S03 E07: Election Breakdown with Travon Free & Jenny Yang
Allyn: Welcome to “Pod For The Cause,” the official podcast of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, where we expand the conversation on the critical civil and human rights issues of our day.
I’m your host, Allyn Brooks-LaSure, coming to you from Washington D.C. And like we start off every show, we’ve got the Pod Squad, where we discuss pop culture, social justice, and just about everything in between. We have some amazing folks joining us today. First up is Travon Free – comedian, and writer in “The Daily Show,” “Full Frontal,” “Camping” on HBO, and “Black Monday.” Joining us is also Jenny Yang – comedian, writer, and actor, and former labor activist. In this episode, we’re gonna be talking about everything that just happened in the 2020 election. Jenny, Travon, thanks for joining us today.
Jenny: Happy to be here.
Travon: Thank you for having us.
Allyn: Now let’s jump right in. Where were you when you heard that there was a president-elect? Jenny, we’ll start with you.
Jenny: Well, I was in L.A., so you know, it was morning time for me, and unlike other people in Los Angeles on a Saturday who were probably sleeping in, I was up because of the anxiety of the week anyway, and I was playing on my Nintendo Switch “Animal Crossing.” Just, you know, soothing the nerves with a little cute video game. And then all of a sudden I get a text from my friend, Kim Newmoney, that’s her real last name, she texted and was like, “A new president for your birthday.” Saturday was my actual birthday and she said, “A new president for your birthday.” I said, “What?” I go to the Twitter and it is verified because Twitter said it, and it was just happy tears, just relief.
Allyn: So wait, how are you gonna manage expectations for your birthday moving forward?
Jenny: I can’t. I can’t. I mean, honestly, I expect something huge four years from now maybe, but…
Allyn: Travon, how about you? Where were you when you heard?
Travon: Funny enough, the first time I went to sleep during the whole process was when it happened. I woke up at like 8:00 a.m. or so in L.A. and before I even saw any news alerts it was like 56 texts, “What happened?” every single one of them. Exclamation points, happy faces, “We did it,” “It’s finally over.” I was like, “Oh, they must have called it.” So I go straight to Twitter before I even look at a single text, and it’s all people just like joyously celebrating, there was like video of Spike Lee popping champagne in the street. It was the greatest day we had in four years, finally.
Allyn: So actually let’s talk about that, because as exciting and as thrilling as it is for us to have a pro-civil rights administration that’s coming into after four years of having unprecedented assaults on civil and human rights, there were millions and millions of people that voted for the other side, that voted for a person who has essentially stood against civil and human rights and stood against common decency. What does that say about America, in your view?
Jenny: What it says to me about America is that we need to have a correct analysis moving forward about what happened in these elections, and why people are voting the way they voted. And to me, an initial stab at what I think the analysis is, is I believe if we move more toward the side of human rights and social justice, and if we communicate that in the accurate way, we can move people along whose needs have been neglected. Because I believe right now, the people who voted for Trump have been voting against their best interest or they’ve been voting against their economic self-interest, and they’ve been played by a lot of propaganda and messaging that is stoking their fears.
I think if we actually move more toward human rights policies, civil rights policies, that there’s a way for us to say that includes economic advancement, that includes a safety net, you know what I mean? Like, maybe this is something that we can sort of move the country toward rather than pandering to the right. And that’s my belief. That to me is the concern I have, it’s another sort of 2016 PTSD of, “Oh dear, there are still so many Trump voters, where have we gone wrong? Maybe we need to do two more New York Times profiles about them.” It just feels superficial when it’s like, what actually won this election? Hardcore community grassroots activism, mobilization that reached voters that were previously disenfranchised and unempowered and saying, “You belong in the system, you should vote too.” That’s what happened. That to me is a quick stab at what I think the analysis should be.
Allyn: Travon, what’s on your mind? What does it say about us?
Travon: I think you look at the number of people who voted to get rid of Donald Trump, and it signifies that there are enough people in this country who want to live in a progressive country that is inclusive of all people and believe in the things that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris believe in. And there are people who are a little further left of them who are willing to, you know, work within their framework to get somewhere that benefits all of us, but it also shows that there’s enough people on the sidelines in this country who aren’t voting, who haven’t voted, and who still need to participate in this element of democracy to keep us from going back towards a Donald Trump. Because when you look at the fact that 71 million people still voted for him in numbers higher than 2016, I mean, I think it’s two things. I think the policy of whiteness in America is still one of the strongest policies, one of the most backed policies by a lot of people in this country that supersedes anything economic or social. To them, it comes down to I’m voting with the color of my skin. I think the other thing is the misinformation, the lies, the divisiveness of telling people that other people are your enemy, and these are the reasons you don’t have anything, and these are the people who are taking from you or ruining your country when it’s just not true. And I think as long as we have people who are in government who perpetuate these ideas, who stand by silently while these people do these things or start to back them, it’s going to keep us in this seesaw of trying to find a hero to suppress the villain.
And we’ve looked at Kamala and Joe as our heroes in this moment too who just stamped out this villain, but if you live in a society where you need heroes and villains, every time a hero emerges, a new villain will follow right behind them and we have to get ourselves back to a place where we are just governing in a society that just has people who wanna survive and thrive and not continue this seesaw of heroes that have to emerge and get a historical amount of votes to suppress villains, because then you don’t have time to actually govern or live, you’re just living in a society of terror.
Jenny: That’s true. Because if we’re just only doing horse race, high polarized politics, then it does suck the air out of real policy conversations. You know what I mean?
Allyn: And what are the real policy conversations you think we should be having?
Jenny: I mean, I saw a chart, I don’t know if you all saw this circulate on the Twitter that did a little chart saying who supports Medicare for all and who got elected in terms of congressional races, and I think that’s powerful, right? It’s powerful. People actually do respond to policy conversations. If we’re able to get rid of this kind of rhetoric that is more about stoking fears, you know what I’m saying? Like, people want inspiring narratives and stories that include real solutions, not just playing on racist or homophobic tropes, you knowwhat I mean?
So to me, that’s inspiring to me. It’s like, “Oh guess what? Real work works,” you know what I mean? Like, clear communication about what you’re about works. So, I don’t know, I wanna convey a vision of actual policies that will affect our lives in a positive way.
Allyn: One of the things that we sat doing from Tuesday until Saturday is waiting to see the outcome of the Electoral College, right? So, we knew who got more votes on Tuesday night, that was apparent, and Joe Biden kept that lead for several days, but it was the Electoral College that we were waiting to see.
Now, the Electoral College is rooted in some really sordid history. What do you think we should do with the Electoral College? Is it an anachronism? Does it need to go away?
Jenny: I mean, we’re trying to get rid of the Electoral College? I feel that’s what everyone is saying, but what does that really mean in reality, right? I feel like that’s like a huge constitutional change, no?
Allyn: Mm-hmm, it is.
Jenny: What’s that? A supermajority that we need? So, I would love to get rid of it, I feel like it is an anachronism. It’s like back when people were still using, I don’t know, picks and hoes to do farming, you know what I mean? I don’t know. That sounds weird. I don’t wanna say that. For some reason, it sounds like other words… -laughter-
There’s always a struggle, right, between sort of these like constitutional originalists who are like, “The founding fathers said this, let’s go back to the word.” And like, no, the founding fathers were racist, the founding fathers wanted to close the gates and keep it for themselves. Why would they structure a game where other people would win? So therefore with every subsequent amendment, it has been proven that in order to actually fulfill the words that they loftily said would be a more equal blah-blah-blah, we need to actually change things structurally because they did not foresee the future. They didn’t see that actual slaves would be free. They didn’t see that. They didn’t care for that. That to me is just like, we could do it, but are we gonna get that supermajority?
Allyn: I don’t know. What do you think, Travon?
Travon: Funny enough, America’s come close to getting rid of it twice, and one of those times I didn’t realize was in the ’60s, and it had bipartisan support to get rid of it, and it was stopped by one senator who I can’t remember, obviously from a state that would not like the Electoral College to go away. And I think his quote was something to the effect of, “If we do this, we lose all of our power.” And that was the thing that got those handful of senators to make sure it didn’t pass, but that was I think the closest it had come to passing in our more modernish times, and it kind of like made me think, “Oh, maybe there might be a world where we should get back to there,” if we were there in the ’60s. But yeah, it’s clearly a thing that needs to go away, because I think Republicans know if you lose the Electoral College, they probably don’t win very many elections going forward.
And people’s fear I think is that it will create a space where politicians don’t have to campaign everywhere. I feel like it might be the opposite, where if you’re campaigning for the most votes, you probably wanna hit places where everybody lives and spend some time going throughout the country to actually campaign and not having to focus on swing states, but like the country, where you can go on like a 50-state tour over the course of a year or two, however long you wanna campaign, and try to become president of America. It feels like a fantasy thinking places like that big red swath of states you see in the map that are worth three electoral votes ever give up the power to not control who becomes president, but we can dream.
Allyn: So, on Saturday night we saw Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris take the stage, and both of them talked about unity and unifying the country. Do you think that’s possible?
Travon: Honestly, I don’t think so. I think it’s ideal to have a president who wants to be president of the entire country and wants to do the best for everyone in the country. But I think this country turned a corner in 2016, and it turned another one this past Tuesday where we got to see just how much people were serious about that corner we turned. And you look at what’s happening in the country and there is a percentage of Americans who have a genuine lack of interest in what the left has to say or wants to do, and they want to participate in something that looks a lot like the country Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell wanna lead.
And I think as long as America is comprised of the groups it is comprised of and is fighting to become the country it’s trying to become, there are people who are holding on to the past, like you mentioned, and people who are holding on to things that are so tied to their identities, mostly white Americans, that it’s impossible to all of a sudden say something to them that will just wash that away. So I think, to me, it’s less about unity and more about doing what’s best for the most people the most amount of time. It’s fighting for what is the absolute best thing for everyone in America, whether people on the right agree with you or not.
And if the country has chosen you to make that decision as president, your job is to do that. And I don’t think there’s time to waste trying to get Trump voters to be Joe Biden fans, and it’s proven ineffective. What we need to do is build up our side, we need to build up our coalition and we need to focus on getting those 100 million people who don’t vote every year, every election, to come participate, because a lot of them probably agree with some of the things that we’re doing, but all of them benefit in some way.
Jenny: You know, it’s like I said earlier, I do not believe the best way forward is to pander to the entrenched Trump supporters. Of those millions who voted for Trump, I would believe that at least half of them probably are too far gone for us to really work on that in the immediate time. But there are some, I do believe that there are some who voted for Trump last time who did not vote for him or who opted out of voting. I’ve heard this anecdotally, because they did not quite like what Trump was doing. And so I think we need to focus on building that coalition. We need to feel like there are people who don’t look like older white representatives to sort of calm the conservatives to be like, “Oh, it’s okay. We’re still like you,” you know. That’s me being cynical, that’s me being cynical. It’s like, yay Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, but ut I can see how on the face of it, it probably calmed people a little bit to be like, look, Joe Biden, he’s an older guy who knows what’s up, maybe we shouldn’t be worried as much. You know, he’s an older white guy. That might have reassured some of the electorate, I don’t know. A lot of people who don’t put civil rights in the priority are afraid of the demographic change, and I don’t know what we can do to reassure them other than talking about policy.
Allyn: So during his speech, Joe Biden talked about four priorities that he said that his administration was gonna be focused on from day one. He said getting control of COVID-19, economic recovery, racial justice, and climate change. Do you think those are the four issues that they should be focused on?
Travon: I mean, COVID is definitely the pressing issue and racial justice is important to a lot of people who elected him, and obviously climate change is the greatest threat facing us that we don’t have the attention span to continually pay attention to.
And if you look at economic recovery, people are teetering on the edge of eviction all over the country and there are places where people are making more off the one stimulus check they got than they were making working. Now all these people are losing their jobs and that probably was the most surprising reason how Trump got so many votes from people who were like living in the state they’re living in, and he was still able to get that many people to want this to continue.
Jenny: I think it’s because, from what I heard from Republican voters, that they don’t blame him for the coronavirus crisis, they didn’t blame him for what I perceive to have been inaction and gross mismanagement, you know what I’m saying? Like, I characterize it as that, but other people were like, “No, he was doing the best that he could.”
People love using the abusive relationship analogy which is so apt. Like, it’s not even hack, it’s just truth. We have the human potential to be so forgiving of people who treat us so terribly by justifying psychologically how they are or what kind of tough time they are having. You know, when it’s like, “No, actually, you could stand up for your needs.” Guess what – you have needs too, you know.
And I feel like too many, both Trump supports and probably Biden supporters, have a learned helplessness around their ability to actually advance in their lives. And so when you can’t actually make advancements in your life, it makes you feel better story-wise to tell that narrative to yourself that there is, back again, this hero-victim narrative, right? You know what I’m saying? Like, that’s what stories do, stories soothe people’s psychologies. They like, move people emotionally. And so, you know, when you can’t really give them true policy through inaction and good luck, then yeah, you’re gonna tell them stories that will make them feel better about what “side” they’re on. It’s like wearing team jerseys when you’re not on the field. Like, why do people do that? They’re not actually playing football, you’re just wearing the colors. -laughter- But you psychologically feel like you’re part of that story, you know what I mean?
Allyn: Well, and you also say “we” when you’re talking about your team, you say, “We won.”
Jenny: Hell yeah. And so story and narrative is so powerful and that will soothe people, even if they are not feeding their kids and not being able to pay for the electricity, and that to me is what we also need to work on if we want to push for civil rights.
Travon: It’s also one of those things that to even tell yourself the narrative that Donald Trump didn’t mismanage coronavirus is so beyond in saying, because we know for a fact if Barrack Obama was the president during coronavirus and did exactly what Trump did in terms of how he handled it, there would be not a single person on the right decrying how much he mismanaged this crisis and killed almost 300,000 people, like not a single person. But for some reason they can tell themselves and rationalize that like, “Well, it’s not his fault that this happened,” but yeah, you look at our chart and you look at the rest of the world and it’s astronomically different.
Allyn: And Trump did extremely well in states that are seeing a resurgence in COVID-19, which is remarkable.
Jenny: You know, I feel like it’s because from what I’ve heard from, you know, Republican folks, is they believe that the freedom is more important than the risk of getting sick. And in fact, it is just natural for people to get sick, this pandemic is just a thing, and we can’t change our way of life. It’s just what people are valuing, you know what I mean? It’s just what people are valuing. So, yeah, you don’t wanna change your life, that also is gonna affect other people dying, you know, but they don’t care about that enough.
Travon: You can’t view a pandemic like terrorism. It’s like when Bush was saying everyone has to go on living their lives and not let the terrorists win, and it’s like yeah, I get that, like you can’t live your life in fear, but you can live your life knowing that there is a virus out there actually killing people that you can avoid if you do these things.
Allyn: Very simple things by the way.
Jenny: Maybe that will work, Travon, maybe we need like a color-coded system?
Travon: Oh, the chart, bring back the chart.
Jenny: Bring back the chart that was for after 9/11 for terrorism, being vigilant?
Allyn: We’re on a high alert for COVID-19.
Jenny: All the red states – automatically red state, you know what I mean?
Allyn: So let me ask you a question. Both of you are comedians. Comedy has played around the world a very fascinating role at the intersection of politics. In 2020, in the age that we’re in, what do you think is the role of comedy in politics?
Travon: I mean, it’s hard because comedy now lives in this space where the world is so broken, it’s almost hard to find the humor in some of these situations where you have to go so far beyond them to even like get to a kernel of comedy. I mean, now I feel like with Trump being on his way out, we actually can get back to comedy in a way that we couldn’t before, and I think the role is hard because there’s so many comics who don’t care about truth-telling or care about talking about what’s going on in the world around them, but the ones who do and do it well become our Chris Rocks and Dave Chappelles, and people like that.
And I think now, especially because comics are dying to get back into the world and do comedy, which they are finding it hard during COVID, it’s time to kind of realize you can’t ignore the outside world anymore. Like, there was a period of time before coronavirus where people were literally turning away from shows that were trying to pretend like the world wasn’t on fire. And we watched Jimmy Fallon go from the number one late night show to number three or four, because Colbert was talking about what was happening in the world, and Jimmy Kimmel was talking about what was happening in the world, and people were like, “How can you come on TV and talk about Kim Kardashian when like this horrible thing happened today?” That’s all I can think about, that’s all I’ve been bombarded with on the news, and you’re just pretending like you live in this bubble where it doesn’t exist. And so I think it might also bring comedy more into the real world on average than it has been in the past, because people, while they want to escape, they don’t want to necessarily forget entirely what’s going on outside the world they live in. I think that’s where we’re moving toward.
Jenny: I would agree with that in terms of like how people who do comedy are feeling. I would like to propose possibly a radical framework around who Trump is. I believe he’s a comedian. He is a comedian and a buffoon, not, you know, necessarily as a disparaging thing, but just as a form of aesthetics and art, and I’m telling you right now, he was able to use the skills of comedy in order to rise up. And I would say that I think that’s not a conversation we’ve really hard.
Because if you watch this guy work the crowd, he is a comedian. Like, his timing is on point, you know what I mean? He plays the crowd like a fiddle. And so I would argue that the role of comedy, other than hopefully being truth-tellers and somehow having the world so ridiculous that you have to rely on the court jester in order to tell you what’s up, is that the aesthetics and the artform itself has been exploited by someone like Donald Trump who is evil chaos, you know, if we’re gonna go to the charts of “Dungeons and Dragons,” -laughter- who doesn’t give an F and who uses timings and jokes, and taunts, and condescension, and sarcasm the way a comedian would, but to his own end.
And so I think we need to be smarter too if we care about civil rights in order to use all of the tools to make the movement…what is the quote? To make the movement undeniable, irresistible. You know, it’s out there. Some beautiful thinker said this. That’s our job, right? Our job is to make the movement irresistible. And so I think we need to include comedy in that.
Allyn: One of the things that you mentioned, Jenny, you talked about the court jester truth-telling – do you all feel restrained in your craft? Some comedians, including Dave Chappelle, have said that audiences, and by extension, society, have gotten too sensitive and they’re restraining the ability of the comedians to tell the truth. Do you think there’s some truth to that?
Travon: In some ways, yes, I think there is a growing sensitivity among audiences that I’ve seen go completely in the wrong direction where they can’t even tell when a joke is in support of something they believe in anymore because of the language being used in the joke, and from a joke that’s actually disparaging, and that part has been troubling. But I do think there is in the other direction a bit of old man syndrome with some comedians who refuse to let comedy outgrow them.
We’ve watched comedy evolve where we learned as a society like, “Oh, those kind of jokes are just like hurting people and making people insensitive towards certain groups of people. Those aren’t necessarily jokes and you can’t necessarily make fun of certain people in a certain way where it doesn’t come off as disparaging no matter how funny it is, because we still live in a world where those people are being harmed and killed, and the joke that you’re telling or the rhetoric you’re using to some people may not be taken the way you think is gonna be taken, and may be used as more justification to continue to hold down a group of people they don’t necessarily like or understand. And so there is some reluctance to let comedy grow and expand, and yeah, you can’t tell the jokes you told 20 years ago, you got to figure out a new way because now that’s unacceptable. But no -audio drop- policing comedy because anytime someone says, “Oh, comedy is being too policed and you can’t say anything anymore,” they’re literally standing up there saying the thing that they’re saying they’re not allowed to say, which means you’re just proving your point. You’ve proved that it’s not true.
Jenny: I have so much respect for Dave Chappelle, he’s a master of the art. Like, he inspired so many people and he continues to be funny, but there is a difference between something being objectively funny as a joke, and something being consequentially negative in the world, do you know what I’m saying? And so I think as a comedian I can still laugh at a really messed up joke that’s really maybe racist or homophobic or whatever and be like, “Yeah, that’s a funny joke,” but be like, “I don’t support that, because we don’t need any more of that.” And I think people need to learn how to separate that. I think there’s the consequences of your speech and then there’s the craft of triggering a laughter. And I think what Travon said is on point, like we need to let comedy evolve.
Personally, I have even told jokes in a context where I’m considered a PC comedian. Jerry Seinfeld didn’t want the college gigs, I’m like, “I’ll take them.” The college kids love me, you know, I know how to speak their language. And even one time I told a joke and I was just like it’s a joke I used to tell where I talk about, you know, let’s not comment on each other’s bodies because we don’t know the premises, we don’t know what’s going on with your body, whether you’re getting bigger or smaller, you’re sick or not. My punchline was I was depressed, I had broken up with a boyfriend of three-and-a-half years, and that’s why I got skinny. And afterwards, I got feedback from like the board of the students that like brought me to this big conference and, “It was really funny, Jenny. I just wanted to give you a little feedback that some people were concerned about you using depression for comedy.” And I’m like, the punchline was not me making fun of depression, it was me making fun of the people who wanted to say, “Oh my god, you’re so skinny, what’s your secret?” and I’m like, “Oh, my secret? Depression,” you know what I mean? Like, just invoking the word “depression” does not mean you’re making fun of that thing, and I think that’s the perfect example of what Travon was saying. I think we need to educate people on how to be conscious consumers of comedy on all sides.
Allyn: What does that mean? How does somebody be a conscious consumer?
Jenny: It’s just like the way that you can analyze a joke and be like, oh, just because you say the word doesn’t mean you’re making fun of that thing, you know, or that issue. That there is a target to every joke. You’re making fun of something, what are you making fun of? Like, think about that. Like, it’s a little bit of analysis and critical thinking. Let’s do this.
Allyn: Final question I have for you. So you have Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in Comedy Camp, what’s the first lesson you’re gonna teach them in Comedy Camp?
Jenny: I would say Kamala Harris has really good timing. You know, she just needs to keep it vice-presidential, but within that little playground, you know? I think Biden needs to loosen up a little bit.
Travon: I agree. It’s just like relax a little bit, Biden, and modulate every once in a while because it helps you land the joke.
Jenny: You could slow it down, you can speed it up, it doesn’t have to be just the same energy. Also, you know, I do have to say, when I learned that Biden grew up with a stuttering speech disability, that really enhanced my understanding of how he gives speeches. And so maybe he can’t be relaxed, you know I’m saying? Because it’s a lot to kind of process. But yeah, I mean, Comedy Camp, there’s so many things. Obama was good with the quick little retort…
Travon: He was quick, man.
Allyn: Yeah, he was funny at the Correspondents’ Dinner, right?
Travon: He was really good. When the correspondents’ dinner comes around, I’m available, Biden, just hit me up.
Jenny: I think in general every politician, everyone who works in politics who doesn’t do this naturally, I feel like very basic comedy lesson is just to state what’s happening in the room that’s weird. That’s like a very basic…you know what I’m saying? Like just acknowledge the weirdness of either you or the situation, I feel like that’s the basic public speaking comedy rule that everyone can use because that disarms people and it makes people feel comfortable, it makes them trust you, that you know what’s going on, you know? So if Biden’s out here making geriatric jokes, I’m all about it. That would endear him to more people, like, because that’s the thing people were making fun of him about. That’s why comedians form. We make our own jokes out of our own expense first before other people could get at it, you know what I mean? And it takes the power away.
Allyn: I think Jenny that’s gonna be the last word. Thanks again to Travon and Jenny for joining us on “Pod For The Cause.” It was a great conversation.
Jenny: Thank you.
Travon: Thank you.
Allyn: Thank you for listening to “Pod For The Cause,” the official podcast of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund. For more information, please visit civilrights.org. And to connect with us, hit us up on Instagram and Twitter @podforthecause.
Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app and leave a five-star review. Until then, for “Pod For The Cause,” I’m Allyn Brooks-LaSure – stay strong and keep hope alive.