Hasan Minhaj on the joy of making "Patriot Act" and keeping the political personal

Salon talks to the Netflix host about mining comedy from cultural events while keeping his paradigm personal

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 2, 2018 3:30PM (EST)

Hasan Minhaj (Mark Seliger/Netflix)
Hasan Minhaj (Mark Seliger/Netflix)

The next time you tune in to an episode of Netflix's "Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj," look closely at the title sequence. It's only a few seconds long, but it tells you everything you need to know about how the host views the world.

Our first sight is of Minhaj's head and shoulders in silhouette, viewed as if we're standing directly behind him. Together, viewer and star watch the world around us turn unpredictably: The scene changes from an illustration of a polling place, to a protest, to the packed stands of a stadium as a illustrated crowd roars at soccer players on a field.

All the while, the light increases on Minhaj's face until, by the end, he's facing us from the back of a press pen. As figures with microphones and cameras surround a man raising his hand at them from behind a desk, Minhaj is now facing the audience, wearing an expression of — confusion? Fright? All of those things.

"Patriot Act" airs its seventh installment of a 32-episode order on Sunday, and thus far it has demonstrated a consistency few topical comedy series nail so early into their runs. It's not as if Minhaj is new at this, of course. Prior to securing his Netflix series, he spent four years as a senior correspondent at "The Daily Show" and created an off-Broadway show called "Homecoming King," which debuted on Netflix in 2017 and went on to win a Peabody.

Those two experiences inform the approach of "Patriot Act" in ways that make it distinct among politically-driven comedies, a genre which Minhaj himself jokes is already amply populated. But no other series benefits from the perspective that Minhaj and his purposefully inclusive writers bring to this space.

A child of immigrants from India and a Muslim, the comedian and storyteller brings a passionately personal take to the topics he covers while also conveying a perspective of someone who feels, as that intro credits sequence portrays, as much inside of a culture as he does apart from it.

"I am an American citizen. I was born here," Minhaj told Salon in a recent phone interview. "But because of my identity I've oftentimes felt that like, no, you're not a real real American. And that pressure, that sort of dichotomy of being both at times can be frustrating. But it makes for great comedy because there's pressure and tension."

New episodes of "Patriot Act" debut on Sundays, but unlike other weekly headline-inspired comedy series, Minhaj prefers diving into more evergreen issues.

Sure, the most recent episode on "Immigration Enforcement" gained attention because of its found footage of Stephen Miller, Donald Trump's white nationalism whisperer, from his high school and college days. (Even back then, Miller couldn't get dates and his hairline was receding.) But as we know, and as Minhaj's points out, immigration enforcement is an ongoing concern.

Besides, if you're not in the mood to watch him take that on, you can check out his entire episode on hype as demonstrated by the exclusive Supreme streetwear label. Or you can jump into his breakdown of Amazon, including a side-splitting spoof of an old Amazon holiday commercial.

"One of the things that I really wanted to lean into is people go to Netflix because the content exists outside of time itself. No one's doing appointment viewing with this type of content, at least on Netflix," Minhaj said. "So what if we were to strip at every unnecessary thing away, like that takes you away from the story itself? A lot of traditional shows will come out with a little bit of sort of banter and a monologue that's like 'Hey, did you hear what happened this week?. . .' For me, I was like, let's get right into it and put the steak up top. And then you know, give you the Act 2, the appetizer, the dessert later.

"We lead with the steak," he added, "because I know people are going to be watching this week, or three weeks from now."

In our conversation, in addition to talking about other ways he wanted to make "Patriot Act" aesthetically distinct from other political comedy talk shows, Minhaj discussed what the diversity of his writers' room brings to "Patriot Act," how he finds a way to laugh even as he discusses serious topics, and his navigation of what he calls the push-and-pull between pragmatism and optimism.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

One element that distinguishes "Patriot Act" from topical comedy series is that it actually gets rid of the prescribed format that has dominated the talk variety space. That is, having a host sitting behind a desk or backed by a team. So tell me about how you came to the decision to buck that format.

Where I really was beta testing this whole concept or idea was "Homecoming King," when we took it from off-Broadway to then Netflix, to seed it as a special. Marc Janowitz, who is this amazing [production and set] designer, came up with this beautiful geometric LED stage where there were these huge pallets, whatever.

There was this main digital chalkboard behind me, and there were these side sheets of panels with other pieces of information or thematic stuff can be shown. And part of me was like, Is this going to be too overwhelming? Are people going to think that like, "Am I at an EDM show? I'm here to like watch, you know, Hasan tell stories, but now it's getting crazy."

But it worked. It clicked. And people really dug the special. And when I saw that, and I saw the way people were watching it, I said. . . If I were to do a show, I could use the entire space.

So Marc and I just kept expanding on that idea. We still had that main sort of screen, but then before it was also screen the side pallet with different pieces of information, thematic information depending on where we are in the headline piece. That was a huge just creative inflection point for me.

And I remember people using that stage design. It became like this noun, or even a verb. "Oh, you're doing like the 'Homecoming King.'" Or, "Your going to 'Homecoming King' it." And I thought it was really cool. It was this new visual language that Marc and I created.

When I first wrote about the show, about three episodes into this season, a lot of the topics seemed like they were of personal interest to you. That's different, I think, than a lot of shows in this space, which are very much headline driven. That adds a unique passion to what you're doing, but you also have 32 episodes to fill. Given the production demands, do you that you're going to have to move away from that personal emphasis at some point? How do you think you'll be able to maintain that balance of choosing issues that strike close to home but are universal in appeal?

I never want to turn away from that idea of what the thing is that that keeps you up at night about this, or what interests you or what sort of scratches or piques your interest, personally. I remember that was the best thing about working with Jon [Stewart] and seeing him, especially in his last couple of years at "The Daily Show." My favorite episodes were whenever he was in an Act 1 and he came into that 9:15 a.m. meeting with a head full of steam. And that so clearly translated from that 9:15 a.m. meeting to the 6:30 p.m. taping. The audience could notice it. They could see it. They could see, oh, he really does care about these things.

We're getting all these stories pitched to us. But then when I get that big dossier, I really think, what is my connection to this? And some of those things can hit me from a very personal identity standpoint — like immigration enforcement and everything that's been said about birthright citizenship, to something that's happening that we're talking about this week with all the Facebook stuff.

I'm a child of the Internet. I remember what it represented when we got our first computer in 1995. And now it feels like with social media, for it going from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, it has become this public utility that can change the world whether you decide to opt in or opt out. That's terrifying for me. Because I remember my dad getting us our first computer and getting us on the Internet. And now I have a daughter and I'm like, I cannot have her be on the Internet. That's where all the crazy stuff happens. And it's this interesting sort of thing: I've always tried to interject myself and say, OK, if I'm going to share this with the audience, it has to be special or important to me.

Is that what you're covering this week, social media's incursion into culture?

Content moderation and free speech. With everything that's happening right now with Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, it's about that. Who is responsible here? Who should be held accountable? Facebook is as big as Christianity. It's bigger than Hinduism and Islam. It has over 2 billion members. It is a huge behemoth. And I feel like our show, we have the runway room to talk about it.

I spoke with Trevor Noah a couple of weeks ago and one of the things that we talked about is that he's in this new, unique position in that he has citizenship in a different country, but he works here and he talks about the political and cultural landscape here. And of course, the other day there was the viral clip that circulated in which he was saying that the Second Amendment is not for black people. He has this perspective that both relates to African Americans like myself, but also has this internationalist view.

 You and he are the two people in this space who have this ability to speak to these issues in a way that's different from a person outside of such an experience, like a white person looking at these issues and saying, "We can see happening and it's not right."

For example, you talked about the fact that the issue birthright citizenship hits you close to home, obviously.


I know that you have a very inclusive staff as well. So when you're looking at these topics that you're connected with very personally, when they come up in the weekly news cycle, how often do you say, OK, we have to talk about this? And how often do you decided to wait for a little bit on these stories? Do you hold them aside, or do you just go for it with, as you say, a head full of steam?

For us, really, it's about the story itself. And is the story take, and argument, is it ready? You know, we had been working on the affirmative action piece for a long time. It was one of the first pieces that Prashanth [Venkataramanujam, co-creator and head writer] and I had written going into even week one of the writers' room. But I knew that it's going to take time before it gets into federal court. And coincidentally enough it started going to federal court in October, which was timed out perfectly. It's right when the show launched. But we'd also written an MBS headline piece very early on and it was built just around his American charm offensive, when he was coming here and having coffee, you know, hanging out with Oprah and getting Starbucks with Michael Bloomberg.

I remember seeing this and being like, what is going on? You would never do this with [Philippines president Rodrigo] Duterte. You're not just going, you know, laser tagging with [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan. Why are we doing this? What's happening?

And I wanted to sort of analyze that. It got hit into hyperdrive, unfortunately, because of the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist. So for me it's always about, OK, get the story ready that you are really, really passionate about and that our news team has done killer research on. But if it's not airtight, we've had to kill pieces. There have been things where that piece of information or that source, that argument or take, is a little weak. And we've collectively decided we can't press publish on this because these really are these 22- to 24-minute essays. I just want them to be factually, argumentatively airtight.

The thing that I really take pride in is our staff.  There's so many amazing writers and journalists of color that have come from previous news organizations, whether it's The New York Times or Vice or the Associated Press. And one of the first things I asked them in their interview was: What is the story that you, as a woman of color, or as a queer person, you were never able to tell at your former place? That you've been dying to tell? Because I've felt this way too before, where you're trying to do the best you can to fit in at the job. And now you have this opportunity. What story would you like to tell?

And some of those stories have made it into [the show]. That's what I'm most passionate about. And a lot of the stuff our staff brings to the table, and I like to bring into the show, is this insider/outsider feeling. And I think makes for really great comedy.

About that: one of the things makes helming a show like this a little more difficult than a lot of topical comedy hosts working right now — you know, John Oliver does it, Stephen Colbert did it with "The Colbert Report" — is that you are on your own on that stage for nearly 30 minutes straight. And really it's more difficult because, you know, Colbert got commercial breaks. John gets interstitial breaks. So given that circumstance, how are you able to maintain your energy throughout each episode? And when I say energy I'm not referring to your, um, "get up and go," but an attitude that conveys the seriousness of the subject, while at times break in with comedy riffs? That's a tough balancing act.

I know this sounds corny, but it's my joy. It's the funnest part of the week. We spend months researching — I can't tell you what kind of time we spend, we spend so long, like it is so hard for the show! I joke about this all the time with everybody: people will sometimes see me in the street and be like, "I love what you did with ["Queer Eye" fashion specialist] Tan France!" And I'm like, I loved him too, but I just went shopping with him. And we just hung out. And that clip went viral.

Do you know how hard we had to work on content moderation? Weeks! We're pining over the script, every single line, we're fact-checking. I'm going to the news team. We're creating hundreds of assets for every headline.

So by the time [the taping] rolls around and I hear that music and I jump onto that stage in front of the audience, it really feels like a celebration. It's fun. And one of the things that I like doing is, yeah, I can be in comedy book report mode, but there is this joy to sometimes breaking out of it and being like, "This is really fun." I love that I can do, you know, this really, really specific deep dive on this very specific piece of legislation, but then also make an Antoine Walker joke that just makes me laugh, you know? And that's cool to me. So it really is my joy. And look, I came from storytelling onstage. So, yeah. It's just fun for me. It's the funnest part of week.

You even find a way to laugh when you're handling a serious topic. I mean there's a week where you took on Supreme where you could just tell that you're like, "This is the best!" And it was hilarious. And then the next week you're kicking off the episode with, "I know last week we did this really lighthearted piece, but now we're going switch over to something very serious." It's not easy to earn a few laughs while keeping the audience engaged in the seriousness of a topic you're covering.

I also think all performers or writers — you know this — there are different sides to us. There is the silly side of us, there's the serious side of us, there's the poignant side, the thoughtful side. I just want people to see all those sides of me. Because they exist. And these shows, they really are personality driven shows. As a kid when I was growing up and I was watching Arsenio, or when I've watched Sam Bee now, or Trevor or Steven — anybody — you are there to see their personality and who they are. And any time you feel like you're really authentically there with them, that's where the magic happens. That's where you really feel, I think, satisfied as an audience member.

Do you see this space — not just topical comedy, but the comedy space — do you see it getting more inclusive these days?

OK. So this is my take. Now in hindsight and now that I'm older, it is one of the best push-and-pull arguments that I've had with my father, but I learned a lot from it. The argument that I have with my dad all the time — you know, my father is an immigrant to this country and I'm a child of immigrants — there's a push-and-pull that both immigrant parents or their children have, which is this difference between pragmatism and optimism.

My dad is very pragmatic: The world isn't going to change, so you have to have full 100,000 percent accountability for what you do. And I have this optimism that, no, we can change these things. We just have to make choices and sometimes you have to be brave and push back on things.

And I understand now that I'm older, there are times for both. So when it comes to changing Hollywood or show business and making it more inclusive, there are times where I do think the external pressures of what we're doing through social media and through people really creating movements online is important. It really is important, because people will wake up and see, oh, this is a thing now. A lot of people are talking about it. The digital world is now impacting the real world.

But then there's also this real pragmatic side where writers and artists, when they are pitching stories to their editors, or when I'm writing a piece and we are pitching it to a network, we have to delve into new territory and say, yeah, I know nobody's done this before. Yeah, I know it's not the norm. But I'm not counting on anybody else. I'm doing this myself because it has to be done.

And I swing between those two. There are times where it's like, yeah, I think that collectively we will cause change. And then there's times where I'm like, no, there hasn't been enough. I have to trailblaze and do this on my own. And I'm not going to complain to anybody, I'm not going to write a blog post about it. We're just going to do it. And I think when you have both of those things working in conjunction, I think it can be a stepping stone to the next thing. I'm really excited about the next wave of artists that are going to come in that are even more nuanced, complicated and detailed than my current generation. That's exciting to me.

Last question: One of the things that you said earlier was that when you hire people, you ask about the stories they haven't been able to tell. So I'm going to turn that back to you: What is the story that you haven't been able to tell yet, that you perhaps look forward to telling on "Patriot Act"?

OK. So I cannot give this away, but I'll put it this way. There are two stories that I've been sitting on, that I've been waiting on, that I've had a lot of pressure from loved ones, family members, people who have told me, "This is a very, very touchy topic. Please be careful if you're going to get into it." I've been extremely passionate about it and we have been scrubbing the research dossier and everything for a long time. I can't give it away, but we are doing it at the top of cycle 2. And I'm really, really excited and scared to do it. But I think that's where really great comedy is.

I can't give it away. But what does excite me is as we finish Cycle 1 here, and we're getting ready for working dark for Cycle 2 , is that the first two when we come back are really, really two stories I'm extremely passionate about.

When you say the top of Cycle 2, what is that in layman's terms? What's the episode number?

That will be in February and it'll be considered episode 201. Just like certain weekly shows they'll be on for eight to ten weeks at a time, we'll go dark for a little bit to refuel the engine and then come back again. So that's the next cycle.

Thank you so much. This has been wonderful.

Can I say one thing? And this is really important.

I've thought about this long and hard as a creative and someone who is trying to climb the ranks and use any sort of opportunity they have to really, really authentically tell stories that haven't been told before.

I've felt this frustration — I don't know if you've felt this, but I feel like there are two things, as writers and as performers, we are definitely looking for to have our stories be told. Number one is capital. And number two is distribution. That also does touch back onto the pragmatism and optimism thing, where there have been times where I've really pragmatically thought about it. What do I need to do pragmatically to see this through?

I remember we wanted to shoot a proof of concept for "Patriot Act." And it was one of those things where I wanted it to look a certain way.

So I toured a bunch colleges, and saved up all this money. Prashanth and I, we did the proof of concept ourselves. It was a Vimeo link and a dream. But then there's also that other part where it's like, oh wow, still, even though I had done that, I still have to count on somebody else for distribution.

To me, I certainly hope that the real change will happen when we have people in power, whether that's women of color, people of color, people of diverse backgrounds, that help control both capital and distribution. And I think we're starting to see that. I've even talked to some journalist friends of mine and they're saying some of the new editors for magazines and stuff are starting to be reflections of who we are, and share our same backgrounds and identities. Which means the future stories that we see are going to be more diverse and inclusive, which is cool. And that's exciting to me.

That's my long term goal. I want to be able to figure out how do we have more control over those two things.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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