At the New York premiere of the documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, The Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj moderated a post-screening Q&A with Lear and filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Before wrapping up the discussion, Minhaj told a very touching, intimate story about how Norman Lear convinced Minhaj’s father to allow him to pursue a comedy career instead of forcing him to go to law school. “This is going to be a very nerd-out moment, but I would be remiss if I don’t do this,” Minhaj told the audience before recounting the emotional story detailing the battles between father and son and their chance meeting with Lear, who advised on a documentary series called Stand Up Planet in 2013, in which Minhaj appeared. He choked up at times as he told the story:
This is going to be a very nerd-out moment, but I would be remiss if I don’t do this. This is how I know God is real, okay?
So my family is from a small town in India called Aligarh, population 990,000. That’s a small town in India. And my father immigrated from Aligarh to the United States in 1982, and we moved to this small town called Davis, California. And my dad, you know, as a son of immigrants, when you come and you roll the dice on this thing called the American dream, the last thing you want your son to do is go tell jokes to people late at night in bars. And I decided to be a stand-up comedian at age 18, and this is the impact that Norman Lear had in my life, indirectly, without me ever seeing any of his work growing up.
My dad did not want me to become a comedian, and I decided to become one, and I was doing it for years and years and years. And I got into this big fight with him, I was about 24 or 25 years old, my LSAT score was about to expire — and I had a great LSAT score. And my dad was like, “You better apply to law school right now!” And I’m driving in the car to a gig where I’m not getting paid, and he’s like, “You’re going to law school!” I said, “Dad, I’m not!” And he said, “Hasan, you’re not Tom Cruise!” That means success to my dad, there’s Tom Cruise, Barack Obama, and I guess there’s nothing else.
And I’m bawling. I’m crying. “No, this is what I want to do.” Three years ago I do this documentary series called Stand Up Planet, it’s about stand-up comedy around the planet. It’s basically Anthony Bourdain and stand-up comedy. We learn about comedians in India and South Africa and the Middle East, satirists that are really pushing the boundaries of satire.
Norman and Carl Reiner were the advisers on the project. I got to bring stand-up comedians from around the world to come and meet him. And he sat there, he’s just like the way he is right now, in the film, and he sat with us young Padawans, Jewish Yoda sat with us and was telling us about comedy.
The night of the L.A. premiere, I invite my dad and my mom to come. They hadn’t really seen any of my stuff. And we had reached out to Norman’s office, asking will you be there, please, you’re the only one that really understands this project. And he had to go to a Matt Damon premiere that night. Goddamnit, Matt Damon! But the credits are rolling to our film, and I look in the back of the audience, and there’s Norman in the white bucket hat. And the audience is filled with all these comedians, because the movie is all about stand-up comedy. I was, like, “Ladies and gentlemen, Norman Lear!” All the comedians in the audience stood. They were just, like, “Norman! Norman! Norman!”
He comes to the front of the audience, he sits down, right. I’m freaking out. I’m doing what I’m doing right now, I’m freaking out. And I’m trying to ask him all these questions: How did you push the boundaries? I heard that you got notes, and when Archie came down and they implied sex, and I heard you said, “Stick it to them, CBS!” He goes, “Hasan, stop, wait, wait. Where’s your family? Focus on what’s important. Where’s your family?” I go, “Oh, yeah, my dad’s right there.” And you turned and you said this to my dad, you go, “Mr. Minhaj, your son has been working really, really hard on this film, and I think you shouldn’t let him be a lawyer. You should let him be a comedian. You should let him change the world.”
I don’t know how you knew, but you said it, and it hit him. And that was in 2013, and [chokes up], and October 3, 2014, I got hired as the last correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, ‘cause my dad said, “I’ll support you.” And that was because of you. And I don’t know how to thank you enough, because I’d gotten into this argument with my dad all the time.
When 9/11 happened, we were all sitting down at dinner, and I heard a thud outside. Me and my dad, we ran out, and all of our windows had been shattered. And he goes, “Hasan, get the broom.” We go and get the broom, and I look at my dad, and he’s not mad. And I go, “What, aren’t you mad? They just destroyed all of our stuff.” And he goes, “Hasan, this is the price we pay for being here.” And there’s times that my dad would have these Archie Bunker moments, you know, he would just say these things. And I would refer to the show to tell him, hey, Norman is the one who taught us to have the audacity, as a minority, to work twice as hard to have to ask for twice as much, not to work twice as hard to ask for half as much. I just want to say thank you so much for giving that inspiration. I can’t thank you enough.
The audience was rapt; there were tears. Silence fell in the auditorium. Then 93-year-old Lear picked up his mic and said, “Truth to tell, I sat here all the time before you said this, and said: How do I know you?”