Update: As of the publishing of this article, the Patriot Act episode criticizing the involvement of Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in the brutal slaying of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist, has been blocked from Netflix viewers in Saudi Arabia. We hope this interview with Hasan speaks to the challenges of defying narratives, and the idea that nothing surpasses using your voice to ensure that at the very core of everything, truth prevails over all else. The status quo is always to be questioned, debated, and adjusted.
Before his big break, Hasan Minhaj was just another student at the University of California, Davis, moonlighting as a stand-up comic when he wasn’t in political science classes. After Googling “how to be a stand-up comedian”, he started cold-calling the local comedy clubs, hoping someone would give him a chance.
Looking at him today, it’s hard to imagine that the man who would host the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner (and roast DJT, as well as the so-called “fake news media”) was once battling the ultimatum of chasing his dream, or fitting the label we know all too well of the “ideal immigrant kid.” Now, he’s reclaiming the narrative of what it means to be a patriotic American and changing the game for how we consume the news.
“I’m really aware of what people in our generation are going through day to day. They need to make sense of all this crazy stuff that’s happening,” he tells MuslimGirl.com. “So, something I say all the time is, ‘You know, the news and information out there is like coffee. It’s my job to distill it down into espresso.’”
And who better to distill our proverbial coffee into espresso, than the (self-described) “third most popular” Daily Show correspondent himself?
For many of us, Hasan first made his way into our hearts and onto our screens with his stand-up comedy special Homecoming King, which premiered on Netflix in May 2017. In an hour-long performance, he touches on his Indian-American upbringing and the challenges that came with it, injecting humor while candidly addressing topics like Islamophobia, racism, immigration, and how they relate to his own personal journey. From the story of how his parents met, to growing up post-9/11, to his senior prom, Hasan’s personal anecdotes validated experiences shared by other Muslim Americans and immigrant minorities. To others, it was putting a face to the stories they’d heard about in the news.
And while his IMDB page is littered with different credits from as early as 2009, it wasn’t until 2014 when Hasan had landed his truly breakout role: the final correspondent to be hired to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. The opportunity brought an increase in recognition and a following that continues to skyrocket. With over 900,000 followers across his personal social media channels, he’s quickly becoming a public figure that commands our attention. Hasan may have started out as a personal hype-man for $10 Pizza Hut sliders, but has gone on to write and produce his own stand-up special and talk show on Netflix, redefining the immigrant kid’s dream.
Homecoming King premiered nearly a month after he hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2017, a job he jokes “nobody wanted.” He was tasked with making light of what was a difficult year for many Americans and wondered, “Do I come in and try to fit in, not ruffle any feathers, or do I say how I really feel?” By the viral social media response after, it’s safe to say Hasan managed to find the right balance in his set that evening. Over a year later, his new show Patriot Act, now streaming on Netflix, seems to have given him a chance to “say how he really feels” while presenting information on heavier topics.
Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, called “distinct, funny, and truly informative” by Vox, breaks down current events in a way that’s accessible for a young audience. Combining humor with the news isn’t new — having been a correspondent forThe Daily Show, this has been something Hasan has been doing for the bulk of his career — but has become a popular way for individuals to better understand and stomach the complicated intricacies of our global socio-political climate.
“People’s time is limited and the pace at which global events are happening is really overwhelming,” he says, so it’s important to explain these topics in a way that’s palatable, all in under 25 minutes.
Like his peers (John Oliver, Samantha Bee), Hasan has recently left The Daily Show nest to explore these ideas with a new lens. He shares with Muslim Girl the scoop on his new show and what it’s like to be the first Muslim-American to have a talk show on a major network.
“For folks who didn’t know about the actual Patriot Act, when I would tell [them] about the title of the show, they would have no idea what I was talking about and they would go, ‘Oh, that’s really cool. It’s like a show about being American and being patriotic.’” But, the reality of the Patriot Act is quite different. “[It’s] a terrifying piece of legislation that allowed the government to legally spy on citizens in the wake of September 11th.”
The act primarily targeted Muslim-Americans under the guise of national security, and was one of many ways that aided in making Muslim Americans the other, questioning their patriotism and whether they were truly American on a national scale. To date, this is a conversation that continues to happen — whether blatantly by individuals telling Muslim Americans to “go back to where they came from,” micro-aggressions or outright violence against visibly Muslim individuals and places of worship.
“I kind of really loved the double-entendre,” Hasan tells us. “If people knew what I was referring to, they would be like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a deep cut,’ and if you didn’t know what I was talking about, especially with everything that’s going on in America right now, with the concept of patriotism being under attack — who gets to be an American, who gets to be considered a patriotic American — I just really felt that the title of this show sort of just represented all of that, and me reclaiming the idea of being a patriotic American.”
The inspiration for the show comes from wanting to take back the mic for creators of color everywhere. At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Hasan recalls listening to Bill Clinton pander to the different minorities in the room, specifically calling on Muslim voters, asking them to help identify terrorists: “Muslim Americans! Hey, stay here. Stay here. Help us find the terrorists, help us win.” Bill, we hate to break it to you, but we don’t know any terrorists.
Instead of going home and writing an op-ed, or a series of angry subtweets at fajr like DJT, Hasan started working on this show as an effort to redefine the narrative of Muslim Americans in this country.
“He thought our only value was to help find terrorists…and I was like, ‘Look, I’m not going to get my humanity from Bill Fucking Clinton,'” Hasan says. “He’s just not going to get it. He will never understand where I’m coming from, my POV, the things my community has had to go through. We have to claim that shit on our terms.”
And while the topics thus far haven’t been overtly Muslim — there’s no Ramadan episode or Islam 101 — viewers still get a sense of Hasan’s background throughout the course of each episode. You’ll get a taste of his allegiance to the Sacramento Kings, his affinity for sneakers, and his inevitably ongoing beef with UC Santa Cruz. “I don’t know, for whatever reason, it just really really bothers me that their mascot is the banana slug,” he told Muslim Girl. “Yeah, no disrespect to anybody that goes to UC Santa Cruz, but also, come on. It’s the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs.” Poor mascot choices aside, as a fellow Bay Area native and Muslim American, his commentary feels relatable in a way that feels sorely lacking from other hosts. Where else are you going to get lota jokes in a segment covering the news? Or Minder live in between takes? And with so few notable brown individuals on American television, Hasan’s presence offers some much needed representation.
“I actually thought I was going to go to law school,” he confesses. “Much to the disappointment of my parents, I decided to become a comedian.” Like many other children of immigrant parents, Hasan’s original career plans didn’t include making it onto the silver screen. We’re often expected to take on traditionally successful roles like doctors, engineers, attorneys — the list usually ends there. Preference is given to jobs that provide financial comfort, something stand-up couldn’t guarantee. So, he kept hustling, and has since joined the shortlist of brown Americans in the entertainment biz that we know by name. His steady rise to stardom wasn’t always glamorous — gone are the days of the double-popped collars and Pizza Hut commercials (nine sliders for ten bucks, remember?) — but Hasan Minhaj has now become a household name. In Homecoming King, he jokes about feeling like “the rapper who made it” when visiting family back home in Aligarh, India, while making it rain Girl Scout cookies and Hershey’s chocolates. But, for many brown Americans, Hasan is the rapper who made it. He’s the kid from the block that people within our communities take a look at and think: “I could do that, too.”
So, how does he feel now that he’s “made it”? “I think show business is a lot like professional sports, where you’re only as good as your last at bat,” Hasan confides in Muslim Girl. “As soon as I do something, I’m acutely aware that people, whether it’s fans, supporters, or even critics, are gonna say, ‘Okay, well what does he have next?’ And so, for me, I just really feel like there is no ‘Oh, you’ve truly made it.’ For me, you have to classify making it on your own terms.”
And he’s right; when preparing for this interview, one of the questions we wanted to ask was, “What’s next?” But, that can add pressure on the individual, pushing them to keep pursuing accomplishment after accomplishment, title after title, instead of genuinely enjoying the meaningful work that they’re doing. And for people of color, we are constantly pushed to keep proving ourselves, always striving to “make it” in society’s eyes. This shifts the focus from doing what you love, to meeting someone else’s standard of success, which undeniably differs from person to person.
“My piece of advice to young aspiring artists, or comedians, or creatives, or people who are trying to pursue their own dreams, is you have to define success on your own terms,” Hasan says. “If you fixate on certain accomplishments, that high that you get from it, it quickly dissipates.”
So, we didn’t ask what’s next. We know that new episodes of Patriot Act will be available January 2019, and we’ve promised to be patient until then, relying on stalking his insta stories for hints of future topics. But, so far all we’ve gotten are adorable clips of his new daughter, so of course we asked about her, too. Like, what his hope were for her, and if he’d mind if she went to UC Santa Cruz or grew to love Stephen Curry.
“Inshallah, I just hope that she can unapologetically be herself. That she can have grit, and determination,” Hasan told us. “If she can have those three things — to unapologetically be herself, to have grit and determination, and I would say empathy, too, empathy for other people and empathy towards herself — I think, inshallah, she’ll have a great life.”
“There are two major decisions that you have to make in your life as an adult: who do you love (i.e. who are you going to settle down with or who would you like to have as a partner: who do you love?) and number two is what do you do? What is your purpose in life, how do you earn a living?”
Yeah, it hit us in the heartstrings, too. In a world that often feels against us, it’s important to have empathy for one another, and towards ourselves as we navigate how to define success on our own terms. It isn’t easy: there are often familial expectations, or institutional roadblocks that could alter your journey, but having someone to look to, who’s already combatting those obstacles, can provide hope when trying to pursue your goals. And maybe that’s why his story is so compelling; it’s like he’s taken one for the team for other Muslim creatives who might want to pursue a career in television, writing, or comedy. He might not feel like he’s made it, but for some little boy or girl watching his show at home, he’s the poster child of what they want to be: someone who is proud of their identity, and pursuing what they love.
And as for advice he’d give to young Muslims trying to break into fields that aren’t your usual (sometimes stereotypical) desi careers? Hasan says that it all comes down to having the answers to two major questions: “There are two major decisions that you have to make in your life as an adult: who do you love (i.e. who are you going to settle down with or who would you like to have as a partner: who do you love?) and number two is what do you do? What is your purpose in life, how do you earn a living?”
“Those two decisions are two decisions I firmly believe you need to make on your own terms. It’s going to be tough, there’s going to be some really hard conversations with friends, with family members, but it’s your life and at the end of the day, the majority of time that you’re sitting at work, you’re sitting at your job, you’re sitting in a cubicle, you’re sitting on a bus, or train, or car to work, you are alone. And the same thing applies to choosing who you love. It is you, and that person, or you and that job, or you and that relationship,” he explains. “So, my advice is, you have to unapologetically do it on your own terms. It has to be for you. And I know, I hear it from a lot of people that ‘this is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,’ but those two decisions are the most important decisions you make in your life. Please, please do them on your own terms.”
And Hasan isn’t all talk. Viewers of Homecoming King might remember how these two decisions impacted him personally, and his concerns of log kya kahenge, or “What will people say?” How they might respond to what he wanted to do, versus what was expected of him. The pushback was anticipated, as there was bound to be at least one auntie with some unsolicited opinions. But, if he’d listened to their advice, he wouldn’t have the career he does now.
As the first Muslim American talk show host, he’s got a lot to live up to, especially with the perception of Muslims in the public sphere. Like many Muslims, Hasan has struggled with his relationship with his Muslim identity, especially now under DJT’s rule. “Obviously, we’re living in really scary times right now. Especially being a Muslim in America, it’s one of those things where you really have to negotiate how much of yourself you’re really going to show to people, or to the outside world. I am very aware of the perception people have of Muslims, and I’m really proud of who I am, but I’m also equally aware that there are people that really do see us as really bad stereotypes and tropes,” he says.
“It’s my job to navigate that as diplomatically and humanely as possible. And I’m hoping to create a body of work that helps make the future a little bit brighter for kids who share my identity.”
Patriot Act is streaming now on Netflix with new episodes dropping on Sundays in January 2019.