Day 2 Fav at SXSW: @baratunde on How to Read the World

by Adriana Dakin on March 10, 2012

in Awesome Books, Great People Talks, The News

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Baratunde on stage at SXSW 2012

Baratunde on stage at SXSW 2012. Photo from NY Times Wire.

@baratunde is a @jjpolitics colleague of my @FissionStrategy colleague @ch3ryl, but I hadn’t grasped the extent of how quick witted and awesome he is. Now I’ve got it.

Today to talk about the power of satire, he put into action his prowess in storytelling and visuals to share his beliefs and experiences about transforming the world … with as much use of Twitter-type communication as possible 😉 such as hashtags and usernames.

First of all, a story about going to a bar when he only wanted a relationship with a whiskey, not good conversation, but sat next to an overly enthusiastic woman who peppered him with questions, to which he responded with one-word answers (like you do when your parent has gone 20 minutes too long on a phone conversation) that didn’t deter her. When he said he’d gone to Harvard and worked at The Onion, she exclaimed, “You’re the whitest black guy I’ve ever met!”

Well, Baratunde’s grandfather taught himself to read in the days just after slavery ended, and his grandmother was the first black employee of the US Supreme Court. Since grandmother worked so much, his mother went to boarding school at age 8 — but didn’t like it. To visualize that, Baratunde showed a handwritten letter from the 8 year-old saying she had no one to play with and wanted cookies and dolls sent to her, and there was a note on the back in better handwriting from a Sister saying her spot could be gladly taken by a child anxious to be at the school. She didn’t last long at the school.

For a time his mom conformed to expectations … then started hanging out with dudes like this, “look at him again,” Baratunde said and showed a double image (El Dorado, essence of cool in ‘64 … sorry the iPhone photo is fuzzy):

El Dorado the cool guy his mom hung out with ... "look at him again!"

Baratunde’s mom started marching for liberation. His neighborhood was like The Wire TV series but in 3D, and it had everything The Wire had … except for universal critical acclaim and the acclaim of white people who saw it.

In his career, Baratunde started helping to make fake news. He spoofed as Obama, a black mayor, and others … “I am all the black people I know.” The Onion, where he’s Director of Digital, headlined last year: “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex,” and the story resurged last month during the Komen debacle when a Senator thought it was real / current news. When someone put the Abortionplex on Yelp as a place in Topeka, KS, hundreds of people reviewed it (the most ever for a nonexistent business). It became a platform for other people’s expression of comedy!

And the point is … it’s powerful to communicate truth indirectly through comedy. Check out Laughter Against the Machine for comedy in politics. “Comedians are #SacredClowns.” In this age, everyone can create. There’s magic in our towns, Baratunde said, which is generally a good thing, but the internet of crap is emerging with lots of noise and confusion — an abundance of information and a scarcity of attention.

In this internet of crap, there’s opportunity for creating clarity and trust. Big institutions such as government are coming up short.

In Egypt Bassem Youssef is doing comedy send ups about the media and military, and says, “We’ve become so tense about so many things so dealing with issues through laughter and sarcasm is a good thing.” In Iran, the journalist Saman Abbabi of the Parazit TV show about Iranian politics says, “When you make fun of yourself, people are more receptive to what you have to say.” The Iranian government is removing satellite dishes from building walls and roofs so people can’t watch comedy. An audience member who works with the Ford Foundation gave a shootout to the political satire by Gado, a longtime cartoonist in Kenya, which also has the comedy troupe Ridiculous.

“A cultivated wit can persuade all the more.”

“A cultivated wit,” wrote Horace, a Roman satirist (whom I had the pleasure to enjoy in high school Latin), “one that badgers less, can persuade all the more. Artful ridicule can address contentious issues more competently and vigorously than can severity alone.” Go to to sign up for news from Baratunde to find out more about how comedy can help us understand the world.

Baratunde wants to see more users of tools become co-creators of tools — to be inclusive of the “architects” as well as the “residents of the building.”

When a member of the audience asked how to include more people, he thought of a couple incentive ideas: bring a friend of a different race and get a 50% discount on a ticket, and give tax breaks …

Ending his talk, answered a Canadian audience member about sorrow and tragedy in comedy — Baratunde said his mom’s passing triggered a deeper relationship with his stories. The night she passed, he wrote a sad and funny letter to friends, because hospitals are terrible and funny places. He thinks about how far into darkness and tragedy one has to go to find light. Are any topics off limit? Not in general, he thinks. It depends on the way you choose to talk about something — the intention and respect you have for the material you approach.

Wanna read more? Here is the Huffington Post article on his keynote talk at SXSW.

And definitely buy his book How to be Black.

Adriana buying the book How To Be Black at SXSW 2012.

Baratunde signing his book How To Be Black. Photo by someone at SXSW 2012.

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