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Hasan Minhaj and the art of persuasion

With Netflix’s Patriot Act, the Daily Show and White House Correspondents’ Dinner alumnus offers a fresh take on late-night comedy.

Hasan Minhaj and the art of persuasion
Hasan Minhaj often mines his personal history for comedic fodder. In Homecoming King, he recalls his white prom date canceling on him at her parents’ behest. [Photo: Herring & Herring; Stylist: Sam Spector; groomer: Amy Komorowski]

The unofficial theme of Hasan Minhaj’s breakthrough 2017 Netflix special, Homecoming King, is “Log kya kahenge,” a Hindi phrase that translates to “What will people think?” The first-generation Indian American refers to the line in anecdotes that explore racism and cultural tradition—including a heartbreaking story about a hate crime committed against his family on September 12, 2001. Although he prods his audience to let go of the “Log kya kahenge” outlook, Minhaj’s talent for influencing what people think has been a hallmark of his career. It’s a skill he honed as a former correspondent for The Daily Show and as the host of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April of last year. After his remarks garnered praise from both sides of the political spectrum, Minhaj teamed up with Netflix to create a weekly comedy show, Patriot Act, which earned an unprecedented 32-episode order. (The show premieres on October 28.) Here’s how he uses message-driven comedy to shift perspectives.

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Be cutting, but not cruel

There have been two White House Correspondents’ Dinners since the Trump era began, and the entertainers took decidedly different approaches. This year, comedian Michelle Wolf opted for a profanity-laced set that took President Trump and team to task. Unsurprisingly, milder jabs at Democrats didn’t win her any accolades from the right. When Minhaj and his cowriter Prashanth Venkataramanujam were preparing his speech for the 2017 event, their plan was to win the audience with what Minhaj calls “angry optimism.” He took light digs at members of the Trump administration and at President Trump’s speculation about President Obama’s faith, but he also roasted Hillary Clinton, Nate Silver, and the mainstream media. He chided [MSNBC] for constantly focusing on how the Russians hacked the 2016 election. He ended the bit by saying: “Meanwhile, everybody in Latin America and the Middle East is like, ‘Ah, a foreign government tampered with your election? What is that like? Do tell, MSNBC.’ ” By poking fun at the network, he was able to raise a serious issue for people at home and abroad.

Break out of your constraints

When Jon Stewart left The Daily Show in 2015, he challenged Minhaj and the other correspondents to push the program’s limits. Minhaj soon realized that The Daily Show and other late-night shows sat hosts behind desks with graphics positioned over their shoulders. It inspired him to try a new execution: In Homecoming King, he stood in front of a backdrop like one you’d see on a concert stage, with wall-to-wall LED screens showing infographics and changing colors to reflect the mood of the set. In Patriot Act, he applies the same immersive environment to a weekly news show. “Every episode, every headline piece has an infinite amount of variability [that can be extended to the set],” he says. “It doesn’t have to be just a fake city skyline.”

Minhaj and his White House Correspondents’ Dinner cowriter self- financed the proof-of- concept video that led to his new Netflix show, Patriot Act.

Put a face on it

Minhaj has learned that getting personal elicits empathy from audiences. In Homecoming King, he recalled the day, in September 2001, that he came home to discover his family’s car had been vandalized. He realized that because he was born in the U.S., he had “the audacity of equality,” but his father, who calmly swept up the glass, saw the crime as just “the price we pay for being here.” His commitment to illuminating issues for an audience is one reason he still prefers not to craft arguments around the 24-hour news cycle—it’s often too hard for people to see the humanity at the center. Instead, in Patriot Act, he uses breaking news as a jumping-off point to explore who is affected by current events. The goal is to show viewers how hot-button issues might affect them personally, even if they feel detached from the headlines.

Narrow your audience

While Minhaj wants to show viewers why they should care about an issue, he also doesn’t waste any time trying to reel in people whose political opinions won’t budge. “I don’t think anyone can bear that burden,” he says. With Patriot Act, he tailors his arguments to speak to the politically agnostic—a group he thought might be elusive, until he learned that several of his (college-educated, prosperous) friends didn’t bother to vote in the last election. And although the show never shies away from the country’s thorniest issues, Minhaj always maintains a light touch. As he learned on his high school debate team, arguments get better scores if you can make the judges laugh. “My job is to be as funny as possible, and to tell the truth,” he says. “If I can do those two things, hopefully I can reach people”—and spur them into action.

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