Few Peabody winners can also say they were fast-tracked to get into the NBA, but bi writer Travon Free is one of them. After getting sidelined with a knee injury, Free was encouraged to explore his comedic side — and he hasn’t stopped since. With award-winning spells writing for both The Daily Show and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, this Emmy winner is showing no signs of slowing down.
Recently, I got to speak with Free via phone about a wide variety of topics. In this thoughtful, expansive interview, we touched on subjects as diverse as the benefits of feminist leadership in writers' rooms, fostering comedic mentorships, how AOL helped him realize his sexual identity, and his deep love for romantic comedies. Read more below.
JENNIE ROBINSON: How did you come to identify as bi or queer?
Travon Free: When I was younger, I grew up in the early internet-in-your-home age- that was, like, the mid-90s. And I didn’t know anything about queer identity, queer terminology, or anything like that. I only knew what I was feeling — that I was maturing in high school and into college. I had girlfriends, but I always felt like I had some attraction to boys. And everyone kind of knows what “gay” is because that’s always been the thing. People know what gay is because, in church, they tell you to hate it [laughs] or whatever the case may be. They don’t get into details about the rest of the letters [in LGBT], but we knew for a long time gay was gay. And so I knew I wasn’t that. But I was not pretending to like women — I know I very much do. And I’d never really heard the term “bisexual” or anything like that.
So because when I was growing up, the computer in our family home was in my room, I got to use the internet pretty much whenever I wanted.
Oh, you lucky son of a gun.
TF: I know! [Laughs] I was, like, the computer guy in the family. So [I learned] through Googling — or, AOL searching at that time — relentlessly, and talking to people in AOL chat rooms... just anything I could find that talked about anything other than straight [interactions]. It wasn’t until I read the description of what “bisexual” meant, I was like, “Oh, that sounds exactly like me.” [Laughs]
This was, like, the ‘90s; no one was using [the term]. The acronym’s grown so much since then. But you had four letters at the time — really, you had three, because nobody was talking about T. And so you really had gay, lesbian, and bi. So when I discovered that was a thing, that was how I started to identify myself.
And as I got older and got into college and became more comfortable with myself and friends, I would tell close friends. And that was just how my story flowered, how my life flowered into full expression.
What has your experience been like being out as a bi comedian and writer?
TF: It’s been pretty normal. I haven’t been treated differently by any of my friends or any writers’ rooms or anything like that. If anything, you can’t prove the negative, so I don’t know if I’ve not gotten jobs because of it, you know what I mean? You don’t know what’s not happening because of a thing; you only know what’s happening. And I know I still work, I still have a large array of friends from various backgrounds — race, gender, sex, all those things. And people still wanna hire me. [Laughs] All those things.
I feel like it’s great that I get to take my experiences into those spaces. I feel like, if anything, the hardest part is trying to get people to take it seriously when it comes to pitching shows and getting people to understand the gravity of why it’s important that bi representation — especially male representation — be pushed into television and film in a way that’s not trivialized or joking, but with real-life experiences. Even now, where we are in 2020 [and] it’s still not happening, it’s still very much not a thing. That, to me, is disappointing, even as I continue to pitch shows revolving around lead characters that are bi and male, and still technically haven’t found an outlet who’s ready to tell that story.
How do you see yourself as a comedy writer, and how does being bi fold into that?
TF: Oh man, that’s interesting. It’s funny because I see myself as a writer first who happens to have found his home wearing the comedy genre. And now I’ve moved into some more dramatic stuff. But comedy’s still there.
In terms of my identity, it doesn’t really come into play unless I’m telling a story about a particular character or trying to create something of that nature. Or if we’re in a room and that particular show wants to talk about queer experiences, then I definitely push to get male-told bi narratives into those things.
But for the most part, a lot of the things you encounter are shows that aren’t dealing with those kinds of storylines, so it’s not necessary. You don’t bring your identity that way; you actually end up bringing experiences into those things. Like: what does it feel like to be an outcast? Or: what does it feel like to not be accepted or believed? The story itself wouldn’t be about sexuality, but the feeling behind the things you felt dealing with your identity definitely come into play. So in that way, it allows you to use your life experience as a queer person for many different types of characters and many types of situations to face a problem.
Is there anything about yourself you would like people to know that maybe isn’t part of your public persona?
TF: It’s funny; the one thing that comes to mind probably [known] at this point as part of my public persona — but maybe not widely — is my photography. In the last year or so, it’s become a little more known as something I do, that I’ve been working with a camera company and those kinds of things.
Aside from that... such a good question. It’s funny because there are so many things you do and care about that you don’t even think about in our everyday life until someone asks you.
Right. It’s like being left-handed, and you don’t think about it until someone points it out.
I mean, it could be that I’m, like, a really, really big fan of romantic comedies. It’s probably my favorite genre of movie.
Oh, really! Do you have a favorite you’ve seen in the last year?
TF: Yeah, with rom-com's, I’ll almost watch any of them, no matter how good or bad, just because I fell in love with that genre so early. Richard Curtis (1999) is a good friend of mine, and when I was 14 or 15, and I saw Notting Hill for the first time, it instantly became one of my favorite movies. Little did 15-year-old me know that fifteen years later, I would be sleeping in Richard Curtis’ house. [Laughs] It was the most insane thing. This black kid in Compton watching Notting Hill would one day be friends with the guy that wrote and directed this movie.
That’s so bananas — he’s like this romantic comedy titan, and you’re just, like, chilling on his patio.
TF: Yeah! It’s such a funny way how life works, you know? If I could have his career, I’d happily take it just in terms of being known for writing great feel-good movies.
I learned from your podcast interview with Larry Wilmore that you were encouraged to pursue stand-up by your college film professor.
With that in mind: In what ways do you pass on or foster comedic mentorship for the next generation?
TF: Oh man, I try. [Laughs] I try to help anyone I can. I get so many emails, and I do panels, and people come up to me after and want me to read things, and they give me their emails and their cards. Any time I can help any person — especially queer people, people of color, and women — I’m more than happy to help in any way I can.
A lot of times, it’s newer writers still trying to learn the craft and find their voice, so the most I can do for them is read something and give feedback. ‘Cause I do get asked a lot by other people in the business if I know anyone for them to hire, whether they’re a person of color, or a woman, or a queer person. That list is even shorter because there are so few of us as it is, and the few of us that exist are already working.
And so the line to get in — while, in general, may be very long — it’s the quality you have to mine for. So I’m not putting my stamp of recommendation on someone [unless] I believe they can do the job or fulfill obligations they’re looking for because it can really put a damper on your room and your production schedule if you have someone who just can’t do the job. And in the middle of the project [if] you have to replace someone... It’s a heavy process of recommending people for jobs.
I always feel bad I don’t have a long list of ready-to-go people in the same way that in our business, there is an abundance of white, straight male writers who get hired very quickly because of their friends — the showrunner or their friend works in this room as a producer of some sort. They all know each other, and they don’t necessarily care about the skill level of the person all the time. It’s just “I’m giving my friend an opportunity to get into the business,” and we don’t have that luxury. We have to be good all the time. We have to be good from the beginning because we are often the only person in the room.
And if you’re the only person in the room and you also are not up to the level they want you to be, or you can’t hang in that scenario, they use that as a reason to say: “See, this is why we don’t hire people like this.” And what they mean is writers of color, women, etc.
You also honed your comedic chops while on the high school and college basketball courts with your teammates. Are there any teamwork lessons you pulled from your time there that translated well to the writers' rooms you were in, such as The Daily Show and Full Frontal?
TF: Oh yeah, absolutely. One of the biggest things is just recognizing what you’re good at, what you bring to a thing, and not trying to be the very rare Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or LeBron — the one person on the team who’s good at everything. [Laughs] But for the most part in rooms, it’s really why you want team effort because while we can all do everything good, we all do one thing great. And you recognize on your team of people — whether it’s in the writers’ room or on the court — the way you win is by letting people do what they do best and not getting in the way. So when you know I’m a quick rebounder, and I’m a good post player, you don’t try to shoot three-pointers.
And so for me in rooms, having spent so many years playing basketball at a high level with so many now-professional athletes who were former teammates of mine, it definitely teaches you when to cut back, when to defer, when to take the lead... all those things you learn that end up translating so well.
I get that — I’m all about collaborative art.
TF: It really is my favorite thing — working with someone. One of the things I miss the most about working on shows like The Daily Show and Full Frontal are those environments because writing there is so extremely collaborative that you have so much fun writing jokes and coming up with ideas and jokes with really talented, fun people.
And these scripts [I work on now] are a little more isolated. You write your episode alone instead of as part of a team. And depending on what we’re doing, it feels like pitching the thing or creating your own thing. It’s just a lot of alone time.
Yeah, it’s a very different animal.
TF: Yeah, instead of bouncing things off of people.
Your trajectory from basketball to comedy writer was not a direct one — you also worked in the stand-up scene for a while. What is it that excites you the most about that particular creative outlet?
TF: I love stand-up. I still do it; I just don’t have as much time because of all the TV projects. But I definitely still write it. I still have plans for stand-up shows I’m working on.
For me, it’s the spontaneity of when you — when a joke works the way you thought it would work that you came up with in complete isolation. And, for me personally, when you can improvise and riff in the moment with audience members — which is something I honed while opening for Russell Peters. To improvise and make jokes in the moment. I kind of devised that skill and learned it from watching him. When I have those moments where I’m talking to someone in the crowd, or I think of a tag for a joke in the moment, that’s nice.
Between working on those aforementioned shows and transitioning to scripted work, you’ve worked with a murderer’s row of comedic talent. Anyone you would like to work with that you haven’t yet?
TF: Oh, man. The list is so long.
The people that come to mind immediately are people like Jordan Peele, who we’ve been trying to have a meeting with, and sit down and talk about ideas. Donald Glover, I would love to collaborate with. I’m a huge, huge fan of the show Sex Education and Laurie Nunn, who created it. I think she’s a genius; I would give anything to work with [her]. Honestly, I would love to work with Richard [Curtis] one day. We’ve been kicking around ideas.
I’m sure I’m forgetting someone I’m a ridiculously huge fan of. I’ve been so lucky to work with so many amazing people, and most of them are people I would be happy to do anything with.
You’ve worked on shows known not only for their excellence but that also harbors some of the best and most feminist-friendly work environments. What do you think contributes to making excellent creative environments like that?
TF: I think it starts from the top down. I think shows that have great leadership make for great work environments. That is why working on The Daily Show was great for so many people, and why working at Full Frontal was so much fun. Also, I like working on shows that have a lot of women on staff because they tend to be great work environments. [On] Full Frontal, I think there might have been ten or twelve guys on the whole staff of fifty to sixty people.
TF: The last time I was the only male writer. It was all women — that was for Tracy Oliver’s Amazon project coming out later this year. [On] Camping, we started out with three women and two guys, and when we got into production, we added two more guys.
I think [when] you have an environment like that, it just makes everything so much more fun, and it makes the environment so different. It’s an inclusive one, you know? There was freedom in knowing you’re not working in a bubble of testosterone.
You currently have a show in development with Issa Rae executive producing called Him Or Her, with a bi black man slated as the lead character. Can you tell me a bit more about that project?
TF: Yes, actually, it’s no longer at HBO... We had a lot of creative differences with us all not being on the same page. And it was becoming a whole other show than what I wanted to make... so they were gracious enough to give me the show back, which I’m gonna take to other networks to find a home somewhere else.
So that’s what I’m in the process of doing now. Of course, because I had the genius, wonderful Issa Rae due to her HBO deal, it allowed me to find new producers or set it up somewhere. That’s one of those things where the challenge is convincing executives that this is a valuable story to tell.
The people who get it are, unfortunately, producers and not studio people... so it’s trying to convince someone (like we almost did at HBO) that this was a story worth telling. And it’s kind of been a journey ever since.
I hope it finds a home. When I read up about its synopsis, I felt like it’s a story that should be seen so that people can feel seen.
TF: Well yeah, that’s the funny thing about it is that all these networks, they wanna make shows that are new and fresh and groundbreaking, and I want to get them to realize that I’m walking in the door with that. [Laughs]... When someone does finally take the chance [on] doing one of those things, people think in retrospect, “Oh, well, that was a no-brainer.” [It’s] very much a brainer, so to speak, because they didn’t get it.
Is there anything I didn’t cover that you’d like to make sure we talk about?
TF: I have so many great projects in the works, but I can’t tell people yet.
Finally: Do you have any advice for those newly identifying as bi, and/or any advice you wish you could give the younger version of yourself before you came out?
TF: To the new people, I’d say: own your identity and don’t be afraid to let it change. If you identify as bi and you decide you’re pan, it’s okay to own where you are at the time you’re there.
There are people who definitely identify as bi, and I’ve heard from people who feel pressured to say they’re gay or straight because of the way people talk about the legitimacy of bisexuality. I would say to those people: don’t let anyone tell you who you are. I think the more of us who stand firmly in our identity and are able to speak out, step up and say publicly, “I am this person, I am bisexual, and I don’t have any shame about it,” [the better].
I don’t feel like any of the stereotypes — is it a real thing or is it not a real thing — would scare me out of owning who I actually am. I think it strengthens our position when I go into a room to pitch executives on a show where they don’t necessarily understand or see [us] as real people. I think the more of us- especially men — who step up and come out and own this idea that men can be bisexual, [the better]. It’s been heavily sexualized or fetishized for women for so long, and being a bi man doesn’t make you gay. It’s the thing they always want you to feel like. “Oh, you’re just gay.” It keeps so many men who identify that way from even coming out. And I think the way we stop that is that we stand firm in it and say, “No — I’m not gonna let you negate my identity or erase it. This is who I am, and you have to accept that.”
*** This interview was conducted on 2/6/2020 and has been edited and truncated for brevity and clarity.