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From jokes to Jack and Jill, Baratunde Thurston has the Web on lock

Talia Whyte
From jokes to Jack and Jill, Baratunde Thurston has the Web on lock
Baratunde Thurston performs at Town Hall NYC. A self-professed “news and political junkie,” Thurston has translated his humorous commentary into gigs at The Onion, The Huffington Post and National Public Radio, among others. “There is no better time than now to be in my line of business,” he said. (Photo: Anita and Steve Shevett)

From jokes to Jack and Jill, Baratunde Thurston has the Web on lock

To say Baratunde Thurston is a very busy man would be an understatement. When he’s not dropping knowledge on the popular blog Jack and Jill Politics, he is an editor, author, radio commentator, comedian, activist and a social media addict whose brand of witty political humor can be seen all over online social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Thurston is also a strong advocate of free speech, and he will speak at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts’ Bill of Rights Dinner at the Westin Copley Place Hotel next Thursday, May 28, 2009, on the virtues of being a “vigilante pundit,” among other matters. For Thurston, using comedy — and multiple communication tools — to get his political views out has always been a passion.

“I’m a news and political junkie, and I use my comedy as a form of activism,” he told the Banner in a telephone interview from New York. “There is no better time than now to be in my line of business.”

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Thurston was first exposed to national politics while a student at the Sidwell Friends School, the prestigious Quaker school now attended by Sasha and Malia Obama. He attended the school at the same time as Chelsea Clinton.

While Thurston said he wasn’t friendly with the former president’s daughter, attending such a high-profile school afforded him academic opportunities and social skills that many students of color wouldn’t have — including being able to easily assimilate into studies at Harvard University, where he studied philosophy. He began to pursue comedy there.

“At the time, I was frustrated that no one was talking about news and politics, so I started a newsletter that discussed news with my own comedic take for three years,” he said. “The newsletter really took off with other students and faculty.”

After graduating in 1999, however, Thurston briefly set comedy aside and worked various odd jobs before getting back into it after the encouragement of his then-girlfriend, and now-wife, musician Mieka Pauley. He took a course in stand-up comedy at the Boston Center for Adult Education and traveled to New York twice a week to practice his skills in comedy clubs.

At the same time, he also wrote political humor pieces for The Boston Phoenix and The Weekly Dig, and became involved with Drinking Liberally, an informal group of 20-somethings that met regularly at Central Square’s Middlesex Lounge to discuss progressive politics.

“I had some good times in Boston,” he said. “It was a jumping-off pad for me in many ways.”

Thurston now calls New York home. There, he works as the political and Web editor for the humor publication The Onion, has written three books and appears as a regular contributor on the BBC and National Public Radio, as well as popular political Web sites Daily Kos and The Huffington Post.

Like many political comedians, Thurston says last year’s presidential campaign gave him plenty of material for many months to come. It also boosted his public profile; his popularity in the world of political humor increased to the point that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama called him “someone I need to know” during the 2007 Netroots Nation conference.

Thurston’s fame started to rise in earnest in 2006, when he began blogging under the alias “Jack Turner” for Jack and Jill Politics, one of the top black political blogs. The black blogosphere has really taken off over the past couple of years, due in part to Obama’s historic presidential run, but also because it has also become the new hub for black political activism.

Many black bloggers have complained that the black political establishment’s “old guard,” particularly organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), has not made attempts to address issues and concerns relevant to African Americans today.

Nor has it worked to engage supporters using social media tools. The NAACP recently put up a job posting on its Web site for a “new media relations manager,” and Thurston said he hopes the new hire will bring the 100-year-old civil rights organization into the 21st century.

“I don’t know anyone in my age group that is a NAACP member,” he said. “So, we will have to wait and see what this new media manager is going to do to bring back younger black people to the organization.”

Black bloggers are also filling a gap in political discussion by providing more racially diverse commentary and analysis online, which Thurston said he believes is lacking in the mainstream news media.

There have, however, been several recent failed attempts to include more people of color on air since Obama’s election. Perhaps the most notable such effort, CNN’s “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News,” was cancelled in March. The comedian’s short-lived vehicle was doomed by the combination of low ratings and complaints that the show only perpetuated racial stereotypes.

“That show was not very good,” Thurston said. “CNN should spend its time getting more real black journalists on the air reporting news important to black people if they care so much about on-air diversity.”

Thurston said he wouldn’t mind doing his own political comedy show in the future, possibly online. He used to do political comedy in weekly podcasts, and he is involved in the online comedy site This Week in Blackness, which takes a humorous look at the political landscape. He also still performs stand-up comedy a couple times of week with the political comedy show Laughing Liberally.

“I do a lot of things, but I am doing what I love,” he said. “As long as I am happy, I’m OK.”