Hasan Minhaj takes political comedy to another level

An interview with the U.S. comedy star ahead of his Just for Laughs gala this month.

It’s tough to have a conversation about anything media-related these days without also having a conversation about diversity and representation. This isn’t a bad thing. 

Diversity is good and, as you’ve likely heard, makes us strong. Representation is important in all industries but on-screen media representation is perhaps the most important. We see comedians, actors and news anchors in a way we don’t see CEOs or loan officers or assembly line workers. Media is a major way people understand and contextualize reality. As such, issues of representation are actually issues of validity and existence, a “pics or it didn’t happen” situation writ very, very large.

Hasan Minhaj clearly gets this. With apologies to everyone else doing the political comedy news show thing, Minhaj is the only one who has turned his big break — Netflix’s Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj — into something we haven’t really seen before.

As Slate’s Inkoo Kang wrote shortly after the series premiered, “Patriot Act diverges from its predecessor [Last Week Tonight With John Oliver] in one unmistakable way: It lets Minhaj be Minhaj — i.e. an Indian-American comic whose beliefs and reference points are often influenced by his cultural background and experiences as a brown man in America.”

Hasan Minhaj on the cover of Cult MTL’s July 2019 issue

As a brown man in Canada, this is noteworthy. I’ve been writing about art and artists for 15 years and I can count how many of them looked like me on one hand. As such, Minhaj’s recent run of success — from The Daily Show to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to Homecoming King to Patriot Act to an inclusion as one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world — has been incredible to witness for two very specific reasons:

One: it’s incredible to see tangible proof that times have changed. 

Two: kids who look like Hasan Minhaj get to see him writing and acting and performing and speaking his truth in front of thousands of people, which makes them think, “Hey, I can do that, too.” 

“I just feel super grateful that I was given a shot,” he says, warmly, over the phone from New York. Some people don’t sound like themselves over the phone; Hasan Minhaj sounds so much like himself I want to reach out and touch his famously coiffed hair. 

“The fact that I have a shot, and that I’m one of the first people to host a show like this that comes from my background, I know that this is an incredible opportunity. You don’t get a whole lot of cracks in this business, so, if I have this opportunity, I want to say something. It’s why I opened the [series] with an episode on Saudi Arabia and [an episode on] Affirmative action. I wanted to indict my own community and I wanted to indict my own religious background.” 

That Minhaj, a Muslim, started Patriot Act by taking a shot at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who allegedly masterminded Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination, was a hell of a brush-back pitch. In throwing it, he was making a statement: I’m not here to fuck around.

The experience of interviewing Hasan Minhaj is an exercise in getting more than you ask for. I wanted to know whether he felt like he had a responsibility to communicate his lived experience as an Indian-American, he gives me a riff on the Spider-Man “great power, great responsibility” bit. His thoughtfulness is refreshing, but it betrays something else: incredulity. 

“I would have never have thought that we’d be living in an era now where all of us — whether it’s you with writing or others with comedy and film — would finally have this moment to be able to put that into art,” he says. As if flashing back to every dirty look and “this is not for you” comment I received back in the day, I catch myself nodding like a perpetual motion drinking bird.

“We’ve reached this cultural tipping point,” he continues. “A lot of us are children of people who immigrated to the United States and Canada in the ’70s and ’80s and we’ve now come of age, and have had time to reckon not only with our parents’ experiences but our own experiences navigating identity and the sort of insider-outsider relationship [we have] with our country.” 

He makes reference to Mindy Kaling, Kumail Nanjiani and Aziz Ansari but also to Dev Patel and Riz Ahmed, all of whom were born between 1978 and 1990. He says “country” but he may as well say “the west.” 

Having his own show, he says, allows him to “open up conversations [he’d] never seen on the dozens of late night and satire shows that exist in the world,” and is largely why he makes references to “Indian uncles” and “the chai.” It’s why he casts his net further afield than only mainstream (American) things and issues, and why he doesn’t shy away from covering “Indian elections or corruption in cricket or Brazil, Bolsonaro and the rainforest or what’s happening right now in Sudan.” 

Hasan Minhaj is going for broke. He’s shooting his shot. He’s trying to get it all done before his mom wakes him up and tells him it’s time to go to school. 

“There’s been so much white space that has existed and that hasn’t been discussed for the longest time,” he says. “While I have this opportunity, I’m going to put my foot on the gas,” he says.

It merits mention that Minhaj didn’t only talk to me about the brownness of it all, but those were the parts of our talk that felt the most important to tell you about. Minhaj took a shot at one of the world’s most powerful people in his first show because it needed to be said. So did all of this. ■

The Hasan Minhaj Just for Laughs gala takes place at Place des Arts’s Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier on Friday, July 26, 9:45 p.m., $42.80$121.09