Stand-up comedy’s newest star Hasan Minhaj believes his Indian-American-Muslim identity gives him a certain edge, becoming “superpowers” in his “utility box” to help him take on all the “crazy stuff happening in politics and culture”.
Minhaj, whose parents migrated to the US from Aligarh, began his comedy career on American late-night talk program, The Daily Show, and rose to prominence after hosting the White House Correspondents Dinner last year where he roasted US President Donald Trump. Trump, in a departure from tradition, skipped the event.
Minhaj, 33, followed that high profile act with The Homecoming King on Netflix, a huge hit that paved the way for The Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. “I used to hate being Hasan Minhaj because people could not pronounce my name, people don’t know who I am, they don’t know anything about Indians, about Muslims. What am I? Now I have all these identities. These are superpowers in my utility box. I can use them at any point. It’s cool,” he said when asked about using his background as an asset in his comedy.
While The Homecoming King was more personal with Minhaj talking about being an immigrant and struggling with his dual identities, his new show focuses on politics, both American and global. “I definitely think that it (his identity) gives me a comedic edge, for sure. Stand-up comedy is an art form, which involves a single performer on stage, sharing his/her perspective. It is one of the few art forms where individuality and uniqueness are honoured more than anything else,” Minhaj told PTI over the phone.
He peppers his conversation with a unique blend of words, bringing in perspectives from American and Indian pop culture. Minhaj, who often uses Hindi words such as “Log kya kahenge (what will people say) to drive his point home, finds it interesting that all the stuff that he thought was “weird” while growing up has become cool now.
“I used to think this stuff is so weird and then I was like ‘No, it’s not. It’s who I am. I’m an immigrant.’ The way I grew up with movies and pop culture… One of the things that I want to do is to add our culture to American popular culture.”
The Patriot Act, a pulpy, satirical take on topics such as America’s marriage of convenience with Saudi Arabia (his words), oil, affirmative action and Amazon, is like “taking coffee and making a coffee espresso”, he said.
“I realised my strength as a performer is having that longer runway. It takes the plane up and it takes longer to take off. You get to build a larger narrative arc, something that I never really got a chance to do on The Daily Show because as a correspondent, you are servicing the show and the format.” The comedian says he wanted everything that he learnt from the four years he spent on The Daily Show to start his own venture of political storytelling.
“The power of both music and comedy as an art form is being able to distill esoteric things into their essence. If you see a great song, a joke or watch a great show, you go, ‘that’s exactly how I feel, thank you for saying this’. The magic of such shows and political satire is trying to take things that are otherwise esoteric and boring and translate it into something that is really funny,” he said.
In Minhaj’s view, comedy has always been an “amazing” art form globally and is seeing a resurgence with the popularity of streaming services like Netflix. “Comedy is suddenly given the stage and respect that it had in the ’90s when cable companies started putting it on TV. It has heightened because of the internet. There are no borders to it, which is exciting. It has always been an important art form. We have always needed funny philosophers. And comedy can be a great tool in highlighting elements that are important at a time when there are so many divisions everywhere,” he said.
“I think with everything that’s going on not only in our country but also in India, all the crazy stuff happening in politics and culture, civility, respect and the ability to laugh at yourself are the things that are really important.”