Hasan Minhaj has the distinction of being the last comedian that Jon Stewart handpicked to serve as correspondent on his version of The Daily Show. And with two seasons of his Netflix political-satire show Patriot Act in the books, he’s lived up to his former boss’s trust in him by hosting the funniest and most inspired show that’s come from the disciples of Stewart — a long list that includes Full Frontal, Last Week Tonight, and Problem Areas, just to name a few. From first glance, Patriot Act might appear like a TED Talk on the set of Blade Runner. But look past its slick production design and you’ll find a joke-heavy and preach-free dive into the politics and culture of our world through Minhaj’s passionate point of view. It’s a perspective shaped by not just his ethnicity and religion — Minhaj is Indian-American and Muslim — but also by his youth. And it’s resulted in a program that’s separated itself from the plethora of post-2016 satires available to watch. With the third season arriving in May, here’s a recap (and full episodes!) of the best episodes of Patriot Act so far.
The first episode of Patriot Act is also its best, touching on an issue (an anti-affirmative-action lawsuit against Harvard on behalf of Asian-Americans) that only he among talk-show and variety hosts could nail. Alongside super-specific jokes about Kumon learning centers and Asian strongholds like Edison, New Jersey, and Davis, California, Minhaj deftly untangles the complicated backstory and common misunderstandings about affirmative action. And while he takes on Edward Blum, the white conservative activist behind this lawsuit, he saves most of his ire for the Asians voicing their support behind this Trump administration–supported case.
“Now, Asians … I find it hilarious that this is the hill we’re willing to die on,” he says up top. After decades of staying silent on bad-driving and small-penis jokes, he continues, he’s boggled that “the moment we can’t get into Harvard, we’re like, ‘I’ll see you in court, motherfucker!’” It’s here that Minhaj quickly separates his show from the pack. Yes, he skewers the conservative Asian activists supporting the lawsuit with The Daily Show’s playbook of embarrassing rapid-fire clips. And his research team backs him up with stats (Asian admission at Harvard has actually been rising) that disprove the lawsuit’s entire argument. But even though the numbers are on his side, Minhaj’s clip- and graph-heavy monologue hits the hardest when he pushes those numbers aside and speaks from his own lived experience.
It’s here where Minhaj digs deep into his own past as he tries to unroot the bigotry that permeates his own community’s need to obtain the best college education. Minhaj recounts SAT prep teachers telling him not to check his box as Asian, instilling in him a belief that “I wasn’t going to get into Stanford because some black kid was going to take my spot.” But Minhaj, who was rejected from Stanford because “[he] was dumb,” repudiates those tenets and calls out the anti-affirmative-action activists’ silence on the larger role that legacy admissions plays in keeping out students.
In later episodes, Minhaj would be banned by dictators and warned not to cover certain elections, but this episode features what he might consider his bravest moment: admitting, with his parents sitting in the audience, that he “only” got a 1310 on his SAT. “1310? You must be a moron. No wonder you became a stand-up comedian!” he imagines his Asian-American viewers thinking to themselves. But the self-deprecating Minhaj and this episode are so sharp, it could be used as evidence against the lawsuit. It proves his point that an intelligent, well-rounded, thoughtful human being is not solely defined by their GPA and SAT score, but instead by the various facets that make them unique.
While Minhaj starts this episode by making fun of the glut of political shows, calling himself “the brown one,” this episode on the influential streetwear company Supreme showcases why the need for diverse voices on talk shows isn’t just limited to race and religion. It also applies to youth. Minhaj is a young 33, and it shows in his obsession for the ’90s-era hip-hop, basketball, and clothing of his adolescence that’s neatly wrapped up in streetwear culture.
“I know people think Jordans are corny or pointless, but for my generation having a pair of J’s … gave me confidence,” he says. A self-described sneakerhead, Minhaj begins by recounting the time he saw someone get robbed for a pair of Jordans during a sneaker drop turned riot at his local Sacramento mall. He uses that incident to draw a timeline of streetwear, from hustlers selling stolen sneakers to the Carlyle Group’s $500 million investment into Supreme, and what its future might hold. Even if you’ve never heard the terms hypebeast or drop culture before, Minhaj adroitly explains streetwear’s role in the global economy and how Supreme’s business model of scarcity and cultural appropriation — from feminist artists to luxury brands — will likely see an ironic end given how its new private-equity overlords do business. While you can imagine someone like John Oliver doing a segment on a broader version of this topic, Minhaj is the only host with the lifelong passion required to give it an authentic, from-the-heart take.
Dropping the same day as “Affirmative Action,” this episode later received national headlines when Netflix pulled it in Saudi Arabia after the government there deemed it illegal. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi feels like years ago in our modern news cycle, but it wasn’t that long ago that Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered his assassination. Minhaj, a Muslim, and his team use this opportunity to call out the leadership of the most powerful Muslim country on earth and the ways in which they’re failing his Muslim values. Minhaj excoriates MBS — a man who put his mother under house arrest, tortured his cousin, and caused the worst famine in a century with his Yemen blockade — for presenting a more progressive Saudi Arabia as it tries to diversify its economy from oil.
Minhaj also tackles the lengthy and unethical relationships that Saudi Arabia — whom he describes as “the boy-band manager of 9/11” — has had with American businesses and the U.S. government. But like in “Affirmative Action,” Patriot Act’s lodestar is not stats or history lessons, but Minhaj’s most intimate thoughts. “As Muslims, we have to pray toward Mecca. We make pilgrimage to Mecca. We access God through Saudi Arabia, a country I do not feel represents our values,” he says, decrying how ordinary Muslims like himself have to bare the consequences that come from Saudi Arabia’s role as the center of Islam. In just two episodes, Minhaj laid down a serious mission statement by tackling hypocrites and despots in his own community instead of the usual targets in Trump-era political talk shows.
Naturally, Saudi Arabia responded by essentially calling Minhaj a bad Muslim. When the episode was banned, it specifically mentioned that Minhaj had violated the kingdom’s “religious values,” the very thing he accused Saudi Arabia of doing! I like to think that MBS actually watched the episode and removed it, literally, from his Netflix queue out of spite. The episode is also notable for reaching the upper echelons of the U.S. military. Following its release, which included an excerpt from a 2018 military guidebook describing Saudis as having “Negro blood,” Central Command changed the wording and issued an apology.
“Hip-Hop and Streaming”
If you thought Miley Cyrus rapping about being high on purp in the club was the low point in hip-hop cultural appropriation, Minhaj has some music videos from the Chinese government that he’d like you to watch. With so many political shows available for viewers, the best episodes feature sincere, funny monologues that could only be given through that particular host’s POV. There’s former pretender Stephen Colbert’s “Some Thoughts on Pretending and Honesty” about America’s disinterest in stopping mass shootings or Sarah Silverman’s Louis C.K. monologue from I Love You, America where she tries to process whether it’s possible to love someone who’s done horrible things. For Patriot Act, its best episode of season two focuses on how global politics are being shaped by his “one true love”: hip-hop.
After a brief overview of what hip-hop means to him, Minhaj lasers in on how the world’s most streamed genre is being used by both dissidents and dictators in a political struggle fought on YouTube. “That’s insane to me,” he notes. “A genre invented in house parties in the Bronx is affecting political sentiment internationally … the same music that gave me the confidence to get contact lenses.” In countries like Turkey and Spain, he highlights dozens of rappers who have been thrown in prison. And from Thailand, he plays an anti-government rap music video that references both Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” and the Thammasat University massacre. But what really trips Minhaj out and drives the episode is that those same authoritarian governments are now using hip-hop to fight the opposition. We get to see a truly insane piece of Chinese propaganda celebrating their recent moon landing and video of Vladimir Putin declaring that his government should “lead and direct” Russian hip-hop. But back in Thailand, the military junta actually responds with its own diss track! Throughout his monologue, you can feel Minhaj’s zeal as he traces how the music that gave him confidence as a little brown kid in Davis, California, is now being used to fight cruel regimes across the globe. His jokes about hip-hop come from a place of love and respect. When that’s missing from a comedy piece, you can tell.
Halfway through this depressing but necessary episode, Minhaj screams out, “Try squeezing 20 minutes of comedy out of student-loan debt!” That’s a harder task than getting into Stanford, but Minhaj and his team exceed that with a 27-minute segment on an issue that’s keeping so many college graduates from planning for their future. Other shows have covered this topic, but Minhaj’s monologue centers on how the Department of Education has outsourced loan collection to predatory loan services like Navient with no regard to how it cripples the lives of college graduates. It’s a stark contrast to the 1960s, he explains, when federal student loans were first introduced as win-win legislation for American citizens and a government that was desperate to defeat the Russians in the Space Race. There’s clearly no turning back to those days, as the episode ends with a sketch parody of a truly insane and dystopian TruTV game show where students face off to win student-debt relief. This is the episode that comes closest to being the flashy TED Talk the program has avoided becoming. But can you blame them? They were trying to squeeze 20 minutes of comedy out of student-loan debt!
One of Patriot Act’s strengths is how unapologetically Indian it is. There’s no other political show where the host’s favorite running joke are act-outs of Desi uncles and aunties. And there’s definitely no other show where those same elders warn the host not to cover Indian politics because some will think he’s a Pakistani spy. In the season-two finale, Patriot Act aired one of its riskiest pieces yet in an episode that tries to make sense of India’s upcoming election. And as Minhaj explains up top, it’s not just him being what one uncle calls “an ABCD: an American-Born Confused Desi” that makes him unqualified to devote his peregrine thoughts to this election. It’s also his Muslim background and Arabic first name that are as much a liability among right-wing Indians as it is for right-wing Americans.
India might be very different culturally from the United States, but Minhaj finds a democracy flirting with fascism and giving off the same warning signs: a nationalist prime minister shouting “India First!”; racist rhetoric toward its southern neighbor; and a rise in religious fundamentalists. Indian politics is a subject that most Americans know nothing about, and yet Minhaj and his team are able to succinctly explain it in a manner that is both intellectually sound and deeply personal. If Minhaj really is the dual Iranian-Pakistani spy that his critics in Saudi Arabia and India purport him to be, then his ability to bring light into the darkest corners of post-2016 global politics is even more impressive.