Hasan Minhaj Wants to Update the Late-Night Comedy Model With ‘Radioactive’ Topics

Hasan Minaj at 92Y. Photo: Rod Morata/Michael Priest Photography

Former Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj isn’t a true newcomer to late-night comedy, but as co-creator and host of his own Netflix show (the first Indian-American to host a weekly comedy series), he’s trying to refresh the crowded, and at times dated, late-night comedy arena. In a conversation with The New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham at the 92nd Street Y on November 16, Minhaj, who was later joined onstage by Patriot Act showrunner Jim Margolis and co-creator Prashanth Venkataramanujam, discussed how new comedy shows are changing the late-night model, what he and his team are trying to accomplish with Patriot Act, and the importance of being “timely and timeless.”

On updating the late-night comedy-show model: “I think Jon [Stewart] really sort of pioneered, like, ‘Hey, I’m on Comedy Central. The show before me is a show with puppets that prank call people, so this isn’t journalism.’ He said that on Crossfire. I do feel like that software needs to be updated because, especially right now, a lot of people do get their news from these shows. We’re able to distill a lot of insanity into this very distinct comedy-news espresso, which people actually do take as truth. But the interesting thing that’s happening right now is that some of these shows are now breaking proper news. Like in the Saudi Arabia episode, we had the CENTCOM document. It was just there. It was out there that fact that the U.S. military had this document that was really, really offensive in terms of the language that was right in chapter one. It described the people of Saudi Arabia as having negro blood and all this stuff. I was like, How is this PDF just living on the internet and it’s given to every military official that goes to Saudi Arabia? And then, the U.S. military ended up apologizing and taking that down. That’s breaking news.”

On choosing topics that are “timely and timeless”: “I wanted to pick topics where you can clearly tell from the jump that I genuinely really care about this topic. If I’m going to take 20 to 25 minutes of your time, it should matter. I should be adding value to life in some capacity. Because we’re on Netflix, one of the things that was really important for me was, it has to feel timely and timeless. Netflix is not bound by time. It’s actually timeless. People go to Netflix to escape time or forget about time. So there has to be an urgency to it, but it also has to be one of those things where, ‘Okay, I can watch this two weeks from now when my friend tells me, ‘You got to see his Amazon thing.’” Similarly with the affirmative-action story, “I wanted to put something out where you can revisit this [episode] in 18 months because [you] best believe when [the affirmative-action case] goes to the Supreme Court Trump is going to bang that drum. I wanted to put it sort of on the record to very distinctly talk about my community and the way we’re approaching this subject. That’s another really important thing for me: If I’m gonna be a part of this landscape, I really wanted to look at the white space that exists in the medium — these sort of topics that are kind of radioactive for a lot of other hosts to touch.”

And not choosing certain topics: “The thing that I try to tell people is, for my job the necessary condition is comedy. The sufficient condition is, Is this news? Is this interesting? People come up to me all the time, like, ‘Hey, man, you’re like the melanin savior. You need to talk about Rohingya.’ I can’t make that funny. That’s why real journalism matters — because the necessary condition is news. The sufficient condition is, Is it interesting?

On seeing the big picture: “My thing is, what larger question are we answering [in each episode]? To me, the affirmative-action headline piece, people around the world can see it. Different countries have different forms of affirmative action. That episode, to me, is a discussion of meritocracy. Who gets what and why? The Saudi Arabia episode is, If we know about this complicated relationship, why aren’t we reassessing it? Why did it take this very public and brutal murder for us to finally talk about this really weird thing? That to me is where — for me as a comedian, the really interesting comedy lives in that space.”

On seeing diversity in his audience: “What excites me the most is, I remember as a kid seeing The Arsenio Hall Show. They would have these great shots where the camera would turn and it would be the studio audience. I just remember viscerally — you can even watch the clips on YouTube now — being like, Oh, this is different. I’ve never seen this before in my life. Just even the audience reactions. To be in the same era as Johnny Carson, and when cut to that audience, you see Malcolm X baseball caps. It’s a very different studio audience than was also going on in Burbank at that time, too. It’s really powerful to me; on our camera floor, you can see shots of people in the studio audience wearing a Black Lives Matter hoodie next to a girl in hijab. That to me is really cool. I love that. It gives me energy.”

On his popular appearance with Queer Eye’s Tan France: “After the Tan [France] thing, I went to your guys’ [Margolis and Venkataramanujam’s] office, and I was like, ‘Being smart is dumb.’ It’s so dumb. People are like, ‘Why don’t you go shopping with Tan more?’ An hour of me putting on jackets. With Tan, it’s like Keeping Up With the Kardashians with Desi people, and everyone’s like, ‘Give me more! I want more. Work is hard; life is hard; just give me things where I don’t have to think.’”

On how streaming is killing variety shows: “A big philosophical thing that I’ve talked about with Jim and Prashanth, and really had lengthy discussions about, is this idea that the term ‘the variety show’ is built around this concept where you have to … networks have these late-night shows to fill in swaths of time. You’re filling in time to get to commercial break. But Netflix is on the internet. So everything on YouTube or on Netflix is the stake itself. This was a real philosophical question I had with them: Do you need to give people extraneous stuff if you don’t have to fill in time? To me, what’s happening right now through streaming is showing, I think, the death of variety. It’s not variety. Do what you do.”

On how podcasts influenced the show: “I took a lot of inspiration from storytelling, podcasting, and longer-form journalism. What I love about that is the shelf life of that stuff. You can walk away from some of those articles or those podcasts feeling like it wasn’t just like sugar where you can laugh at a gaffe and then you’re done. I love Radiolab and the way a host can be maestro to a field piece, the main story, come in and out of commentary on something. They’re almost sort of DJ to all the elements of reporting. That to me was really cool. If we can do a comedy version of that visually, it would be amazing. Prashanth once said, ‘I listen to Radiolab’s More Perfect because if they’re putting it out that means it’s worth my time.’ If we can get our show to that level where people are like, ‘Oh, he did a thing on that? That means it’s worth my 20 minutes.’”

*These quotations have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Hasan Minhaj Says the Late-Night Model ‘Needs to Be Updated’