The Comedy of Hasan Minhaj Is Serious Stuff

Hasan Minhaj always wanted to work in comedy. Most of the time, he just didn’t know it yet.

The Indian-American comedian is a senior correspondent for The Daily Show, where he’s been since the John Stewart days. Minhaj is also currently touring the country with his off-Broadway, one-man show, Homecoming King. It’s about his growing up, his family coming to America and the clashes he witnessed between with race and class—from his perspective as a first-generation Muslim-American.

Previously, he’s appeared in Arrested Development, and last year, he hosted Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner where he addressed the U.S. Congress.

The dinner was a great fit because back in high school, Minhaj was “really active” in speech and debate. And he even continued this interest into college at the University of California, Davis, where he studied political science. His goal was to influence the world around him, to enact change, probably through politics.

In fact—it’s kind of hard to believe now—at the time he didn’t even like stand-up. You see, Minhaj went to college when everyone was still into Napster, Limewire and basically any online form of stealing entertainment. This kind of thing made access to stand-up comedians easy, similar to YouTube today. But that didn’t help much.

“A buddy of mine had downloaded a bunch of comedy,” Minhaj told me in a recent conversation. “And I went into his dorm room, he was watching stuff and I was like, ‘I don’t really care for this.’” It was straightforward: Minhaj “actually never was really super into stand-up comedy, per se.”

All that changed when Minhaj and his friend watched Chris Rock’s special Never Scared.

“I was like, ‘This is incredible!’ What I saw in it was basically stand-up as funny speech and debate. I thought that’s a pretty brilliant way to talk about things that matter.”

Rock showed Minhaj a way to influence the world, to enact change that totally new to him. And from then, as he says, he was “hooked.”

When I talked with him recently, our conversation centered around how Minhaj came to do stand-up himself and this idea of comedy that reaches beyond making people laugh.

After seeing what Chris Rock could do with comedy, you started dabbling in it yourself. What was the goal for you then?

My initial goal was to just get good at it. I was like, ‘Can I do this, can I get on stage, can I be funny?’ And then after that it was like, ‘OK maybe this could be more.’

Stand-up is really like becoming a blacksmith. You build your craft one minute, one joke at a time. So it was about building five minutes and then 10 minutes and then 30 minutes and then, ‘Can I headline?’

It wasn’t until after I had been doing it for a few years that that was even an idea.

Can you tease out more how you see the connection between comedy and social change?

One of the most powerful things in satire, versus say television or movies, per se, is that it’s pretty raw and unfiltered. The comedian is basically the court jester standing on the sidelines of the game that is American politics or life and is saying, “Hey this is just what I’m noticing and this is what I’m seeing.”

It’s pretty powerful because we’re not toeing any lines. We’re not representatives for any network or religious institution or political organization. We can say pretty much anything and there’s a tremendous amount of power, and danger, in that freedom.

What’s the danger?

I think words can be hurtful. I think words can be destructive. I think rhetoric can be scary. And I think this election is a prime example of that.

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That’s a great point. And I think that raises a tension point: In one sense, it seem like the world of stand-up and the “real” work are totally separate. But Western culture—despite wars and all kinds of crises—has almost always featured comedy in some way. Can comedy actually help a world full of problems?

It’s interesting because no individual piece of music or art or joke can enact social change. The necessary condition for social change is action—the actions of the people. All art, comedy, music and television can do is cast a light on the issue. All we’re hoping as artists is that the timing aligns in such a way that the thing we’re bringing up strikes at a lightning-bolt moment— where not only is it relevant in the Zeitgeist, but people find a connection to that art and it inspires people to do something.

Often times it doesn’t happen that way because of timing or the way people receive it. But one thing I think satire or comedy has the ability to do is to start a conversation. Whether it was the speech I did for Congress or my one-man show, it can start a dialogue and begin to humanize issues through my own personal experiences.

Speaking of the personal side of comedy, we’re currently seeing a shift. It wasn’t that long ago that topics related to faith were off topic for those in pop culture. Sure, you might make fun of people of faith, but comedians certainly didn’t talk about their own faith. That’s all stopped recently. We’ve seen guys like Aziz Ansari, Stephen Colbert, Jim Gaffigan, all talk intimately about their own faith journeys and how they interact with their work. What’s going on?

We live in a time where people really want to know who you are. There is that sort of demand from fans: They want to feel something authentic, and I think that’s fair.

It would be tragic if I had to put on a mask and be some other version of myself. I think the fear a lot of people had in regard to talking about their faith or their spirituality or things they believe in is that they would be painted with a broad brush or lump me in with people who I may disagree with.

You talked on NPR’s Invisibilia about the way you see the world versus the way your dad sees the world. You’re simultaneously frustrated at how much injustice (toward himself) your dad will tolerate, and—if I heard you correctly—you envy the way he can brush off, for example, certain racial prejudices. Is there a lesson in that for our current culture of outrage?

I think we live in an interesting time where you can literally get mad about the minutia of life. So I would just say, ‘Hey pick and choose your battles.’ That’s my piece of advice. Are you as mad about the war in Iraq as you are about the KFC double down? Just pick and choose. Are you as mad about gun violence as you are about the way that TV series ended because it was horrible? I think we just need to do a better job of prioritizing our anger.

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