Through three seasons on the Long Beach State men’s basketball team – plus one spent on the sidelines due to injury – power forward Travon Free was a fan favorite among the 49er faithful.
No, he didn’t light up the scoreboard, averaging 2.9 ppg over 55 games from 2003-07. Yet the 6’7” post man played a vital role in helping the ragtag band to a 24-8 record and NCAA Tournament appearance in 2007. During his time at LBSU, Free had a team-oriented attitude and infectious personality, both of which would eventually lead to the opportunity to showcase his talents to a televised audience five nights a week. Just, not on the basketball court.
Since October, Free has been able to count himself among the talented team of staff writers who pen jokes for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. During a casual visit to the set back in October, Stewart surprised Free backstage by extending his hand and offering a full-time writing job.
“It was completely surreal and an out-of-body experience,” says Free. He returned to Los Angeles with two weeks to move his life and career to New York.
“I was just thinking, ‘Don't die. Don't get hit by a car or a train.’ I was waiting for trains and standing away from the edge of the platform.”
Things have changed quite a bit since then. He hasn’t played basketball since last Fall – and that was for a Pepsi Max commercial shoot. After being hired, Free moved in with a friend near Central Park, then even roomed for a week with John Oliver, who will temporarily host The Daily Show while Stewart takes time off to direct a film. Finally, Free found an apartment outside the Empire State Building. It’s a life he could scarcely imagine even a few months ago, but hard work made it possible.
“I was just in that place where I wasn't able to give up,” he says.
Free began experimenting with stand-up comedy while in college, in a Comedy Writing class taught by professor Brian Lane. (The two still speak every day.) The final project in the class was to perform stand-up comedy, and Free surprisingly found himself in the finals of a talent competition. He entered again the next year, and won the whole thing.
Four years later, Free has battled everyone from Super PACs to Chick-Fil-A, and hit paydirt in 2011 when his Open Letter To Newt Gingrich blog went viral. It ended with the line, “You look like someone poured mashed potatoes into a suit.”
But it was Twitter that really gave Free the audience best suited to his style. The laughs started in 2009 and today, his @Travon account boasts more than 32,000 followers that hang onto every one of his quick-witted, borderline-inappropriate jokes.
“I would define it as truth with a slightly silly edge,” Free says. “I try to tell jokes that are grounded in my reality and that other people can relate to. Sometimes they're things that we don't want to admit to ourselves.”
It was that sense of humor on display each and every day, mixing the serious with the sophomoric, plus a consistent lineup of stand-up performances at iconic locations like the Laugh Factory and Ice House, that over several years helped Free work his way into recurring roles on wildly popular shows like Tosh.0 and Chelsea Lately. But it’s his place on The Daily Show that will open up new doors and could one day introduce Free to a nationwide fanbase.
“I feel like I'm starting at the top. Where I can go from here, God knows where,” he says. “The job is way too good to leave prematurely, but outside of that I wake up everyday wondering that same thing.”
Having cemented his place as one of the most talented young comedy writers today, Free has left the “dumb jock” stereotype far behind in his wake. But it’s not the only stigma he faces. In a 2011 blog post, Free revealed that he is bisexual, and had wrestled with his sexuality since his teenage years.
Only a handful of collegiate athletes, males especially, have ever come out as gay or bisexual and many LGBT websites rushed to speak out in support. Five months after his announcement, former Villanova basketball player Will Sheridan revealed that he is gay, news that made national headlines but, ultimately, showed that the sports world may be more accepting than it is sometimes given credit for. Free received no backlash from his Long Beach State teammates, and later learned that some of them already knew his secret while they were playing together.
“It was almost an experiment, not knowing that people do already know,” Free says. “No one acted weird around me or treated me different, and that was pretty cool. It made me think, ‘Oh wait, maybe I could've acted differently,’ but I decided to play it safe; which is all you can really do at 19.”
Free and Sheridan are still the only former D-1 college basketball players to come out as gay or bisexual, but the support that Free received from former teammates and the public has made him believe that it’s a matter of time before more athletes come out.
“The environment is becoming so much more open and comfortable,” he says. “Now that it’s not an organizational thing, and it’s a personal opinion among players thing, you're more likely to see it happen sooner.”
Whether he’s channeling a difficult childhood to make people laugh, or demolishing myths about the existence of gay athletes, Free is adept at turning a subject on its head to reveal new perspective. Call him a product of Compton who received Ivy League scholarship offers, a dedicated teammate who battled back from injury to play in the NCAA Tournament, or a crowd-sourced comedy star on the rise. Like his comedy, Travon Free is multi-layered and always one step ahead. Like his comedy, Free stares adversity in the face, and laughs it into triumph.