In a Libertarian Party that's constantly scrambling for legitimacy, can a comedian running for governor be anything more than a joke?
Travis Irvine strolled by the Statehouse on a particularly idyllic morning this past spring. Church bells were ringing, the sun was shining and the flags representing Ohio's 88 counties were flapping gently in the breeze. The whole scene felt magical, and it filled Irvine, Ohio's Libertarian candidate for governor, with hope.
“Wow,” he thought. “Maybe I'm gonna be governor.”
Irvine recalls this memory on the lawn of the Statehouse on a steamy Wednesday afternoon in mid-September. He's meandering around the building's perimeter in the hot sun, looking for a medical marijuana rally. Such demonstrations are usually pretty hard to miss, but today there are no sloganized placards, no megaphones, no marching or chanting. The lawn is empty other than a one-armed harmonica player on a bench.
Irvine wasn't scheduled to speak at the rally, but he wanted to show his support. Rally or no, he's determined to make the most of this Statehouse visit, so he decides to shoot part of a campaign commercial with his cameraman, Eric Boso. Political commercials have been Irvine's specialty ever since he ran for mayor of Bexley in 2007. He and a friend made Irvine's campaign slogan, “A New Face for a Special Place,” into a goofy jingle that soundtracked an even goofier YouTube video, which Jay Leno featured on his show.
In 2010, Irvine ran for Congress against Pat Tiberi and Paula Brooks, and his cheeky campaign ad imploring voters to “give the two-party system the third finger” made its way onto “PBS NewsHour.” The commercials perfectly blend two of Irvine's passions: comedy and filmmaking. Irvine, a stand-up comic, has been making hilarious man-on-the-street videos since his days at Ohio University, where he also made his first feature film, “Coons! Night of the Bandits of the Night,” a campy horror flick about killer raccoons.
In the governor's race against Republican Mike DeWine and Democrat Rich Cordray, Irvine's most successful campaign ad so far (12,000-plus views on YouTube) has been “Let Travis Debate,” which features Irvine asking voters to tell debate organizers not to exclude him, but doing so with duct tape over his mouth and subtitles to translate the garbled message. In late September, he debuted an ad starring hog versions of his opponents, Mike DeSwine and Rich Porkray. “It's time to clear out the pig pen,” Irvine says after sweeping the hogs away from a mud pit sprinkled with $20 bills.
By Irvine's standards, this commercial at the Statehouse will be a little more traditional. It'll open with a dark, gloomy, black-and-white shot of the capitol building, and then cut to a colorful, sunny shot of Irvine in front the Statehouse.
“Oh, shoot. I'm not wearing nice clothes,” Irvine says, and changes into a checkered button-down. He holds the fuzzy microphone, which still has some remnants of pig slop in its creases, at waist level to keep it out of the frame. It gets hotter with each take, and sweat is beginning to drip down Irvine's forehead. “Am I frame left or frame right?” he asks. “Frame left, OK. So chin up a little bit? … Where's the harmonica guy?”
After a few takes in different locations he nails his line: “I'm Travis Irvine, and I approve this message because it's time to fix the Statehouse and stand up for Ohio.”
Right as the shoot finishes, Irvine spots Bob Bridges, who sits on the Ohio Medical Marijuana Advisory Committee and used to head the Libertarian Party of Ohio (LPO). Bridges greets Irvine with a hug and informs him that the rally is in the Statehouse atrium. Inside.
“Oh. Well, I used all your talking points in that interview with NBC4. Maybe I've gone too pro-pot already...” Irvine tells Bridges. “I'll pop in and support the cause.”
Irvine heads to a door. It's locked. He continues circling until he reaches a different door. “Entrance closed.” Orange construction fencing blocks another area. Every time the Libertarian candidate for governor tries to get into the Statehouse, something blocks his way.
Eventually Irvine makes it into the atrium, where 20 or so people sit in white folding chairs and listen to featured speakers at a podium talk about cannabis. It feels more like a college lecture than a rally or protest, but given the topic, the staid vibe may help further the cause. Some people still don't take marijuana seriously. Libertarians can relate.
Irvine will be listed on the November ballot alongside running mate J. Todd Grayson, but getting the Libertarian Party back on the ballot required more than 20,000 volunteer hours and in excess of $250,000 — not small potatoes for a third party.
The LPO has a slate of candidates across the state, but Irvine is the face of the party in 2018, and that raises a few questions: In a party that's constantly scrambling for legitimacy, can a comedian running for governor be anything more than a joke? Will anyone take him seriously? Does Travis Irvine even take himself seriously?
It's another sweltering day in September, and after walking to a Bexley Starbucks from his place, Irvine is sweating through the white dress shirt he'll wear to an on-camera interview at NBC4 this afternoon. He's used to traveling by foot. Irvine's driver's license was stolen at gunpoint in a Whitehall mugging several years ago, and when he tried to get a new one, he was told his license was suspended for failing to pay a ticket he got in New York City, where he was cited for not wearing a seatbelt. At that point, Irvine just decided he wouldn't drive.
Irvine, 35, wears his signature American flag sunglasses while we chat outside. The shades are funny, but not ironic. Irvine means it, the same way he ends text messages with a flag emoji. Not everyone appreciates the forms Irvine's patriotic expressions take, though. Recently, at the Canal Winchester Labor Day parade, he supplemented the sunglasses with an adult-sized American flag onesie. “All these big Republicans were there, but I was the hit. They loved it,” Irvine said. “And then — classic Libertarian stuff — they post a picture of it on Facebook, and a bunch of Libertarians are like, ‘This is why we won't be taken seriously. We keep running joke candidates.'”
The Libertarian Party is Irvine's home, but it took him awhile to get there. His fascination with politics began at age 5 with the 1988 presidential election. “I was just glued to the TV for the conventions — the balloons dropping, the debates. I don't think I understood anything of what was actually happening, but I was apparently fascinated,” he said. “In 1992 I had a better understanding of it. At that point you had Ross Perot, and that's what started the independent streak: ‘Oh, there's a third guy, and he's fun and funny, and both the other guys keep saying how much they agree with him.' I was the only kid that voted for Ross Perot in the mock presidential election.”
In his first race, Irvine ran for vice president of student council at Montrose Elementary in Bexley. “That was my first political win,” he said. “The motto was, ‘Vote for the prudent student.' And then in parentheses it said, ‘If you don't know what that means, just vote for Travis.'”
Growing up, Irvine considered himself a Democrat. In 2000, while still at Bexley High School (where he graduated with a 4.0 GPA), he campaigned for Al Gore. “Democrats seemed more sensible. George Bush seemed like an idiot,” he said. In 2004 he did the same for John Kerry. At Ohio University he wrote for a progressive newsletter, but after graduating in 2006, his allegiances began to shift.
“I thought I was a Democrat because I was anti-war, pro-civil liberties and certainly anti-drug war,” he said. “But wait a minute. Here's this Republican who's anti-war, pro-civil liberties, anti-drug war… who is this guy? Oh, it's Ron Paul. He's a Libertarian.”
After working for an educational nonprofit in the Bahamas post-college, Irvine moved back home. He lived with his parents and sported some ill-advised dreadlocks, but none of that stopped the 24-year-old from running for mayor of Bexley, which he was motivated to do after hearing about a Capital University plan that would affect homes in his southwest Bexley neighborhood. Irvine came in sixth place out of eight mayoral candidates in 2007, garnering 201 votes, but his campaign caught the attention of the Franklin County Libertarian Party, which endorsed him. At the same time, his interest in eco-friendly city buildings garnered interest from the left.
“[As a Libertarian], you can encapsulate the best of both political parties — the personal freedoms of the Democrats and the economic freedoms of the Republicans, all under this philosophy of, ‘Don't hurt people and don't take their stuff,'” Irvine said.
Irvine filmed the mayoral campaign and eventually released it as a documentary, “American Mayor” (available on Amazon Prime). In early 2008 he moved to Washington, D.C. to give Democratic politics one more try as an intern for Sen. Chuck Schumer, but it didn't take. Afterward he spent some time in New York City working for New York Film Academy, along with some freelance jobs for infomercial guru Matthew Lesko, before moving back to Columbus in 2010 to run for Pat Tiberi's 12th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. By this point, Irvine was a full-fledged Libertarian.
“Gay marriage was a hot button issue in 2010,” Irvine said. “My whole thing was the government shouldn't be involved in marriage. Eight years later, it's the law of the land. So Libertarians ended up being right, and I ended up being right. … I'm smart. I just don't act like it.”
He also pushed marijuana legalization, which was more of a fringe issue at the time. “Lo and behold, in 2012 Colorado legalizes it, and now the dominoes are falling,” Irvine said. “It'll be fully legal in our lifetime.”
Irvine got three percent of the vote in 2010 — a strong showing by third-party standards — then headed back to NYC to get a master's degree from Columbia Journalism School. Irvine was a New Yorker until November of last year, when he moved back to Ohio to run for governor. But first, the Libertarian Party of Ohio had to get back on the ballot.
Just before 2 p.m. on July 2, ominous clouds began forming over Downtown Columbus. In front of the Secretary of State offices at Broad and Fourth streets, LPO Chair Harold Thomas, LPO Communications Director David Jackson and a few other staffers and volunteers scurry next to stacks of boxes filled with petitions containing 102,762 signatures from Ohio's 88 counties. The wind is picking up, and it keeps blowing over a sign. Eventually, a volunteer stands behind the sign to keep it upright.
One woman wanders near the event, and Jackson approaches her excitedly. “I'm just trying to get in the building,” she says.
Thomas gives a five-minute speech at the podium, just barely beating the rain. “The establishment parties will try to convince you that we are Republicans-lite, or a group of spoilers whose primary purpose is to throw elections one way or the other. Some will even try to make you believe that we are anarchists bent on social chaos. Don't believe them,” Thomas said.
Toward the end of the speech, he references “a new generation of leadership.” Afterward, Thomas said he had Irvine in mind with that line. “Travis may come across a little odd to some voters, and he is young. Most of our candidates are quite young, 30ish. Millennials have a different way of thinking about the world, and it's a way of thinking that includes liberty,” he said. “Younger adults are very much attracted to our party, and we want to be attractive to them.”
In a September interview, Jackson said he eventually came around on Irvine, too. “At first I went, ‘Oh, god. A comedian? Are you out of your mind?'” Jackson said. “Then I thought, you know what? I now have to escape my own institutional bias.”
Jackson admitted that Irvine's campaign does get complaints for not being serious enough, but he's not convinced it's a legitimate gripe. “[With Irvine], you're seeing a real, live human being who's saying, ‘I'm willing to put some levity into what should be a celebration of liberty,'” Jackson said.
The July press event may not have generated much interest, but the LPO accomplished its mission. The party tracked down more than enough signatures to get back on the ballot. Now Irvine needs to get at least three percent of the vote in order for the party to remain on the ballot and avoid the costly petition process next time around.
Like any candidate, long shot or not, Irvine's goal is to win. But the all-important three percent mark is a secondary goal. Irvine also hopes to bring attention to issues such as criminal justice reform (he supports Issue 1) and ending the death penalty (“As governor I will not kill anybody,” he said).
And he's still pressing the marijuana issue. “The path should be to fully legal,” he said. “It's a multibillion dollar industry. You keep it illegal and keep it in the hands of the cartels, or you make it legal and put it in the hands of businessmen and women. And there's the health factor. You can save money and lives, because it's a medicine. Cordray and DeWine, neither of them get it. The stigma around marijuana is changing.”
On that issue, Irvine sounds like a Bernie Sanders supporter. But his other stances, particularly on guns, don't endear him to the left. “My liberal friends, that's the biggest thing for them. That and the Medicaid expansion rollback,” he said. “Some people hate gun violence and they see gun control as the solution. Libertarians see gun violence and say, ‘People should be more responsible with their guns.'”
But that stance endears him to Tea Party types, as does his commitment to reducing taxes and eliminating debt. “I'll go to these Tea Party events, and one lady was like, ‘I was gonna leave governor blank because I don't like Mike DeWine that much, but you convinced me,'” Irvine said.
Still, playing both sides can make it hard to cut through the noise, whether in media coverage (Irvine can only live-tweet the debates he's not invited to) or at campaign events. Last month at the Delaware County Fair, Irvine manned the Libertarian booth with LPO treasurer Linda Comstock on a Friday night. While the Republican and Democrat booths were in a separate building with a well-lit, wooden interior, Irvine was set up inside a glorified pole barn across from Professional Pavement Services and a cemetery headstone company that tried to attract visitors with a raffle to win a free grave monument.
One 26-year-old Ron Paul fan from Whitehall connected with Irvine, but passersby were few, and they rarely stopped at the booth. At one point a disgruntled, middle-aged man in a button-down paused only to say that there are already Libertarians in the Republican party. “You can't fight the two-party system,” he said, and walked away.
“You sling as much poop as you can in this competition,” Irvine says one late July evening. He's onstage at Shadowbox Live, playing the role of color commentator for the Toilet Olympics in a Hashtag Comedy improv sketch. He's convincing, too, covering an ear with one finger to simulate an in-ear mic and keeping a straight face throughout.
Hashtag invited Irvine to be the special guest for the night, and he punctuates the show with stories about Trump supporters, his failed campaign for mayor and misadventures on Greyhound buses. Some of the jokes and stories overlap with Guy from Ohio, a comedy album Irvine released last year. Many of the tracks come with an “explicit” warning; it's hard to imagine a major-party candidate getting away with a joke about the Ohio State stabbing.
“His comedy has always been fairly edgy,” said local comedian Nickey Winkelman. “He has a unique ability to say things that for other people might come across as being offensive, but his jovial nature makes it impossible not to laugh at.”
Irvine cut his teeth in a stand-up comedy troupe at Ohio University. Former teacher Keith Newman described Irvine as “wildly entertaining” with “great timing” even in college. “He pitched [‘Coons!'] originally in a production class I had with him. It was a very funny pitch. I didn't think he had any chance of getting the film done, and he fooled me,” said Newman, who let Irvine shoot part of the movie on his land. “The more he did on it, the more I realized that even though it was this stupidly silly film, he was very sincere in getting it done. It's one thing to be stupid, but it's another thing to be stupid and good. … I think the key word is sincerity. He was sincere about it, as stupid as it was.”
That sincerity is a through line in all of Irvine's projects, whether it's a movie featuring dead, frozen raccoons in children's clothes or a gubernatorial campaign. And while Irvine may wear black-rimmed glasses in campaign commercials and American flag sunglasses elsewhere, he seems content to keep the line between comedy and politics nice and blurry.
To Bob Bridges, Irvine's comedy doesn't make him any less valid as a politician. “It shouldn't matter what anybody's career choice is. He is a viable candidate for an alternative choice,” he said. “The two main parties have a lot of money, so for Travis to mix politics and comedy, I think it's a beautiful thing because those things stick out in people's minds. If you have less funding, you have to make a bigger noise to get noticed, and Travis loves to make a big noise with his comedy.”
“I hope people take him seriously,” Winkelman said. “People took Donald Trump seriously, and I still can't figure that out.”
Irvine thinks the Trump effect could be a positive thing for his campaign and all Libertarians. “Post-2016, politics is shattered. It's been redefined,” Irvine said. “[In 2010], people didn't even know what Libertarians were. Then 2016 happens. Trump breaks the Republicans. Bernie breaks the Democrats. People are looking for outsiders, and here comes the Libertarian party.”
Irvine's motto for 2018 is, “Go big or go home — unless you can do both at the same time.” Other than the occasional freelance gig, Irvine isn't making money right now, instead living off of savings from video work he did for Vice, The Guardian, Mediaite and others.
But he doesn't have all his eggs in the politics basket. If the whole governor thing doesn't pan out, Irvine will have more time to focus on a project that's nearing completion: “Killer Raccoons! 2! Dark Christmas in the Dark.”