Can tech be funny? Baratunde Thurston thinks so

Pub date October 30, 2012
SectionPixel Vision

Baratunde Thurston has probably racked up more frequent flyer miles in the past year than you or me can hope to log in our lifetimes. Just in the last month, the author, comedian, former digital director of The Onion, founder of comedy startup Cultivated Wit, and Brooklyn resident has made trips to Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Dublin, and London. He’s stopped in Maine, Oregon, Boston, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico on the November itinerary. Clearly, his attempts to bring levity to our tech-saturated culture are resonating outside Silicon Valley. 

This week SF will be on his schedule – he’ll be hosting an event on Sat/3 at Public Works.

2012 has been a banner year for this Renaissance man. In February Thurston released the NYT bestseller How to be Black, a work that doubles as an instruction manual on the nuanced aspects of black life in professional and social realms and as a memoir of his adolescent years growing up with a pan-African single mother, in a neighborhood he describes in the book as “just like The Wire. We had the drug dealing, the police brutality, the murders. Well, it was almost a perfect match. We had everything The Wire had except for universal critical acclaim and the undying love of white people who saw it”


On a Skype call from his hotel room in London with the Guardian, Thurston remarks that in the time since the book’s release, his own “views on blackness have hardened and become much more staunch.” 

He fondly recalls the wide variety of positive reactions the book has elicited from its readers. He says that among black readers, his chapters on being a racial minority in private school and the workplace – not to mention the tribulations of having an unique name (Baratunde comes from the Yoruba Nigerian name Babatunde) have been especially resonant and validating.

The book has also hit home with non-black readers. On a plane ride from New York to Los Angeles, a Colombian woman overheard Thurston discussing the book and asked to borrow a copy. Before the flight even landed, she had already finished the book, and filled in Thurston on her own experience of being a fair-skinned Colombian. 

In another encounter, a white man from a black neighborhood in Chicago was prompted by reading the book to share with Thurston his epiphany of when he realized he was not black. His friends decided to form a rap group and said he wasn’t allowed to rap. Instead, he was designated as the manager.

As for whether or not this book can actually make you black? Thurston reports that he has not heard of any such transformation.

In the past couple months; the central focus of Thurston’s professional life has been shifting from HTBB to his digital humor lab Cultivated Wit, which he launched last June with fellow Onion alums Brian Janosch and Craig Cannon. Cultivated Wit’s raison d’etre is to infuse humor into Silicon Valley. His reasoning behind this move should be clear. Outside of the occasional Google home page gimmick, tech companies aren’t well known for their ace sense of humor.

Cultivated Wit acts as a consulting firm: it aims to help tech companies produce comedy-tinged marketing and outreach operations – sometimes remixing the conventional hack day by adding standup comedy, creating the hybrid “comedy hack day.” The company plans on releasing a torrent of comedic apps “with the aim to push the envelope on where comedy can happen and also on the types of interactions and personality an app can and should have,” says Thurston.

He’s never lived here, but Thurston says he has deep connections to SF and the tech scene, which should prove crucial now that he’s got his own startup. He starred in an episode of Popular Science’s Future of Everything on the Discovery Channel that was filmed in Berkeley, SF, and Palo Alto. He’s been known to do standup at the Punchline.

And as Cultivated Wit continues to expand and go on the hunt for VC cash, Thurston has recognized the expanding role the Bay Area plays in his professional life. 

“The future should be architected not just by engineers but by art as well. So the Bay is essential for us,” he says.

Such is Thurston’s appreciation for the Bay, he’s throwing a How to be Black reading this Saturday at Public Works to go along with the paperback release of his book. Attendees can pay $5 to attend the pre-reading whiskey hour, where you’ll score a free signed copy of HTBB and meet the whiskey-loving author (fyi, Thurston’s is partial to Whiskey Thieves when drinking in the city.) 

Comedians Kevin Camia and Denae Hannah will join the lineup that night for two-and-a-half hours of standup comedy, readings, and a Q&A session. Just don’t queue up to ask Thurston if he plans on writing How to be a Black Best-Selling Author – we did it for you. Thurston’s response: “I plan on living that, but I don’t necessarily plan on documenting that in book format.”

How To Be Black #paperblack book release

with Kevin Camia and Denae Hannah

Sat/3, 3:30-7pm, $20-25

Public Works

161 Erie, SF