amplify those voices or at least integrate them better? I don’t think we should do away completely with these other perspectives. I think it’s very powerful when a white person says we gotta help Africa because obviously an African is going to say it. So. I have some thoughts. There they are.

You’re very busy. Do you have time to read books right now?
I love books, I’m very pro-book. I’ve got a book myself. I’d be kind of a hypocrite if I was like No, I do not read books! I do a lot of audio books through Audible. I’ve had a membership since 2000 and I grew up listening to books on tape, so that’s a big part of my life. I just finished The Hunger Games book two and Game of Thrones book two. I’d like to do a mashup: Hunger Game of Thrones where winter is always coming and children fight to the death. I’ve just read an advance copy of a book that’s coming out in July which I can’t recommend enough. It’s called Some of My Best Friends are Black and it’s by this dude,Tanner Colby. It’s about the limited success of social integration in the U.S. And I read my friend’s books. Sara Benincasa, her book is fabulous, I cried, I laughed, it was better than a Broadway show.

So you are not moving to Chicago?
Like I said,  I like to pee on things in New York. I like to maintain my relationship with my disgusting city.

But you’ll still be doing your digital work with The Onion.
So far as I know. The Onion’s future is an evolving and beautiful thing. That is my plan right now.

How does it feel to be the 309th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
What’s the name of the website again?