Hasan Minhaj: Brown and Boujee
Of the many movies I've watched this year, Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther weren't among my favorites. I thought they were moderately enjoyable. I might even watch them again at some point. After they had run the theater circuit, I'd have conversations with my friends would ask me, "wasn't that so great?" But for me, neither delivered on the immense hype the zeitgeist had built up. I'd just shrug my shoulders and say, "yeah, sure, it was cool." Even weeks and months removed from the respective experiences, I hadn't really felt the shockwave these projects had supposedly generated in the public discourse. They'd insist, "but it was such a big moment for Black people," and implore that "it's a milestone in casting Asian people in Hollywood." But I still didn't get it. I wasn't (and unsurprisingly am still not) Black or the crazy-rich-type-of-Asian. I may have enjoyed the fact that those groups felt pride, but I never had to invest a personal sense of pride on a project. After all, I never had something (or someone) to wager it on.
Hasan Minhaj has been in my life for long enough that I almost started to take him for granted. He started at The Daily Show – one of few shows I religiously watch – in mid-2014, a pickup that turned out to be Jon Stewart's last hire. At the time, he may as well have been the token brown guy to replace the soon-to-depart Aasif Mandvi. He started off as a baby-faced and clean-shaven, but with the same audacity and brazenness with which he carries himself now (legend has it that he made fun of Stewart's directorial debut Rosewater in his audition). But Hasan truly found his place when The Daily Show changed hands a year later to Trevor Noah. While Stewart's reign had produced a comedy tree headlined by the likes of talk-show-host-on-TV, they were comics who joked about the absurdity of politics. Noah's tenure thus far has helped develop a class of activists (including Jordan Klepper) who manage to find humor by digging beyond the surface of an issue. It was uncommon to see a brown guy on TV a few nights a week, at least one younger than Fareed Zakaria or Reza Aslan, to the point that I'd always feel a smile tugging at the corner of my mouth when Noah introduced him for an appearance.
Hasan wasn't just relatable because he was brown. If that were the case, I might have felt some kinship to the other (only?) prominent brown actor/comedians like Kumail Nanjiani, Riz Ahmed, Kal Penn, Russell Peters, or Aziz Ansari. He was relatable because I saw so many elements of myself within him. He's from Davis, California, the city where I go to graduate school. He can speak knowledgeably about basketball and seamlessly drop hip-hop references. He's probably had to explain to multiple people how his name is pronounced. He himself enjoys the art form of comedy and consumes it to understand how his peers function. His personal brand of comedy is dependent on sarcastic disbelief that is fueled by actual disbelief. He can simultaneously channel and satirize youth culture. He exhibits a tremendous amount of self-awareness, easily able to joke about his ethnicity and religion without taking affront. He talks fast and is always expressive, sometimes comically so. He's just over 30, so he could even call himself a millennial. And he genuinely cares about things like policy on a level that is uncommon for people of our skin color.
His gig to host the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2017 was something that I didn't expect – not because he didn't deserve it, but rather because I never thought that a brown guy would be famous or mainstream enough to land it. And when he did, my instantaneous reaction was the philosophy originally echoed within the Black American community: 'you have to be twice as good to get half of what they have.' That sentiment was rooted in fear, fear that he would fail – again, not because he wasn't good enough, but because that was the default expectation. But in that fear, I realized something else. For once, I was personally invested in the success of someone in popular culture.
Of course he wasn't the first choice, or the second or even the third, but the pressure was still there as it was the first dinner of the Trump presidency (with a notably absent Donald Trump). His performance didn't turn out to be twice as good, rather, it was probably one of the best in the history of the event. And he did so in a way that flexed – rather than muted – every one of those points that I'd come to find endearing. He said "I see you fam," "take the W," and referenced Call of Duty to an audience that probably had a median age upwards of 50. He omnisciently alluded to how Comedy Central was an internship for Netflix. He clowned USA Today and Huffington Post in front of a unexpectedly sympathetic journalistic crowd. He even threw in a tidbit for the polling nerds by taking a jab at Nate Silver. And perhaps most importantly, he reserved most of his Trump jokes for a two-minute rapid-fire, spending the other twenty dissecting everything else in sight. The performance was important not only because of the comedy, but specifically because it established him as a fair critic despite any political lean he may have had.
On the heels of the Dinner came his special Homecoming King, which won a Peabody Award or whatever. It was good and funny and all that (angles which have been covered extensively and validated by, you know, a freaking Peabody Award), but it mattered that those words came from someone who was brown. One of Hasan's defining characteristics is that he has never felt a compulsion to code-switch. His stage persona – a more animated version of how he actually is – was crafted in a way that his allusions to Indian or Asian culture are understandable to non-Indians and non-Asians, but have a deeper familiarity with those who can personally connect with that viewpoint. That persona is on full display in Homecoming King, where he switches between topical and narrative without even using an accent. Even Dave Chappelle's forays into the nuances of black culture are largely in context of (or juxtaposed with) that of whites, to the point where he even created a character named 'Chuck Taylor'. Hasan barely discusses Indian-related issues or really even Muslim-related issues anymore – which isn't a good or a bad thing, but rather something that showcases that he is an Indian-American, a Muslim-American.
His evolution into a standalone force was solidified in his last year on Daily, where he was featured in a digital short series called 'Hasan the Record', a parody that combined faux wokeness, over-the-top slang (the opposite of Pokémon go-to-the-polls), openly patronizing exposition, and an obscene number of jump cuts to actually deliver a message about something important. It was a perfect encapsulation of his frightening talent into a four-minute bit, an instant litmus test for whether you enjoy his style of comedy.
I never fully appreciated the power of having someone brown in the center of the culture. I had always subconsciously accepted that many (all?) of my favorite characters and shows were pretty white. The closest thing I had to a brown dude to look towards was Danny Pudi as Abed Nadir on Community, someone who (when he wasn't the central focus of some of the series' best episodes) was relegated to being one-dimensional. But we don't have that in basketball, or football, or hockey, or soccer, or really any non-cricket sport. We don't have it in politics, unless you want to include Bobby Jindal (which you really shouldn't). And we barely have that in entertainment. But Hasan may well change that too, because now, it's not just brown people who know his name.
His new show, Patriot Act on Netflix, is a blend of his endeavors thus far, combining the insight into politics from The Daily Show with the biting commentary of the Correspondents' Dinner and the visual experience of Homecoming King. It centers him in long-form expository journalism, the medium in which he (and co-alum Klepper) are most comfortable. It's a natural fit for Hasan's storytelling prowess, complete with rhetorical infographics, visual cues from a lyric video, and a screen below him just for added effect. While Netflix was the logical destination due to their generosity of creative license (HBO having been ruled out due to the redundancy of having John Oliver), it is hardly a sanctuary for variety series. Chelsea Handler, Michelle Wolf, and Joel McHale have all seen their series go off the air, while Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman continue to plod along unremarkably. Coupled with Netflix's apparent inability to successfully market or push shows that don't follow the binge-watch model (they converted McHale's weekly series to a binge-able one before cancelling it altogether), it isn't a guarantee that Hasan can stay afloat simply by virtue of his talent, even if he does successfully dunk on the stupidest Asian people in the world.
It's never a guarantee with things like this. But have I chosen to invest my pride in Hasan? In his own words: oh you better fucking believe it.