Last Monday night, Baratunde Thurston, “vigilante” political pundit, stand-up comic and Web editor for The Onion, was at New York Times City Room reporter Jennifer 8. Lee’s Chelsea loft, watching the premiere of his new TV show, Popular Science’s Future Of, which airs each Monday night at 9 p.m., on the Science Channel.
Mr. Baratunde, who wears thick-rimmed glasses and sports a bushy goatee, is the show’s host—a kind of oracle on the future of play, sex, combat, even immortality. In a series of short segments, he interviews inventors, entrepreneurs and scientists about their latest gadgets and experiments, and even tests them himself, giving viewers a glimpse of the Jetsons-like technologies that could change the world faster than they think.
At the party at Ms. Lee’s loft, producers and talent agents for Discovery, the Science Channel’s parent company, and other New York Times staffers were noshing on tiny sliders and tuna tartare on sliced cucumber and staring at a giant screen beamed on a wall, displaying Mr. Thurston’s live-tweeting on the show’s official Twitter account. He posted links to bios of scientists he interviewed and factoids about the show. One update: “Theme song of #futureof was composed and sung by a member of Divo!” and another, after a commercial break: “and we’re back. hope you looked at the commercials and bought everything!”
The premiere show featured Mr. Thurston exploring the future of “superhumans.” He interviewed egghead scientists about prosthetic limbs that are more advanced than human legs and bionic eyes that add a computer-screen–like overlay and use facial recognition to identify details about strangers. In another segment, Mr. Thurston had to stick a tiny tube up his nose to detect his temperature. He then walked on a treadmill in desert-degree heat to see how quickly a “cool glove” could tame his body heat just by making his hand ice cold.
“I kind of get to time travel to see what the future is going to look like,” Mr. Thurston told The Observer last week in a Soho cafe.
In tonight’s episode, Mr. Thurston will experiment with “smart footballs” that can make him throw like a pro, and siftables, alphabet blocks that can play with the kids who play with them.
“I do see myself as a bit of translator,” Mr. Thurston said about his role on the show. “It’s good to be able to speak those languages and learn quickly and be able to teach them. It’s like I’m a traveling salesman but I’m not selling. I’m learning and teaching.”
Popular Science’s Future Of premiered at a time when viewers are desperate to keep up with ever-evolving technologies and scientific advances.
“People need to have somebody tell them what [the future] will be like, even if it’s wrong,” Mr. Thurston said. “They want the satisfaction of an answer. They want to know what’s coming next so they have some sense of control of their lives, which they’re very much not in control of.”
(We’re sure media editors are familiar with this fix. Unfortunately, there’s no Future Of News show—yet.)
“Part of this show’s role and part of the fun of my role is to try to bring a little more understanding, and make it a little less scary,” Mr. Thurston continued. “I’m helping people brace themselves for the level of change that is coming because whatever you think, it’s probably more and less dramatic. We still don’t have our flying cars but I can go to the airport and get to Taipei right now. … That’s insane compared to most human existence.”
“I didn’t want just a talking head in the studio,” said Christo Doyle, Future Of‘s executive producer who hired Mr. Thurston in May, and within four weeks, had him flying around the country to shoot segments. He said producers interviewed more than 100 hosts, but nobody had Mr. Thurston’s charisma. Certainly, he’s no goofball Bill Nye–the–science–guy type.
“I wanted him to be someone people really trusted,” Mr. Doyle said. “He’d have the latest gadget that nobody else knew about yet and he could explain exactly what it was. The mission here for us now is to really try to present science in a different light; we want it to be a lot more fun, a lot more approachable, without losing the meat and potatoes that we rely on for compelling programming.”
“Comedy, technology, politics—that’s my tag cloud, that’s how I live,” Mr. Thurston said. He is using some of that political know-how to power social media campaigns on Facebook and Twitter to promote watch parties of the show around the country. He’ll be attending one of them tonight in Inwood, where he has lived for three years.
Mr. Thurston, 31, was raised as a geek by his mother, who was a computer programmer for a division of the treasury department. He grew up in Washington, D.C., “in the ’80s during the happy crack-time wars,” he explained, so she enrolled him in programs like the air and space club, Tae Kwon Doe and the D.C. youth orchestra to keep him busy. He studied computer science and math throughout his private-school years.
He went to Harvard and studied philosophy, and was the tech and Web editor for the Crimson—where he met Ms. Lee, who was vice president of the newspaper. “He had a huge afro in school,” Ms. Lee told The Observer. “He really enlivened the Crimson. There was only one Baratunde.”
While at Harvard, he created Newsphlash, a satirical email newsletter about politics and the Yard’s curious campus life.
After graduation, Mr. Thurston became a “future specialist” in the corporate world, working as a strategist and research consultant in telecommunications and media for Verizon, AT&T, Goldman Sachs Investment Partners and others.
In August 2007, he moved to New York to pursue stand-up comedy. Consulting “was fun but whether some fortune 500 company makes another million on top of their billions, you know, is not my core concern in life,” he told The Observer.
He got the Web editor job at The Onion by early October that year. Mr. Thurston was also writing as Jack on jackandjillpolitics.com, a leading black political blog he co-founded in 2006. He has authored three books, including Keep Jerry Falwell Away From My Oreo Cookies. In 2009, Comedy Central hired him to be their “Twitter correspondent” on Inauguration Day in D.C.
Mr. Thurston said working on the show has changed his life.
“When you immerse yourself in politics as much as I do, it’s a dark world,” Mr. Thurston said. But he met scientists like Dr. Lee Hood, founder and director of the Institute for Systems Biology, a spin-off from the University of Washington, who is trying to prevent disease with the latest research technology. “Or you meet Wim Hof, who teaches you how to control your body’s immune system with mental focus and psychic focus, and you’re like, ‘O.K., humanity might be all right,” Mr. Thurston explained. He said Mr. Hof changed his life. He takes cold showers on a regular basis and got back into yoga.
“There is hope, and it’s not all division and ignorance and fear, which is so prominently spread out there,” Mr. Thurston said. “There’s a lot of hope and a lot of love and a lot of promise. There’s a lot of fun. This has done a lot to bolster, or at least enhance, my faith in people.”
We look forward to the Future of Faith episode.
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