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Why Hasan Minhaj Couldn’t Stay Silent About George Floyd

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Netflix

Usually a Patriot Act story will take weeks, if not months, to research. But after George Floyd was murdered by members of the Minneapolis police, Hasan Minhaj felt the story couldn’t wait, turning around a fully produced digital exclusive on June 3 titled “We Cannot Stay Silent About George Floyd.” (Eventually the episode was uploaded on the show’s Netflix page.) Though there are some jokes up top, Minhaj mostly forgoes laughs to convey the gravity of his words. The powerful address has already been watched over 4 million times online.

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Hasan talks about working on the segment, why he decided to take out a funny story he originally had about Tiffany Haddish, and how these last few weeks has caused him reflect on his past. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Good One

A Podcast About Jokes

On Covering George Floyd

Our George Floyd piece came out in the middle of the week, where I just felt like we need to address it on the show. On the 25th, George Floyd was murdered. In the coming days, the video is released and protests erupt around the country. I’ll tell you things in the order in which I saw them happen.

The first was, I’m 34 years old. I could not believe this is the first time in my life that I saw unequivocal condemnation on both sides of the aisle. I’m watching Jeanine Pirro be like, “We need to charge these cops with murder.” You know this footage — she’s screaming it. You’ve got that Windows 95 American flag waving behind her like that during her monologue. I could not believe what I was hearing. Rush Limbaugh being like, “This is horrendous. This is a murder. We need to charge these officers and they need to go to prison, period.” I could not believe it. That was the first.

The second was the mass mobilization across the country. And again, I remember six years ago with Eric Garner, being in New York, working at The Daily Show, I saw the way Jon [Stewart] addressed it. I saw the protests, but I then started seeing protests in solidarity happening around the world. This is kind of a fucked-up joke, but I saw people putting up George Floyd murals in Syria, and I’m like, They don’t even have a fucking functioning government, and they’re like, “This is too far. What is going on in America?” And by the way, they have a dictator that fucking gasses civilians. Even they’re just like, “Hey, look, put this rubble together. We need to make a mural for George Floyd.” I know that’s such a dark thing, but I was like, Something is happening around the world where we’re all saying it is unequivocally unjust, and people are rallying around this moment.

The third thing starts happening, which is the peaceful protests, which then open up into rioting, which then open up into looting. And I saw kind of the ripple effect, the downstream effect of what I call “the WhatsApp thread.” And that’s friends and family around the country and around the world — a lot of my family and a lot of the people that I know that I grew up with — we’re all first-generation immigrants. So I know a lot of folks that own mom-and-pop stores across the country, whether that’s liquor stores, whether that’s gas stations, whether that’s restaurants. We came to the country in the ’70s and the ’80s, and we established these small businesses to help our children survive. And I’m a child of that generation. I’m seeing them on WhatsApp kind of posting — these are the sort of behind-the-scenes whispers that nobody talks to the public — but it’s like, “Hey, what’s going on? Did Target really have to burn?” I remember that very distinct moment where people were like, “What is rioting and looting going to get?” And then I started to see the right-wing pundits also say that, like, “Congratulations, you have lost all footing for your cause. Why couldn’t you just be peaceful? People would have listened.”

I remember having a very tense conversation with a family friend of mine who was defending Target [after the looting], and I was like, “Trust me, Uncle, Target will be okay. They have insurance.” But there was also a very important data point. I said, “Look. Notice how the day after, let’s say, Target lost all of its flat screens, the case was upped from a local D.A. to the attorney general, Keith Ellison.” Clearly, there is a cause and effect here where people are like, “No, no, no, we’re not just going to have the same old buddy-buddy bullshit between the prosecutor, the D.A.’s office, and the police department. That’s over. We need to up the ante here.” It was the first time in my life I thought maybe this could be different than what we saw with Eric Garner, where, yes, the officer was charged, rah, rah, rah, rah. But then they’re never sentenced and they never served time in prison.

A lot of times in America, we think of the race dynamic being a Black-white dichotomy. But there is a huge immigrant community, whether it’s from the Latinx community or the Asian-American community or the South Asian Middle Eastern community, where we are sometimes at the sideline of this race conversation. But we are intrinsically linked to it, vis-à-vis civil-rights legislation. A lot of my community, they don’t get that. There’s just kind of really ugly talk where they’re just like, “Hey, we don’t need to get involved in this fight. This has nothing to do with us. We don’t carry your guilt, America. I don’t owe you anything.” And the reality is, as you look at the Immigration Act of 1965, we actually do owe Black America a lot, because on the heels of the civil-rights legislation that was that was passed in ’64, that Immigration Act was passed in ’65, which allowed my parents to come here in 1982 [as] highly-educated, skilled import workers from Asia. That was a monumental piece of legislation. And so I kind of had to spell that out. There was a moment where I was like, “All right, look, we cannot just stand on the sidelines, and we cannot just privately speak ill of a marginalized community that is really hurting right now. We’ve got to stand with them because they stood for us, you know?” 

On the Jokes You Don’t Do

This is actually something I’ve not told anybody, but sometimes when I am tackling a third-rail issue, I will send the script to what I call some of my Jedis that know it better than me. I’m still young in this game, and there’s just certain people that I send stuff to where I’m like, “I respect your wisdom because you’ve seen things and you’ve seen a lot of these sort of battles happen in real time,” where there’s a high-charged moment in American popular culture. And you have this moment where you can napalm the room or you can have a more surgical strike. At times, like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, I sent my script to Neal Brennan, John Mulaney, Jon Stewart, Steve Bodow — just certain people that I can just ask, “What do I do here? Do I go all the way?” A lot of times, people are like, “In comedy, there is no holds barred, say whatever the fuck you want.” But so much of what we do works within the Overton window. And it is about timing and jurisprudence. Our art form, actually, I really believe, is an incredibly controlled medium. It feels like it’s Arkham Asylum, and we get onstage and the inmates get to say whatever they want. But it’s actually a very refined thing.

I think we always talk about the jokes that people do — especially on this podcast. But I think there’s something very interesting in the jokes that you decide to not do, because that’s really important too. It actually doesn’t come from “I want to pull punches” or “I don’t believe in the art form.” Go there, but know when to go there.

Oddly, my relationship to jokes like that is the same relationship that I have with Islam, where my big problem with zealots and people that take it so literally is they’re so obsessed with the form. And what I love about perhaps the Sufi methodology is, it is more about the soul, the essence of what you’re saying, the beauty of what you’re saying, which is why singing and poetry and calligraphy and these other beautiful parts of Islamic art that flourished around the world came from that influence. By the way, other religious faiths have that, like the Torah and the Talmud — very specific, and very “according to the Aramaic, it’s like this … ” You lose people. Some of the things that I love the most are things that just intrinsically speak to the heart. I don’t know what it is, I can’t put my finger on it, but it is a very uniquely human thing. And I try to remind myself, because sometimes I get so much in my head and I get so studious about this comedy thing that I’m like, You also have to speak to people, to their soul. This is an art form. 

On Being a Boss

I remember when I first joined The Daily Show in 2014. You can close your eyes and you can imagine that room. It’s a sea of gingham shirts and Warby Parker glasses. And I promised myself, If I get a show, I’m going to get as many different voices into the room as possible. I want to do that so bad. And I’m really happy to say six years later, it’s definitely progress from that room that I started with in the fall of 2014 that I walked into. But we still have a long way to go. And I think these discussions are really important.

A lot of times when we talk about these discussions — and I wish this level of nuance was added — people think about progress as this very binary dichotomy. Are writers’ rooms or organizations irredeemably racist and sexist and homophobic and noninclusive? No. At the same time, are they unequivocally equal and equitable and fair? No. And I think what we’re trying to do is, there’s a spectrum, and we’re trying to get closer and closer to that more equal and equitable thing. The road to that progress isn’t always straight. So we make steps forward, and perhaps a couple times we take steps back, and we make more steps forward. But I think we’re taking the right steps forward by having uncomfortable conversations. One of the things that I was talking to my staff about is, every cycle, we have to get better in that regard, whether it’s from an organizational perspective, staff perspective, all of those things. I think we’re in this really great moment. It feels uncomfortable, and I’m watching these conversations happen. But I think it’s necessary.

I have achieved something that’s kind of rare for my community, which is success, which has gentrified me out of the community that I grew up with. That doesn’t mean that I can share that or scale that, and that to me is the thing that’s still a mind-fuck. I can be at the Time 100 or the Met Gala or whatever those things are that are these exclusive places for a kind of “show business,” but that doesn’t mean my cousin Sahil gets to go either. That doesn’t mean my sister can go. And that’s the thing that I think about where I’m like, Yeah, that’s fine, but that’s the thing that I think is missing. When it can’t be shared or scaled, then you’re just an outlier. That’s not particularly great. I mean, it’s great for me, but that’s not what I feel like is the most important thing.

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Why Hasan Minhaj Couldn’t Stay Silent About George Floyd