2017 has been an incredible year for Hasan Minhaj. First, the Daily Show correspondent delivered a strong set at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where the absence of Donald Trump did little to take away from the cutting barbs he made about the 45th president. Then, just a few weeks later, he released his hit Netflix special Homecoming King, a revelatory piece of standup comedy that featured remarkable honesty as well as some very inventive usage of visual aids (those texts from Bethany Reed aren’t going to stop stinging any time soon). In a little over month, Minhaj has proven himself to be one of the strongest forces in comedy today. This all begs a simple question: Why don’t we see this type of brilliance from him more in his Daily Show gig?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that Minhaj is bad on TDS; on the contrary, many of his appearances have been enjoyable. It’s more that he’s under-utilized, and he tends to blend into the scenery. To some degree, this is a show-wide problem; many have critiqued host Trevor Noah as being bland despite having a fascinating backstory. It’s also become a common critique to say that Noah’s Daily Show has failed to separate itself from Jon Stewart, and at times, seems like an imitation of its predecessor. While those problems have been discussed endlessly, it’s worth pointing out that utilizing Minhaj’s talents a bit more could do a lot to help the post-Stewart Daily Show carve out a firm identity for itself.
One of the most memorable – and devastating – parts of Homecoming King was when Minhaj talked about his experience after 9/11. After his house had been vandalized by a classmate who knew that he was Muslim, he watched his father clean up shards of glass, rationalizing that racism of this sort was just the price he had to pay to live the American Dream. He framed it as a moment that signified the generation gap between him and his father – the moment where he realized that he wasn’t going to take this lying down. It was an emotional moment that was nearly as effective when he told a truncated version of the story on a recent episode of Moshe Kasher’s Problematic. Similarly, one of Minhaj’s best Daily Show moments came the day after Donald Trump was elected, when he asked why Trump’s racism (specifically, his call for a ban on Muslims entering the country) wasn’t a dealbreaker. He was visibly upset during the piece, and watching him struggle to hold in his anger was one of the most poignant parts of the Noah-era Daily Show. Even when he undercut his concern over his mom not being able to re-enter the country with a joke about her owing him money, the heartbreak still hit home.
When I consider what the average Daily Show episode consists of, I find myself wishing more and more that we had more moments like this. On a given night, Noah will crack wise about what a ridiculous human being Donald Trump is, and he’ll spend eight minutes or so going over the latest news of the Russiagate story. You know it’s coming, and it can’t help but feel a little boring. On an average night, one of his correspondents – sometimes Minhaj – will join in on the fun. Some of the jokes will be clever, but it’s rarely insightful. What made Minhaj’s frustration at Trump voters the night after the election so memorable is that it went into why it was so bad that Trump had won, and how it would affect the country. Moments like that are far more intriguing and resonant than playing yet another round of “ugh, can you believe this guy?”
As the second Muslim Daily Show correspondent (following Aasif Mandvi), Hasan Minhaj brings a unique perspective. What’s equally important, however, are his strengths as a storyteller. Throughout Homecoming King, Minhaj was able to tell stories that were both emotionally engaging as well as hilarious. Admittedly, the time constraints of The Daily Show mean that he may not be able to tell a lengthier story (like the scarring tale of his prom date ditching him for a white kid at her parents’ request), but his dressing down of Trump voters proves that he is capable of having his words resonate even when he has a smaller timeframe to operate with. The Trump administration is taking America into scary, uncharted territory, and the job of satirical shows like The Daily Show is to put these times into a proper context and show how Americans are really being affected. If The Daily Show starts to utilize Minhaj’s considerable skills a bit more, it could really set itself apart.