Cultivating Wit

HOST: Alexander Heffner
GUEST: Baratunde Thurston
AIR DATE: 06/28/14
VTR: 06/04/14

I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.  In our politics and perhaps too frequently in our national discourse, incivility still bears its ugly head.  For this reason, we may often find ourselves craving an infusion of good humor…insights that transcend the day-to-day news cycles, uplift our spirits and force us to embrace our collective humanity. I could not dream of a more fitting or charismatic person to deliver such a message than today’s guest.

Author of the New York Times best-selling memoir How to Be Black, Baratunde Thurston is a comic genius, for sure, an Internet trailblazer and prolific speaker about identity in the American experience.

As Digital Director of The Onion newspaper, Thurston brought satirical fake news into the modern age.  He has since founded “Cultivated Wit,” a creative design consultancy that combines humor and technology to … quote … “bring to life great ideas.”

Younger people – not only twenty-somethings but those in their 30s and 40s – can attribute their news literacy to the comedy of Baratunde Thurston and those in his company…the Stephen Colbert’s and Bill Maher’s of the media scene.

At the backbone of his humor, Thurston’s book and other writings acutely – and always hilariously – reveal his desire to be a catalyst for positive change. So I want to first ask the self-described Hash-Tagger-in-Chief how to cultivate wit that is sound both for the mind but also sound for the health of a society? Baratunde…

THURSTON:  Wow.  Amazing intro.  High bar.  Hello, Alexander.

HEFFNER:  Hello, Baratunde.

THURSTON:  Man … comic genius.  Colbert’s in my company, what a … okay … wow … thank you.

HEFFNER:  It’s true.

THURSTON:  That’s ridiculous …

HEFFNER:  (Laughter)

THURSTON:  … but I appreciate it, it really do.  So, yeah … what’s, what’s the question?  (Laughter)

HEFFNER:  To cultivate wit …

THURSTON:  Yeah.

HEFFNER:  … that’s found not only for the individual’s experience on the tube, but for a society?  And how do you walk that balance?

THURSTON:  Man.  I try not to think about it like that.  To begin with if every statement is put through the filter of “How will this help society” then …

HEFFNER:  You are a philosopher.

THURSTON:  I, I did major in philosophy in college.  I have a degree in it, I, I guess I’m a practitioner of it by virtue of that piece of paper.  And, you know, I am … I’ve always cared about current events and news.  I’ve been politically active and campaigned on people’s behalf where I used to live in Massachusetts … and where I still live now in America in terms of … on behalf of President Obama and other local politicians here in New York City.  So I … my range of concern is beyond just the laugh, that’s for sure.  So what I am sometimes trying to do, though not all the times, sometimes I’m just being silly … I don’t want people to think like I have a lofty goal with every tweet, because they will be severely underwhelmed (laugh) like “How does this help America?”  … it doesn’t, it’s just me being a weirdo.

HEFFNER:  (Laughter)

THURSTON:  But where I try to make that mix work, is to bring my point of view and to bring some levity to the awkwardness.  So the book is maybe the longest example of this, where, you know, you’re talking about racism and people’s “offendedness” and defensiveness around this topic.  And I try to use my own life in a humorous way to, like, talk about the awkwardness of being the only Black kid in a school environment or growing up in DC at a time when it was ravaged by crack wars.  Like that’s not all necessarily hilarious, but there’s a take to be had on it, that allows more of a conversation to happen, then just preaching … like I’m doing right now.  Very unhilariously.

HEFFNER:  No.  Very hilariously, as well.

THURSTON:  (Laughter)  Oh, yeah.

HEFFNER:  So to cultivate wit though in, in having a backbone that deliberately attempts to be pro-social …

THURSTON:  Yeah.

HEFFNER: … rather than anti-social … how do you craft that message?

THURSTON:  Practice.  I mean there’s no … I don’t know of a formula which says, “Oh you have three parts research and two point five units of self-righteousness plus seven quadrangles of levity equals, you know, amazing joke that also makes a point.”

I have … I started writing humorously my freshman year at college and it was a satirical news newsletter that I put together … just for my friends … for an email mailing list.

But it was  born out of a take on what was happening in the world that I though was just more honest.  So, in some ways what I’m trying to do is just tell it like it is.

Like we have this whole scandal right now with the returned prisoner of war from Afghanistan.  And it’s become somehow acceptable on the Right side of the media to imply … not even imply … to claim that like not every service member is worth bringing home.  And we have to do some kind of math to figure out “Well, if they deserted then we should leave them.  If three people died trying to rescue them, then the cost benefit of human life …” like “No, you don’t … do you get to do that?”

Like does everybody who was  brought home get retroactively put through some wringer?  Do we send people back.  Do we send John McCain back to Vietnam because “Well, it turns out the mechanical failure on his plane … he didn’t maintain his plane right, so he has to go back to the Viet Cong?”  Like it’s a ridiculous line of logic that absurdly applied reveals that it’s not a road that we should be pursuing.

So that’s just an off-the-cuff, you know, example, not even sure it’s a great one, but how I try to approach some of these issues.  Because anger is easy …it comes in a flash and so, an attempt to translate that into something that more people would listen to, is sometimes the goal.

HEFFNER:  Do you think that comes from a skewed world view?

THURSTON:  Oh, I have a heavily skewed world view.

HEFFNER:  But I mean the folks who would …

THURSTON:  Oh, (laugher) …

HEFFNER:  … criticize …

THURSTON:  … oh, yeah, I’m a super …

HEFFNER:  And, and to the extent that skewed … (laughter)

THURSTON:  Yeah, I mean I think … I don’t’ even know what a … an unskewed world view would be.  I think we all have a skew to our world view.

Hopefully we have a common enough view that we can co-exist peacefully as a society and we have a balance of skew which leads to something productive.

I have a world view that’s skewed heavily to the Left in many things.  There are people who have world view that skews heavily to the Right and that’s just one filter on it.

There are all kinds of angles you could take on the world, so my skew is toward revealing contradiction and absurdity and ridiculousness.  Someone else’s maybe skewed toward a religious interpretation … from whether it’s the Bible or the Koran.  And how we meet is the fun part.  And sometimes the infuriating part.

HEFFNER:  I mention your comic contemporaries because you have such a decisive role in our democracy especially in this contemporary age.

I want to ask you … do you think that today’s comedian has become more explicitly this kind of irreplaceable antidote to all that ails society?

THURSTON:  I love the idea that what I’ve chosen to do with my life is describable as “irreplaceable”.  In the age of outsourcing and, you know, machines taking our jobs, I feel secure in my future when you call what I do “irreplaceable.”  I think …

HEFFNER:  But is that fair?

THURSTON:  Ah, you know, from my skewed perspective …

HEFFNER:  (Laugh)

THURSTON:  … absolutely.  Comedy is a great … can be … a great translator of the truth and of reality and of a way to testify to what’s actually happening and like why it’s important or why it’s wrong.

And there’s a way we listen to … like what comedy does is, is a … has a passive impact on us … a subconscious impact … because you make somebody laugh, you’re kind of messing with their head.  You getting them to agree with you without saying “Do you agree with me?”.  Laughter is a sign of agreement because they’ve kind of come around to your skewed world view.  And the laugh is a symbol of, like, “Yes, I’m with you”.  At least for that line for that moment.

And, you know, Bill Maher … I don’t agree with everything he says.  Certainly about religion and Islam.  But he’s funny and he’s clearly really smart.  So I think in an age where the media is heavily fragmented and been forced to be a profit making enterprise and it’s so, so fragmented in an age where our politicians are bought … explicitly by massive interests and in an age where we can seek out opinions that we already pre-align with … the comedian has an important role to play in trying to cut across some of those lines.

HEFFNER:  And how do you transcend that spontaneous, immediate reaction into something deeper … from the listener?

THURSTON:  Whew … I think … I think you’re giving us a lot of credit, and I appreciate it … I do … it’s, it’s like an honor, but sometimes you don’t … first of all, it doesn’t happen every time … and sometimes you stumble your way into it.

And you just have a moment, like every … you look at every single sketch or monologue or “bit” from the Daily Show and they don’t all land super hard.  Some of them are just flippant.  Some of them are kind of dumb … they’re funny, but they’re just kind of silly … and then there’s …every once in while … pretty regular clip … or The Onion or Colbert or any outlet like that … like “ohhhhhh”. And I think part of how you do it is to constantly be doing it.  And you just swing … a lot … I don’t actually like baseball at all, but you take a lot of what you call, “at bats” … is that … that’s … see I’m a sports man …

HEFFNER:  (Laugh)

THURSTON:  … I make sports metaphor, there you go … real American.

HEFFNER:  Yeah.  Well, I wondered because studies do show again and again that it is you and Steven Colbert in this comedic cohort who are most swaying young people, but even Americans as a whole.

THURSTON:  Yeah.

HEFFNER:  How do you feel about that?

THURSTON:  I feel terrified by the prospect of the responsibility that comes with that.  And, and I’m not …

HEFFNER:  But you accept that responsibility.

THURSTON:  I mean I guess I accept it by my actions because I keep doing it.  So, if, if that’s acceptance then “Yes, I accept.

I’m not a full-on journalist.  I did work on my college newspaper.  I worked over summers at The Washington Post, in the mailroom and the copy station and, and I blogged politically for a long time.  And I posted shows.

I have journalistic tendancies.  I’m not a full-on journalist, but yeah, I think there’s … the artist, even beyond comedy, has always played this role.

Painters and sculptors and poets are re-interpreting reality for us and showing us who we are through their art, rather than through, like a political speech or philosophical tome or a religious text.

So this is a consistent theme.  I think we have an accelerated growth of this because of technology and more people are seeking and because we have so many choices for where we get our information that who we trust is harder.  So, yeah, I, I think there’s something special about the comic.  Again, selfishly assumed.

HEFFNER:  You take issue with this idea of post-racial … which I think you would agree was a false promise of the Obama Presidency.

THURSTON:  Oh, yeah.   It was a lovely idea … people like “Oh, we’re over it … you got your Black President (washing hand gesture) let’s move on to the next major social flaw in our democracy”.  And so “post-racial” … nice sounding word … post anything, like post apocalyptic … even that sounds great … it’s terrible, but it sounds nice, as it resonates off your tongue.  So, yeah, “post-racial” was a quaint notion that with the election of Barack Obama we had resolved all of our, you know, racialized history and, and that’s not …

HEFFNER:  But post-racist …

THURSTON:  Yeah.

HEFFNER:  … is important.

THURSTON:  Yeah.  Now that’s … not a term I’ve heard a lot of people use.  It is important to try to get there.  I think even “post” implies like we’re skipping.  You know, it’s almost like … like it needs an adverb in front of it, like “exhaustedly … you know just barely across the linedly post racist” (laugh) because there’s work to be done.  And so …

HEFFNER:  And it sounds like a lot of work.

THURSTON:  Yeah the linguistic twist of saying “post” anything … it’s like “I’m, I’m post-caloric, I don’t’ need food anymore.”  Yeah, it doesn’t work that way.  “I’m post-obese … I don’t have to work out”.  And like “I’m post-shame …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

THURSTON:  … I never have any doubts about my place in the world.  I’m post ego, totally humble.”  So saying it doesn’t quite make it so.  You’ve got to do the work.

HEFFNER:  I want to read an excerpt from a recent POLITICO story …

THURSTON:  Yeah.

HEFFNER:  … and I want to ask the author of How To Be Black his reaction.

THURSTON:  Hope you can find him.

HEFFNER:  This … the story was the Obama paradox … the President finally is much freer to talk about things that matter to him.  He discusses issues of race in a far more personal way, more frequently than he ever did in his first term.  He’s more prone to speak his mind on contentious social issues to the point of volunteering that, in his younger days … quote … “I got high”.  So, is this an accurate reading in your estimation Baratunde Thurston, or a miscalculation of how to view President Obama’s Blackness?

THURSTON:  So, I have a whole chapter in this book called “How to be the Next Black President” … next is in parenthesis and I basically dissect his first term for hints about how someone else who wants to hold this office would have to chart their course.

A lot of which is being racial … right … just by being brown, but not talking about it because it makes America uncomfortable taking a look back at that history.

And I do see some more openness on his part, he’s got his “My Brother’s Keeper” Initiative, which is coming right out of the White House … all … focusing on the plight of Black men in this country … who, if you just look at that demographic … a lot of challenge … heavy incarceration rate, put on by policies of another Democratic President … so not everything cuts so easily Left and Right and Democratic and Republican to look at the impact of these policies of the people vote for that particular party … so, there is a lot of truth to that political statement.  And it also just makes sense.

Every second term President, especially in the last two years, starts to just pull out the stops.  Like George W. Bush is like “I want to do away with Social Security”.

Like he could never have gotten re-elected with the voting populace of elderly people saying “I want to put all your Social Security in the stock market.”  And then look what happened to that .  So I’m not saying Obama’s talking about race as equivalent to privatizing Social Security.  I am saying that Presidents in a second term have a history of letting a little loose and if he does a press conference with a flask, I wouldn’t be surprised.  I think it would be nice to see him let his proverbial hair down a little bit, certainly gotten grayer.  So I take a little issue with the idea that he is, you know, talking about his drug use … like he campaigned around that, too.

And I think we’re at a generational split where this pretense of perfection is waning and we actually want more authentic political leaders and someone who is painted as a flawless hero, it’s a risk … because we know they’re not.  So, I hope that’s more of a trend for future politicians, that we don’t put them so much on a pedestal that we, you now, get so excited and, and force their decline.  And also have just outsized expectations about what one person can do.

HEFFNER:  We’ve been talking about “skew” and I asked you this particular excerpt from this POLITICO story …

THURSTON:  MmmHmm.

HEFFNER:  … because it seems to provide a prism that may not really speak to the heart of what people of color experience.  “I got high” is, is that not … I don’t want to say “offensive”, but to look at issues of race through that prism exclusively …

THURSTON:  Yeah.

HEFFNER:  Is that too much a dominant feature of today’s coverage of race relations?

THURSTON:  We don’t … there is a, a lazy coverage of race relations by … I usually call them “mainstream” media … I don’t want to sound like Sarah Palin here in “lamestream” media but there’s something to the idea that the people designated to kind of moderate our national discourse, aren’t necessarily equipped.  You saw it in the first round of campaigning that Obama did … where it’s like “Oh, he’s, he’s a … he’s super Black.  Oh, he’s a militant.  Like this guy who graduated from the University of Chicago, which has a pretty Conservative view on economic policy is somehow a revolutionary.  And the guy who  … has the … heavy funding from Wall Street, the most in the history of any President is somehow a Socialist.”

And there is a racialized like “othering” of this dude, just like he’s not one of us.  Even if you look at the POW thing … how do we make returning a POW somehow un-American because it’s this guy.

Now some of it’s just politics.  You know that we all seek to vilify our political opponents and Bill Clinton certainly got a lot of it and he’s not a Black dude.  But he was a Left guy who was the first Black President in his affinity for an African American population … I think just rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.  So yeah, painting him talking about race in the same sentence as him smoking up or getting high, is just a lazy association that fits in a world where “Oh, yeah, Black people … they’re the drug dealers, right?”  Yeah.

HEFFNER:  So when, when did Barack Obama in your estimation earn the bona fides, if you will, of the Black community by virtue of substantive policy reform?

THURSTON:  Ahhhhh, in some ways he’s still got more work to do.  And, I think …

HEFFNER:  Which ways?

THURSTON:  The “My Brother’s Keeper” gets at it and what Eric Holder is trying to do with the retroactive sentencing around, you know, the drug policy’s incarceration is a step in a great direction.

But the wholesale abandonment of economic potential and familial units in the form of mass incarceration of people who look like me, is a devastating policy.  And it’s not something he ran on, it’s not something that he was, like, doing in the first term and I’m happy to see some of that start, but there is so much more work to be done in that area.

You could, you know, the healthcare reform bill, he has this universalism approach to problems that affect the Black community.  Because I think he knows like this country would freak out, you know, look at what they’ve already freaked out about … returning a prisoner … imagine if he just said, “I want to do this for Black people.”

They would be like “Off with his head”, you know, let’s, let’s have a recall.  And they would create a whole new way of impeachment and call it something else.  So, he is understandably reticent to like, face that head one.  But, that said you only get one shot at this job.  And now that your … and you signed up for it.  So I’ve got a bit of sympathy, but also a bit hope to purse a little more aggressively while he still can in that particular bully pulpit as much as is possible.

HEFFNER:  From what you said, it sounded like we’re very far from post-racist.

THURSTON:  Oh, yeah, no … I mean …

HEFFNER:  So …

THURSTON:  … we got a couple of hundred years of work … and I, I want people to understand, I don’t think one eight year term of one dude, I don’t a great conversation between me and you or a hundred others like this, is what it’s going to take.

I think, you know, you look at the generations of cultural impression that we have all forced on each other and accepted the idea that subconsciously I’m not even a human being, when you look at how police treat, you know, Black and Brown men and the level of brutality in equal situations that is visited upon us.  When you look at the destruction of a family unit over and over and over again, migration … like there’s so many deeper, like post traumatic stress sort of things that we all have to get through.

I’m not just talking about reparations as an argument for Black people.  I’m talking about a whole country who’s economic history is grounded in a lot of racial discrimination.  That doesn’t get done on a scale of years, or decades.  I think it gets done on a scale of, like, a century, if we’re lucky.

HEFFNER: What’s the best hope to expedite the process … I mean other than jumping in a time machine.

THURSTON:  Oh, creating new people.  Yeah, I guess unprotected sex.  (Laugh)  Right.  We need more human beings born of this time.  And I think a lot of it is the natural turnover of us.

And, you know, people born into this time, born into a world that’s more global.  Born into an Internet culture that’s Left top down from a media and cultural perspective where you can fashion yourself without the burden of the people who came before quite as much.

At least that’s more possible.  That’s great.  And the more we have people crafting that identity and without asking permission, like, ‘is this Black?  Is this American?  Is this …”  There’s a great hope for that.  Plus I think there’s a hope in some of the disasters that we’re facing.  Alien invasion would be great.  It would kind of unify us all.

But we have some forms of that in the melting planet and the rising seas and we face some challenges so big from a nationalistic perspective … “Here comes China”, to a global perspective, “Here comes the ocean”, that we need all hands sort of working together.  So I think there is some sort of viable demand that’s driven and some economic opportunity that could force us to move a little more quickly than we have so far.

HEFFNER:  What do you think the public response would be if Barack Obama advocated procreation for social justice?

THURSTON:  (Laugher)  I think … ahhh … the Pope would love it.  Right?  The evangelicals, like any one in a religious bases … Italians they would love it.

HEFFNER: It strikes me that more people than not may love it.

THURSTON:  Yeah.  No, I ….

HEFFNER:  It strikes a religious cord.

THURSTON:  Plus you could position it … look, look China’s got a billion people, we’ve only got 300 milllion … we gotta catch us … let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, America.

Their one child policy plus unprotected sex here at home, that’s an America we can believe in.

HEFFNER:  (Laughter)  Is that the next 2016 campaign slogan for Hilliary Clinton?

THURSTON:  (Laughter.  I would love to see that … just once in my life as a comedian.

HEFFNER:  Transmit that.

THURSTON:  Yeah.

HEFFNER:  Transmit that.  You said recently “Sometimes the angry Black person needs to say ‘That’s racist.  He won’t pull any punches and sometimes America needs a punch”.

So I want to ask you between the problems you allude to in our criminal justice system …

THURSTON:  Yeah.

HEFFNER:  … and the political ones we face, who or what in America is most gravely in need of a punch?

THURSTON:  Whoooo, I mean … so many … Maybe … I want to say “Congress” to some degree because it might be, it might be more systemic than that.  I, I think Congress is a part of the problem, they’re also a symptom of the system we set up.  So we have real challenges that, you know, energy and how that’s made.  Food and like the heavy sugar, corn … all that nonsense adds up, like the food that is in our kids schools, which is garbage which is like heavily financed by the snack lobby … like there’s something called the “snack lobby” and they’re getting, you know, Domino’s pizza as the meal of the day in our schools.

You think that doesn’t affect how kids learn, how their minds work, the level of aggression … like this “All is connected and I feel like we have a major block” on even having that conversation because those people also have bought a big chunk of the political process.

So, if on the spot I’m forced to pick one institution or party that is most in need of a punch … I would say, not just the members of Congress, but the system of it, the financing of it, the way the districts are going.  That skews our perspective and it limits our choices.  Right, it limits the artguments we’re able to have.

Healthcare should have been an argument between a fully public funded European style thing and like “fend for yourself” tax breaks, “good luck” out there.  And in stead we have a “fend for yourself tax bread” versus like put everybody into the private market.”  And we ended up arguing about death panels and Obama coming for your grandma.

Because this position of a public option was politically acceptable because of the money and the lines that are drawn, so I think our system of representation, the funding of that system, and the way those lines are drawn, has so skewed the acceptable discourse and it prevents us from seeing the wealth of options that we have available.

HEFFNER:  Our Alma Mater runs a course for newly elected Congressional …

THURSTON:  You’re being real vague.

HEFFNER: … Harvard.

THURSTON:  (Laughter)

HEFFNER:  The Kennedy School specifically …

THURSTON:  Yeah, yeah.

HEFFNER:  so I want to ask you, when are you going to bring your comedic tutorial lighten the mood in Congress, because that might help things.

THURSTON:  I mean I don’t even …. Whenever I see somebody speaking I Congress, no one’s watching.  Ahhh, you see these moments on C-Span where people are just kind of speaking to dead air.  So I’m not sure that’s the most effective way.  So, I don’t know how you …

HEFFNER:  In the training process.

THURSTON: Yeah, maybe like going to the Kennedy  …. Like all the …

HEFFNER: I’m going to suggest that.

THURSTON:  Take unprotected sex … and like the next generation of politicians (laughter)  plus comedic lessons planning … maybe there is some kind of like on-line course that …

HEFFNER:  If comedy is the antidote, then you’re it.

THURSTON:  Yeah.

HEFFNER:  And I have to say we’ve run out of time.

THURSTON:  Well, thanks for the time that we’ve had, this has been great.

HEFFNER:  I want to thank you Baratunde Thurston.

THURSTON:  Thanks, Alexander.

HEFFNER:  And thanks to you in the audience.  I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

Please visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other Open Mind interviews.

  • Howard Schuman

    Alexander,

    Thanks for this segment and the somewhat more youthful orientation in your guests so far. Even as an ancient “boomer,” I appreciate your choices.

    Good night and good luck.

    Howard

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