Baratunde Thurston, editor at The Onion and author of "How to Be Black," speaks at South by Southwest Interactive.

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SXSW keynote speaker: Humor "speaks truth" in a confusing digital world

Comedian Baratunde Thurston is digital editor at The Onion, author of "How To Be Black"

Satire has been used in oppressed countries like China, Iran and Egypt

Thurston: You can measure a nation's freedom by its reaction to satirists

Austin, Texas CNN —  

Baratunde Thurston says that, sometimes, comedy is no laughing matter.

“I met an Iranian revolutionary leader last year and he gave me a hug and thanked me for what we do,” said Thurston, who counts the role of digital editor at news-satire site The Onion among his many comedic credits.

Thurston was a keynote speaker Saturday at the South by Southwest Interactive festival here. In an (appropriately) interactive presentation that came complete with suggested Twitter hashtags, Thurston made a passionate case for humor as an important way to make sense of a sometimes confusing and overwhelming world.

The near limitless power of the Web sometimes devolves into the cluttered “Internet of crap,” he said. At other times, he added, the fast-paced digital age can leave people feeling lost.

“With all this noise and confusion, we look to institutions for trust and they often come up short,” he said. ” Government is trying to shut it down. Religion – missing in action. Your parents are awkwardly texting you. And the media is busy talking about the state of the media.

“So, who’s left? You’ve got comics, willing to speak truth to the youth and beyond.”

Thurston highlighted satirical TV shows, websites and Web videos that have sprung up in places like Egypt, China and Nigeria, where more traditional media is kept under tight reins. He showed video from an “Onion”-like satire show from Iran, then photos he said were of Iranian authorities ripping people’s satellite dishes off of their roofs so they couldn’t watch it.

“You can almost measure the freedom of a society by its reaction to the satirists,” he said. “How weak is your government when this is what you have to resort to to get things done?”

Thurston, author of the recently published satirical take on race, “How to Be Black,” began his presentation by telling stories about his family: His ex-slave great-grandfather who taught himself to read; his grandmother who was the first black employee at the U.S. Supreme Court building; and his mother, who, later on in the 1960s, protested outside that same building.

He tied a point about technology and satire to that story, saying that humorists of today need to be intimately involved in the technology used to share their work.

“This is all about freedom,” he said. “This is about the new act of teaching yourself to read … . We need this level of production and creation to make sense of the world.”