Hasan Minhaj's 'Patriot Act' is breath is a breath of fresh air for comedy

by Joyce Lee | 4/4/19 2:00am

Netflix has been a boon for stand-up comedians these past few years, offering an enormous platform for artists whose work would have been a little more difficult to find for our generation of instant streamers. I fell into the rabbit hole of stand-up around the same time I started my Netflix subscription, which means for a while, I hadn’t done much else but listen to the upteenth comedian give a self-deprecating monologue. 

Much like any other genre that’s consumed rapidly in bursts, stand-up comedy started to wear thin after watching 50 or so specials. As much as the content and style of each comedian differed, it still felt like I was watching the same middle-aged man stand on an empty stage and talk about his children, his relationship to his wife and give an exasperated shake of his head at the current state of politics. 

Hasan Minhaj’s “Homecoming King” stand-up special was a jolt to this brand of stand-up, not only because he’s an Indian American, Muslim man coming off a solid tenure as a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” but because of his own special brand of charisma and energy. I watched his special around the same time that the second season of his Netflix talk show, “Patriot Act,” started airing in February, and I found that much of the elements that made his act so invigorating had translated into his “late-night” format that the “Patriot Act” is in. 

In “Homecoming King,” Minhaj recognized something about comedy that I’ve always felt was lacking in the all of the other specials I’ve watched. It’s a philosophy that Hannah Gadsby also acts upon in her special “Nanette,” that comedy is inherently connected to pathos and that comedy rings truer when it is evoked in relation to a deeper and more emotional story. For Minhaj, and for many of his fellow immigrant audience, this pathos is rooted in his family and his ethnic and religious background. 

People often point out, and sometimes criticize, when a stand-up uses race as a predominant theme in their comedy set. Some call it “lazy writing” because the comedian uses what’s most obvious and apparent about them to get cheap laughs by playing on the same stereotypes and hackneyed observations that are well-ingrained in our culture. The comedian essentially invites the viewer to join them in making fun of their identity, to be self-deprecating about something that is already undermined and marginalized. 

Minhaj does the opposite by actively inviting the audience to understand and empathize with the cultural specificity of his comedy. He doesn’t attempt to tailor his points for a white audience, but he still makes his set accessible for those who might not immediately pick up on what he’s saying. However, it is on the viewer to deduce the context of his comedy, and it is here that we are confronted with not only a new type of comedian and host, but a new type of audience as well. 

In “Patriot Act,” Minhaj brings over this style of interaction with his audience; he seems committed to developing a personal connection to the people sitting in the studio and watching his show. It helps that a lot of the people in the audience are noticeably South Asian or of South Asian descent; he uses this to generate an atmosphere of understanding and empathy for his extremely specific talk points. No other show host could reference a lota and then reach out to audience members to garner support for the specificity of his reference. In “Homecoming King,” audience members gasp as soon as Minhaj says “Log kya kahenge,” a Hindi phrase that translates to “What will people think?” They gasp because they know this phrase and can trace it back to their own memories and personal histories. They know in their bones what it means to hear this phrase from their parents, and hearing it in the context of an American stand-up show brings a kind of cultural relief. 

As the first Indian American and Muslim show host, Minhaj is not just breaking new ground with fresh material; he’s actively engaging with the concept of “collective memory,” or the shared memory of a community of people. I am neither Indian American nor Muslim, so I don’t share in either group’s specific collective memory, but I do understand the feeling of having this memory articulated within a western context in which minorities are constantly shunted out. Minhaj is capable of engaging with his audience in all of the various overlapping contexts present on his show; it is what makes the show and his work seem like a bolder and more distinct addition to the former white- and male-dominated genre of late night talk shows.

Minhaj’s work is all the more important in the genre of political comedy — especially the kind of political comedy that exists in today’s climate. Both systematically and historically, the people who are set up to suffer the most from our current administration’s policies are minorities — people who are marginalized and underrepresented. Political comedy exists to provide relief for people who feel the effects of very real and very damaging policies enacted against them. But this comedy can’t strike a chord unless it comes from someone who understands, down into their bones, the harrowing and frightening reality of living as a part of a marginalized community. Minhaj has clearly exhibited that he understands, and that he’s willing to articulate what has gone unspoken for so long.