This Guy Knows How to Make TED Talks Interesting: Get the Speakers Drunk

Eric Thurm has a plan to make TED Talks bearable.
Eric Thurm has a plan to make TED Talks bearable.
Stephanie Koch courtesy of Eric Thurm

Depending on who you ask, TED Talks are either a treasured vehicle for the exchange of ideas or a sad representation of our generation's inability to pay attention to things.

Brooklyn writer Eric Thurm is trying to settle the question once and for all: He's getting eight experts drunk before putting them on the podium to talk about everything from city pigeons to Jane Austen to "conscious uncoupling."

It's all happening on November 29 in Williamsburg, where Thurm will host an event that he's calling TEDxxx: Ideas Worth Dreading -- an offshoot of similar "talks" that he held as a student at the University of Chicago.

"This was sort of a thing I did mostly with my friends at school," says Thurm, a freelance journalist and culture critic for outlets like Grantland and The A.V. Club.

It all started as most college experiments do: with alcohol and a book. In the autumn of junior year of college, a friend of his got really drunk and tried to explain the Bible. Someone taped it, and the clip went around to their friends. "I wasn't there, so I don't know what led this to happen," Thurm says. "I just saw the video."

The clip gave Thurm an idea -- if people loved seeing drunkards explain things so much, why not have a night devoted entirely to drunken educational lectures modeled after those delivered at the annual TED Conference? He got a few friends to prepare their own PowerPoint presentations on subjects like medieval demonology and the Indo-European empire; he stocked up on booze; he invited friends to his Hyde Park apartment.

About 50 people showed up. That's when things got awkward.

"Everyone thought it was a TED Talk Party," he remembers. "So everyone showed up -- and they were not happy about being told to be quiet and listen to the talks."

The speakers powered through, though, and finished nearly every talk on the list. "We got through most of the ended up breaking down after a while," says Thurm. "A lot of people were just kind of confused."

He stayed away from the drunk TED-style talks for about a year, but he wasn't going to let the last comedy of errors stop him for good. "I really enjoyed it [the first time]," he says. "It was funny. We wanted to do it again."

First Thurm and his friends did a show for a smaller group of around 15 people. Then, in early 2014, TEDxxx hit its stride, playing to nearly 120 interested onlookers.

"Everyone was quiet...everyone was just excited," he says. "They listened to the talks. That was a huge one."

Now living in Bushwick, Thurm's excited for the event to have its New York debut -- which will be held at Videology on Bedford Avenue. So far, he says, 80 people have reserved tickets for the free event and more than 100 have RSVP'd on Facebook.

"The more I think about it, the more I realize that this is a really good format," he says. "But at the time, when I thought about doing it here, I thought I'd have to talk five people into it."

There are eight speakers scheduled to participate.

Thurm says he will be losing money on the event. Not only is admission free, but he has to buy enough alcohol to get his talent drunk before they hit the stage. It's a payoff he has no reservations about making.

"I'm just going to hopefully enjoy myself," he says. "I had no idea this many people would be interested."

You can catch TEDxxx: Ideas Worth Dreading at Videology, 308 Bedford Avenue, in Brooklyn, on Saturday, November 29, 2014 at 9:30 p.m.

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