Hasan Minhaj opens up about his confessional Netflix special, combating Trump fatigue and his career-making White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech.
Speak up against injustice or be thankful that you’re still alive? It’s a question that, as a first-generation American, Hasan Minhaj has been dealing with since childhood. Whether it was race-fueled vandalism at his childhood home or a rejected prom date, the 31-year-old comedian has always struggled with paying what he calls the “American Dream tax” — exchanging personal anger at everyday racism for the right to live safely in America. “It’s something that I still deal with, and we all deal with in some capacity,” he says. “But I’ve tried to have the audacity of equality and to follow my heart in those moments where I feel like something is wrong.”
In April, Minhaj was handed a golden opportunity to do just that. The Daily Show correspondent hosted the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which became clouded in controversy earlier this year when President Donald Trump announced he would not attend. Despite being told to go easy on the current administration, the comedian hammered home Trump’s hypocrisy in a scathing 30-minute speech. “I [had] to make fun of him and the administration, because the hypocrisy of this is too loud to ignore,” he said.
Now, Minhaj has taken his personal experiences as a first-generation Indian-American and turned it into Homecoming King, a new Netflix comedy special based on his 2015 one-man show. Throughout the hour-long performance, the comic uses his own story of growing up in Davis, California to create an honest discussion with Americans around the country. “Personal narrative is one of the few things where people don’t get caught up in fighting over esoteric rhetoric,” he said.
Minhaj spoke with Rolling Stone about putting his personal life on display, comedy’s role in the 24-hour news cycle and why he hopes Donald Trump isn’t invincible.
You have this tendency in your comedy you use certain jokes to transition into honest discussion on tough topics, regardless of whether its the White House Correspondents Dinner or a one-man show. How did you develop that kind of style of comedy?
You know, I can’t pinpoint the exact moment where I was like, “That is my tool as a comedic padawan” or whatever. But I do know that sometimes when I’m thinking about a topic, I’m thinking “What’s the take?” We do this at The Daily Show a lot — whenever we’re dissecting a story or a headline, we say, “What’s the position, what’s the thing that helps break this issue down, through either metaphor or analogy?” An example of that is when Trevor first took over the show, and we had the headline “Trump Is an African Dictator.” So it’s like, Trump is doing all these crazy things: “I’ve seen this before, he’s basically a Mugabe.” And then he breaks it down. “He does this, he does this, he baits the press, he hires his family.” And so as you go through the act, you paint that comedic picture.
I think working at the show, I learned that the take matters a lot. And I try thinking about that with whatever I’m doing, whether it’s a segment on the show or the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner dinner. I always break it down to “Ok, well, why is this significant?” You know, we’re all super busy. So with the Congressional Correspondent’s Dinner, we were coming out of the wake of the Orlando shooting – “No Bill No Break,” Congress has gun control and all of these things that are on the table, that are in the zeitgeist. So I’m speaking in front of Congress and it’s like “What’s the point?”
Jokes for jokes’ sake are kind of meaningless to me. I understand the value of them, but it doesn’t speak to me as much. You can lace your argument with jokes, but tell me why you’re presenting this argument. What does it mean?
You’ve been working on Homecoming King for about three years now. When you were first developing it, were you ever concerned about making this such a personal story about yourself?
Yeah, it was scary. I’m putting a lot of my personal life out there, you know? But I think that when I was developing it with my director Greg Walloch, we talked about one of the scenes that kind of threads throughout the entire show: “log kya kahenge” [a Hindi phrase meaning “What will people think?”]. And Greg didn’t grow up in a first-generation immigrant background. He’s a white dude.
But when I was doing entire stories for him, I would do entire chunks in Hindi because I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. He would sort of pull back and say, “Well, what does that mean?” After I explained it, Greg stopped me and he was like, “That is not just a thing that exists in immigrant communities. ‘What will people think’ is one of the most pervasive issues of human existence. We’re all worried by that and crippled by that.”
There’s a lot of parallels that you draw between you meeting your now-wife and your parent’s reaction, and you going to your prom date’s house and having her mom have that same reaction.
Exactly! And to me, sometimes, life writes better expositions than you ever could. You know what I mean? Like sometimes, life writes better punchlines than you can, and I feel like that with the way the show ends. I didn’t write that, that just happened! I just documented that.
But to me, working at The Daily Show, a headline happens, and then all of the late night piranhas are figuring out what the position on it is. And I think that’s great. But a lot of times, when we talk about issues of race and identity in this country, they are extremely loaded and divisive topics. Personal narrative is one of the few things where people don’t get caught up in fighting over esoteric rhetoric. Because if you’re just telling me what your personal story was from growing up in the Heartland — or for me, growing up in Davis, California — and how that informed your life and decisions, I really can’t deny that. I wanted to present these stories not only because they were personal to me, but because they provide case studies about what it’s like to be growing up as a first-generation kid in America, and what identity is like in this country.
The real point of the show, to me, is this; I’m married, I have health insurance, I’m doing great. But when I was in high school, Hasan Minhaj couldn’t go to prom with Bethany Reed. All things being equal, could 2017 Hasan Minhaj go to school with Bethany Reed? That’s the question that I’m trying to raise to the audience. And I think the answer is, “Depends where.” The fact that it’s a 50/50 thing, that’s really interesting to me. And I think that’s a question that I want the audience to think about.
You talk in the show about how your parents responded really well to you getting cast on The Daily Show. How have they been responding to Homecoming King?
So my sister and the parents were at the taping.
Whoa, how’d that go?
I asked my sister, “Ayesha, how did it go?” My sister said that she was watching Mom and Dad – and Mom and Dad were watching the audience. So they would be concerned: “How is this gonna go, why is he talking about this stuff?” Then they would watch the audience laugh, and then they would laugh. It’s almost like they were playing “Telephone.” Like, “Oh my god, this is so concerning. Oh wait, everybody deals with this? Ok, we’re ok with this.”
You point out in this special has a lot to do with your relationship with your dad – this idea of the “American Dream tax.” Specifically, your struggle with the concept of whether or not to call out racism whenever you see it, or to be grateful that you survived it. Have you found any closure to that debate in your head?
That paradox continues to present itself in numerous occasions in my life. “Hey, just play it safe, just be grateful that you’re here, don’t ruffle any feathers.” The same scenario presented itself when I did the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. I remember my dad reiterating the same advice that was sort of told to me by the WHCA. Like, “Hey, we don’t want to roast the president in absentia, the last thing you want to do is upset the administration, which already has this super tense relationship with the press.” But to their credit, they also wanted me to roast the room and keep it balanced. They gave me freedom of speech and let me do what I wanted to do as an artist. So, I gotta give Jeff Mason and the WHCA props there.
My dad was kind of voicing a similar emotion, saying “Hey, look, this is a huge opportunity for you. Don’t be distasteful. Don’t go too hard. You’re an immigrant in comedy. The concept of you is a new thing to that room. Ease into it the same way I and so many other of your uncles and aunts that came to this country eased into the American diaspora. Don’t just come in and burn the building down.”
But to me, there’s also this blatant hypocrisy of like … I’m a citizen. I was born here. I truly believe that I have the right, just like anybody else, to call BS when I see it, or to point the hypocrisy of the situation. That doesn’t make me unpatriotic just because of the color of my skin. And that’s an interesting dynamic, in that I see the validity in both sides. I mean, my dad is right. The day-to-day microaggressions that we all face … yeah, you have to let some stuff slide, or you go, “I gotta keep moving, there’s bigger fish to fry.” It’s something that I still deal with. But I’ve tried to have the audacity of equality and to follow my heart in those moments where I feel like something is wrong.
Let’s talk a little bit about the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. You pointed out in your speech that this was an event celebrating the First Amendment. Donald Trump didn’t show up – and he’s the guy who utilizes the hell out of the First Amendment. Were you more upset or relieved, at first, when you knew he wouldn’t be coming?
I was upset. Because in a lot of ways, through his thin skin and his ego, he has sort of barreled through so many great American traditions. You saw what happened when the meeting with NATO happened; he just [plows] through all of these great global traditions, and then we have to deal with the aftermath. So the narrative of him skipping, it created this whole concept of, “Oh, is the event still gonna happen? Oh, the event isn’t star-studded any more. Maybe the event is finally gonna die.”
When I got the offer, I actually did some research on what the purpose is of this event. Again, why am I doing this? Why are we here? What’s the significance of it? And when I actually researched it, I was like, “This is an amazing American tradition.” Since 1921, it’s honored the press, and has given scholarships to young journalists. The leader of the free world, the President of the United States, comes to get made fun of a little bit, to get poked at and laughed at a little bit. But it’s a tip of his hat: “Hey, I’m not beyond the reach of the First Amendment.” And it really is a sign to the rest of the free world that the leader of the free world is respecting this notion. That’s why the great American experiment is worth fighting for.
Donald Trump is basically giving the middle finger to all of that. Like, “No, no, no, you don’t make fun of me. Kiss the ring.” That bothers me. And so that became the central focus of my speech. That’s why I have to make fun of him and the administration, because the hypocrisy of this is too loud to ignore. So to answer your question, yeah I wish he was there. Because what’s so amazing about this great American tradition is that a satirist or comedian gets to roast the president in front of the world. And they do it in a tasteful, respectful manner — you singe, you don’t burn. I could have told the same jokes, he probably wouldn’t have understood them. He would have just sat there, and we would have laughed.
They should have panned to his face, just like when Seth Meyers did it in 2011, where he’s just completely stone, not even moving.
Yeah, it’s almost as if someone hit the pause button on his face. Just completely, slightly comatose. That’s what it would have been. But the reason why that gig is so fun and interesting is you actually get to say the jokes in front of, say, Wolf Blitzer. You get to say them to Don Lemon. And to me, for the audience watching at home, that’s what makes it so fun. Nobody else wants to watch C-SPAN. But for the audience watching at home, they’re like, “Oh, that’s cool! I get to see this sort of Tyson-Holyfield match, so to speak.” You’re exchanging these jabs and blows with some of the titans of media. I truly do believe that, no, the media and journalists are not the enemy of the people. That is a classic dictator move. And yes, there’s problems I have with the 24-hour media news cycle, but you guys aren’t Lord Voldemort.
Well, you had a lot of criticism for the 24-hour broadcast news outlets like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News in your speech, which you also touched on for a recent segment you did for The Daily Showon the media’s newfound sense of snark. So as a fake newsman, what do you see as the way forward for the media’s credibility problem?
I think that objective facts are enough to expose a story. Dan Rather would never open up a segment with a haiku about why Trump is an idiot. He would say, “A happened, B happened, C happened. I hope that, as an adult, you can piece these things together to come up with your own conclusions on what this all means.” So to me, I’m not concerned about what side of the partisan line my rhetoric falls on. I’m trying to find out what the truth is, even if that skewers me or hurts my personal beliefs or opinions. I just want to know what that is.
I think it’s a combination of the 24-hour news cycle, coupled with the fact that news is being dictated and broadcast by strong personalities. But I don’t think that the personalities should be bigger than objective reality and facts. There’s part of me that’s like, “Ok, how much of this is your personal brand or the network’s brand, and how much of this is just real facts?” Because when I’m watching MSNBC or CNN or Fox and Friends, I don’t have skin in this. As a fake journalist, I’m just trying to put together an act one on The Daily Show. I’m just trying to figure out what’s happening.
How did you feel about the lack of celebrities at the WHCD, and about Samantha Bee, your former co-worker, having her concurrent, “Not The White House Correspondent’s Dinner?”
So what’s awesome was when I got asked to do the gig, I called Sam, asking “what should I do?” And Sam was like, “Yes! Go for it!” I also got this great advice from [last year’s WHCD host] Larry Wilmore, and it really stuck with me. He said, “There’s two ways to protest. You can throw bricks outside of the building or within the building. You and Sam are doing both of those things at the same time. She’s throwing bricks outside of the building, you’re throwing bricks within the building.” I thought that was really cool. “Yeah, let’s lean into that idea.”
Sam put together her event super early on when Trump was still supposed to do the dinner. Since Trump is a narcissist, the idea of Kerry Washington and George Clooney being at his dinner would only fill his ego up more. “Only the Donald can bring out the headliners, that’s the power that I have.” Her goal was to say, “Let me take away a narcissist’s power by having all of the celebrities attend our event instead.” What ended up happening was Trump countered by saying “I’m not going, and none of the administration is going.” So he made it very clear that Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters would not be attending the dinner. It set a precedent of “Well the President isn’t going to be here. Should celebrities still attend?”
But if you remember, the New York Times has, for a long time, not been going to the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. But they will still support the WHCA, will still help with the scholarships and all that stuff. But they’ve always felt — and I actually feel proud that they’re putting their money where their mouth is — that the press being chummy with the administration and breaking bread with them is kind of a weird thing. It’s kind of like the SEC having dinner with Goldman-Sachs and then having roast event of each other, and then going to after parties together. It’s like, one of these groups is supposed to keep the other in check. So to me, the narrative then became, “Hey, ‘Nerd Prom’ is now back, and now the event is what it’s really supposed to be. Kylie Jenner isn’t here, but the parties that need to be here are here.” Except the one guy who was supposed to be there, the President of the United States.
What is your take on all of the news about this Russia investigation, and how things seem to keep blowing up? Do you think that Congress, if and when the time comes, will actually impeach Trump if necessary?
I certainly hope that Donald Trump isn’t like a character in Super Mario Brothers. Because right now, he’s just running through egregious allegations like they’re Koopa Troopas and he just swallowed a star. I hope that whatever that is, that star wears off, and Congress is able to come in and actually become arbiters of justice. I certainly hope that they step in and prove that he’s not Teflon Don. I don’t know if you feel this way, but we’re not even on day 150 …
It feels like he’s been in office for years already.
Yeah, exactly! And my biggest fear is that really concerned citizens will become so exhausted by all of the egregiousness and all of the blatant hypocrisies, that keeping up with facts just becomes too tiring. You know what I mean? At a point, you just kind of go, “Aw, man. Look, I tried. I tried to keep up with all of this, I’ve got a whole case study here, but I’ve gotta live my life. I’ve gotta drop my kids off at school.” Insanity wears us out. That’s the thing that I am genuinely afraid about.
Where do you see yourself going forward from here?
My goal is just to continue to find mediums to tell stories that I think need to be told. Whether it’s The Daily Show, and I’m doing the segment called “Brown in Town,” about tiny Flints that are happening in Texas and around the country – they’re stories about how in so many places across the country, people are still drinking contaminated water, because their city or their state respectively won’t step in. And if the EPA’s being gutted, then there are American civilians that won’t be able to drink clean water. That’s a story that shouldn’t just get lost under the bombastic Trump headlines that are dominating the news cycle. Or whether it’s Homecoming King, where I can talk about race, identity and love in everyday America. I’m talking about the stories we see that we sort of just brush under the rug 364 days per year. Those are stories that I think I’m trying to bring to the forefront. These are stories worth telling.