If I Can Laugh With You, I Can See You
Sam Sanders is a reporter and the host of the podcast It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders. He was one of the original co-hosts of the NPR Politics Podcast.
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
SAM SANDERS: I cannot tell you how many times laughter has connected me with all different kinds of people throughout the country, of all kinds of political persuasions. And I honestly think that out of laughter, comes love. If I can laugh with you and we can see a commonality in humor, I can see you, and I can respect you, and I can love you.
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
LILY PERCY, HOST: I’m Lily Percy. And this is Creating Our Own Lives, COOL for short, the podcast where I ask people to think through how they shape their lives. And hopefully, by listening, we learn how to create our own.
MS. PERCY: This season on COOL, we’re talking about humor as a tool for survival. As I learned from my conversation with Alexis Wilkinson, the former writer for VEEP, and by watching VEEP, comedy and politics go hand in hand. But when they’re too close together, they can become mean and sarcastic and divisive. But Sam Sanders doesn’t do that.
As a reporter covering politics and the former co-host of NPR’s Politics Podcast, I find Sam’s voice objective but warm and kind, always trying his best to see the other side. This is largely because of his Pentecostal upbringing in San Antonio, where he grew up with people from different class, political, and cultural backgrounds. But it’s also just who Sam is.
MS. PERCY: So who is the person that made you laugh the most, growing up?
MR. SANDERS: Oh, man. You know, probably my dad. So my parents were this exercise in contrast. My mother is perhaps the most charismatic, outgoing person I know. And my dad was just as friendly and gregarious, but his was a much more quiet read of a room. He was usually never the loudest voice but always the one you wanted to listen to. And he had this amazing, insane level of patience. He’d do this thing where he would sometimes just sit in a room for hours at a time with no TV, no nothing. He would just sit. And he was very good at just making the right, perfectly dry joke at just the right time, apropos of nothing. You’re like, “Huh, thank you for that humor. I needed that.”
MS. PERCY: [laughs]
MR. SANDERS: It was often the same joke, every other week. But you’re like, “You know what? That’s funny.” And so my brother and I were pretty funny dudes too. We were really into physical humor, like laughing at funny body contortions and fart jokes. But my dad’s humor was much drier, which was just awesome. And so I always, from him, understood the value of a well-placed joke and of a well-placed moment of levity. None of his jokes were good. But they were always there, which I appreciated.
MS. PERCY: [laughs] Well, and it sounds like the timing was just the thing, too. Because did it just kind of come out of nowhere? Or would you guys just be hanging out?
MR. SANDERS: They’d come out of nowhere, and then he would do this thing where he’d have a lot of build-up on his joke — for the punch line to never deliver. [laughs] And part of the humor was waiting for that sad punch line.
MR. SANDERS: I miss that. I do miss that.
MS. PERCY: Aw. I love that. So when did you first realize that you were funny? Because it sounds like you had this in your family, and then you and your brother would always make each other laugh. When did you first realize that you could make other people laugh?
MR. SANDERS: I think it was, like, the older I got, I would be in these situations, either in school or out and about, where I’d always be the guy being like: wait, nobody sees this? This is crazy.
There are some situations — like a certain thing or a certain place always functions in this way, and everyone’s like, “Well, that’s the way it is.” I usually end up being the guy who says, “Actually, that’s stupid. Actually, that’s hilarious. Oh, my god, do you see that?” And kind of pointing out things that we accept at face value in a funny way and saying, maybe that’s weird. I’ve always kind of found myself being that person. And I think that’s helped me, particularly in being a journalist, because we’re supposed to see those things and talk about those things.
MS. PERCY: It sounds like you’re like your dad. I mean he was an observer. That’s what he did.
MR. SANDERS: He was an observer, exactly.
MS. PERCY: But as a journalist, this is one of the things that I admire so much about you is, you are able to still be Sam. You still have that voice. But I have to wonder, I mean especially covering the election, covering the campaign trail as you’ve been doing these past couple years, are there times where you have to stop yourself from saying something that you know you shouldn’t say?
MR. SANDERS: Oh, yeah. I think that, particularly in the last year and a half of covering the election and the aftermath of it, whereas my role used to be to always say, “Hmm, that feels weird. That seems off. What’s that about?”, now people want me, and other journalists, not so much to say, “That’s strange” but “That is right and that is wrong.” Or, “That person is good and that person is bad,” and not so much to make observations about the world as it is but to make value judgments about the world as it is. And you constantly have to fight that tension.
And I think, in public media, we have a higher mission. Every day, I have to expect that there are people that hear my voice and see the words that I write, of all kinds of political persuasions. And I have to speak to all of them and respect their points of view. And I have to reaffirm for myself every day, you know: my job is not to be in the fight; my job is to try to be the umpire and call the shots fairly and speak the truth.
But it’s become so hard, in this really, really crazy last year or so, because everyone has just bunkered down on their sides. And so a lot of times, what I’ll try to do now is find a thing that we all can laugh about. Like, I find it really easy to find humor in the way that Donald Trump talks and tweets. And even people that love him can say, “You know what, that’s hilarious.” And that’s kind of what I try to do, I mean in the same way that my father would kind of read the room. I’m trying to do that and not so much say who’s right or wrong. Because our listeners are smart enough to do it themselves, right?
MS. PERCY: Exactly. Exactly. And I mean I think you do that so brilliantly on Twitter, when you tweet about — not just Donald Trump, but in general. But one of the things that I loved recently that you did: “In the words of me paraphrasing Maya Angelou: When a presidential candidate tells you what they want to do as president, believe them.”
MR. SANDERS: [laughing] Believe them. Yeah.
MS. PERCY: Which are the famous words she gave to our Queen Oprah. And that’s true. And there’s a double meaning there, and you do that so well. You do that so well.
MR. SANDERS: Oh, I appreciate it.
MS. PERCY: I’m just so curious as to — do you ever feel kind of boxed-in? Do you ever feel like you wish you could say more?
MR. SANDERS: You know, less and less, I feel that way. More and more, what I feel like I want to try to do is ask questions that kind of draw all of us to our better selves. And so what I find myself doing now, with people that are consumers of news — I want to try to put the question back on them and say: what are you doing to make this environment better? Because, as you know, being a journalist in this day and age, a lot of people are making a lot of demands of us and what they expect us to do and how we should do our job and what it looks like to effectively do that job and whether or not we should call this or that a lie or whether we should cover this topic more and more.
But my whole thing is asking consumers of the news that may follow me on various platforms: what are you doing to make this situation better? What are you doing to fight for clarity and truth in this world full of confusion right now? And I think the challenge now is to work for a society where all of the onus and all of the burden is not just put on the president or congress or the media, but on all of us to achieve something better, right?
MS. PERCY: Yeah, and I think you have a perspective — I mean I wonder if you have that perspective, because you grew up in Texas, and you know what it’s like to be surrounded by difference. I mean, politically, religiously, socially, culturally — every kind of difference. And you also grew up in the church. And I wonder how much those two things have really influenced the way you cover right now and the way you see things.
MR. SANDERS: Yeah, I mean I think that there were two big — I don’t want to say the determining factors in my youth, but two big things that I kind of feel affected my worldview. One, I was raised in the San Antonio, Texas area. San Antonio is a city that is majority Latino, full of military bases —
MS. PERCY: What, what? [laughs]
MR. SANDERS: Yeah. Oh yeah.
MS. PERCY: [laughing] We’re taking over your state. That’s right.
MR. SANDERS: That’s right. And I happened to live a few miles away from a base, growing up, an Air Force base.
MS. PERCY: I didn’t know that. Wow.
MR. SANDERS: And so Air Force bases, surprisingly enough, are really diverse places, because the military is pretty diverse, much more diverse than the country at large, which is really still segregated. So at my public high school, there were children of all colors and hues, from all across the country. I heard Spanish, sometimes as much as English, and diversity was just a given and a constant. And so I grew up seeing all kinds of people and just thinking, well, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And that’s helped me so much, because I’ve seen people that I encounter in college or in graduate school, where they didn’t make a real friend of a different color until they were in their 20s or later. And I didn’t have that struggle, so that’s helped me so much.
And then the second thing, I think, growing up Pentecostal, in the church — when you’re raised as a Christian, there’s always this innate belief that all people are inherently good, because we are all made in the image of God, who is good.
MS. PERCY: Yeah. And then the world shows us [laughing] the reality.
MR. SANDERS: Yeah, and then the world shows us the bad, but we can always hold onto that belief that there is the good. And that kind of helps keep me going. And the second belief that I have, as a Christian — and as a born-again Christian, being raised that way — is that we are all redeemable and that we can be redeemed over and over and over again. And I take that belief with me into the way that I see my country and my democracy: no wrong cannot be righted.
And I believe that. And I think that we can constantly be involved in the work of redeeming our democracy, of redeeming our civic institutions, of redeeming ourselves, as a nation. And that gives me strength, and that keeps me hopeful in what have been some really crazy few months.
MS. PERCY: So covering this, as a journalist and also as Sam, have you had moments where jokes — where humor – has really played a big role in helping you connect with someone, maybe even someone that you didn’t think you could connect with?
MR. SANDERS: Yeah. I’m trying to think of the best time. I think the Democratic and Republican conventions were crazy in different ways, particularly the RNC. You’ll recall that night where Ted Cruz gave his speech that was a non-endorsement of Trump, and then the crowd went wild, with the New York delegation about to rush the stage. Boos all over the hall. And then Trump walks in through the side door, midway through Cruz’s speech, and it was like a scene out of WrestleMania.
MS. PERCY: [laughs]
MR. SANDERS: It was just crazy. And so we had — there was no way that you could talk about that without making some wrestling jokes and without being like, oh, snap, this is crazy. And I think what we’ve had to do so much in this election is acknowledge some of the moments of absurdity — like, absurdity. And there are lots of journalists that are straitlaced and less likely to do that, but that’s the only way that I can connect with my audience: if I see the same crazy they see and call it the same kind of crazy that they’re seeing.
Or there was this moment where — I forget what night of the convention it was — but as part of the DNC’s Hollywood, star-studded affair, they had, like, three dozen Broadway stars on the stage, singing, “What the World Needs Now is Love Sweet Love.”
MS. PERCY: No. No.
MR. SANDERS: And they’re all rocking and swaying side-to-side. And everyone in the hall is like, oh, my God, this is so cute. And I was like, no, this is so out of touch!
MS. PERCY: [laughing] Exactly. Why did — who picked this song?
MR. SANDERS: What votes do you expect to pick up with this?
MS. PERCY: Exactly.
MR. SANDERS: This is cheesy. This is cheesy.
MS. PERCY: You don’t even sing that in karaoke, Sam. You don’t even sing it in karaoke.
MR. SANDERS: Yes. Exactly. And so I think allowing myself to look at stuff and call it absurd, if it’s absurd — that’s telling. Because if you look back on the Democratic Party this last election, one of their biggest problems was seeming elite and totally out of touch with large swathes of the country. And some of that was foreshadowed with things like having Broadway stars singing, “What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love,” at the DNC. Like, who told you that was a good idea?
MS. PERCY: [laughing] Oh, god.
MR. SANDERS: Or the fact that they kept trying to make everyone like that song — what’s the song, “Fight Song”?
MS. PERCY: Oh, god, yeah.
MR. SANDERS: I hate that song.
MS. PERCY: I know.
MR. SANDERS: And everybody hated that song. And they refused to accept that.
MS. PERCY: [laughing] Yep, nope, everybody’s like, skip.
MR. SANDERS: Yes. Yes.
MS. PERCY: Oh, yeah. Oh, god, so true. [laughs] So I want to ask you — well, first I want to thank you, because one of the things that I — my favorite memory of you will forever be Juanes coming to NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert.
MR. SANDERS: I love Juanes!
MS. PERCY: I know you love Juanes. And I was like, who is this man who is not Colombian, not Hispanic, who — you were the only American there, I’m pretty sure, who was —
MR. SANDERS: “Camisa Negra” was — is one of my favorite songs from college.
MS. PERCY: And then you yelled out, “Camisa Negra”!
MS. PERCY: And Juanes played it. He listened to you.
MR. SANDERS: [clapping] Yes. Yes.
MS. PERCY: And I will always think of you, and you’re just in my heart because of that. So I just want to thank you for that, because it’s precious.
MR. SANDERS: Oh, thank you. Thank you.
MS. PERCY: But just to kind of finish up, I wonder, what do you — what does humor give you that you find nowhere else, that you’re really grateful for?
MR. SANDERS: It gives me connection. Everyone knows how to laugh, and everyone likes to be entertained, and everyone likes to see things that are funny and acknowledge the humor in them. And I cannot tell you how many times laughter has connected me with all different kinds of people throughout the country, of all kinds of political persuasions. And I honestly think that out of laughter, comes love. If I can laugh with you and we can see a commonality in humor, I can see you, and I can respect you, and I can love you. So I think those two emotions are really pretty closely linked. Like, name one time that you have had a good laugh, where you haven’t really, down beneath that feeling, felt some love too. There’s love there.
MS. PERCY: Oh, I think a good laugh makes you fall in love with someone. You’re like, oh, yeah.
MR. SANDERS: Right? I mean what is the one thing everyone wants in a life partner? A sense of humor. There is love in laughter. There is love in humor. There is love in finding joy. And that’s been fortifying, very fortifying.
MS. PERCY: Well, I leave you with the words of one Sam Sanders: “Whenever you think you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, stop, take a deep breath, and remind yourself: that’s not how gravity works.”
MR. SANDERS: There you go.
MS. PERCY: [laughing]
MR. SANDERS: True facts. No alternative facts here.
MS. PERCY: True facts. Only — Sam gives you true facts. [laughs]
MR. SANDERS: That’s right. That’s right. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: All right. Good luck —
[music: “La Camisa Negra” by Juanes]
MR. SANDERS: You’re playing Juanes!
MS. PERCY: Oh, good job, Chris!
MR. SANDERS: You can’t see it, but I’m dancing in our studio.
MS. PERCY: Oh, I am too. See? I love it. I love it.
MR. SANDERS: I love it.
MS. PERCY: Okay, let that play out throughout your day.
[music: “La Camisa Negra” by Juanes]
MS. PERCY: Sam Sanders is a reporter and podcast host at NPR and also the best-dressed man and karaoke singer — next to David Greene of course — in public media.
Creating Our Own Lives is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, and Trent Gilliss and is an On Being Studios production. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download podcasts. And leave us a review on iTunes — it matters more than you think. I’m Lily Percy. Thanks for listening.
[music: “La Camisa Negra” by Juanes]