As Told To: Travon Free (THE DAILY SHOW WITH TREVOR NOAH)

Photo credit: Matt BrownEach month, the WGAE asks a member to look back at the work that inspired his or her own writer’s journey and the relevance of that film or television show today.  

THE DAILY SHOW WITH TREVOR NOAH’s Travon Free provided the inaugural essay. Follow Travon on twitter at @Travon.

By Travon Free, as told to Jenna Bond

Do you remember Sheneneh?  Specifically, do you remember the episode of MARTIN when she changes the lyrics to Jodeci’s “Forever My Lady” to “Forever Sheneneh”?  It was hilarious.

Sheneneh is this around-the-way, over-the-top woman. She wins a date with Kid from Kid and Play.  It’s the 1990s and that’s kind of a huge deal.  She’s got on her fancy denim. She’s got the rings and the nails. That character is all about this particular way with words and movement and a sense of self, even though she is crazy.  In the scene, she’s trying to seduce this celebrity, Kid, in her bedroom with this huge neon sign that reads “Forever Sheneneh” above her bed.

It was already ridiculous. Kid finally realizes how crazy she is. Sheneneh sings along to the Jodeci song, “Forever Sheneneh, life is like a dream,” locking Kid in her arms.  It was absolutely hilarious.

Sheneneh was one of the best characters ever. That episode was an amazing moment.  I must have been seven when I saw it and I can’t forget that moment.  Martin was a genius at being funny.  That character was hilarious.

I knew watching shows like MARTIN, THE JAMIE FOXX SHOW and THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL AIR, I wanted to be a part of them. There’s nothing like seeing people who look like you when you watch television, or go to a movie for that matter.  Given my background, those moments –  when you effectively saw yourself and people who look like people you knew – were huge because they were rare. The 90’s saw quite a few black shows.  I love how black MARTIN was.  It was an unapologetically black show.

Martin was the same guy on stage that he was on that show.  He did not try to make his voice palatable for other people. I think THE CARMICHAEL SHOW gets that right because Jerrod gets to do the things he does on stage. He’s talking about things in a non-politically correct way and it ends up being entertaining.  In the 1990s, you saw a lot more of those shows where the black voice was not distilled for the sake of palatability.  The authenticity of those black voices is why those shows were so hilarious and so successful.

But growing up where I did, in black neighborhoods and black schools, I didn’t think of television as a profession.  At best, I thought of writing as a white person’s job.  For my friends and I, we saw people like Martin Lawrence and Bill Cosby as famous comedians. Most often, the thought was not that the shows were written or that you could write a show like that.  We weren’t thinking there was a Larry Wilmore or Paul Mooney on the other side.

When I was growing up, watching Martin, watching Chris Rock, watching Will Smith, I would only see those shows from the perspective of being the guy starring on the show.  The thought was not that I could be the guy who creates the show or the guy who writes the show.  I had the desire to work on those shows, but never thinking of it from the perspective of the writer until it was brought to my attention. When I realized that people get paid to write these things, I also realized the significant disparity in education and exposure to this part of the business that really is divided based on a person’s background.

Watching Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle really got me into being a standup comedian.  It wasn’t until I had a professor talk to me about writing for television that I thought about it.  All those black shows I watched growing up, IN LIVING COLOR to MALCOLM & EDDIE, informed who I became as a writer, as did my love for THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART once the idea of writing came to me.  I am not sure I see the influence of the shows that influenced me in content today, although whenever I see MODERN FAMILY, I think that it is basically the white BERNIE MAC SHOW.

Murphy, Carlin, Pryor, Rock…when I was 10 or 11, I found my mom’s Eddie Murphy albums.  I was hooked.  Once I heard a Carlin album, even Pryor—growing up in Compton in the 1980s and 1990s when my mom was trying to protect me from my surroundings—I was given a window for caring about things that should change.  It informed my looking at the world a different way and seeing it through the prism that would eventually allow me to write for THE DAILY SHOW.  Then I saw CHRIS ROCK: BRING THE PAIN, and that was a turning point for me.  That became one of the funniest things I saw in my life.  I recorded it on one of those VHS tapes with the green top on it. I would watch it every single day. Every. Single. Day.  After school, I would go home, put in the tape, and my cousin and I would sit there laughing, every single day.  And then Chappelle came along talking about race where he didn’t shut out white people.  That’s a hard thing to do.  Also, Steven Wright is someone who influenced me in learning how to make an observational, concise joke.

I am interested in getting as close to the line of being edgy and smart and sharp as possible without crossing it as a comedy writer.  I want to be as provocative as I can, at a time when the cultural response to sensitive topics is not what it was when Norman Lear was making ALL IN THE FAMILY.  I aim to say things that will leave you disarmed and see things differently from where you started.  I don’t like to pull punches, but I like to find the best way to communicate a bold idea.  We are in a place where you are forced to be safe, but that’s not comedy.  People take the things comedians say as though we are policymakers.  We are people who bring light to society.  It is hard when there’s a ‘you can’t say that’ culture, where despite the speaker’s intent, the censorship makes you weigh the joke against the prospect of losing your job.  I try to push back against that. When I pitched the Beyonce bit that Jessica Williams performed on THE DAILY SHOW, I was going for a sharp way to engage the conversation that followed this year’s Super Bowl.

I love Aziz Ansari’s show MASTER OF NONE.  It deals with what it is like to be a person of color in the business. It then traverses to being in a relationship, which is general people problems.  I definitely can relate to those layers of life, universal and specific.  We have seen time and time again proof of the viability and success of a black show or movie, but there remains a resistance to diversity.  I don’t get it.  But I am looking forward to the generation of comedy writers who will be referencing Aziz and Jerrod, and where society will be because of it.


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