Q&A: Hasan Minhaj
POSTEDFebruary 15, 2018
Hasan Minhaj is a comedian known for his role as a senior correspondent on “The Daily Show” and his critically acclaimed Netflix special “Homecoming King.” The special involves his experiences growing up as an Indian-American Muslim in the United States and being subject to bullying and racism in his school years.
The Mercury had a chance to talk to Minhaj when he visited UTD for the SUAAB event, “An Evening with Hasan Minhaj,” on Feb. 8, and discussed his comedic process, opinions on the current political climate and upcoming projects.
Q: How did your experiences as an Indian Muslim in America change from when you were in high school to when you were in college?
A: I was in high school when 9/11 happened, when there was a big turning point for Muslim-Americans, where we were minorities in the country, but that really sort of put a target on our backs as enemies of the country. So radical Islamic terrorism became a thing that was a huge symbolic and sort of reality that happened because of what happened to the Twin Towers. For me, being 16 or 17 when that happened was a big changing point for me to go, “What is my place in America? Where do I belong?” And I really, really struggled with sort of finding my identity and where do I belong in the country, in a country that currently sort of views us in a certain way and how do I navigate this thing called the American Dream? And that really got me sort of interested, as I delved into comedy in college, into talking about kind of identity and where do I belong, ideas like civil liberties and stuff like that. As I started to develop my comedic voice in college, I just started to dig deeper and deeper into that, and sort of continue to evolve from there. I feel like I’m still continuing to evolve and figure out my voice.
Q: For our readers who aren’t aware, what exactly is your role on “The Daily Show?”
A: I’m a senior correspondent on “The Daily Show.” If you haven’t seen “The Daily Show,” basically we have a host, he’s from South Africa, his name is Trevor Noah, he’s very handsome, he has very beautiful dimples. You guys get to see him in 1080p, I get to see him in real life, he’s behind the desk, he’s the host. Correspondents serve similar to what you see on the news when they go to live on-location or when they bring in a correspondent to report on an issue. So kind of like real correspondents on news shows, I’m a fake correspondent on a fake news show, which is really, really interesting and fun. I usually come in and report on a specific issue or topic or story.
Q: In your skits on the show, how do you manage to appeal to such a diverse group of people with different ideals? How do you walk that fine line between comedy and a PSA?
A: Yeah, that’s really tough. For me, I really fell into comedy. I was a speech and debate kid, and comedy to me, when I started watching the Richard Pryor’s and I watched the George Carlin’s, and I got to see really, really great stand-up comedians, I was like, “Oh, they’re just doing funny speech and debate.” They’re still presenting an argument, they’re just doing it in a funny way. And so I usually try to just figure out what’s the argument first, and then just lace it with jokes, which can be fun. It’s like a game, it’s a like puzzle, which can be really fun.
Q: What’s it like to work with industry giants like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert?
A: It’s really fun. It’s really cool, you know what it’s like, as a Padawan getting to watch Jedi use their lightsabers, you’re like, “Whoa, one day I hope I can wield a lightsaber like that,” and they’re like, “Not yet.” But it’s really cool, they’re really encouraging, and one of the best pieces of advice that I got from Jon is actually a lot of non-advice. Just encouragement to keep going and to organically find your voice and stumble and fall, but what you get from that is that it really builds your confidence and it sort of builds your own autonomy like, “No, no, no, I can do this, I can figure this out.” And so what’s great about them is they give you a chance and then they just let you run, which is really, really cool.
Q: What do you think about how the election of President Trump has brought increased attention to political affairs in the news?
A: I think what’s cool, the orange lining to all this stuff has been, political culture is now popular culture. I remember being at the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention and, irrespective of your partisanship, what was really, really interesting to see was that all news outlets were there. E! News was there, Bravo was there, VH1 was there. What’s happening now is that the entire media landscape is covering the political process. And so I consider myself to be an angry optimist and I’m like, “This is a good thing.” Whether you’re happy or unhappy about the state of the country, at least what’s happening right now is that we’re having the discussion, and at least a lot of people are trying to engage with the issues. I’m sure everybody’s frustrated, but at least we’re all at the table presenting our ideas and saying, “This is where I think this is right, this is where I think this is wrong,” and I think that’s a lot better than just everyone being like, “No, I don’t really care about politics, Game of Thrones is on.”
Q: Despite your successes, especially with “Homecoming King,” which got critical acclaim, do you still experience Islamophobia in your everyday life?
A: I’m lucky, but it’s also sad, so I’m lucky in the sense that, I think a lot of times when people become successful – and this happens to a lot of minorities – you gentrify yourself out of your race, you become one of the good ones. I’ve been able to be in situations where people say bad things about Muslims, but they’ll go, “But you’re one of the good ones, you’re now a celebrity, so you’re not like those other people,” and that’s really disappointing. One of the things that I try to do, that I hope to do with my art, is to provide inspiration and opportunity at scale so that there are more writers, performers, executives, people that are entering that room to change the conversation, so that I don’t become the exception, it becomes the rule. That that table where the decisions are made is diverse, like the room here, it’s different people from different walks of life, different genders all coming to the table saying, “These are my ideas and these are your ideas, let’s hash this out.”
Q: Why did you decide to visit college students?
A: To me, what’s cool is universities are the perfect intersection, I think of both, in terms of the subject matter of what I’m talking about in my show, of both sort of, education, statistics, all of that stuff, coupled with people that are politically savvy and aware. It’s both of those things, people in college are taking all of those classes, doing case studies, Venn diagrams, et. cetera. At universities, that’s what people have to take as prerequisites, and I found that people in college are being exposed to the most diversity, than you probably think, in your life. That window, you’re just exposed to a swath of different types of people from different walks of life, so to me, doing a university tour is really, really interesting to me because of that exact reason, versus going to a comedy club, where people are like, “Dude, I just wanna get hammered,” and “Tell me jokes about relationships,” you know? Like, “Just be funny,” so universities are really great because it’s that perfect sort of Venn diagram.
Q: You use your platform to raise awareness for minority struggles and social justice, so what advice do you have for college students who have been at the forefront of activist movements?
A: I think it’s great, I consider myself to just be a curious person. In the show that you guys saw, there were clear questions that I was asking, like, “How likely are you to die from foreign terrorism?” Because I basically see the debate, I see people arguing on Facebook and I go, “Okay, what’s the crux of the question?” Or, “Does Islam have a monopoly on extremism? Why does the (Countering Violent Extremism Task Force) exist and criminalize one community in the exception of all others?” And then answer that, and so it really starts for me from a place of curiosity, so my advice to people is to just stay curious. It doesn’t have to be about politics, but to just stay curious in general, and to continue to ask yourself that question and let that inform your art or the stories that you write.
Q: What advice do you have for UTD students who might be wanting to get into the entertainment industry?
A: I would say start now, start young, don’t be afraid to fail, and here’s the thing, you’re playing the long game. No matter what you want to do, you’re trying to do this for the rest of your career. I met someone who was like, “I want to be the next Oprah,” and I was like, “That is so awesome.” Oprah’s been in the game for decades, and if you were to ask Oprah, she still has decades to go. I remember being in college, really, really worrying about, “Man, if I don’t accomplish this within two years, I’m a failure, if I don’t accomplish this within four years, I’m a failure, if I’m not here by 10 years, I’m a complete failure.” And what I realized is that my journey is really specific and unique, and more importantly, I’m trying to do this for the rest of my life, you know, like Dick Gregory, who’s an amazing comedian, he’s a legendary comedian. He passed away, I think at 84, and he was performing at Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York City, he was set to perform there weeks before he died. And to me, that was so inspiring that this dude, at 84, is still doing what I was doing. Just getting onstage, mic stand, audience, “Hey, here’s my new stuff.” And I really thought to myself, “I’m 32, man if I could be so lucky to have that curiosity and passion to continue doing that for another five decades, that would be really, really cool.” That’s the game that I’m trying to play myself, and hopefully, I think that if young artists feel that way, I think that’s the right mentality to have.
Q: While you were at UC Davis, you majored in political science but ended up doing comedy. Why did you initially choose that major? What was your plan going into college?
A: I failed out of pre-med and I just couldn’t get it done. I wasn’t good enough at it, it’s really embarrassing. But look, it wasn’t my strength, and I think that was a really amazing lesson for me, was that, “Dude, that’s not you.” You’ve got to play to your strengths, and I was far better at reading political science and philosophy and writing and presenting arguments and performing. Actually taking the stuff that I’m reading, contextualizing it, boiling it down, almost, if that’s coffee, boiling it down into espresso, and then conveying that onstage. That’s really what comedy is, you reduce things into their core essence, and that’s what I ended up doing in political science, it was just I had to pivot into something that was more my strength.
Q: Do you edit or change your sets in any way based on the demographic, especially for college students?
A: No, the only thing I edit or change is if I’m going overseas and they don’t have a certain thing. Like I was doing a show in London and they don’t have Seamless or GrubHub, so I was like “What do you guys have here?” and they’re like “Deliveroo,” and I’m like OK fine, Deliveroo, but other than that, no. I always respect the audience and I don’t disrespect their intelligence. I think that’s really, really insulting to think that you guys wouldn’t get this. Audiences are as smart, if not smarter than you think.
Q: Do you have any future projects you’re working on?
A: Yeah, I mean, what you guys saw is kind of the beginning of what I think sort of the next stuff, the next sort of, “I’m still figuring out what format should I do this in,” but again, this is the fun part of being a creative person. I feel like with “Homecoming King,” that was a really, really cool autobiographical story, of “This is who I am and this is what happened to me that got me to where I am today,” and I think with the next project that I’m sort of working on is all right – you know who I am, but what is my take or position on certain issues in the world? And now it’s about figuring out what’s the best way to put that into something – is that a special, is that a miniseries, is that a documentary? What exact setting? So that’s really what I’m trying to figure out, is, what’s the best way to deliver this sort of form of storytelling?