Please get used to the name “Hasan Minhaj.” (Also to saying it correctly: Ha-sun Mi-nuj.) The 31-year-old is about to become the comic you and your elder relatives quote together at holidays, charming and full of promise, like your friend’s cute younger brother. Maybe it’s the eyes. They’re so innocent! Then he starts talking, and it’s clear the world’s biggest podiums lie ahead.
And he’s got them in sight. After nabbing a gig everyone wanted — a senior correspondent for The Daily Show, Minhaj was Jon Stewart’s last hire — this spring he memorably took one no one else would touch: roasting Donald Trump adroitly at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. And this week, his own comedy special, Homecoming King, is out on Netflix, dismantling South Asian life in America with an assurance the topic’s been lacking.
The 90-minute monologue tracks a path that begins like so many immigrant stories. Starting from his early years in Davis, California, it offers gems of second-generation weirdness — a tale of a hidden sister, a racism-inflected prom — told in a mix of English and Hindi. Minhaj is free and open about his identity (his family also happens to be Muslim), a sign of shifting winds for brown people in entertainment, who’ve long faced limiting expectations both inside and outside their communities. Today, it seems possible to not sacrifice authenticity for success.
Vulture recently sat down with the comic near his Hell’s Kitchen apartment, over a near-ideal breakfast of eggs and berries (bananas, he says, would have been better). We talked empathy in the time of Trump, finding honesty in a second-gen life, and what the future holds, for him and those who can relate.
So, you live in Hell’s Kitchen.
And you live in Brooklyn! I never go. We were shooting a movie where we needed it to look like we were in suburbia, trees and houses in a cul-de-sac, so we shot in Brooklyn, and it was like, “Whoa, where is this?”
I love those parts, like in Ditmas Park. The beautiful Victorian homes with wraparound porches.
Who lives in those homes?
Well, now I think they are split up. But I have friends who live there, and they actually have Indian neighbors. It has a Queens-y vibe. The Indian homes are sort of different from everyone’s, of course.
Are they? [Laughs.]
There’s that cheesy facade they always add.
Why do all our living rooms look the same? There’s a very specific thing to it. We all have the same cutlery, there’s certain Mikasa plates. No matter whose house you go to, it’s all the same.
It’s like Starbucks. You feel at home whichever Indian house you’re in, in the world. It’s great!
Michael Bublé CDs everywhere.
A Mona Lisa print on the wall.
Ha. Are you a big eggs Benedict fan?
I’m a scrambled person.
I feel like the Benedict aesthetic always looks really nice in theory, and then it’s always leaking and messy as soon as you get into it. So. What’s up?
It’s been a big year for you. Obviously your stand-up special tracks your career beautifully. But why don’t we start with the White House Correspondents’ Dinner?
Oh my god. I’m so happy to be on the other side of it! [Laughs.]
How did you get invited, and how did it all happen?
I had loosely heard that my name was being thrown around. But it’s one of those things where, and I’m not saying this to put myself down, but the caliber of people that get asked to do it usually are really big. Like, mainstays of American late-night pop culture: Conan, Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Cecily Strong, Larry Wilmore. They don’t pick people who are really, really new. I was like, “It’s going to go to one of those huge names.” And then when, obviously, everyone heard that Trump pulled out and the administration wasn’t attending, it became this huge, controversial event. [The waitress arrives; refuses his request to swap berries for bananas.]
Bananas are my go-to breakfast.
Full of potassium!
They’re also packed incredibly well. You can just put it in a backpack and take it with you. The banana and the orange are self-contained snacks, whereas an apple gets dirty in your backpack and is kinda gross.
That’s true. Are you a hygiene-oriented person?
A little. I’m not a germaphobe. There are people, especially in our trade, who are like, “I don’t shake hands.” That was a big thing in L.A. casting rooms. You’d go in the audition and it would be on the door: “Candace is not a hand-shaker.” You have to come in and do like, “Hi!” Like a bow or something. Trying to be personable without being generic and saying “Hello.”
Did you have a go-to?
I’d curtsy. “Hello, Candace!” Yeah, they’d see like 100 people every day, but we’re also 100 human beings. So maybe, I don’t know, sanitize your hands?
How long have you been doing this?
I started my sophomore year of college, 2004.
You went to UC Davis — what was the Davis stand-up scene like?
There really wasn’t one. I’d drive out to Sacramento and San Francisco. There were like, coffee shops in Davis so I’d do those open mics, but then I was like, “Oh, if I really want to do it, I gotta go to Sacramento because that’s where it’s happening. And then in Sacramento I’d be like, “Gotta go to San Francisco,” so it was like an hour to drive to San Francisco. It’s actually pretty cool — I met so many comedians in SF who are doing amazing work today. The scene was really happening. W. Kamau Bell is in San Francisco. Ali Wong is from the Bay Area. She had just graduated UCLA, come back to the Bay, and was working part-time doing stand-up. Moshe Kasher was there … everyone was very different and unique. Sometimes in cities, there’s a certain vibe, like, “Oh, these are Boston guys.” Everyone in SF was so different.
Because it was a fresh scene?
I think there’s something in the city, especially the San Francisco/Bay Area. It’s so densely populated with a combination of immigrants who’ve been there a long time, and new immigrants coming in. That really shapes the scene, that’s being mixed with places like Oakland and Berkeley, with people who have been living there forever. It’s really, really cool.
What did you study at Davis?
I was … studying to become a WASP. I was pre-law.
Were you always an articulate kid?
This is so dorky. Remember when we had to read To Kill a Mockingbird? I remember reading that and going, “Oh, that’s so cool!” Litigation, being in court and standing up for somebody, I remember thinking that was really cool. I wanted to be Atticus Finch.
Were you feeling the injustices that you talked about in your special, to do with being Muslim?
I was looking for a medium to express how I feel and so, you know, the things that I consume, like hip-hop — I’m not going to rap, even though there are great South Asian rappers now. I was like, “I can’t do that.” So I did forensics, and I did speech and debate.
What about it appealed to you?
That you could get up and, for those five or ten minutes — like, a teacher can’t stop you. They can’t run up to you and say, “You can’t do that.” Because there’s so much — and I’m sure you experienced this at work — fear of the slip. There’s always that fear of, “If I step out and I say this,” or “If I do this, the people around me will deliver …”
Exactly. Forensics is one of those few times where you have the court for ten minutes and you can present your argument and go on tangents. And the coach might not like it, but I realized that if I constructed the argument right, by the time I got to the end with the closing statement, it would’ve worked out. So those were my early sets, so to speak.
Were you funny?
Yeah, I’d get laughs. I didn’t know that was a great tool, especially when you’re arguing against another person’s position, if you can poke holes in their argument by making them look silly. The judges inadvertently give you a 15 percent better score. They just would, because they had a better time listening to you than the other person. It’s odd — I’m going to jump ahead on this side tangent, but if you look at the Republican debates, Trump was the best comedian out of the 17 people up there.
His names for everyone were funny. He was a comedian.
I remember when people were like, “When did the game change?” The Republican debates were like the Wu-Tang Clan — it was him and 17 other people up there on the podiums. I’m paraphrasing here but they’d be like, “Mr. Trump, how do you feel about the allegations that you’re a misogynist or that you’re disrespectful to women?” and he gets into his mic and says, “I’ve only been disrespectful to Rosie O’Donnell.” The whole audience laughs!
Oh my god, you’re right! It was a terrifying moment.
And then they’re just like, “Okay, next question, Governor Kasich,” and I’m like, “We’re just moving on?” In that moment, I realized the game had changed. It’s terrifying, because he basically acts like a comedian, riffing.
There was a lot of talk of course about normalizing him. He was embraced by the comedy world, in a way.
It was a little bit of a “game recognizes game” thing: He’s a performer and a showman. He’s kind of a ham.
I remember when he came down the golden escalator, Jon was still hosting The Daily Show. We did a chat with Jon, me, Jessica Williams, and Jordan Klepper, and the premise of the chat was that we were all jizzing our pants because, “Oh my god, this is going to be comedy heaven,” and Jessica’s the woman faking the orgasm, “Oh, this is so great, whatever.” But even at that moment, we were like, “Oh, he’s going to be the guy for three weeks, so he’ll be the laughingstock of the whole party and it’s just going to be really funny, we’ll have some jokes.” Early on, we didn’t take it seriously.
Few people did.
Yeah. Sorry, back to how I got into comedy.
You were talking about speech and debate, and law as a profession where you perform.
Yeah, so my parents, like a lot of strict Indian parents, didn’t let my sister or I have cable TV in the house. That was a big deal, because for a lot of the comedians I grew up with, they saw a lot of Comedy Central half hours and HBO and were influenced by that. We were growing up in the heyday of comedy and I was just studying for Honors Gov like a loser!
How’d you discover comedy then?
I went to college during the Kazaa/Napster era, and we had free internet, which was a huge deal. People were just downloading all of everything. This was pre-Netflix, but you could download every season of South Park, etc. I went over to a friend’s apartment and he had, like, a folder that he opened with every stand-up [special] ever. We started watching Chris Rock: Never Scared, and I was like, “Oh my god, this is funny speech and debate! He’s being critical of the government, he’s talking about social issues, he’s taking a position on marriage. He’s constructing an argument for this, against this, for that, against Bush.” In that moment, it just clicked for me. I was like, “I gotta try that. I’ve already been doing that, and I’m good at it. I think I have an affinity for it.” So then I just started sneaking out of the house and driving out to San Francisco to do stand-up comedy.
Your parents didn’t know?
No, they didn’t.
What would’ve happened if they found out?
I was living at home, so they would’ve killed me! Early on, when you do open mics, you’re performing in bars at like midnight or one.
What were the mechanics for sneaking out?
The mechanics in college were, “I’m in the library.” That was a lot easier. High school was different. It was like, “Meet me here, library’s closed.”
Living at home in college, was it tough making friends?
Uh-huh. I just started becoming friends with comedians, but that’s very weird being 20 years old and your friends are like, a divorcée, or people with kids. But what’s cool is, unlike college, where I feel like there’s still a monolith within your major, comedy is everybody. It’s just anybody who signs up for open mics. There was this theater I used to go to called Our Little Theater, which was run by this insane woman named Sia Amma. She’d run an open mic show in the Tenderloin, broken glass and heroin needles in the street. You’d go to perform and anybody and everybody would perform. Me, a crazy junkie, Amma would host it. It was nuts. There was another place called the Brainwash Café, which is still in San Francisco. It’s a laundromat turned into an open mic. I remember that’s where I made a lot of my friends.
You’re an Indian kid who did speech and debate and went to UC Davis … was any part of you like, “I have to be bad? I don’t want to be a good Indian kid?” I feel like you’re coming in totally in the overachiever role: “I’m doing funny speech and debate. I want to convince people about political realities.” That’s a pretty principled way of looking at comedy.
It was the first time I’d ever seen drug and alcohol abuse. I’d never seen coke in my life. So yeah, I saw that. But I also saw some of the most interesting perspectives, and what was cool was it made me question, in a good way, a lot of the norms and identity things I was working through. My material wasn’t there. It was really bad. It was awful. I was like, “So, I live at home with my parents …” and I was really bad. But yes, I was really ambitious and I wanted to be good.
What were some bits?
Like, “Man, I live at home and I hate when my Dad picks up the phone and gives directions to people over the phone.” So I’d act out my Dad being like, “Yeah, take the next boulevard exit! Take a right on Mongo-Merrie!” “You mean Montgomery?” “Yeah, that’s what I said!” Really clichéd stuff. Like, “Hey, I’m an Indian kid and I live with my parents!” But that was my life! It wasn’t cutting-edge or groundbreaking or anything like that.
Being in SF for those first four or five years was really good for me because I’m around comedians that are significantly better than me; I can fail publicly. But I’m not near my family or community, I’m tucked away in this private thing.
You were anonymous. Were there some other Indians there?
Yeah, some! They’re still doing comedy and I keep in touch with them.
Was there a bond?
Yeah! Some of them were older than me. I remember sometimes my dad wouldn’t let me use the car, and this was so sweet of them: They’d pick me up and we’d drive together, splitting gas money, and they’d drive me back, drop me off a couple blocks away from where I lived, so I’d walk a few blocks in case my dad was driving home from the grocery store and he’d see me and think I was walking home from the bus stop.
Did they understand?
They got it. Like how we’re having this interview and there are certain things you’ll get, like, I won’t have to contextualize for you, it’s just that. So when I’d say “drop me off here,” they’d be like, “all right,” not “why?”
I think that’s the most incredible change. From my perspective in media, but in every cultural realm in the past ten years. The expectations of shared knowledge are changing culturally. What we can say without explaining ourselves. Because there are more people talking and more access to different life stories.
I love that, and I hope it continues to change and evolve. There’s the nuances in the way that we as people of color interact with America in the outside world, but also the nuances within our communities behind closed doors.
That feels to me like a harder nut to crack.
The changes are so dramatic from not even generations, like micro-generations. Indian kids who are 16, 17 now, they’re in a completely different stage of self-knowledge, self-confidence, what they’re into. It’s so cool! Who knows what’s going to happen?
It’s amazing. Since I started to even consider myself to be in the performing arts, in ’04, what a leap we’ve made. I remember in November of ’05, the Russell Peters YouTube video of “Somebody’s Gonna Get Hurt Real Bad.” That was November ’05.
Oh my god.
Like, to me, where we’ve gone from there to now is so cool. So I’m excited to see where we’ll be in two years. It’s a really incredible, amazing time. My theory is it’s a byproduct of our parents emigrating here 30 or 40 years ago, and now we’re of the age where we can tell that story. I am so glad that there are so many talented South Asian artists who are making such strong and bold choices.
Russell Peters is an interesting reference point, because I think now you don’t necessarily have to choose your audience. Whereas he’s one of a group of comedians who are super-influential, super-pioneering, but very much invisible to people who don’t look like them. Even though he’s technically one of the most successful comics in the world, by the numbers. That’s true of a lot of niche “ethnic” comedians. They’re so powerful yet unknown.
That bugs me though, because Russell is one of the sweetest, nicest people ever. He’s so supportive. I’ll never forget this: Before he would do theaters and stadiums, he’d go and work the clubs. I was at the Sacramento Punchline, which is the local club near where I live, around maybe 2007 or 2008. Molly, who booked the club, said, “You can open for Russell.” There was a crazy line that night — like, the whole immigrant population of NorCal was there. I tried to get in, Russell saw me from the side entrance and was like, “Hey, come this way! Don’t walk through the club!” and he brought me into the green room. You know how when you’re nervous to meet someone who you’ve looked up to or is really famous? If they go 60-40 or 70-30, it makes it so much easier. He was like, “Do your parents want to come to the show?” I was like, “Yeah!” and he went, “Cool.” When you’re an underling in the comedy club, it’s like being in the mafia. You’re a street-runner. You’re not a mob boss, you’re not a made man yet. I said, “I can’t ask for tickets. I have to buy them for my friends and family. They can’t just come.” He goes up to the manager and says, “Yeah, Hasan’s parents want to come to the show. There’s one booth in the club that has a direct view of the stage. Put them in that booth, and if they want to bring people, just give them that booth.” It was so cool! The white managers were like, “Whatever you say, Russell,” and they bring my mom and dad, my aunt and uncle, into the thing. It was like Casino. They’re sitting in a booth, and the whole club is packed! He gets up onstage, grabs my mom and dad, walks them into the green room and gives them a hug! All this extra stuff no one asked him to do, he was like, “I want to make it easier for you. I want you to know I love you and I understand you.” That left an impact on me for the rest of my life.
Can you explain that?
You can be extremely successful and also incredibly kind. Those aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. And the next person I saw that with was Jon, and I see it with Trevor now. It’s those moments behind the scenes that people don’t get enough of.
Your special is interesting in terms of trajectory. First there was the Russell Peters era, then the Mindy Kaling era of mainstream success, but nobody knew they were Indian for a while, and they were popular with white people, and I think they had to be very, very strategic, maybe even subconsciously, about how to play with identity. Now we’re in a hyperidentity time where it’s actually good business to own your identity in a lot of ways. That may be a cynical way of putting it, but the fact is, you’re not necessarily making a choice between success and honesty.
I agree with that. It’s so crazy, and I’ve talked about this behind closed doors. I feel like brown America takes so much inspiration from black America, and what black artists have done to pave the way. I’ll use stand-up as an example: If you look at what Pryor and Cosby did, they opened the doors for Rock and Chappelle. But even if you think about it, Cosby, Pryor, Rock, Chappelle, they were big acts, big performers, but if you look at their children: Donald Glover, Hannibal Buress, Michael Che, Jerrod Carmichael, the fingerprints that Dave and Rock have on that are there in those nuances. You can be a black nerd, you can be this, you can be that. In the Def Jam era, and I was talking to Larry Wilmore about this, if you were a black nerd, that was not a thing that existed. Larry now is birthing so many amazing shows like Black-ish and Insecure, these subtle nuances within the black experience. What Russell did, which allowed Mindy to exist, I think their fingerprints will be seen in the next generation which allows more specificity to be there. I don’t know if it’s a product of the choices were making or if we’re just riding a wave in history that we don’t know we’re riding.
I think a lot of it is the latter.
I think about the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, I was lucky that I got placed in that moment. Sure, I said what I wanted to say up there, but there’s all these variables that weren’t in my control. James Corden passes on it, all these other people didn’t want to do it. My name is tossed about —
Passed because it was Trump?
Yeah. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the branding of the event. People still assume the White House Correspondents’ Association works for the White House, when in reality it’s a group of journalists who cover the White House. It’s a branding thing, but because it has the White House before it, people think they’re just King Joffrey’s goons.
And the White House is now a terrible brand.
Yeah. So publicly, that became the thing of, “If I perform at this dinner, I am somehow complicit in the worst things of the Trump administration.” Celebrities and journalist organizations started backing out.
That surprises me because I think you were very much in the legacy of Stephen Colbert, in that he roasted Bush. You took this as an opportunity to speak truth to power, and I’m surprised people wouldn’t see it that way. I remember Colbert’s monologue so vividly. That kind of, “I can’t believe he’s saying this” feeling. I think that was the first White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech that everyone talked about. It was also the beginning of internet virality. But still, it was like, “Oh, this can be an opportunity to call people out.”
And there was this element of, “Does Bush know he’s being roasted?” At the beginning, he’s just chuckling, and then in the middle of it, he’s like, “Oh, I’m being publicly ridiculed. Uhhh … yeah.”
Were you surprised that people would not have jumped at the chance this time around given that precedent?
Yeah. It’s just … there was just a lot of controversy around the event, and when that happens, people don’t want to touch that. But for me, the irony was, the criticism of the event has always been this is weird because journalists are breaking bread with the president and this administration, like if the SEC had dinner with Goldman-Sachs. This is weird, right? Even though it’s a night, and it’s fun, it’s just like… you don’t have dinner with the IRS. There’s supposed to be a separation. But now they’re not here. So I go, “If you’re going to show up, this is the year.” I was really disappointed because I was like, “You guys know better. You know what this event is about, and this is the year to stand in solidarity with journalists to say, ‘They’re not the enemy of the people, they’re not the scum of the earth.’” I was bummed by that, but then I thought, “This is an interesting comedic opportunity.” Of all the things where the country is at from a macro perspective, that an Indian-American is going to stand on that stage, with a president who so publicly hates Muslims — there is a new tension and dynamic. Also, the theme of the night was protecting the First Amendment, and our president abuses it and doesn’t even want to acknowledge the way that he abuses it.
Do you feel at all like there’s some kind of external expectation for what you should be saying? Either in a situation like that or your work now? Are there mandates?
What’s interesting is that it feels like it comes from every angle. Like, with the dinner, I was told repeatedly, “Don’t go after POTUS, don’t roast the administration in absentia.”
Who was telling you that?
Jeff Mason went on Morning Joe and announced I was being chosen. He was like, “We chose a comedian who will not roast POTUS in absentia,” and if you look at the press release, it says that there too.
So it became this weird thing …
Like, who cares how the administration feels?
Correct. That line of thinking died in November.
We’re not their buddies.
Like, maybe if we acted like the bigger person, or if we’re polite, Donald Trump will see the error of his ways. No, that shit died in November. Sorry. As soon as he was inaugurated January 20, he was a rat. That whole “Be nice, give him a chance” shit is dead. Also, the irony is we’re protecting the First Amendment by what? Silencing myself? I’m dealing with all this pressure. My dad’s on the phone with me and he’s like, “Hasan, don’t go so hard. Don’t do what you did at the Congressional Correspondents Dinner. The stage is even bigger.”
Was he scared for your safety?
Yeah! He was like, “People are crazy! Don’t do that.”
People are crazy.
Yeah, and I was scared. To the White House Correspondents Association’s credit, and Jeff Mason’s credit, they didn’t limit my free speech. They didn’t cut off my mic. I think that’s pretty honorable of them — they were put in a tough position, but they still let me do me even though I was put in a tough position as well. But I just feel like I gotta be me! That’s the artistic choice I had to make. I can’t be Diet Me. You know what I mean? There’s always that fear of if I’m really myself and it doesn’t work out, then what’s gonna happen to me? Then let that be my best me, because then I’ll know I’m not the one, I’m not meant to be a great comedian or whatever it is.
And if you don’t?
Then I’m in an artistic purgatory where I don’t know who I am.
Has that always been your stance? Or did you have to work to get to that point?
Yeah, when I started, there was a period about maybe three or four years ago where I was like, “I’m going to double or quadruple down on this, and see where I end up.” I can always add water to the concentrate and be like, “All right,” but I feel like if I go this way, it’ll be the most interesting, honest choice.
That seems like a really big step to make, with the kinds of family expectations you’ve mentioned.
Our career and who we love: Those are the two things. My head writer for the WHCD was my friend Prashant who is an Indian-American, a really funny comedic writer. We were talking about this and we were like, when it comes to who I love, who I marry, and what I do with my life, I don’t want there to be any asterisks.
Fuck Nyla Aunty! [A line from the special.]
Fuck Nyla Aunty! I don’t want to say, “I work as an attorney,” but there’s an asterisk next to it like, “That was a decision informed by my aunt and uncle and my chachu and my mom and the expectations of the community,” and “I also married so-and-so because the last thing I wanted was to come home and deal with drama.” I was like, these two choices have to be my choices as an adult — who I love and what I do. There can be no asterisks next to that.
So at the WHCD I decided to open up with, “Hi, my name’s Hasan Minhaj, I’ll be known in a few weeks as 80943.” I’m going to open with, “This is who I am.” I’m not going to be like, “I’m just a comedian.” No. This is my perspective on the world, and I’m going to close with that. I’m the first Indian-American Muslim to stand on that stage, and I want you to know that.
As you said, there’s a mystery in how much of being able to do that is your own choice and how much of it is the perfect storm of circumstances right now. You seem more self-actualized than previous people in your position have been. I do think it’s about the time we’re in, and age, and all of this ambient affirmation, like, you can do this.
There are variables that were out of my control. I was the last correspondent Jon hired on The Daily Show. So there were all these things that helped me that weren’t in my power. I got lucky.
It seems like you’ve worked out the parent/community stuff, in terms of keeping it real; what about the market/industry stuff?
That’s not in my hands.
Are there expectations for you? “Talk about this?” “Don’t talk about that.” “Brand yourself this way.” Is there anything like that?
All I know is, when I was workshopping early versions of Homecoming King, I did it Off Broadway in New York City, which throws off your expectations because the people who come to see shows in New York City are very cultured. But then I took it on tour, to Iowa, to Montana, to performing arts centers around the country. We did 40 cities. Tempe, Arizona, Connecticut. There’s 10 to 15 cities like Boston and San Francisco. But then we took it to places like Salt Lake City.
What would your audiences be like?
People would go, “Oh, I’m going to see the guy from Comedy Central,” and then they’d watch me do entire parts of the show in Hindi. I remember growing up, when you listened to hip-hop or any form of music, they wouldn’t dumb down their lyrics to make us understand. We had to catch up to them. For me I was like, “I want to do this poem about bravery that my dad told me, and you’re going to catch up to me and understand it. For better or for worse, let’s see how this choice works out.” People would come in and be like, “I saw it.” “What do you think?” “I don’t know.”
You don’t have to italicize all the foreign words, and then define them right after.
There’s parts where I’m just totally fluent in Hindi.
I was dying laughing at so many moments. It really felt like, for me, the first real, relatable representation that had a soul that I connected with. And it did not feel — I remember [Roger] Ebert’s review of School Daze by Spike Lee, he was one of the only reviewers who really liked it. He said, “This is the first movie I can think of with black people in it that’s not written for white people.” Which is how this felt, a bit.
Wow. Yeah! School Daze was panned? It’s amazing how when you revisit stuff, the narrative changes. We look at it like, “Oh yeah, that’s amazing! That must’ve been an iconic movie!”
People didn’t get it because he was talking to black people, and that had never been done by a big director for a mass production, you know? That was kind of the first “For Us By Us” feature film. There’s such power to doing that because it’s actually how you change the culture. You don’t need to translate.
Again, there’s different people from whom you get notes, and execs say this and that. But I’m in the theater, it’s full, I’m grateful for that. People are laughing, crying, having a moment, and then when we say goodnight, they’re standing and there’s a real connection. To me, that’s all that matters. So the 1,700 people that were in the audience that night, I think they know it and felt it. I hope other people feel it. I was just so hoping that there’d be something in this book called, like, The American Dream or American Pop Culture where we have our chapter with all the little details of what happens behind closed doors and outside in the world.
What was the writing process on Homecoming King like?
My director, Greg Walloch, he helped me work on stories. The show was a lot longer, and then we found this thread where I would do stories and then, rehearsing with him, I’d do parts entirely in Hindi. “What does that mean? What does that mean?” That’s how I found the theme of log kya kahenge and he goes, “What is that?” and I go, “It’s sort of, what will people say, what will people think. That’s what it means.” And he goes, “That is the most powerful, pervasive thing in human existence. We’re all worried about what other people think.”
He helped me find that thread, that we’ve all been victims of LKK. I’ve been on the other side of that when I was trying to marry my wife and my family was like, “Come on, what are people going to think?” I really wanted to show that we’ve all been on both sides of the doorstep.
Was anyone like, “Hasan, maybe don’t do Hindi?” Was anyone reining you in or was it like, “Go for it”?
What’s great is that I have really good friends around me, like Prashant Venkat, my friend who helped me write the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. He came to see it Off Broadway and he would say, “It’s like having a brown Jiminy Cricket, a comedic friend to be like, ‘Hey man, I know you’re saying this, this, and this, but talk about this too. There’s an angle you’re missing.’”
Can you give me an example?
Yes. There’s a part in the show [during the prom story] where I finish the part about the doorstep and I never saw her again, and I’m older now, and he goes, “Also, you need to acknowledge your privilege. You’re talking about racism, but relatively speaking, in the grand scheme of things, you kind of lucked out.” And I’m like, “Yeah, let’s watch the news. My spine isn’t being shattered in the back of a police wagon.” I lucked out, relatively speaking. Just acknowledging my privilege as a model minority in the spectrum. But that doesn’t take away my pain, either.
Another moment where Greg was like, “Say that again.” There’s a monologue at the end where I say, “I’m not Hasan Minhaj, I’m [pronounces name Hasun Mi-nuj].” And that’s really important, because I think for a lot of us, we’re kind of like Superman. There’s Kal-El from Krypton, and then there’s Superman, and I’m thinking, “Maybe, god willing, I can be Hasan Minaj [pronounced correctly] and Mindy can be her actual full name.”
And still be in the world.
Yeah, and still have people want to come to the theater. The goal of the special was, this will be my first platform to say, “This is what it means to be a brown American. Hopefully you can pronounce it, but if you can’t, this is what I am, regardless. I am who I am.”
When did you come to New York City?
When I was hired by The Daily Show in 2014.
And when were you like, “Okay, I’m moving into one-man territory telling my stories?”
I was already workshopping the show. I had taken it to the Sundance Lab, so I was developing it there. My wife and I were engaged, planning on getting married that January. I auditioned for The Daily Show in October and then I was like, “Babe, good news/bad news: I know we’re getting married in January, but I just got hired by The Daily Show and I gotta move to New York City.” We had to figure everything out and it was exciting. At the time, we were living in L.A. and I was developing the show in small, black box theaters. This is the luck thing again: I happen to get hired at a show in NYC which raises my name recognition in NYC, a theater city. All these things worked out in my favor.
In an interview with us, Reza Aslan mentioned that there’s a band of you shopping around Muslim sitcoms, and you’re all in friendly competition. What’s going on with that?
I’m doing a few things. I’m in a movie called Rough Night with Scarlett Johansson and Zoë Kravitz and Ilana Glazer that comes out in June. I’m really excited about another movie called Most Likely to Murder with Rachel Bloom that I’m doing. I’m starting to delve more into that stuff.
But the thing I’m most excited about is that I’m doing another show that’s a four-act, one-man political show.
How will it differ from this one?
It won’t be my autobiographical life story. It’ll be stories I’ve collected from being on the show and seeing America pre-Trump. Connecting the dots there. The rough part of it is, before he was elected, I got to see firsthand that he was going to win. When I was in that stadium at the RNC, I realized, “Oh, he’s going to become president of the United States.”
Yeah. Twenty-thousand people on their feet, mothers and daughters yelling, “Lock her up!” People were on their feet chanting it. and I was like, “Oh man, we’re in a bubble here in California and New York. We don’t know it, but this is really happening in the country. They sent me to do all these field pieces, like, “Go to Texas.”
[My project will be] a collection of stories of what my time was like, but the position of it is a place of empathy. Like, “All right, the country is clearly divided, but what if they’re right? What if Islam hates us? What if all lives really do matter?” and take the arguments I’ve heard from their mouths and deconstruct them from a place of empathy, like, “I hear you,” and work backwards. I would meet people firsthand who are characters in our field pieces, and putting them in four-minute field pieces on Comedy Central doesn’t do it justice. There’s so much more to their plight, their experience, and my experience, and I wanted to bring that to life.
Do you think that lesson you had, that you can be successful and be kind, is informing your approach to your actual work?
Yeah, like, you can be tactical. There’s this great clip of Jon Stewart on Crossfire. He went on it and he basically murdered the show. It doesn’t exist anymore. But he was surgical. He didn’t try to burn the building down. He was tactical and surgical in his approach and dissection of what was wrong with what they’re doing. I remember Trevor with the Tomi Lahren interview. The audience that night wanted to jump on her, but he was tactical and empathetic and cutting — not cruel, and he could’ve been. He could’ve been really cruel to her, but he wasn’t.
I felt the same way with the White House dinner. When I was making jokes with my writers, there was all this stuff like, “Steve Bannon looks like a bunch of chicken cutlets stapled together.” And while that’s true and funny, I was like, why don’t we do the Nazi joke, because his association with white nationalism, to me, is far more cutting and fair than saying what he looks like because then I open myself up to, like, brown curry jokes. I have an opportunity, for 25 minutes, where if I can go after you and Fox News and talk about the actions and choices you’ve made, not the way you look, to me that’s progress. And I’m open to you criticizing my merit. Let’s keep it there.
I wish you could counsel Trump because his jokes are mean.
“She looks like this.”
I give Van Jones a lot of props for wanting to reach across and give you a hug. I want to reach across, but first, I want to hear your argument, go backwards, and work through each and every point of it.
And probably eviscerate it?
Yeah, but I can still be cutting and kind. I think that’s possible. Hopefully I do it while smiling, you know?
This interview has been edited and condensed.