During lunch on Mother’s Day, my own mom had some exciting news to announce: “I’m reading the best book!” she declared, taking a sip from her sweating water glass in the building May heat. “It’s called How To Be Black. It’s excellent–hilarious, but also serious,” she insisted.
I had heard of it only in passing–on Twitter, and in scant Facebook posts. It was written by The Onion‘s Director of Digital and Internet Man About Town Baratunde Thurston, and had received almost five stars–a perfect score–from users on Amazon.
“There were like 56 reviews last time I checked,” Mr. Thurston told Betabeat by phone this morning. “And I’m like, ‘Who’s the asshole that didn’t put five stars?’ Clearly it’s a five-star book.”
Mr. Thurston’s resume includes: an undergrad degree from Harvard, over four years spent working at the country’s most beloved fake newspaper, and countless awards and speaking gigs–even one for the President of Georgia. (“I’m not an expert in post-Soviet relations,” admitted Mr. Thurston. “Georgian is a beautiful language and the women are lovely, but I don’t know that much.”)
So when The Onion decided to relocate its headquarters to Chicago, it came as little surprise that Mr. Thurston, a well-established fixture on the New York tech scene, would be leaving the satirical paper behind.
“I’d been at The Onion for four and a half years, and had just written a book which covered contentious issues with a lighter hand,” Mr. Thurston told us. “Timing wise, it made sense–everything just coincided. I was out of the office a lot, and the company was moving to Chicago, which isn’t really an option for me. Chicago is a great city–especially in the summer, maybe only in the summer–but four and a half years is a lot of time at one company, and everything just lined up.”
Now Mr. Thurston is focusing on a new consultancy, called Cultivated Wit, which seeks to use humor to relay compelling stories told by campaigns, agencies and non-profits.
“With the volume and velocity of all the information that’s going around, we could use some understanding and some synthesis and some humanity in what’s a pretty cold world,” said Mr. Thurston. “Humor reminds us of what is human, so the theoretical underpinning of what we’re working on is that we really need to reconnect with our humanity. We can find a way to understand and navigate a tumultuous and fast-paced time using comedy.”
“I think there’s an opportunity on the tech side to do more with comedy. I see the emerging tech space as a medium for expression,” he added.
Mr. Thurston said that he wants to accomplish this goal not by creating viral videos–though “maybe that ends up being up one of the expression of the things we do,” he said–but instead to “help find the story, to make it hilarious and to shape it in a way where people will want to engage with it.”
For now, Mr. Thurston–who said his all-time favorite Onion headline is “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job,” in reference to President Obama winning the election–is working on building out Cultivated Wit from the Betaworks office. He already has a few people working on the project with him, though he declined to name names.
“I have been given this luxurious opportunity to work in a satirical news org and use comedy for freedom and justice and all these lofty ideals,” Mr. Thurston emphasized.
“[Cultivated Wit] could end up being something very big and amazing, and it could go absolutely nowhere and sound like a fart,” he said. “Leaning towards the former, but we’ll see.”