The Daily Show’s Baratunde Thurston on comedy in the age of Trump

Election years have always proven to be fertile ground for The Daily Show, as Jon Stewart and his Peabody Award-winning band of satirists poked fun at the absurd characters, stump speeches and gaffes that populated America’s unique brand of democracy. But in 2016, Jon Stewart isn’t leading the way anymore. Late night is ruled by a new class of hosts, and the show has recently rebooted itself under newcomer and cultural outsider Trevor Noah. With Noah at the helm, the show has gained a younger sensibility — one that has tried to cater itself directly to audiences online.

Baratunde Thurston was hired last year to join Noah as supervising producer in charge of digital expansion, a job that forces him to put concerted effort into how the new Daily Show can better live on the internet. He’s championed the kind of comedy that embraces technology for years, having worked as the digital director at The Onion and founder of Cultivated Wit. This year, he was inducted into the SXSW Interactive Hall of Fame, and I caught up with him during the festival to talk about his work, The Daily Show, and how comedy is changing.

So you’re here at South by Southwest as a Hall of Fame inductee. You've seen a lot of things change in the realm of digital culture and comedy. What recent developments stand out for you right now?

I'm getting the Hall of Fame award. It's very special. [Laughs] I mean, I've been in different situations at SXSW. I joke about the Hall of Fame thing, but the first time I came here I was employed full-time in strategy consulting for a media and tech company. Then I came and I was at The Onion. And then I came and I was unemployed. And then I came and I had my own company. Now I'm with The Daily Show. The filter on the lens with which I can experience this is kind of affected by my other situations. So this year feels special.

The wow factor — [as in] "Wow, look at this new thing!" — isn't as big from my perspective this year. OK, so you made a new thing. Why? How will it affect us? Why did you make it? Who made it? With what values and rules? So much of these conferences are celebratory. They're marketing opportunities, they're sale pitches. I have found there's a lot more criticism and self-reflection this year. It wasn't very hard to find panels about diversity from a gender perspective, race perspective, [or] aging in technology [perspective].

You're like in charge of digital expansion at The Daily Show. How does that make you think about the platforms you're now using and what that means for the show’s (and Trevor Noah’s) brand of comedy?

I think what we're there to do is to expand the show's reach and relevance. The show has been optimized historically for a cable televised format, but it has played well in digital formats even without active [promotion]. The network has been very good about putting the show on Hulu and making those things more available. The more interesting questions were, "What is the show trying to say? How do we make that message relevant to all the changing formats and platforms that are available? And is there [a different] kind of relationship that we can have with the people who just watch the show and can they be a part of the show?"

The point wasn't just, "let's shove all of our stuff down your throat because we have new pipes that we can shove stuff down." We're [inviting] you to join us in filling these pipes with a level of political and comedic commentary on the world that we think is important.

We don't call our team the social media team. In the building, we're [called] the expansion team. And because that is format agnostic, it’s not about Snapchat teams or Twitter teams. Those companies will come and go in terms of their relevance for us. The opportunities to do what we just talked [about] at SXSW, like [being] reflective, [being] critical, [but] from a different angle — Jon Stewart obviously did that really well. But to have the perspective of someone who was growing up on a continent that is rife with autocracy and demagoguery, and arrived just in time for America's own version of that? That's a magical thing, and Trevor's well positioned to give us something to learn from people who are not of this nation. That's not about technology, it's about perspective. I think there's a continuity there, where whether we're using YouTube and Tumblr and encouraging people to join us in this comedic commentary effort.

The class of hosts that graduated from The Daily Show — Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee — seem to know they need to use technology to get at their audience. Where do you see this new iteration of the show in terms of the overall late night landscape?

I did a similar version of this job at The Onion. I left and started this Cultivated Wit company that did hackathons involving comedians to expand the kind of reach of humor. Because it's important to humanize an ice cold algorithmic interface, and humor has already been doing that. So what John Oliver has done with Make Donald Drumpf Again, and the browser plug-in that they made, is a perfect example of humor as an interface. [There was] a TEDx talk a year and a half ago about comedy being an interface, as a lens through which we see the world, and now we have much more technically direct ways of doing that.

So [that’s] comedic hacking. It's something that I celebrate. I've been part of a community that's been pushing for this, because it’s only a lack of imagination that [dictates] such a perspective would be limited to a 22-minute television program or to the pages of a printed book. Or to a blog post. Or standup act. The messages are flexible and adaptable. So I'm excited that I'm not the only one doing it, because it means I'm not crazy. Right? The medium is the message.

There’s also the who you cover. People like Donald Trump use social media to build their followings. Since things are so polarized now, do you think about not being able to reach people no matter how much you "hack the interface?"

I think Trump is a disgusting but important reality check and reminder. We talk in technology and design about responsive design, about inclusive design. He is a very responsive candidate. He is highly adaptable. He is channeling and representing a set of voices that feel like they haven't been heard. And he is holding up this mirror that Americans don’t like to look at because we have a lot of shit to deal with. We had a Civil War in the 1800s, and it's never really ended. It just changed venues, but we still have this massive split. So I don't have any illusions that comedy shows on their own will reach everybody and make everything better. I think they are more important than ever because of some of those institutional failures. We should not have gotten to a world where we're talking about Trump's inevitableness with such seriousness.

"We should not have gotten to a world where we're talking about Trump's inevitableness with such seriousness."

The role of humor in all of this is never to fix it all. That's not a comedian's job. But I think it's somewhat sad but still just true that the collection of comedians and hackers who are raising flags are more important than we've been in less heated times. When people are getting knocked the fuck out at a political rally, that's serious. That's not a bunch of random activists trying to block a bulldozer.

What is the next step? Activism combined with comedy?

To each his or her own. I'll never say every comedian needs to become an activist. I don't think The Daily Show needs to become an activist program. I think some issues need to be in the hands of people. Part of why we are where we are is that some people haven't felt heard. And this is like a reality show. "Oh shit, it's not just Trump. It's millions of people who are supporting Trump and showing up." Those people showing up at the rallies are real people. So you can't just like, erase his Twitter feed and it's all good. But I think a next step has to do with the level of empathy.