Brian Janosch on Tech, Comedy, Bay Area Cynicism, and the Burning Man Wall

Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Parody, Pranksters, Satire

As much as we love Burning Man and the creativity on display there, we also have to admire this piece of now-viral satire from the folks at Cultivated Wit.
Unlike most anti-Burner temper tantrums, it doesn’t stick to low-hanging fruit-–it also pokes pointed fun at crowdfunding, techno-libertarian utopianism, and economic tensions in the Bay Area.

Brian Janosch, the Creative Director of Cultivated Wit and the star of the spoof video told us that, despite the rash of media coverage the Burning Man Wall has received, this is the first time he’s been asked for an interview about it.

What is Cultivated Wit and what does it do?

Well, one thing we are not is a comedy troupe. 😉 We’re a small company created by three of us who all left The Onion around the same time. The biggest thing we do is produce Comedy Hack Day, an event series that brings together comedians and developers to build hilarious and insane tech products. The best creations from every event get showcased in a comedy show that concludes each event weekend. Our about page is a little outdated and needs refreshing, but it has some more.

Why is Burning Man such a fat target?

Few cities have one event or entity with as much buy-in from its citizens as San Francisco does with Burning Man. But as is often the case when there’s something that ubiquitous–let alone generating the loyalty, intensity, and passion that Burning Man does–there’s an obvious amount of pushback or cynicism toward the whole thing. I moved to the Bay Area in 2012 and one of the first things you learn is that we predicate so much of the joke on, “the best week in SF is the week of Burning Man.”

There is a much deeper satire going on here than just “Burners suck,” obviously. What was the larger thought process that went into making it?

Yes. I’m glad you see it for more than a cheap, easy dig at Burners. Most important to our entire process was not letting this thing exist purely in that realm of cynicism and judgment. To plant it all there would have been a form of willful ignorance; just settling for “this thing is weird and dumb, and wouldn’t it be great if we could make it go away.” I have zero interest in statements like that.

My two favorite parts of the development to this joke were: 1) the blind and silly stupidity of building this absurdly gigantic, long wall as a solution, and 2) turning the weeklong construction of the wall into a community-building, ultra-inspirational, potentially world-changing endeavor. We watched a lot of Burning Man Kickstarter and Indiegogo videos, then more or less borrowed a lot of language and applied it to that latter part of the video script.

It felt more fun and interesting to use that simple “let’s lock out all the burners” joke as a springboard into making fun of self-important world-changey stuff. Because cool stuff can just be cool and fun to work on. It doesn’t have to be a symbol of how to improve life as we know it in order for people to like it.

What have you learned from this?

That reddit and comments breed significantly more negativity than Facebook and Twitter. (Shocker, I know). That people in SF are very quick to assume an under-40 white guy is some techie gentrifier, and not a comedy writer who quite contently lives in a modest apartment in Palo Alto. And that my friends and family are sweet people who get excited when they see me in a popular internet video.

What unanticipated reactions have you observed?

The assumptions that this was created by “techie gentrifiers” caught me a little by surprise. I figured most people would immediately take it as a joke created by joke-makers, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that lots of weird ideas get bandied about the Bay Area. And sometimes, even if they’re funny, the root intention is to cash in. So I have some empathy for the assumptions and disgust some people in SF have toward anything harebrained and having to do with large amounts of money.

Who else do you think is bringing satire into the tech-startup world in an interesting fashion?

This is a good question. Silicon Valley is super smart and funny, but it also feels like what it is: a perspective of the Valley as it’s viewed from LA. Beyond that… well, we’re open to making more things like this and “Well Deserved” if somebody out there is willing to give us more than the zero dollars we made off those two projects. That said, who would invest real money into crazy ideas? That’s not a thing that would ever happen. No way.

What advice do you have on how tech professionals and comedians can learn from each other?

Come to Comedy Hack Day. That’s a cheap plug, but a genuine one. If you can enter the right environment and truly work on something together–even something purely fun or pointless–then you have the chance to see what that form of collaboration looks like. Anything I would say would likely just come out sounding like buzzwords.