Like so many successful and creative New Yorkers, Baratunde Thurston is hard to categorize — stand-up comic, best-selling author, a self-proclaimed "nerdy digital strategist who is super political." Put them all together, and the result is more and more people are paying attention to Baratunde Thurston. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.
Baratunde Thurston has a ready smile, a hearty laugh, and not surprisingly as a comedian, more than a few clever lines.
"I was hoping that 'Obamacare' would allow me to take any kidney from any white person I so desired. Apparently that's phase two," Thurston jokes.
He says he likes to control the terms of his communication — texting, tweeting — as a self-proclaimed "social dude." Perhaps he is less social, though, when he is reached on the phone.
"If I can watch 'Cheers' whenever I want, why can't I respond to you whenever I want? Why should I have to be held hostage by your desire to talk?" says Thurston. "So if you ring me, it basically it better be important. Somebody must be dead."
Thurston performs at comedy clubs and he is a highly sought-after keynote speaker at festivals like South By Southwest, the influential film, music and new media conference in Austin.
He also spent almost five years as the director of digital at The Onion, occasionally playing the fictional character "Cooter Obama," the president's hillbilly half-brother.
Thurston's book, "How To Be Black," was initially a series of satirical suggestions — such as "How to be the black friend" or "How to be the black employee."
"I wrote a book, 'How To Be Black.' If you don't buy it, you're a racist," says Thurston. "That's how much I hate racism."
Then, an editor suggested that Thurston include his own compelling story, about being raised by a single mother primarily in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Washington, D.C., having a father how was murdered, excelling in private school and then going on to Harvard University and New York.
"This book really makes more sense, when its grounded not in the over-the-top satire, but in a personal story, and instead of having the memoir as the color commentary, it's really satire chapters, the color commentary," says Thurston.
"How To Be Black" is funny, poignant and thought-provoking. In one passage, Thurston explains why America's black population after the 1960s has not, in Thurston's words, risen up Nat Turner-style to exact revenge through violent revolution.
"Much of this rage has been effectively muted and channeled into commercial hip-hop, unrealistic dreams of professional sports careers, and daily doses of poison masquerading as nutrition in the form of poorly stocked grocery stores and fast food businesses in black neighborhoods. There's just not a lot of rioting energy left with so many distractions," Thurston writes.
"I don't want to just preach because that's boring. And people tune that out and people don't like being talked down to. But there are moments when you just want to be like, okay," says Thurston as he punches the air.
Thurston works out of the Meatpacking District offices of Betaworks, which creates and funds all types of small, new media companies.
He is never far from some form of new digital technology. While writing "How To Be Black," Thurston used a screen-sharing website, allowing readers to watch the process unfold.
"Folks were like, 'What's going on here? I can't see this part of the screen. Dude, let me write a part.' And they were requesting to take control of my machine, which is not at all the purpose. You're supposed to sit there and watch and I'm still the author," says Thurston.
He was raised by a single mother who kept him very busy and pushed him to excel.
Thurston learned how to negotiate different worlds. He attended the predominantly white private school Sidwell Friends, a school that's attracted the children of presidents, like Barack Obama's children.
Then on Saturdays, he participated in the pan-African self-empowerment organization Ankabia.
"African history and chants and dances and drumming, reading Marcus Garvey and taking notes. So it was almost like a fraternity and like Hebrew school, because there were these elements of deep cultural knowledge and expectation," says Thurston.
His father, who did not live with his son, was killed in a drug deal when Baratunde was six years old.
"I think subconsciously the reasons I didn't indulge in just hanging out on the street, it's like, 'I don't want end up like that dude,'" says Thurston. "I could play the bass and do plays and go to school, keep getting positive ego reinforcement from the A's I was getting and pats on the shoulder and head and learn how to karate chop people, or I could hang out here and maybe go to jail, maybe get shot up, maybe die in this path and create grief that I experienced on the other end. So at some level, I think I was aware of those choices."
Thurston's talent for speaking and his understanding of the new media landscape has taken him around the world. He met then-Senator Barack Obama on the campaign trail in 2008, and has since been invited to the White House to advise on digital communications.
"If my mom could see this now. She never saw Obama get elected, much less me get invited by his staff to come and lead a discussion about Internet. That's insane," says Thurston.
He has known some hardship, including a painful divorce in 2009 and the deaths of some friends.
Most of his work revolves around making people laugh, but when President Obama released his birth certificate after repeated questions from Donald Trump and others, Thurston took to the Internet, and had no laughs to share.
"I find it hard to summarize in mere words the amount of pain and rage this incident has caused. It's humiliating," Thurston says in the online video.
But his vehicle is usually laughter.
"I was listening to [Senator] Rand Paul because sometimes I don't love myself," Thurston jokes.
His love for all things digital runs so deep that he was once named "Foursquare Mayor of the Year," following his campaign for a restaurant in SoHo.
His drive, smarts and creativity would likely flourish in any era. But this time — the time of Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare and Facebook and so many others — suits Thurston just fine.
"For me, what I'm doing now, you know, this comedy thing, this technology thing, just trying to bring those two together, I was born in the perfect time for that," says Thurston. "I was born with enough age and a long enough time ago to kind of know the old world, and have some understanding of how the rules work and some respect for that, but also be young enough to not care."
His focus is on the future. But Thurston also deeply respects the accomplishments of family members on whose shoulders he stands, and an understanding of the journey he took, and didn't take.
"I'm good at talking, I'm good at connecting with a group, I'm good at listening and having fun and performing and I'm good at work," says Thurston. "You know, I was good at school, I'm not so good at, like, drug dealing and intimidating people. Why would I pursue something I'm not good at? It's human nature to lean on your strengths."
Thurston has a number of Republican National convention-related performances in Tampa this week, including a show on Tuesday night with, interestingly enough, noted anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist.