Standup comic, cultural commentator, and social media wonk Baratunde Thurston packed Page Commons Nov. 1 for two hours of rapid-fire observations and quips integrated with streaming video, pearls of humor collected online, and selections from The Onion, where he formerly was director of digital operations.

Thurston’s talk was as eclectic as his interests, beginning and ending with a narrative about his own family. His great-grandfather, born into slavery, taught himself to read, which Thurston called “revolutionary” for that time and that society. In the next generation his grandmother became the first black employee in the Supreme Court building. His mother was a social activist who lived in Washington, D.C., and who gave her son This Is Apartheid as a children’s book, he said. 

“My neighborhood and The Wire,” he said,” had too much in common.” When Thurston himself graduated from Harvard, his mother proclaimed, “We did it!”—a tribute to all those generations of family. And Thurston said it is a measure of progress in his family and a measure of the evolution of our society that he now makes his living “mocking everyone, with no consequences.”

Thurston, with his notebook computer as an extension of his brain, gave students a list under the heading “Options for Corrupting the Youth” and selected topics based on audience applause. “Location-based Racism,” “Binders Full of Women,” and “Negro-spotting” at the Republican National Convention were among the topics selected. 

He relished the “magic” where humor occurs in unexpected places online. After the second presidential debate, the comments under Avery Durable View Binders on Amazon.com became forums for droll commentary on Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” quote. Said one: “For any of you who might be considering, like me, purchasing this binder based on the reviews, let me just point out one glaring omission: While this is a lovely, multi-purpose binder, IT DOES NOT COME WITH WOMEN.” 

Thurston took questions for almost an hour (and he posted audio of that portion of the talk online). Ismael Perez ’13 asked the first question, asking where humor becomes offensive.  

“The line moves constantly,” Thurston said, adding “Intentions are important.” He cited The Onion’s satirical story about how the earthquake revealed the existence of an unknown country with 10 million residents in the Caribbean. That story, he said, poked fun at us, not at the suffering Haitians.

A measure of the popularity of Thurston’s talk? Books available for the post-performance book signing sold out in less than five minutes. Thurston was the keynote speaker in the new Colby Center for Arts and Humanities annual academic theme, Comedy, Seriously, and was cosponsored by the Goldfarb Center, Student Programming Board, Pugh Center, and Pugh Community Board.