Pop Stuff: Hasan Minhaj, Brilluminati
The comedian is the youngest host of a U.S. political comedy show and the first Indian one
Being brown in America has never felt more fraught. While many Americans voted for a more diverse Congress in recent mid-term elections, the President continued to stir a pot of fear and ignorance in which post 9/11 paranoias burgeon. Most recently, he intimated that the caravan of migrants trying to enter the U.S. to escape violence in Honduras was doubly dangerous because of ‘middle easterners’ amongst them. As if in retort, the cultural landscape has delivered more Brown role models in pop culture and moved away from racial stereotyping. The Simpsons dropped Apu, Master of None replaced the terrorist/taxi-driver cliché, Riz Ahmed turned formidable leading man and America embraced Priyanka Chopra who embraced Lady Liberty back in the form of Nick Jonas. Still, representation grew whilst treading carefully between fitting in and standing out. That is, until Hasan Minhaj strode in, his Air Jordans competing only against a perfect 10 smile for sparkly whiteness, and re-wrote the rule book.
Minhaj grew up in Davis, California, the product of an almost too typical family. His Indian, Muslim parents, father a chemist and mother a doctor, emigrated from Uttar Pradesh to pursue the American Dream which his sister made good on by becoming a lawyer. It was Minhaj, who, in his dogged pursuit of a career in stand-up comedy turned the tables on the standard-issue immigrant origins story. After several post college years performing in Los Angeles, Minhaj caught a crucial break when he auditioned for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and landed a role as correspondent.
Minhaj quickly established a reputation for incisive comedic work fueled by racial politics. However, it was in a headlining speech at the 2017 White House Correspondent’s Dinner where, defying instruction, he called the President ‘Liar-In-Chief,’ that Minhaj displayed a voice that matched humor with bravery. His encore, later that same year, was a heart-rendingly funny stand-up special, Homecoming King, where he talked about his refusal to pay the ‘American Dream tax’ of injustice, one that his parents had paid, because he had the ‘audacity of equality.’ Showing an uncanny ability to make the personal, universal, Hasan Minhaj had arrived.
Today at 33 years old, Minhaj is the youngest host of a U.S. political comedy show and the first Indian one. After just 4 years at The Daily Show, Minhaj launched Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj on Netflix. The title, which draws its name from a post 9/11 law that allowed the U.S. government to perform increased surveillance on its citizens, signals, tongue-in-cheek, that Minhaj won’t be silenced, the ‘Patriot Act’ be damned. The genre has become a stand-in for the news in an environment where the talking heads of ‘real’ news channels are all bluster, little substance. In a crowded field of shows with some exceptional talents, it seemed like a long shot that Minhaj would offer something that Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah and others didn’t already have a captive audience for. Patriot Act, a handful of episodes in has proved to be a breath of fresh air.
The most pervasive and quietly compelling thing about Patriot Act is its FUBU-ness. Minhaj has talked about wanting to add a chapter to America’s book that talks about what it means to be Brown and he makes good on that promise. The show covers universally fascinating news topics but feels distinctly ‘For Us By Us.’ Television in the U.S. is something that you have to search for yourself in if you’re Indian, it rarely speaks to you directly. Minhaj flips that. He drops Hindi phrases without explanation, finds the Brown angle in his reporting and sprinkles in jokes that make you feel like an insider. For Asians, Patriot Act provides a sense of belonging that we haven’t felt on Western television and for others it feels like edu-tainment with an insight.
In a reversal of years of apologist humor, Minhaj uses cultural specificity for comedy without diminishing the culture. In his first segment on Affirmative Action he quips ‘Our entire lives we get shat on, you’re the color of poop, you smell like Korean kimchi. We say nothing, the moment we can’t get into Harvard, we’re like I’ll see you in court mother-fucker’. In the midst of a second segment on Saudi Arabia, Minhaj digresses to explain lotas, ‘Some people think its gross but you know what I think is gross toilet paper. If you walked through dog-shit in your Air Jordans and I only gave you a piece of toilet paper to clean it up, you would think it’s nasty too’. And yet, Minhaj does not shy away from a self-critical lens. He addresses the long list of Indian scam artists and the racism against Blacks that can be endemic to Brown communities. As people endeavor to bridge divides as an antidote to building walls, the show’s specific point of view becomes its appeal.
Patriot Act unfolds in weekly half-hour episodes, each exploring a particular issue through in-depth investigative reporting and delivered with a quirky, fresh wit. The topics lend themselves to the news cycle but while current, they are a welcome departure from the plethora of late night news and political satire shows and seem structured to appeal to a diverse, younger and more globally minded audience. Amongst other things, Minhaj has covered Affirmative Action, Saudi Arabia, Immigration and Free Speech on the Internet and added lighter topics such as the corporate greed fueling streetwear brand Supreme.
Steeped in historical context and facts, Minhaj’s coverage is educational on the surface and with the honest, heart felt take that he honed in Homecoming King, affecting at its core. In one segment, Minhaj sets Saudi Arabia in context, deftly describing the history of Muslim warring factions buoyed by foreign interests and nailing a sixty second summary of the war in Yemen. He goes on to talk about Kashoggi and finally describes how this affects him as a Muslim both in terms of his faith and how he is perceived in the world. Laying out the bigger picture crisis, he funnels down to the individual one of identity. While Minhaj is not reinventing the format, his delivery stands out in the sea of suited, white, men with identical haircuts talking politics at us.
What sets Hasan Minhaj apart most though, is Hasan Minhaj. Race aside, Minhaj has deliberately chosen to inhabit himself and not the avatar of late night talk show host. He makes this eminently clear in a hysterical pre-show trailer of sorts where he plays dress-up with Queer Eye’s Pakistani host, Tan France, rejecting one outfit after the next. Usually in a pair of sneakers from his beloved collection, Minhaj bounds onto the stage sporting a variety of muted jeans and sleek sweat shirts that allow for a trademark dynamism as he darts around for the length of the show. He’s flipped the bird to the desk and suit that have come to define talk shows. This feels particularly important in an era that is all about pressing against socio-political structures that consistently tell you who to emulate. The vibe is as casual as the content is not and with language that feels like your cousin is schooling you in your living room, Patriot Act sees Minhaj chip away at the Fourth Wall and embrace his audience.
There are things about Patriot Act that will be honed and as with every piece of content in an instant feedback landscape the show is likely to mature over time. Fortunately for us, Netflix seems to have guaranteed that time in giving Minhaj 32 episodes. Still, to be young and riding a wave of success in a creative industry is an enviable hand that can easily be lost. Minhaj has taken a much needed risk by using his success to push for an authentic voice, to write his chapter on Brown America, to make room for what he describes as the ‘Brilluminati’. It’s a deeply conscious choice, the weight of which is not lost on him. In his opening show amongst jokes about screwing it all up, Minhaj smiles, ‘‘Netflix gave us a show. We did it baby. We here.’ Thanks Hasan, we needed you.
The author is a film producer and journalist and a former hedge fund COO. Twitter: @soleilnathwani