A Comedian And A Coder Walk Into A Room…
Baratunde Thurston says comedy and technology make for a powerful combination — and he’s bringing the two together for a Comedy Hack Day this weekend at the MIT Media Lab.
Technologists, tinkerers and comedians will collaborate to see what kinds of apps and tools they come up with in one day. And they have to be funny. At least, they have to aspire to be funny.
You may not have thought about comedy and technology as having much to do with one another, but Thurston has made a career right at the intersection. A stand-up comic (he got his start here, performing at the Comedy Studio in Cambridge after graduating from Harvard), Thurston was director of digital at The Onion from 2007 to 2012. Anyone who follows @TheOnion on Twitter knows it shifted more deftly than many real news organizations into a digital-first operation that covers breaking news (satirically) as it happens.
“When are women going to face the fact that they don’t know their own bodies as well as men who have heard things?” http://t.co/wNfRc9iM
— The Onion (@TheOnion) August 20, 2012
So, Thurston thinks seriously about the power of comedy. It was the focus of his keynote address at SXSW in 2012, where he shared examples of how technology is expanding comedy’s reach and possibilities.
In May 2011, The Onion published the article “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex.” One unfortunate politician, U.S Representative John Fleming, a Republican from Louisiana, took the story at face-value and shared it with his fans on Facebook with the note, “More on Planned Parenthood, abortion by the wholesale.”
The Internet took the ball and ran with it. A fake “Abortionplex” popped up on Yelp, located in Topeka, Kansas, and reviewers took to the comments section to rave about its multi-screen movie theater and theme park offerings, and to complain about the long lines.
It’s these sorts of twists and subversions that excite Thurston. After leaving The Onion, he wanted to go further and founded Cultivated Wit — “A collision of comedy & technology” — the host of this Hack Day. On its blog, Thurston lists a few examples of how this collision can go well beyond a satirical tweet about women’s control over their bodies:
- A funny tweet is one thing. A comedic exploitation of the culture of twitter is entirely different.
- A joke left as a Foursquare tip is one thing. A racism-spotting service based on the location-based nature of Foursquare is another.
- Talking about how addictive Facebook can be is one thing. Creating a service that delivers a mild electric shock when you access your Facebook account is another.
The developers and comedians will spend the day Saturday working on their ideas. On Sunday they debut working demos, which is open to the public. Doors open at 3 PM at the MIT Media Lab and demos begin at 4. Past Comedy Hack Days have given birth to such humorous technologies as the stress-inducing (and reducing?) website Shout Roulette and the dead simple, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that Citation Needed.