Activist and comedy writer Travon Free joins Sinéad on stage during a Lemonada live show to share how a knee injury led him leave basketball and pursue writing, how family and friends anchor him, and what it meant to be among the first college basketball players to identify as queer.
[00:08] Hello and welcome to this week’s As Me. Back in September, which really feels like such a long time ago now, Lemonade had a launch party. And we had the most incredible evening at the Largo in Los Angeles. It’s a really iconic space, particularly for comedians or anybody who just wants to get their start in Hollywood. Some of those people even include Tig Notaro, who was a guest on the show, she was Episode 2 after that launch. We’re halfway through this very first season of the show. When we started out As Me, I had this ambition for it to be about creating a space where people could be vulnerable — you, the listener, the guest and me. I’d hoped that the empathy that I’ve cultivated due to being a disabled woman would encourage other people to tell me about themselves. And it’s been such a treat to see that that has come true. But actually, halfway through the show, what I’ve learned more than anything is that there is so much more that unites us than divides us. And that whilst I ask the same for questions to every guest — How do you describe yourself personally and professionally? What’s the monologue that runs through your head? What’s it like to live in your body? And what gives you hope? — that there is such universality in the answers. That we are all struggling, that we all don’t think we’re beautiful enough, we’re thin enough, we’re tall enough. that we all have to give ourselves the encouragement to not only get out of bed every day, but to compress the monologue that tells us that we shouldn’t succeed.
[01:48] Sinéad Burke: And for me, that’s been so encouraging, and a real privilege that I get to be a facilitator of those conversations and realizations. And I hope that you have learned something from them or found yourself reflected in a story that you didn’t think was possible. And really, I hope you’ve just found it as a way to take a deep breath and a solace from the bizarreness and the pace of everyday life. So we’re halfway. Thank you for being part of this with me. I really appreciate it. Going back to Los Angeles for that launch event, I interviewed today’s guest, who is a comedian, a writer, and was a college basketball player, which already, you know, means he’s quite tall. It’s the wonderful Travon Free, who is extraordinary in so many ways. I’m excited to tell you about Travon and very thrilled for you to hear this conversation between us and 300 of our closest friends who were sitting in the audience that night.
[02:57] Travon Free: When you live in the body of a 6-foot-7 black bisexual from Compton —
[03:08] Sinéad Burke: We have very little in common. You’re welcome to this dress at any time.
[03:12] Travon Free: It is not a common life in any capacity. And so I find myself constantly running into new experiences and also reshaping environments, reshaping people’s perception of every aspect of my identity.
[05:24] Sinéad Burke: It’s me with Travon Free, live in Los Angeles at the Largo. And very quickly when he walked on stage, we realized that not only does he stand a little bit taller than I do, that this really meant that our lived experiences were also quite different. But thankfully, we found some things in common. Are you ready? Let’s go!
[05:52] Sinéad Burke: Hello. I’m gonna go off-script for one second and just thank the extraordinary Jess and Stephanie who just came off stage. I’m very, very lucky to work alongside them. And more importantly, to be their friend and to learn so much about their families. But As Me with Sinéad is a show that I hope you will download and subscribe to. And this evening, you’re gonna get a small taste of it with an extraordinary guest. He’s a comedian, a writer, an activist from Compton. He used to be a basketball player, which means that between us is about three foot tall. I’m trying not to take it personally. I am, deeply. You might know him from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. But you might just know him from being the most extraordinary person. Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for Mr. Travon Free.
[06:56] Sinéad Burke: Hey! Lovely to see you. I’m glad he knew that mine was the one with the footstool. How are you?
[07:04] Travon Free: I’m great. Thank you for that wonderful introduction.
[07:07] Sinéad Burke: I mean, the least you deserved. I want to know, how do you describe yourself personally and professionally?
[07:18] Travon Free: Ooh, that’s a good question. I mean, tall? Is a good start. I don’t really describe myself differently in the two. I mean, I try to be the same person in both spaces. I like to bring myself to everything I do professionally so that way it’s authentic, but it’s also like I never feel like I’m exhausted by one thing or the other. It’s like if I’m me when I’m working and I me when I’m not, then it’s easier to kind of merge the two, if that makes sense. I think it’s why choose the the shows and jobs that I have, because it’s easier to be me in all of those spaces.
[08:00] Sinéad Burke: And if someone else was to describe you, what would you want them to say?
[08:06] Travon Free: I would want them to say that I left everything better than I found it. That’s probably what I want. I want to — if I can do anything in this world, it’s — whatever space I enter, whatever show I create or everything I do, I don’t want people to walk away from it and feel like I took something from them. I want them to feel like I gave them something.
[08:29] Sinéad Burke: How do you do that?
[08:31] Travon Free: With activism, it’s fighting for the things that I think we all deserve. It’s equity. It’s giving everyone the opportunity to have the things we were promised in this country. Professionally, it’s creating things that I think lend itself to expanding voices of women and people of color and queer people and all marginalized groups. And I think in doing that, when people find your work, whether it’s creative or in an activist space, there’s something to be gained from it. There’s something to be learned from it. And so I’m always conscious of what is my privilege in this space? What can I bring to it? And what can I learn from it?
[09:23] Sinéad Burke: And what was the moment when you decided that’s what you wanted to do?
[09:35] Travon Free: Professionally, I’ve been a writer my whole life. I’d been kind of like a silly kid. So naturally, like stand-up and comedy and writing, kind of were always natural to me. And so once I had knee surgery my sophomore year at college playing basketball, I had a year, a year and some change off, and I took more writing courses because I had the time and I wasn’t playing. And I knew like sports was kind of going to be like over for me at that point. And I fell into it so naturally that once I graduated, I just pursued it as a career. And I remember doing a newspaper interview my senior year of college and they asked, what did I want to do, and like where did I want to be in five years? And I was like, hopefully writing for one of my favorite shows. And almost five years from that day, I got hired at The Daily Show, which was my favorite TV show. So that worked out.
[10:39] Sinéad Burke: I’ve heard of that one. You said you fell into writing. What makes you a good writer?
[10:45] Travon Free: Oh, that’s a really good question. I’ve never been asked that question. I think probably what makes me a good writer is I’ve developed a voice, which is one of the more important parts of writing, because — at least for TV and film, because a lot of time it’s working alone. And on TV it’s almost always working in large groups. And so having an identifiable point of view or voice is kind of what you end up selling. It’s what people are looking for when they’re hiring people. And I think honing that voice over the course of my life and then professionally is probably what makes me personally a good writer, at least to the people who hire me. Me, myself, when I’m sitting in front of a computer, I’m like, this fuckin’ sucks.
[11:45] Travon Free: No one ever sees this, but I have to turn it in. And you do. And I mean, we all — at least a lot of people, I think — deal with like imposter syndrome. And you think you are worse than you actually are because it’s — you don’t want to be that person who thinks you’re great all the time. And that’s just another problem. Another issue. And winning awards makes it a little harder personally, because now I feel like I have something to live up to. And people expect more from you. And it doesn’t make all the like psychosis and stuff going on in your head, doesn’t quiet the voices. It makes you just going, “hey, well, look, now they saw you win a shiny thing, so everything better fuckin’ be good.”
[12:28] Sinéad Burke: My best advice for that is whenever you win an award or do something extraordinary, go home to your family home and wait about three minutes until they ask you to unpack the dishwasher.
[12:43] Travon Free: Something to ground you, right?
[12:44] Sinéad Burke: Yeah, you’re pretty good. But you mentioned there, you know, being a top athlete and then an injury changing everything. And I think you’re extraordinary for so many reasons, but you were one of the first high-profile people in sport, particularly your own sport, who came out as bisexual.
[13:01] Travon Free: Yeah, it’s funny because in NCAA Division One basketball, I was the first. But you don’t really see it anywhere because, like, I didn’t play at Duke or anything like that.
[13:16] Sinéad Burke: But with all of those things, and those moments that you’ve had, and now you’re a comedian and a writer and so much a part of public culture, what does it feel like to live in your body?
[13:31] Travon Free: There are some really good days, and there are some like not so great days there. More good days than bad days. But when you live in the body of a 6-foot-7 black bisexual from Compton —
[13:49] Sinéad Burke: We have very little in common. You’re welcome to this dress at any time.
[13:55] Travon Free: It is not a common life in any capacity. And so I find myself constantly running into new experiences and also reshaping environments, or reshaping people’s perception of every aspect of my identity. I had friends when I was first coming out — because when people think you’re straight, you end up having to do it all the time. And sometimes people will say things to you about gay people or queer people and not knowing that you’re not a safe person to say something negative to, and then you have to go, oh, actually that thing you said is really shady and I’m also a part of that community. And then they go, well, oh no. What I meant was — well see — like if you let me start over. So it makes it interesting. I always have something to write about. But it doesn’t drain me like some people think it would. I’m excited to go into spaces as myself and to give people something that they didn’t have before — is to teach something they didn’t know before because everywhere I go, people have an idea of who they think I am.
[15:18] Sinéad Burke: More after the break.
[18:08] Sinéad Burke: My greatest advantage and challenge is that my disability is immediately obvious, which means that people are either instantaneously really comfortable with that or not. And for me, it’s this really powerful tool that I find out if you’re cool in about 30 seconds. Because if you’re like, hey, I’m Travon and I’m 6’7”, I’m like, hey, I’m Sinéad, I’m 3’5”, we’re gonna be friends for life. But it’s this insider/outsider perspective.
[18:42] Travon Free: Yeah. I mean, for me being on the other extreme into that, it’s everyone thinking you’re just an athlete, or you’re like a dumb jock, or everything being too small for you. Like everywhere you go.
[18:59] Sinéad Burke: We just need to rebuild the world.
[19:01] Travon Free: I agree. The people on the extremes get left out. I haven’t fit in an airplane seat in like 17 years.
[19:09] Sinéad Burke: Even on the cheap airlines, I have great leg room. Economy is like business class on every flight. We need to talk on this. We need to like develop a company and just consult on either end of the spectrum. But looking around the world today, and particularly the worlds in which you’re existing in and in many ways creating for the first time, what gives you hope?
[19:34] Travon Free: The thing that gives me hope is being in spaces like this, being in spaces of people doing work to actually make the world a better place. Being friends with people like DeRay, for example, like people who you know, who are actively every day their life is spent trying to make the world a better place. And just feeling like no matter how dark things get, no matter how bad things may seem, it is still temporary. Like the people are temporary, the moments — as hard as they may seem — are temporary, and that there is more people at any given moment pouring more love into the world than there are people pouring hate. And I think the evidence of that is the fact that the world for the most part is a pretty stable place. There’s not a lot of violence going on all over the world at any given time. It happens, but for the most part, we wake up, we go to work, we go home, we live our lives, we go out, we have fun. And everyone is pretty civil. Everyone’s pretty fine. And I think that the fact that people are so constantly outraged, at least in my bubbles, the things that are happening to the world, it gives me hope to know that there are people who care and who are paying attention. And I think it’s people.
[21:01] Sinéad Burke: And when you’re in those darkest moments, what do you do to replenish yourself?
[21:14] Travon Free: I like to travel when I can, which is not like too often because I work too much. But I also, moment to moment, it’s calling the right person and asking them, you know, “make me feel better about this thing. I know you know this.” The people in your life who are closest to the ones who can remind you when we forget where it’s temporary. When you see week after week or video after video of the police killing someone and you’re like, Jesus Christ, like, am I waiting my turn? And you have people who you see who are actively working to change that situation and change their reality. And I get hope from those people. I get hope from those things. And I kind of have to sometimes remind myself with a book, whether it’s like picking up James Baldwin or someone who really understood the world in a way that most of us don’t and can remind you things are always bad, but they can always get better.
[22:33] Sinéad Burke: It has been such a treat speaking to you. And the only promise that I can give you is that the next time you’re on a flight, or shopping for clothes, and it’s extraordinarily difficult and the world feels like it’s at its worst, call me.
[22:45] Travon Free: Well, I’m flying on Thursday.
[22:50] Sinéad Burke: Me too.
[22:52] Travon Free: Where are you going?
[22:53] Sinéad Burke: Home. Dublin.
[22:55] Travon Free: Dublin. I’ve never been to Ireland. I’ve been to Scotland, not Ireland. But I have a friend in Dublin and she invited me.
[23:00] Sinéad Burke: Oh, well, you’re more than welcome. Ladies, gentlemen, and people who place themselves elsewhere on the spectrum of gender, Travon Free.
[23:10] Travon Free: Thank you, guys.
[23:16] Sinéad Burke: On next week’s As Me, we are giving a nod to the denouement of awards season and also reflecting on the beginnings of Fashion Week and Fashion Month. New York has just come to an end. London is about to begin. And we’re going to be speaking with the incredible Radhika Jones, who is editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, and just hosted the Vanity Fair Oscars party. She is somebody I admire enormously and someone who had incredible confidence to vision this ascension of her career with confidence and curiosity. She’s amazing.
[23:52] Radhika Jones: Finding a way to be productive, and tapping into your own creativity and energy, it really requires that you know yourself, and that you’re honest with yourself and that you set yourself up to succeed. Of course, we want everyone else to set us up to succeed, too, and we can work for that and fight for that. But I think if you don’t set yourself up in those simple ways, it’s harder to make everything else work.
[24:15] Sinéad Burke: This week’s person you should know is Fashion Week-conscious. This person is one of those individuals whose feed on Instagram I continuously refresh. They have the most incredible lens on the fashion industry and style is both an aid to them personally, but also to their skills as a stylist and a fashion director for Garage Magazine. Gabriella Karefa-Johnson is the one person I’m always looking forward to, if I have the privilege of attending a fashion show. Seeing what she wears as she comes in through the doors of New York Fashion Week or perhaps even Paris is always such a thrill. You can find Gabriella on Instagram @GabriellaK_J. See you next week.
[24:59] Sinéad Burke: As Me with Sinéad is a Lemonada Media original and is executive produced by Jessica Cordova Kramer. Assistant produced by Claire Jones and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Jerome Rankin. Our sales and distribution partner is Westwood One. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, don’t be shy. Tell your friends or listen and subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you like to listen, and rate and review as well. To continue the conversation, find me on Instagram and Twitter @thesineadburke and find Lemonada Media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @LemonadaMedia.