Comedian. Not related to Nicki” is what the “about” section of Hasan Minhaj Facebook page reads. True. But TV personality, political commentator and stand-up comedian, Minhaj doesn’t need to be a relative of the American singer-songwriter Nicki Minaj. He burst into public consciousness last year when he was chosen to address the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD).
“Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the series finale of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. My name is Hasan Minhaj or as I will be known in a few weeks, number 830287. Who would have thought, that with everything going on in the country right now, that a Muslim would be standing on this stage — for the ninth year in a row baby! We had eight years of Barack (Obama), what’s another year!” opened Minhaj to a raucous applause in April 2017.
The particular edition of the WHCD was special, because, for the first time a correspondent of a Muslim-Indian heritage had addressed the audience, and also because President Donald Trump had chosen to boycott the event — becoming the first president to do so. Ronald Reagan was the last sitting president who had been absent from the WCHD but he was recovering from an assassination attempt at the time.
Minhaj, who now has his show called Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj streaming on Netflix, concurs that WHCD was a gamechanger for him. “Completely. It was a watershed moment. It is one of the most coveted gigs in comedy. You are talking directly to not just the most powerful, influential people in America, but also to the world at large. The WHCD is about freedom of speech, the first amendment. It felt fantastic. For me, personally, it was a combination of doing stand-up comedy for 14 years. I put every ounce of everything I had in it. And I did not know that it will resonate so much with people, across the world and even India,” says Minhaj over the phone from the US.
The 33-year-old was born to migrant parents Najme and Seema Minhaj, who hail from Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. The Minhaj family settled in Davis, California, where Minhaj later attended the University of California, Davis, and majored in political science. It was not till much later in his degree that Minhaj got interested in political comedy. “I was pretty shy as a kid and was generally quite. I was not even the funniest in the family. I was at the lower end of the totem pole. But I definitely observed a lot and I think I imbibed all of the stuff I was growing up with,” adds Minhaj.
Over the years, he has developed a distinct brand of political comedy and satire, rich with pop culture references. One can find references to trending sociopolitical topics, technology, his community and upbringing in the same sketch. “I love using pop culture references for explaining certain things. And that’s the beauty of stand-up comedy and comedians, you can use anything to explain esoteric and boring things, without making it heavier than it already is. Using those metaphors is a powerful tool, and I realised it early on,” he says.
Another thing that stands out is his self-deprecatory humour. In the first episode of the Patriot Act, where he talks about affirmative action, Minhaj doesn’t spare himself. “I thought I wasn’t going to get into Stanford because some black kid was going to take my spot. But I didn’t get into Stanford because I was dumb. I got a 1310 on the SAT. It was never gonna happen. I know there are white people here who are like ‘1310 is pretty good’. And every Indian and Asian person is like ‘1310… you are a moron’. No wonder you became a stand-up comedian”: it goes.
“Self-deprecation is this tool in comedy where we want people to know that you don’t take yourself this seriously. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, I know I am ridiculous too’. We have all been in situations where we are at a party, and taken digs at people and celebrities, and we have ranted ‘I hate them’. And then, if we are able to make fun of ourselves in the same vein, chances are it will resonate more,” says the Peabody Award winner.
For now, Minhaj’s hands are full with Patriot Act, a weekly show where he explores trending social, political and cultural topics. The show has already been greenlit for 32 episodes. The first episode dealt with affirmative action in American colleges while the second one dealt with the phenomenon of Saudi Arabia in the light of Jamal Khashoggi’s killing. Next up is Amazon.
“Amazon is not taking over not just America, but the world. There was this big anti-trust lawsuit against Microsoft in 2001. We need to look at the impact that these multinational, multi-billion conglomerates have on us,” he adds.
The show Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj streams on Netflix.