When I first stumbled across Hasan Minhaj’s YouTube videos back in 2012, I was at a strange point in my evolution as a comedy consumer, where my identity as a budding comedy nerd and my identity as an Indian-Canadian were somewhat at odds. For as much as I loved standup and was fascinated by the form in all its iterations, I found myself having an almost viscerally negative reaction to essentially every South Asian comedian who I came across on YouTube. For years, I’d excitedly click on video thumbnails of anonymous South Asian comedians, hoping to see a set that artfully reflected my experience as a first-generation immigrant, but then I’d inevitably see yet another person with my skin tone exploiting reductive stereotypes and making fun of their parents’ accents to the delight of largely white audiences. This phenomenon didn’t necessarily offend me as an Indian person so much as it offended me as a fan of comedy. I couldn’t understand why, when they had such a vast wealth of untapped material to potentially draw from, these comedians would continue to resort to the same tired jokes about convenience stores, technical support, and mispronounced words containing the letter ‘v.’ Watching these sets, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is how comedy fans felt towards the end of ‘80s, when they saw a comedian get on stage and talk for fifteen minutes about the pitfalls of airplane food.
All of this changed around 2012 when I discovered comedians like Kumail Nanjiani, Hari Kondabolu, and of course, Hasan Minhaj. Granted, by this point, comedians like Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling had already opened the doors for South Asians to exist more three-dimensionally in the public eye, but they did so by swinging in the complete opposite direction and separating their comedic personas from their racial identities almost entirely. Comedians like Hasan Minhaj were able to carve out a fruitful middle ground, where they could put out material that thoughtfully explored issues of identity without becoming pigeonholed exclusively within this niche.
Since 2012, Hasan Minhaj has continued to operate within this space, riding his unique sensibilities into a gig as a correspondent on The Daily Show, hosting duties at the 2016 Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner, and most recently, a standing-ovation-receiving set at the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Today, Minhaj releases his first comedy special on Netflix, a one-man show entitled Homecoming King. To date, it is the closest thing I’ve seen to that comedy set I’d unsuccessfully searched for on YouTube all those years ago. I got the chance to speak with Hasan recently about Homecoming King, his process for writing the show, and of course, his amazing set at the WHCD.
I know we only have a little bit of time, so I should probably get right into it, but I have to ask: what was it like playing in the NBA celebrity all-star game? That’s really what I’m most interested in.
A life-changing experience, man. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life. Growing up, I always wanted to play in the league. I couldn’t even play on high school varsity basketball teams. So, it was a huge deal for me to play on an NBA court, shoot with the real NBA basketball, wear a real NBA jersey, hang out in the locker room, etc. They had trainers who stretched us out. It was nuts!
Yeah, as a fellow Indian kid who got cut from basketball teams growing up, I have to imagine that it was incredibly validating.
Oh my God, it was a life-changing experience, man. It was incredible.
So, okay, in terms of Homecoming King—when you were workshopping the show initially, what was it like getting adjusted to the rhythm of theater versus the rhythm of standup?
The biggest change in the rhythm of theater is that you have to be comfortable with, like, huge chunks of silence. And, actually, once you get comfortable with that idea, then you open yourself up to a lot of really great possibilities. You can try new things and push things in interesting directions. Only the medium of theater really lets you do that.
Is that something that happened organically over time—that you stopped feeling the need to pack jokes in every few seconds—or did you write the show knowing that there were going to be huge chunks of silence?
It wasn’t that. It was more, like, the things that I would talk about off stage were sometimes more interesting and more powerful than what I was talking about on stage. And that really bothered me. I felt that the things that I talked about on stage should be as interesting as the conversations that I was having off stage.
I didn’t know what the one-man show option looked like, or that it was a medium that I could really explore until I started seeing people like Mike Birbiglia, Colin Quinn, and all these great comedians start to get into the space. After seeing that, I thought that this would be the best place to have a dialogue about all the personal stories that have happened in my life, and to analyze their broader significance. I knew that there would be huge chunks that weren’t really funny, but I thought it would be really interesting, and I wanted to explore that.
This a bit of a heady question, but I wanted to throw it at you and see what you think. I think we’re getting to the point in media where Indian-Americans are just starting to be depicted as nuanced and varied, but obviously this is a process that takes time, and I’m not sure if we’re there just yet. So, how conscious were you of that when you were talking about your personal experiences on stage? Did you worry that people may generalize your experiences and use them to define the identity of Indian-Americans in general? Is it strange to be in a position where people may look at you as an ambassador for the entire community?
It’s less about being an ambassador for the whole community, because for me, it’s just about being 1000% authentic. In the special, I obviously talked about a few generic tropes in the Desi community—“oh, immigrant parents hit their kids”—but I haven’t seen too much exploration of this territory, and that’s something I could feel when I performed live. For example, there’s this analysis of Hindu-Muslim dynamics, where I talk about, “oh, our parents are children of partition, and they immigrated here and they had us, but within the brown community, there is this still this vestige of racism and bigotry on both sides of the aisle towards one another.” And America doesn’t understand that dichotomy. I even make a joke about it in the show. Like, “I was in yoga and you guys all look the same,” but no, it doesn’t work like that. And, that’s a deep cut. That’s something we know in our houses, but it isn’t understood widely.
There are parts of the show that are in straight up Hindi. I recite a poem in Urdu that my dad tells me. For me, it’s about keeping it 100,000% percent authentic—this is my life and, whether you get the references or not, you can’t deny that.
It’s not about being ambassador for the community, because I’m sure I’ve done things that many people within different communities might disapprove of, I just wanted to be authentic to what it was like being a Desi kid growing up in America, what it was like behind closed doors in my house, what it was like trying to pursue my dreams, all that stuff. It’s up to the community and the audience to decide, if at all, how they feel about it. But, the thing I’m the most proud of is—win, lose, or draw—I put my heart on the table. This is what I went through in my life, and these are the reasons I made the choices I made. I also feel very lucky that so many artists have come before me and have allowed me to be this authentic and real and have the platform to get a special on Netflix. And to do an entire share of it in Urdu?! That’s pretty incredible.
I listened to your You Made It Weird appearance from a while back, and in it, you talked about how you often approach standup as a funny speech/debate routine. And, so in the special, I kind of saw how you used that technique. For example, you told a heartbreaking story about how your car windows were broken into on 9/11, and then you made this great joke about how your dad was sweeping up the glass in the street like he worked at a “hate crime barbershop.” It was a funny joke, but it also kind of worked to soften the blow and offer catharsis. Did you think about using comedy in that way throughout the entire special – as a kind of a technique to make the medicine easier to swallow?
Yeah, I think comedians will always find a way to break the tension. Even within some of the saddest times of my life, there’ve always been these moments that are kind of funny within them. In the show, I talk about a scene where my dad was recovering from his heart attack and we were still in the hospital, and he said “Hasan, I’m mad at you” and I say “I know, I kissed a girl…” and, it gets a laugh—and it is kind of funny—but it is also what I said in that moment. I think life is interesting in that way; there’ll be these really sad moments that are cut with moments that are really kind of funny. It really seems like laughter and sadness are two sides of one coin.
One of the things that distinguishes a one-man show is that the production value can be higher than a traditional standup show. So, when you were writing Homecoming King initially, did you know what you wanted to do with the visuals and the lighting to enhance the storytelling?
Yeah, I wanted to tell our story, and I wanted it to really feel like our story is an American narrative, but that this chapter just hasn’t been added to the book called The American Dream yet. Our parents immigrated here 30-40 years ago, and now we’re coming of age to tell that story. I wanted to tell that story authentically without there being, like, sitars and tablas on the stage. You know what I mean? It doesn’t have to look like a fucking Indian restaurant up there. Our story is American.
So, I actually, started working with Sam Spratt, who is the artistic designer on the show. Sam has done an amazing job in the past working with black artists like Janelle Monae and Donald Glover. The style is kind of like new American Rockwell, where he’ll take these Rockwell Americana images and put protagonists of color in them, which is really, really awesome. There was a period of time where our parents were immigrating here in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but unfortunately they weren’t put into the Rockwellian paintings, because maybe they weren’t considered to be American. Sam was a really awesome collaborator, and he would put these paintings together where Desi people of color would be the protagonists and the central focus of the painting. And, for me, I wanted that combination of brown skin in Americana to be the color palette for the theme of the show. And then, within those paintings, I wanted it to still pay homage to our roots in India, so you’ll see there’s the strong yellows and oranges, and a few visual elements from things like Bollywood posters.
I can’t let you go without talking about the Correspondents’ Dinner, because that literally just happened and it was amazing. What was the process like of writing it? You worked with this all-star cast of writers—Mike Birbiglia, Neal Brennan, John Mulaney, etc—but it also felt very rooted in your own voice. Did you know what you wanted to say at the outset and did that help you reconcile all these various perspectives?
Yeah, for me, I first wanted to establish the arc of the speech itself and figure out what I wanted to say in it. Me and my head writer, Prashanth Venkataramanujam, would just sit and talk it through, and we thought about, “okay, we’re 100 days into this. Where is America at? And where is journalism at, in terms of covering the Trump administration?” And I sort of came up with these three things: we’re living in the golden age of lying, trust is more important than truth, and truth is still the truth, which is why it’s more important now than ever to fight for that. And those were the three main arc points, and then within that structure, that’s when I was able to come up with “Nazi/not see Steve Bannon,” “CNN: I feel like I’m watching you watch the news,” and “now you know what it feels like to be a minority.” Those jokes all happened after I established the theme and worked backwards. You can reverse engineer jokes, but you have to know where you want to go. And, that’s something I learned from working at The Daily Show.
Hershal Pandya is a writer based in Toronto, whose writing has appeared on popular websites like Pigeons & Planes, Pacific Standard, and The Hill.