Everyone knows the best way to make a great thing superb is to add alcohol. Kudos to Eric Thurm for seizing upon the adaptable form of the TED Talk and getting the speakers sloshed before they embark on lectures about love, technology, culture and more. Thurm invented his own lecture series and enlisted some of the brightest minds in the borough to bestow their wisdom on us, all while promoting Brooklyn’s other favorite pastime: getting drunk.
What was the initial impetus behind drunk TED talks?
I think TEDxUChicago had just announced their speakers–I was in school there at the time–and I was sitting around with a friend of mine making fun of the titles, and TED’s general self-importance. We ended up looking through a bunch of old TED Talks, and found one with a name like, “How Do You Save a Shark You Don’t Know?” Then he showed me this great video of another friend of ours trying to explain this story from the Old Testament while wasted, and we kind of thought “Oh, let’s have a party where we just do this and explain stuff while drunk.” We were/are huge nerds.
So this was something that pre-existed New York, but seems to have really taken off here. How do you think it lends itself specifically to NYC/Brooklyn?
I’m not sure! It’s definitely changed the tenor of the event a bit–it helps that there’s such a deep bench of smart, talented, funny people who are interested in doing it, because in a smaller place I might run out of people eventually, not to mention having a large enough potential audience that a few hundred people will actually show up to hear some drunk people give lectures.
It also helps that the structure of life for a lot of people in New York is sort of designed to require this kind of release. If you work as hard as most people in New York do but are still interested in a form of consistent intellectual engagement, you don’t have a lot of good options to learn things that are also fun–and, at least if you’re me, going out gets really repetitive and boring and not-fun for your body. So this feels like it’s found a really good niche fulfilling a few different needs at once.
Combining intellectual lectures with alcohol yields a whole different kind of knowledge work. What is one of your favorite byproducts of the series?
People will email me sometimes and tell me they learned a lot more than they were expecting, and are sort of interested in pursuing independently learning about a topic, whether it’s the nature of romantic love or animal sex or reading Lacan through Sex & the City, which is basically what gets me out of bed in the morning. I take a lot of joy in learning about stuff in the context of the events, and it makes me beyond happy that other people seem to as well–to the point where, maybe, some of that information, the kind of thing that would normally be highly exclusive and arcane, has spread a little in comprehensible ways just by word of mouth.
Do you have advice/guidelines for presenters on what level of drunkenness to achieve or what beverages to binge on?
Not really! It depends on the person–I like peer-pressuring people, but I don’t really want anyone to get drunker than they’re genuinely comfortable with, which is kind of a hard balance to maintain in a moment-to-moment basis. I’ve found that whiskey gingers and stuff work really well for me, because when I get full on beer I get tired, but it’s more of a “you know it when you see it” kind of standard.
as the official TED organization ever been in touch with you, or do you know if they are they aware of your, uh, sub-branch?
I know people from TED have come to the events, but none of them have ever spoken to me about it.
Are there any plans in the works for more official expansion of the series?
Hopefully! There are a couple of things I’m trying to plan that will be more in the workshop vein, with people teaching skills more directly and trying to adapt what I guess you would call drunk pedagogy into a more hands-on atmosphere. After doing this in New York for a little over a year, I feel pretty confident saying that nearly everyone I know has a weird, hyper-specific thing they know a ton about and are really, deeply interested in, in an infectious way. My dream for this is putting myself in a position to help all of those people figure out how to communicate that interest to others (While also being drunk, probably).
Every talk has its own tailor-made pun title, do the writers provide those or do you work with them on topic and title?
It depend! Some of them are titles I’ve had in my Gmail drafts for years, and sort of end up foisting on someone, other people come with their titles already prepared. Most of the time, someone will tell me what they want to talk about, and then we email about it back and forth a bit before settling on something that fits both their idea for the talk and the spirit of the event.
What is a topic you’d like to see addressed that hasn’t been lectured on yet?
My personal interests skew toward the academic, so I always want to do events about things that no one in their right mind would ever come out to see, like an entire conference about Wittgenstein called “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Language Game” or something on the state of affect theory, really bizarre stuff like that. I’m optimistic that kind of thing can be integrated a little more seamlessly into some of the smaller ones, as the event grows–most of the themes now come out of jokes I make either on Twitter or at the events, assuming no one will actually be interested in the topic–so maybe there’s hope for me yet.
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