Hasan Minhaj On Media Snark And Starting Relatable Conversations About Race

In his new Netflix special, Homecoming King (which you can stream on Netflix right now), Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj opens up about his childhood, his family, and encountering a subtle (but still, gut-churning) type of racism.

We spoke to Minhaj about crafting his show, the value of the one man/one woman show style and using graphics to make a larger impact with his storytelling, and his desire to inspire conversation and, through that, change. And while Homecoming King doesn’t touch on Donald Trump’s impact, Minhaj’s day job leads us to discuss being defiant at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, calling out the press for its “everything is a thing” mentality, and the effect the Daily Show has had on the mainstream media.

This is a very personal show. It’s a show that’s trying to make a point and a very confident show. Where did you start and how did the show kind of get to that point where you were ready to be this revealing?

I started doing stand-up in college. I grew up in northern California. You saw the special so you kind of know where I grew up and where I’m from. I started there. I was a big fan of speech and debate in high school. To me stand-up comedy was funny speech and debate. I end up doing stand up for about nine or ten years.

The thing where I didn’t feel as satisfied from just my performance in the medium, was that I felt like I was hitting a wall in terms of the notes that I could hit doing a traditional stand-up set which is kind of just like a mixed grab bag. It’s almost like a mixtape of thoughts and ideas — here’s a little bit about relationships, here’s a little bit about politics, here’s a little bit about me — and you sort of string them together. I got exposed to The Moth and really seeing what Mike Birbiglia did there and seeing what Colin Quinn has done in the one man show space and then a lot of the European comics in Edinburgh and London, they’ll develop these entire shows around a central concept or theme. I remember seeing them and I go, “this feels like a whole meal.”

I started workshopping early versions of Homecoming King around 2013. I started doing The Moth and Catherine Burns, who is the creative director of Moth, was like, this could really be a show. I just started fleshing it out and working on it more and more and then I took it to Sundance and sort of finished it there. After I finished it there I started working at The Daily Show. I took it off-Broadway while I was in New York and then toured it and now it’s a special.

I feel like with stand up, and I was talking to Paul Provenza about this, he directs a lot of one man shows and he was telling me, you can play notes A through M with stand-up whereas with a one-man show — because you’re in the theater, you have lighting changes — you can do other things with mood, exposition, lighting, even graphics behind you to establish a point. You can play notes N through Z. It allows me to still be funny and do bits but then it allows me to have big chunks where I can just kind of be serious if I need to be. Having that emotional and creative room is something that really spoke to me.

How does the show differ from the stage version to the version that’s on Netflix?

There’s the stage version, that Greg Walloch directed. Then the special that you see on Netflix was directed by Chris Storer. That’s where we had to sort of take the MTV Unplugged version and then make it this bigger theater production. That meant I had to work with Chris Storer who’s the director and Marc Janowitz who was the set designer. Marc is brilliant — his background is actually in music. His ability to convey mood and basically break up the acts with the LED panels and the lighting design, that was really… he designed that as well as Hugo and Marie, who were the creative directors, and Sam Spratt who was the artistic director, who actually made all those Norman Rockwell-y paintings that you see behind me.

Those were the integral pieces to make it seem, again when you’re sitting and watching the show in the theater, you can naturally tell when acts are actually breaking. When you are doing it for a special, it’s such a clear visual medium [that] we need very, very, very clear visual cues that can translate to film.

I had an amazing team between Chris Storer, Marc Janowitz, Sam Spratt, and Hugo and Marie. They all saw the stage show and they helped me design earlier versions of that but then to take it to that level, we had been planning that for quite a few months and then executed it. The thing that I’m so glad [about] is that it translated and the people that are seeing it really dig it and that means a lot.

This has got to feel like a culmination after working on this for so long. What’s next for you? Is there another act brewing? Is another type of show like this on the horizon?

Yeah, I’m working on the next show. It’s a similar sort of format where it’s going to be a four act one-man show. It will be less centered on me and more centered around politics and stuff like that. But still under the guise of… one of the things that we talk about in the show is identity. The thing that I kind of want to dissect and understand given everything that’s going on in politics, everything that’s going on in the country right now, and in the world, is what does it mean to be a patriot? And what does it mean to be a patriotic American?

The idea that we’re living in a very divided country right now; I kind of want to dissect in a one-man show. What are sort of the most divisive topics that are dividing the country right now and sort of dissect that. I think the one-man show allows me to use evidence. I can show evidence. I can play clips. I can show tear outs from things. So, the next show will be less personal but it will still have my comedic take on everything.

You’ve got a front row seat to the divisiveness in the world right now with The Daily Show. In your act and in your comedy, how do you try to reach the kind of unreachable 40% that just seems to be Donald Trump’s rock bottom number? How do you reach those people and how do you not give up on that?

It’s interesting, a show like Homecoming King, to me, is a bait and switch. It’s like, if we want to talk about race and identity in America, instead of me pointing at somebody and being like “I think racism is a problem in America…” people are like, “Jesus Christ man, I’m just trying to go to work, take my kids to school, and just live our life.” If I were to actually show the story of Hasan Minhaj trying to go to prom with Bethany Reed, I’d be like, that’s the problem. Why is it that in 2017, 2017 Hasan Minhaj ostensibly can’t go to prom with 2017 Bethany Reed?

That, to me, effects your day to day life as you’re driving your kids to school and dropping them off because your son and daughters are going to school with Hasan Minhaj or Bethany Reed and they’re dealing with those same issues. So, instead of this long Medium article about privilege and people’s place, race, and identity, I’m like “no, this is a practical story that’s really my story where rubber meets the road.” You can’t hide behind esoteric Facebook news articles or statistics. It’s a real thing that happened and you can’t deny it.

To me, if that hard 40% that you’re referring to, that rock bottom 40%… I think that if both sides heard each other’s stories, I think we’d be able to find a clearer version of the truth than just arguing with each other via the Facebook news feed. I would hope.

With the White House correspondent’s dinner, you joked there that you were told to not go too heavy after Trump. Was that true? Were you told to kind of keep hands off a little bit?

Yeah, so yeah I was told that. You know what’s funny is when I was doing the joke on stage, “I promise you this is my last joke, my last Trump joke, believe me… I was told not to make fun of the president” and he goes “I didn’t say that, I didn’t say that.” I feel bad. Jeff [Mason, White House Correspondents Association President] was put in kind of a bad position. but if you read the original press release of when Hasan Minhaj was announced to host the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, the press release Jeff Mason had was we chose a comedian who would not roast the president in absentia. That was straight up in the press release.

I’ve been asked this question a lot. Here it says right here, “speaking on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Mason said he, ‘was not looking for somebody who was going to roast the president in absentia, that’s not fair and that’s not the message that we want to get across.'” This is on MSNBC Morning Joe, this was when I was announced as the comedian. That was something that was reiterated to me. Hey, don’t go after the president. The last thing we want to do is have you go super hard on them and then have them feel, “Oh man, we shouldn’t have showed up. It’s a good move we didn’t show up.”

To me, again, the real choice and the irony was that hey, this whole event is about honoring the first amendment and the one guy who’s privileged enough to tweet whatever enters his head doesn’t want to come to a dinner that honors the very amendment that allows him to do it. That to me is the great hypocrisy that I would be remiss if I didn’t point that out.

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I really liked the media criticism that you doled out at The White House Correspondents Dinner. I just watched your last segment on The Daily Show on how the mainstream media gives Trump too much ammunition. Have they learned anything from during the election to now in how to cover Trump? Everything is still a thing. I feel like we’re kind of losing our sense of scope when there’s a flip out over two scoops of ice cream at the same level as other things. It just seems weird.

In a thousand point font in the chyron. Yeah, there’s a problem, you know? “Trump: Two Scoops Of Ice Cream, Everyone Else: One.” This is like the leading chyron for several hours on CNN. I think that it’s one of those things where even Jon [Stewart] touched on this on his iteration of The Daily Show. The 24-hour news cycle is this continuous high where you need to keep re-upping. So, if you have breaking news, to then have the same urgency and need to tune in again, you have to have breaking, breaking news to break the previous breaking news. You need a countdown clock to the next countdown clock. They need to create this sense of urgency.

One of the things that I truly feel is that, yeah, we are losing sight of scope. Every day, we’re sort of scratching at headlines to try to grab people’s attention. I actually wish there was less width with the story and more depth. In other words, it’s like “Hey, let’s take a minute, see how things shake up” and then try to provide some sort of contextual analysis that connects dots to what this means in relation to what’s happened in the past and where things could go in the future, but that takes time. I think it requires a little bit of patience. I think it’s missing from the current 24-hour news cycle and I think it’s because the news has to be on air for 24 hours.

It kind of feels like over the last 15 years, the media has also been kind of chasing that Daily Show effect and there’s a challenge in trying to convince them to break away from the snark thing that you mentioned on the show. Like, they need to realize that they’re not you guys. I think it’s very hard for some people to perceive that line between what the Daily Show is and what CNN needs to be.

That line is getting really, really murky and it’s because also journalists are now becoming personalities. It’s that fine line between “Hey put your POV into the top of a news segment… or not.” The piece that you saw on The Daily Show where we talked about snark, there was another element of it where there was a thought that we ended up cutting. It was a collection of clips where different anchors were kind of doing spoken word at the top of segments, “riddle me this, riddle me that, some would say when is Trump going to release his tax returns?” It was like these haikus and these sort of snarky poems that very clearly show “Whether I’m making it clear or not, I’m definitely shitting on the president right now but you can clearly see my partisanship and where that lies”… which, look, I understand. We are living in a time where people feel very passionate about their political beliefs but it’s like the extent to which that’s going to affect your story which is supposed to be just objective fact, fact, fact, fact, fact and then we the viewer make our opinion based on that — that’s starting to diminish significantly.

I don’t really know what the solution is unfortunately. Sorry that I made it a little bit about Trump. I kind of veered off. Hard to avoid.

No, no. No worries.

The special was really good, I was really impressed by it.

I hope people enjoy it. I hope it starts a conversation, honestly. I hope people share it with loved ones and friends. At the very least, I hope it helps people talk about situations in their lives where they’ve been worried about what people will think. Hopefully, people talk about it in their homes and in their communities. I think the story’s really grounded in that and I think that’s powerful. Especially in the crazy time that we’re living in.

It would be good if we could flip a few folks with that “Bethany’s parents” mindset. That kind of smiling racism, essentially.

It’s just a fear thing. I talk about it even in the show in regards to my family with me getting married. It’s just a fear of what you don’t know, what you don’t understand. The thing that was so cool to me about it and you can’t write… sometimes life writes better endings than you can. I don’t want to give away the ending, but Bethany’s ending to me, and the way her life ended up, to me that gives me more hope that people genuinely do have the potential for change and understanding, which I think is awesome.

Homecoming King is streaming now on Netflix.