Hasan Minhaj On His Personal Approach To ‘The Daily Show’ And Stephen Colbert’s Excellent Advice

As the 2016 election winds down, we’re spending the next week talking to some of the people who’ve been on the campaign season’s frontlines, the correspondents of The Daily Show With Trevor Noah in advance of the show’s live election day show on November 8th.

During the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, several Daily Show With Trevor Noah correspondents chatted with us for a short video about how to engage with Facebook friends who support Donald Trump. Each offered hilarious but poignant suggestions for what to say to everyone’s old high school buddy or distant uncle, though senior team member Hasan Minhaj gifted the one-and-a-half-minute clip with its moment of zen.

“These ‘immigrants,’ these ‘blacks,’ these ‘Muslims’ that are ‘taking your country’ — just take a chance to meet them and not see them as just some esoteric policy point,” he said. “We are real people. These policies affect us.”

Minhaj spent years crafting his stand up act while opening for the likes of Katt Williams and Gabriel Iglesias. This led to minor spots on Arrested Development and reality competitions on NBC and MTV, then — when Jon Stewart hired him in 2014 — The Daily Show. Through it all, Minhaj has demonstrated a penchant for putting his own “skin in the game” for comedy’s sake, but never at the expense of the serious subjects he covers.

As The Daily Show prepares for its live election night special on November 8th, we got the chance to talk to Minhaj about the deeply personal nature of his comedy — both on and off the Comedy Central staple — and whether he and his colleagues enjoy the live broadcasts more than traditional tapings.

What was it like covering the conventions back-to-back? It must’ve been grueling.

It was really fun, actually. We were like a touring band, which was really awesome. The shows were changing every night, and the two places we were going — Philly and Cleveland — were two such very different experiences. I’ll never forget it. It was just incredible. Sure, it was definitely really challenging, but I think we all just gelled and bonded together, and turned a corner as a show. I remember we just had so many kick-ass shows, and Trevor was kicking butt in all of them. I’m just really proud of the work we did.

How’d the experience compare to the live broadcasts?

I love it. It’s really great getting to do live shows like that, because what we’re doing is fun, funny and meaningful. Though it also feels like we’re sprinting a marathon. It’s great because we have to do so many of these shows. Especially during election season, whether it’s the conventions, the debates or what we have coming up with our live election day coverage. It’s just going to be really fun and exciting, and I love those days. They’re jam-packed. There’s all this prep that you do, and then some of it just goes out the window. So you have to make new stuff on the fly.

What you see is, we’re going live literally minutes after the debate ends. It’s amazing how much stuff we’ve written before that we think is set. Then when we watch the actual debate, we realize one or two big things have drastically changed. When that happens, and it happens a lot, we have to change and adapt the material to whatever occurred, then deliver it in a matter of minutes. It’s a pretty incredible process to witness, let alone be a part of.

Is there a particular story or idea you’ve had to abandon because of one of these live changes?

Well, the correspondents will have these amazing ideas to go into the field, but for whatever reason the person — the interview subject, the person we’re trying to interview or sit down with — becomes unavailable or backs out at the last minute. Those are the things where we’re like, “Oh no! That would’ve been so great!” Those are the things that end up on the cutting room floor, since we never actually got to shoot them. Those are the ones that I’m like, “The one that got away!”

Makes sense. I wanted to ask about some of the stories you pursue, especially when they’re personally relevant to you. Like “Hasan’s Farewell Tour” at the Republican National Convention, in which you’re able to balance the awful reality of Trump’s proposed Muslim ban with humor. How do you manage the satirical line without breaking?

I made a personal choice in all the segments I do on the show to put my own personal equity and skin in the game. I think that’s why the pieces that I’ve done — whether it’s the “Hasan’s Farewell Tour” or the Syrian refugees piece with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — have really stuck with people. They come from a very personal place. It’s like, “this is something that I, Hasan Minhaj, am really passionate about, and I think needs to be talked about in this country.” I try to keep that in mind.

Even if some of the things people say to me when I’m in the field seem outrageous or ludicrous or racist or xenophobic, I try to keep in mind a piece of advice that Stephen Colbert gave me. He was like, “Look at what you’re fighting for. You’re on the right side of history, so stay in character and stay in the piece.” I just try to remember that and stick to it, even in the eye of the tornado. That was probably one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. There are moments when I want to break out of character and be like, “Really? Do you really believe that?” But then I remember it’ll all make sense later. Plus we have the privilege of being able to use Final Cut Pro to piece together a story with voiceover and stuff like that. So that the end result it makes sense.

I won’t lie to you, though. There are moments where I’m physically there and in my head I’m like, “Oh my God, this is terrifying” or “This is sad.” I just try to stay levelheaded about it in the moment and press on.

Well the five-minute pieces that result from all that restraint often come off swimmingly.

We’re in the field for a long time. We’re shooting a lot. Yeah, what you see in a five-minute piece is a five-minute piece, but we were out at the convention. We’re out in the field for hours. What’s good about that is that I’m also able to get acclimated. I get used to treading water in uncomfortable waters. It’s like, you’re swimming and you’re surrounded by sharks. At first you’re like, “this is really awful, I’m surrounded by sharks,” but then you tread water and you’re like, “now I’m a part of this ecosystem.” By the time you’re done, you’ve made your skin a little bit thicker.

The election news cycle isn’t going to end on November 9th, but at least, maybe, everyone will get a break. Are you looking forward to that?

Yeah, we’ll all get to exhale. I think what will be great is, hopefully if the racist cheetah loses, we can get back to analyzing and satirizing standard Washington, D.C. corruption. Won’t that be a blessing? Just to be like, “Oh finally! We can get back to standard corruption in politics!” I’m excited about that, because our work continues and it’s just as important. Just because you don’t have a dumpster fire screaming the most obscene things you could imagine doesn’t mean things aren’t, come November 9th, going to be messed up enough to require comment.

Hell, the cheetah entered the spotlight a year and a half ago. He’s not going anywhere.

Right? I think our election cycle here in the states is so ridiculously long. It’s nearly two years! That’s crazy. Compare it to Canada. Canada’s election cycle is less than two months in length.

And you’re right — there are so many stories that will continue. I think it’s our job on the show to remind people that, even without the Access Hollywood tapes offering the lowest-hanging fruit for comment, there’s stuff that we still need to be talk about. It’s our job on the show to take really esoteric, complicated information and boil it down in a meaningful and funny way. Not everybody has the time to go to WikiLeaks and sift through 50,000 emails, but it’s our full-time job at The Daily Show to do just that. To find the stuff that’s meaningful and important, then provide some commentary on it.

Right. Though when all that dies down, I do look forward to field pieces that have nothing to do with the election, like your Dakota Access pipeline protest segment.

One of the biggest advantages we have here at the show is — especially with correspondents in the field — we can actually go there. To me, with the whole DAPL controversy of what’s happening is it’s an objectively sad story. You have several hundred indigenous peoples fighting against a multi-billion-dollar oil conglomerate. Like it’s out of a movie, you know? Though their struggle was going on for so long. So when I went out there to do it, we were thinking about how we would talk about this thing. It’s such a sad story, so how could we talk about it without ridiculing the indigenous people and the struggle that they’re going through?

What I really love about the show is we found a way. With correspondents and their field pieces, we’re often able to satirize the general public’s general apathy towards stuff like this. And when you do that, it sheds light on people. My character went in there and asked, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a little bit of oil. It’s not like that’s going to mess anything up. What was the last time you couldn’t trust a multi-billion-dollar oil conglomerate? What have they ever done to hurt anyone?” If you take those points, say them out loud, and bounce them off the protesters, what audiences realize is these people are just fighting for their basic survival. Clean water and things like that.

The Daily Show’s live election special airs Tuesday, November 8 at 11 p.m. ET on Comedy Central.