Hasan Min­haj Walks the Line

With his new Net­flix se­ries, Pa­triot Act, Hasan Min­haj of­fers a fresh take on late-night com­edy.

Fast Company - - Contents -

How the Daily Show veteran and Net­flix star keeps his com­edy cut­ting, but not cruel.

The un­of­fi­cial theme of

Hasan Min­haj’s break­through 2017 Net­flix special, Homecoming King, is “Log kya ka­henge,” a Hindi phrase that translates to “What will peo­ple think?” The first-gen­er­a­tion In­dian Amer­i­can refers to the line in anec­dotes that explore racism and cul­tural tra­di­tion—in­clud­ing a heart­break­ing story about a hate crime com­mit­ted against his fam­ily on Septem­ber 12, 2001. Al­though he prods his au­di­ence to let go of the “Log kya ka­henge” out­look, Min­haj’s tal­ent for in­flu­enc­ing what peo­ple think has been a hall­mark of his ca­reer. It’s a skill he honed as a for­mer cor­re­spon­dent for The Daily Show and as the host of the White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ Din­ner in April of last year. Af­ter his re­marks gar­nered praise from both sides of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, Min­haj teamed up with Net­flix to cre­ate a weekly, half-hour talk show, Pa­triot Act, which earned an un­prece­dented 32-episode or­der. Here’s how he uses mes­sage-driven com­edy to shift per­spec­tives.


There have been two White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ Din­ners since the Trump era be­gan, and the en­ter­tain­ers took de­cid­edly dif­fer­ent ap­proaches. This year, co­me­dian Michelle Wolf opted for a pro­fan­ity­laced set that took Pres­i­dent Trump and team to task. Un­sur­pris­ingly, milder jabs at Democrats didn’t win her any ac­co­lades from the right. When Min­haj and his cowriter Prashanth Venkatara­manu­jam were pre­par­ing his speech for the 2017 event, their plan was to win the au­di­ence with what Min­haj calls “an­gry op­ti­mism.” He took light digs at mem­bers of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and at Pres­i­dent Trump’s spec­u­la­tion about Pres­i­dent Obama’s faith, but he also roasted Hil­lary Clin­ton, Nate Sil­ver, and the main­stream me­dia. He chided [MSNBC] for con­stantly fo­cus­ing on how the Rus­sians hacked the 2016 election. He ended the bit by say­ing: “Mean­while, ev­ery­body in Latin Amer­ica and the Mid­dle East is like, ‘Ah, a for­eign govern­ment tam­pered with your election? What is that like? Do tell, MSNBC.’ ” By pok­ing fun at the net­work, he was able to raise a se­ri­ous is­sue for peo­ple at home and abroad.


When Jon Ste­wart left The Daily Show in 2015, he chal­lenged Min­haj and the other cor­re­spon­dents to push the pro­gram’s lim­its. Min­haj soon re­al­ized that The Daily Show and other late-night shows sat hosts be­hind desks with graph­ics po­si­tioned over their shoul­ders. It in­spired him to try a new ex­e­cu­tion: In Homecoming King, he stood in front of a backdrop like one you’d see on a con­cert stage, with wall-to-wall LED screens show­ing in­fo­graph­ics and chang­ing col­ors to re­flect the mood of the set. In Pa­triot Act, he ap­plies the same im­mer­sive en­vi­ron­ment to a weekly news show. “Every episode, every head­line piece has an in­fi­nite amount of vari­abil­ity [that can be ex­tended to the set],” he says. “It doesn’t have to be just a fake city sky­line.”


Min­haj has learned that getting per­sonal elic­its em­pa­thy from au­di­ences. In Homecoming King, he re­called the day, in Septem­ber 2001, that he came home to dis­cover his fam­ily’s car had been van­dal­ized. He re­al­ized that be­cause he was born in the U.S., he had “the au­dac­ity of equal­ity,” but his fa­ther, who calmly swept up the glass, saw the crime as just “the price we pay for be­ing here.” His com­mit­ment to il­lu­mi­nat­ing is­sues for an au­di­ence is one rea­son he still prefers not to craft ar­gu­ments around the 24-hour news cy­cle—it’s of­ten too hard for peo­ple to see the hu­man­ity at the cen­ter. In­stead, in Pa­triot Act, he uses break­ing news as a jump­ing-off point to explore who is af­fected by cur­rent events. The goal is to show view­ers how hot-but­ton is­sues might af­fect them per­son­ally, even if they feel de­tached from the head­lines.


While Min­haj wants to show view­ers why they should care about an is­sue, he also doesn’t waste any time try­ing to reel in peo­ple whose po­lit­i­cal opin­ions won’t budge. “I don’t think any­one can bear that bur­den,” he says. With Pa­triot Act, he tai­lors his ar­gu­ments to speak to the po­lit­i­cally ag­nos­tic—a group he thought might be elusive, un­til he learned that sev­eral of his (col­lege-ed­u­cated, pros­per­ous) friends didn’t bother to vote in the last election. And al­though the show never shies away from the coun­try’s thorni­est is­sues, Min­haj al­ways main­tains a light touch. As he learned on his high school de­bate team, ar­gu­ments get bet­ter scores if you can make the judges laugh. “My job is to be as funny as pos­si­ble, and to tell the truth,” he says. “If I can do those two things, hope­fully

I can reach peo­ple”—and spur them into ac­tion.


HASAN MIN­HAJ Co­me­dian and host, Pa­triot Act By Joe Berkowitz Pho­to­graph by Her­ring & Her­ring

Min­haj of­ten mines his per­sonal his­tory for comedic fod­der. InHomecoming King, he re­calls his white prom date can­cel­ing on him at her par­ents’ be­hest.

Min­haj and his White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ Din­ner cowriter self­fi­nanced the proof-of­con­cept video that led to his new Net­flix show, Pa­triot Act.

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