The Artist Interviews: Baratunde Thurston, Comedian and Writer
Baratunde Thurston is a comedian, author and vigilante pundit who successfully combines technology, politics and comedy. He co-founded the black political blog, Jack & Jill Politics in the summer of 2006, hosted Popular Science's Future Of on Science Channel, and works as the Director of Digital at The Onion. Baratunde has contributed to Vanity Fair, The UK Independent and WNYC, and with over 80,000 followers he tweets very, very hard. His book How to Be Black is out with HarperCollins February 2011.
Baratunde was nominated for the Bill Hicks Award for Thought Provoking Comedy, declared a Champion of the First Amendment by Iowa State University, and called “someone I need to know” by Barack Obama. His stage presence has earned him speaking duties at the National Conference for Media Reform, Netroots Nation, South by Southwest Interactive & Film and Web 2.0 Expo. He has been featured various media outlets including ABC, NPR, BBC, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, C-SPAN and Comedy Central.
Why don't we start with you giving us a description of the work that you do?
I do lots of things that could be called "work," but my day job is working for The Onion, which is a comedic news outlet. That'll probably bear some relevance to your questions, but I'm a standup comedian. I've been doing standup comedy for nine years. Oh my goodness, today is my anniversary! Actually, yesterday was my anniversary, April 17th, will be nine years in the business. I talk mostly about social, political issues with a little bit of para-personal stuff thrown in. ...lots of talk about race and politics and what not. For The Onion, I run our digital strategy and I've helped in establishing our politics coverage.
Growing Up Baratunde
Can we talk a little about what it was like being young Baratunde, what it was like being in your household, and how you think that brought you to where you are?
I was raised by mother and I have an older sister who is nine years older and, for part of my childhood we all lived together, but my sister is so much older that, in part, I had an "only child"-hood home lifestyle: me, mom, and the various animals that we had. My mother was quite a politically involved person. Before I was born, during my birth, and definitely well after it, so the house itself was full of books on black history and African history. We had a map of Africa--she made me memorize all the countries and tested my knowledge with her own little quizzes.
She was kind of an annoying teacher when it came to discipline. She had decided with my sister not to invoke physical discipline anymore--there wasn't any spanking, but she did abuse use psychologically (from my perspective!) by making us... you know, whenever I disobeyed her wishes or values or whatever, I would have to write down, like, five hundred times, "I will not do this thing. I will not do this thing." That's just the sort of thing a teacher would do and I didn't expect that in my home life! Home should be home and school should be school and that was not fun.
Do you think that now?! You don't think that now, though....
I think it was a very crafty move on her part. It was a creative discipline--much better than slapping me in the face, and I think it probably had more effect as well. So, good for her for the psychological manipulation, but at the time I did *not* like the feeling of being at school when I was at home on a nice day trapped inside writing a one sentence essay over and over and over and over again.
The house itself was full of music constantly. We had a lot of records playing. We listened--actually, audio comedy was a big part of our household. We listened to a lot of Richard Pryor and Whoopie Goldberg and Bill Cosby. My mom was really into radio plays and Lum and Abner and-- who is the guy who does the Prairie Home Companion stuff?
Garrison Keillor. All that Lake Wobegon? Oh my goodness, I know so much Lake Wobegon, which is not really standard entertainment fare in the hood. [Laughter] "Where all the kids are above average!"
I think for my mother, and part of the strategy in raising us, was to keep us busy and creative. Both my sister and I were part of the D.C. Youth Orchestra program. I played upright base. My sister played french horn and oboe. So that had a ritual and a regimen of weekly rehearsals with the orchestra and daily instrument rehearsals at home and reading music. I did the Boy Scouts and After School program, Gifted and Talented program--she basically stacked my schedule to a point where there was no free time left to get into trouble, which was right outside the door.
That was a big part of the formula.
Within school, I'd gone to a public elementary school which was only a few blocks away from home. All of my friends were from the neighborhood and from the school. Because I was in the accelerated program, Gifted and Talented, I had amazing teachers. Most of my teachers knew my sister and she was a great student and so they expected great things from me and I generally didn't disappoint. I was a well-behaved kid; I didn't get into fights. I didn't steal things, you know, break shit. I didn't get crazy. I was liked by students but I was a good student. It was thin line: I was fortunately able to walk where it wasn't, "Aw, you're just the teacher's pet," but I wasn't a full-on delinquent. I had fun but I got my stuff done.
I think another big element of my mom's raising us is that she was very smart about the educational influences we had, so in addition to all the extracurricular, artistic activities, we did lots of trips. Very economical trips, in hindsight, we stayed in free hotels--know as "Camp Grounds"--and we explored the entire East Coast in our station wagon, from Maine down to Florida, camping all the way in multiple trips over various summers. That exposed me to nature and different color water and... you just have these inputs to kind of jar your mind into, "Ok! The world is freaking huge and you can do anything in it."
She never said it out loud, but I think that's what she was saying with these actions. It's something that I definitely appreciated later and it didn't cost a lot of money; it just took some creativity. She got that from somewhere.
The other big thing she did was enlist me in a private school in seventh grade. My sister had gone to Catholic school and a magnet program at a public school, a semi-private art school, Duke Ellington School for the Arts, and mymother wanted us to have relatively equal educational opportunity so, when I would normally have gone to a public junior high school, a not very good one, by the way-- we started shopping around for private schools and I visited a bunch and ended up liking Sidwell Friends the most from these visits.
She took out a lot of loans and second mortgage on the house. We got a lot of grants and I applied for scholarships and spent the latter six years of my official childhood, seventh through twelfth grade, enrolled at Sidwell. Again, big, world-opening.... different types of people. There's money, there's cars, there's field hockey and lacrosse and other foreign things [laughter], but at the same time she enrolled me in that school she enrolled me in a pro-black pan-African Rights of Passage program run by this group of black nationalist activists from the 60s who still existed in the 80s and 90s.
So every Saturday I would go to this Afro-centric school in DC from like 7 am to 2 or 3 pm. There was a big physical regimen of jumping jacks and crunches and martial arts and an alternative reading list separate from the Sidwell perspective--a lot of Marcus Garvey, a book called "The Isis Papers," Malcolm X, and alternate mental training. By day during the week I was involved in this kind of Sidwell relatively elite, semi-exclusive, well-moneyed world of official education sanctioned by the White House; Chelsea Clinton was two years behind me. On the weekends, I was like a weekend warrior in the Black Intellectual Army Reserve with my alternate reading list and trips down to Virginia, dancing to African drum and learning some other pseudo-religious practices.
That combination was a healthy tension intellectually and I think kept me from going all in with either camp.
It sounded like you were a teeny tiny black panther!
I was a very serious kid! I do comedy stuff now and I think quickly in comedic terms and I'm always dropping funny lines in my everyday life in conversation, but when I was a kid a very serious child. I was hyper political. I listened to NPR, you know, I read the newspaper constantly on the internet. You know we were early online--I was on bulletin boards and other Internet systems early thanks to Sidwell, but I was the President of the Black Student Union and meeting with Boards of Trustees, giving speeches on gun control. I did really well with parents!
A lot of the things you were talking about with your mom that you talk about as being really beneficial are all these elements of ways that she found to discipline you and keep you out of trouble. One of the things that prompted me to start doing these interviews is that a lot people talk about what it takes to foster the arts and foster creativity, and one of the major things that you hear in Twitter chats (especially from teachers that don't teach art) love to assert that assessment kills passion for the arts and putting any kind of standard in arts training or creativity training insults your craft or whatever. Can you talk about rules and discipline as they applied to any of what you were doing as a kid?
I never came across this idea that art killed it. I think there is a modern experience I've had where the idea of comedy competitions is a bit anathema to the creativity that is supposed to be comedy and the idea that you can "rank" it and say, "Oh, this is higher quality or better than that," does a little bit of damage to it... but not much. I think as a kid there is craft and there is skill in playing an instrument and there are right ways to do it and there are Less right ways to do it. So, you can judge the sound that comes out and the if you're hitting the notes and the rhythm and you're playing well others--actually--playing with an orchestra or band or if you're singing well.... I don't remember judgment being an issue.
In fact, it waspart of the process. At the youth orchestra, there's a competitive layer where every section of the orchestra has 1st position, 2nd position, etc, and if you have any kind of ambition, you want to be in 1st position. Well, that involves challenging the person who's in first position and having somebody judge that! You choose a piece to audition with, you do the piece, and the instructor or conduction says, "You got it" or "you don't!" That's one of your first lessons in acceptance/rejection and knowing how good you really are at this thing.
I didn't always excel--sometimes I did, sometimes I didn't--but it hardly crushed my creative spirit. I think it was just naturally part of the process. I didn't get a grade in bass playing, but I did get explicit performance based feedback that says you're not as good as the person standing in front of you--and that's why they're standing in front of you!
Do you think that that primed you for where you are now? Because you're in a notoriously brutal industry. At least from what I've heard, the whole classic standup story of "I got up there and they jeered me until I was gone." Isn't that sort of The Way It Goes?
For some people.
If you're not funny!
Ok, I've definitely had some nightmare experiences in standup, but it's certainly the most impolite, most honest, direct kind of user feedback in the performing arts world that I know of--maybe even anywhere in the arts world. Well, short of maybe blogging. That's pretty direct feedback, people commenting on your words online and they have the security of pseudo-anonymity. They will unleash the horror upon you in the form of words.
There's a little bit of performance in that. And audience that's not laughing is an indictment against the performer [laughter]. An audience that's booing is more an indictment of the audience themselves. More often than not, it's the performer that's wrong, that's not connecting with the audience. Even if they're not wrong, they are at the time and place.
Competitive art in the form of an orchestra or a chorus--I did a lot of theater, auditioning for parts and getting them or not--it probably did. I never thought about it before you asked, but I would have to say that, yes, it helps prepare one for audience rejection on stage.
Thought nothing fully prepares you to be jeered by a live crowd. That's an experience you must experience to understand it.
You know, actually, sports helps, depending on the sports you do. You know, I wrestled one year... I could have been a really good wrestler if I'd started young like everybody else, but I didn't, and I had some good instincts but no training. My first home match was against the Maryland state champion.
Oh no! [laughter]
....some Russian kid that they had imported from Russia just to humiliate me! I embarrassed myself tremendously in front of everybody and that was a terrible, terrible, terrible feeling. I'd do it again! But it was a terrible feeling.
I'm An Artist
That's important! So one of the things I'm really interested in uncovering are those moments where your identity as an artist or comedian really started to get its foothold, you know, like those moments where you think, "This is what I want to do!" It can be before or after college-- what solidified that for you?
Couple things. One of the other things--and this sort of goes in that other set of questions you asked about the home and environment-- my mother was really big on insisting that we, her children, respected ourselves and demanded that respect from others, no matter who that other person, no matter what authority they had. I had a bumper sticker in my locker that said Question Authority that my mother gave me, which is, kind of, not standard, I don't think. She was big on, like, "If anybody touches you, they don't have the right to do that. You let me know. You let somebody else know. Somebody calls you a name...," and that's certainly been a common thread through the things I've continued to do since then.
As far as what established some kind of milestones that said, "Oh wait, I think I might be an artist!" The first thing I really remember, well, one is being on stage in middle school. We did these black history month musicals and I would play these parts... I was a preacher here, I was a slave there, I did all this stuff... I didn't really realize that I could sing and dance until I saw the reaction of the other cast members and just having their respect. I remember that being [big]; I was new at the school, I came from a pretty different environment from most of them--not all of them--and to go out on stage and thrive and get their, earn their love and respect? I felt amazing, and it's a type of respect and acceptance that I hadn't really noticed before that hadn't really stood out. There was something about this, like, "This is a way to connect to people. This is really cool!"
At college I had this satirical newsletter that I would distribute via email called NewsPhlash (spelled with "ph" because it was very phat) and I would send these emails out and, maybe a year and a half into it, people I didn't know were coming up to me asking, "Yo, can you put me on that NewsPhlash list you run?" Again, that was a validation from people well outside of my loved ones' circle who are biased toward liking what I do, conferring some validity on the value of this thing. "OK, cool!" It's just fascinating when you see your own writing come back to you, when someone forwards you this thing and, you're like, "Yeah, I know that. I wrote that." That's an amazing connection.
And then in terms of the standup world, that would be, you know, nine years ago, 2002, and I did a show in maybe 2005? Somewhere between 2003 and 2005 I was invited to perform with a great comedian in Boston who took a liking to me and gave me a chance. It was at First Nights Boston, First Nights being the alternative, non-alcoholic, family friendly New Years Eve celebration that's become templated across the country. So we did this show, two shows back-to-back, two thousand people in the audience in each show, and the stage was in the center of the room, so you're playing to 360 degrees--by far my biggest show at the time, and still one of the biggest shows I've ever done in terms of raw number of people around you.
I did some joke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it had to do with, you know, the imbalance of force used by Israel at the time. These guys have Molotov cocktails and rock-throwers on one side and Apache helicopters on the other. Some dude that they had targeted with something like seven missiles ended up surviving. He was the leader of some Palestinian group, and I had a joke about it, which essentially was, you know, "Who's the chosen people now, bitch?" [laughter] There was something else in the joke, I don't remember now, but some Israeli kid came up to me afterward and he was like, "I just want to thank you for telling that joke, because you were talking about things that people are afraid to mention and the world needs to hear it. Because you made it funny, even I heard it, and I'm from Israel, so, keep it up." And I was like, "Holy F&#^(@g S*#t! That's great!"
Those are three very distinct moments that I think, in the very distinct hindsight of five seconds, all of them have to do with someone "getting it." I have a certain intention when I put these pieces out there, and it's not always received in the way that you intend. It's a bonus if it is, but that's not the most common experience, so when it happens, when it exceed that expectation, when people get it even more, maybe even more than you could even hope for, then you're like "F&#k, yes! I'm an artist! This works!"
Developing a Sense of Direction in Life
You know, I've never asked you this: when you graduated from college, was this What You Were Going to Do? You were going to write and be funny?
Nope! Nope, nope, nope, not at all.
I didn't know that I was funny until college, and that was the whole NewsPhlash Newsletter thing. The tag line of that was "All the news that's fit to twist," 'cuz, I thought that was clever. [laughter]. Genius, actually. It was very avant-garde for its time. [laughter] So, that newsletter helped me find my initial comedic voice, and it was all focused on news and me commenting on the news of the day. So, I took my obsession with information and current events and reinterpreted them and redistributed it in a slightly more artist way than I had received it, like a little translation dance.
[Anyway, going back to getting out of college], I had a plan, a couple of exit strategies from Harvard. One, I was going to work in some kind of technology startup. I graduated in 1999, the internet was like, amazing and huge, and anybody with a scrap of a business plan on a napkin that used "http" in it was getting funded by some guy with a lotta money and you could just go up to the Bay area and make a name for yourself. It was like the prospecting days of the Internet.
So that was one option. The other: I was really into journalism and I'd done The Crimson, which is the school paper, and I thought, "I'm going to be a journalist!" That'll be great."
Or, I was going to be a teacher. I loved the idea of teaching, I had done a community service program throughout my years in school where I was teaching computer skills and technology literacy at the Section 8 housing project in Cambridge, Mass. I was looking into grad school, maybe, or some teaching program. The summer before senior year I had an internship lined up at the Washington Post, and I grew up in DC so this was, "hometown boy makes good, being really cool...." but I had to cancel it because I had developed Repetitive Strain Injury, RSI from just way too much typing. I couldn't even carry a lunch tray. My hands were mostly useless, and I had to use the first version of speech recognition software which, was comedy in and of itself--but not at the time. I had to take my exams with extended time and haveother people type papers for me; I'd dictate to them. It was really challenging.
So for that summer, instead of going to DC and typing all day and murdering myself, I canceled that and did a summer theater program at Harvard, called the Harvard Radcliffe Dramatics Club Summer Theater-- HRDC Summer Theater. We did Othello, I played Rodrigo, we did like six shows a week and it really gave me a good flavor for, "this what performing arts is. It's not just doing four shows over the weekend and going back to your other life. You're rehearsing all day and performing at night, you get one day off and do two shows on Sunday. It's great."
That said, it whet my appetite, but it didn't fully change my immediate exit direction. When I left school my goal and my plan was, "let me take one of these consulting jobs," I'd heard about consulting, investment banking stuff. This kid in my class worked there during the school year and he had said, "I think you'll really like this company, because we're doing all this stuff with telecommunications and the Internet," and I was, like, the Black Tech Kid in my whole class. Anybody who had a question about tech would ask me about it first. I wrote a tech column for the newspaper, so this was still a part of me, but the whole business thing wasn't. I thought, "This will be good training, the whole entrepreneurial thing. I'll learn about other people's businesses and get paid to do it. Pay off my loans, which was significant, pay my mother back for school, which was our deal, and once I was clear of all that debt and had reached some level of financial independence, I would re-pursue, quote-unquote "art" [laughter] and writing and singing or whatever. I didn't know what it was going to be, but it was going to be amazing when it happened, some number of years in the future.
So that's what happened. I left school, I took this job in Super Corporate Corporate Land and I advised Verizon and Comcast and private equity firms and venture capitalists. I did that, for a year, I quit. I started a venture capital company. That was a terrible idea at the time. It's still a terrible idea.
I went back from that [experience] super confident that working for someone else was actually very easy and did not need to take up all my mental capacity and because of inspiration from...my girlfriend at the time, that got me reconnected to my art. She basically challenged me about why I wasn't doing all these things--that I would talk about--anymore.
I recommitted myself to writing and took a standup comedy class. I commuted to New York every week to study writing with people from Saturday Night Live and Andy Borowitz was one of our guest instructors...stand up comedians... The Onion Editor-in-Chief came talked to us about they/we do now. My creative explosion was after a year and a half or so of corporate life saying, "Ok, let's get back to you." So, it's my nine year anniversary because it happened during this creative renaissance of myself. I still workedon the corporate stuff, but it was always a limited time offer, and I learned a lot and my analytical skills found an outlet. I was able to earn money and pay these various parties back much quicker than I would have if I'd gone straight into comedy and theater or something.
But I also took that money and used it to finance my creative education. I took more classes and traveled to cities and did open mic's, bought a good microphone so I could start podcasting and got a local radio show. I'd say the next five years, 2002 to 2007, were the most important. Going back to your original question, though: I didn't leave school with that plan. I left school with a plan of, "I'm going to make money. I'm going to get some business skills so I can run my own business, whatever that would be some day. I'll bookmark this art thing. I'll come back to it."
....and that plan was dramatically changed by this woman in my life who was doing her art at the same time. She was a great example because she wasn't just talking theory. I saw her busting her ass, you know, singing on the street corners and inside of Starbucks and setting her guitar case down and people throwing coins into it. I was like, "OK, this is a very positive relationship for me to be. She's helping me to become more myself." ...and I felt more myself when I was doing these creative things than when I wasn't.
The plan was adjusted because, in large part, I had the right partner at the time to help me find that.
Analytical Skills and Creativity
For The Writer/Creator
The thing that you just said in there that jumped out at me was that you were finally actually able to apply your analytical skills when you got out of your corporate job and started doing this work. I, off the top of my head, do not have a great, piercing, Anderson Cooper question about your analytic skills [laughter] but I really want to talk about it.
I'll just run with that. When I discovered that I liked writing, that was a big moment in my life. All through high school I didn't think that I liked to write. I didn't like writing English papers, I didn't like writing History papers, and those were my primary writing outlets. I founded the high school newspaper, and I did like that kind of writing, but somehow that didn't "count" in my head or in the world around me. That was, like, an extra-curricular thing. But, quote-unquote Writing (with a capital W) meant, like, English, historical analysis, or poetry or something. I just didn't feel like I did that well.
When I got to college we had a mandatory expository writing class, and I ended up doing really well in it, because apparently my school, my high school, had a ridiculously high standard for writing. In that pool I was like, fine, I was good, but at college, it turns out, I was really good. I took philosophy classes, and the kind of philosophy that Harvard specialized in, at least at the time, is known as Analytic Philosophy. There's Continental Philosophy, there's Analytic Philosophy; Continental is more poetic, more inspired, you've got your Nietzches, stuff like that? Analytic you're dealing with the philosophy of language and metaphysics and things that have more of a process to them and you can literally break down the arguments.
When I was able to write philosophy papers, it came so naturally because my mind is like a little machine in certain ways. It's kind of a computing device in certain ways. I love breaking down these philosophical arguments, understanding what it was this person was trying to communicate, and spitting it back out with my own twist. Out of that was born NewsPhlash: let me read and consume all this raw news and information but then repackage it, re-frame it, and restate it in a way that, I think, is more natural for me and can connect to people on a level that's different than the one on which I received it. That was a big moment. It was like, Oh! Wait! I do like writing! ...and there is a way for me to write that takes advantage of this hierarchical decompositioning way of looking at the world and seeing the whole as made up of these parts and seeing the links between things.
I think the philosophy training, four years of reading really dense, difficult things, where the statements, the information packed within these words is not so obviously stated, but it's available if you know how to dissect it...that's been very useful in doing the type of comedy that I find myself doing and doing the type of writing that I find myself doing, which is reinterpreting the world and restating some things that people may be loosely aware of but with your own additional twist and perspective and joke.
Most importantly the joke. If they're not laughing then you're doing something else.
So, that's one initial statement for me about the value of analytical thinking, how I was able to apply what I realized I was good at in these certain academic contexts to something that's actually pretty creative.
For the Audience Member
What I'd like to talk about, though, because I feel like it's at the heart of what you're getting at, is how critical and analytical thinking helps on the creation side and also on the "getting it," listening, and understanding side. ... So, I just pulled up The Onion's home page. Top story looks like it's "American Cancer Society Unveils 1.2 Megaton Anti-Cancer Missile. Promising new weapon in the war against cancer." We got another one, "Guests Emerge Shell-Shocked from Rich People's Wedding." "Just When Couple Finally Stops Stressing about Having a Baby, They're Still Not Pregnant." "Vacation-Bound Rush Limbaugh to Do Nothing but Golf and Respect Authority for Two Weeks." All of these, some are political examples, some are silly, but those things, to get created in the first place? You've got a lot of people consuming a lot of information from the world around them trying to think of a way to say something A) funny and B) that has some kind of meaning it. They're not fully throw-away.
The cancer joke? We've been trying to defeat cancer for forever. Let's try to throw in a military metaphor for this--it's a very American perspective on things. Shoot it! Bomb it! Kill it! Destroy it! What we do [in America] is, "using a big enough gun, you can solve those problems!" So why not a big enough bullet for cancer in the form of a 1.2 megaton missile?!
"Guests emerge shell-shocked from rich people's wedding?" Looking at the economic situation, there are still rich people, you can still have a gaudy, 500 person, gold-rimmed everything, Kanye West is the entertainer--the doorman! I dunno. That contrast, "emerging shell-shocked," again we have another military, post traumatic stress disorder kind of metaphor going on.
The Rush Limbaugh thing is going against the grain. It only makes sense because he would not do that at all. But what is a vacation for Rush? It's taking a break from what he's always doing! He's absolutely disrespecting minorities, so the idea that he would take a break from that and start respecting minorities, "but just for two weeks!" is absurd, but makes a weird kind of sense.
Those are random examples in the sense that I didn't plan them; I just pulled up the home page, because I think what The Onion does is one of the best examples of critical thinking required by both the writers and the readers to fully engage with and enjoy the stuff that we're creating. You have to, on the creation side, you know-- there's a format that you're sticking to. This is "news," it has to look like news, smell like news, and feel like news when you touch it. The format of the headline has to feel like something you'd hear somebody on the Nightly News say out loud or something that would be on the front of a print newspaper, and when you read the story the quotes they're attributed properly. The date line is AP style.
Then, on the receiving end--this I think is actually more interesting on the receiving end--both for something like The Onion or for standup. So, in that weird example I talked to you about about the Israeli kid who commented on my joke about this attack on this Palestinian political dude, there are people who laughed at that joke because I said, "bitch." Well, I said "biyatch," technically. You know, that's fine. It's a funny word. It used to be a funnier word than it is today, but you know, back when I used it it was still a relatively funny word, and you could get a reaction from someone by throwing that in. ....or the idea that a nation would fire seven missiles at one man in his car? That's a bit absurd, so there's a bit of comedy in that. But if you are fully aware and apprised of the situation and you know the history of how this was created and you know the back and forth, the PLO... all this stuff? Then the joke has a lot more teeth and it's saying a lot more about the specific situation than, "this guy used a funny word to describe it." This is a continuation of a saga that's been going on for, I don't know, millenia? Certainly many generations, and here's a slightly new or different way of looking at one instance of it.
To see all that, you've got to be informed, but your brain also has to work. I guess.... period. Your brain just has to work and you're required to do some work yourself and not just sit and take it in. Not all comedy is like that. I think on some level it all is, but there is low-effort comedic entertainment and enjoyment and then there's high-investment comedic entertainment and enjoyment. Depending on what room you're in and why type of stuff you're doing, you can physically feel the difference in the audience. Are they willing to do the work? Right? Sometimes people aren't in the mood to think that much; they just want to laugh. Make me laugh, monkey! But other times, it usually feels most satisfying when you actually ask a little bit of that audience and they're willing to give it.
The speed of laughter is one thing I like to use as a gauge to see how critically thoughtful this collection of human beings is. So, when someone anticipates where you're going and starts to laugh, you're like, "You are a smart cookie! I like you!" ...and sometimes you have to intentionally leave a pregnant beat and allow it to sink it. It's physically sinking into their minds, maybe through some kind of air born containment! But there's some satisfaction, too. Sometimes you see comics throw a little comment in that say, "I'll wait for your guys to catch up," and they're literally waiting for the audience to get so that their brains are in sync with the comedian's brains.
That's ultimately what it is. You're throwing an idea out there in a way that probably hasn't been heard before and you're asking this group of people who you probably don't know very well to agree with you and to see theworld through you eyes through that flash, through that punch line, and do it again and again and again throughout the duration of your set and, ideally, your career.
That is a very delicate, intimate relationship, and it requires thought. I think there's a certain type of comedy-- you look at Onion stuff, John Stewart/Colbert stuff, Bill Hicks is one of my favorite. Any of his material? He demands so much! It's like going to class! Some of the best performers I've seen? They're teachers. They don't just talk at you, it's like a participatory thing, and the participation from the audience that's required isn't raising-your-hand and speaking-out-loud; it's to use your brain and get there with--or even slightly ahead--of the instructor who happens to be making you laugh at the same time.
That's the magic: when you can get to that point as a performer with an audience, whichever side of the relationship you're on, it's so satisfying because you're not just sitting there passively receiving bits of information in the form of words. You're an active participant in some co-creation process that requires intellectual investment.
Woo! I didn't even know I thought that!