SXSW Interactive 2012: What’s So Funny?

When you think of SXSW, humor is probably not one of the first things that comes to mind. But with the opening keynote given by The Onion’s Baratunde Thurston and speakers like Rainn Wilson of The Office , the comedy quotient was pretty high. Of course, being a lecture setting, these men who are at the forefront of creating culture didn’t just yuk it up.

Baratunde Thurston kicked off with a description of His family background and his own childhood. Of his years growing up in the projects, he said, ”We had everything The Wire had except universal critical acclaim and the undying love of the white people who saw it”. He wove his own history in with the story of the Internet, the cacophony of voices that determine our narratives, and the need for humor to break through.

And not just in the US, where The Onion and The Daily Show provide us with outlets for critique through humor; Thurston shared examples from Nigeria, Iran and of course Egypt where TV shows, websites and newspapers subvert regimes that are oppressive, corrupt or both. He built to a lofty call for us to ”upgrade our own humanity and freedom” through the act of storytelling and humor.

Rainn Wilson tried to tie humor to another lofty purpose, that of spirituality. Yes, Dwight Schrute has a website dedicated to hefty spiritual topics. To kick off his talk, he started in expectedly unexpected territory — an absurd rendition of PowerPoint, which included a slide with the PowerPoint logo, a slide with a quote from Buddha, and a slide of a slide coming out of an elephant’s butt. But when he ventured into the serious territory, he lost the thread.

His website Soul Pancake offers an open space for ruminating conversations about spiritual and philosophical topics. Wilson’s speech followed suit, rambling from a pimply kid in Nebraska to his Baha’i background to simply reading aloud from comments on his site. To top it all off, he and an audience member smashed a guitar on stage — an ode to the absurdity that makes him funny, but a challenge to the ability to take him seriously.

The most relaxed comic irreverence came from Anthony Bourdain, everyone’s favorite foul-mouthed chef. Accompanied by his social media manager and other members of his show No Reservations, Bourdain discussed Twitter, YouTube and social media. The crew didn’t address engagement, or tone, or target audience, or any of the other marketing buzzwords that flit around typical social media presentations. The f-bomb happened more often than words like followers or fans. Instead the strategy seemed to be, let’s figure out how to piss off our network and have some fun together.

After the day’s social media presentations full of PowerPoints with charts and graphs, the panel discussion with Bourdain and his crew was a healthy reminder that sometimes we take too seriously what could be fun.