Standing on the set of his new Netflix series, Patriot Act, one evening earlier this month, Hasan Minhaj asked his studio audience if they had any questions about what they were about to see. He knew that his stage, an immense digital screen encircling the diamond-shape platform he was standing on, was a bit of a technological monstrosity — “it’s like if Michael Bay directed a PowerPoint presentation,” he joked to the crowd — and so some clarification might be required.
Sure enough, someone asked: “What is it?”
Minhaj, 33, a lean, energetic stand-up and a recent alumnus of The Daily Show, explained that Patriot Act was a project he had been developing for more than two years.
Before the success of his stand-up special Homecoming King and his incisive turn as host of the 2017 White House Correspondents Dinner, he said he’d already been thinking about applying his comedic style to news stories that weren’t necessarily at the centre of everyone’s attention, in a format that didn’t look like another cookie-cutter late-night comedy.
The test show that Minhaj was about to perform — a 24-minute monologue about the role of Asian-Americans in reshaping affirmative action, and a 10-minute piece about digital security in Estonia — could very well end up looking like a “woke TED Talk,” he said.
"I have no desire to be the 19th hyena jumping on the carcass. Do I have something of value to add? Then let’s do it."
— Hasan Minhaj
Good or bad, it was the show he always wanted to make and “I’m going to give you everything I have,” Minhaj said.
He added, “Culturally, for us, I think we need something like this.”
“We” here could mean the racially diverse group that had come to see Minhaj, who often talks in his act about his identity as a Muslim and a child of Indian immigrant parents. It could refer to the demographic of viewers in their 20s and 30s that Netflix would love to see him bring to the streaming service. Or it might be anyone who has tired of Daily Show clones and is eager for anything even slightly different.
If the post-Jon Stewart era of television once looked like a potential paradise for any host with a political perspective and a few zingers about the Trump administration, it is now a battlefield littered with casualties.
While hosts with established identities — sharp wits like Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee, or John Oliver and Seth Meyers, known for their long, researched takedowns — have become increasingly entrenched, newer entrants have stumbled. In two years, Comedy Central has cancelled two 11.30pm programmes intended as companions for The Daily Show: The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore and The Opposition With Jordan Klepper. BET gave only one season to its late-night series The Rundown With Robin Thede.
Netflix, despite its rapid expansion in other traditional TV categories, has struggled to create this kind of appointment viewing. Last year, it cancelled its first high-profile attempt at a topical talk show, Chelsea, hosted by Chelsea Handler, and this past August, it lowered the boom on two weekly programmes, The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale, which debuted in February, and The Break With Michelle Wolf, which started in May.
On paper, Minhaj is very much a grown-up: a husband of three years to his wife, Beena, a management consultant, and father to their daughter, who was born in March. But in person, he has a childlike buoyancy, kept aloft by his lifelong loves of hip hop and professional basketball and his occasional tendency to talk like an internet meme come to life. He’ll say aloud a phrase like “tools, clear history” when he means he’s trying to put something out of his mind.
In late 2014, he was hired as a Daily Show correspondent. Only a few months later, Stewart announced his departure from the programme. Minhaj said he couldn’t forget his admired boss’ explanation for why he was leaving: “Jon was like, ‘I’ve manipulated this chess piece in every single way I could. There’s no further place that I can take it.’” The message to Minhaj was clear, even then, that he had to start thinking about his own next moves.
When Trevor Noah took over at The Daily Show, Minhaj was seen as something of a curiosity there. “Hasan was intrinsically different from all of the caricatures and archetypes of what Daily Show correspondents had been,” Noah told me. “He wasn’t snide, he wasn’t sarcastic — he was just a different person.”
His breakout opportunities arrived elsewhere. First was his one-man show, Homecoming King, which he started performing live in 2014 and released as a Netflix special last year. It is his exuberant recitation of his origin story, of learning the ropes from his father (while his mother studied at medical school in India) and confronting bias and bigotry in America.
Homecoming King also established a signature visual style for Minhaj’s stage show, full of vivid digital graphics and screencaps from social media. It led to his invitation to host the White House Correspondents Dinner at perhaps the worst possible moment, when President Donald Trump had already announced he would not attend, media organisations were questioning whether the event should even go forward and Minhaj said he knew the gig was “radioactive.”
Minhaj knew that he’d been underestimated and he used this to his advantage. He delivered a stirring routine that was less a taunting of Trump officials than a reminder to the journalists watching of the weighty responsibility facing them.
When Netflix pursued him, in the afterglow of the White House Correspondents Dinner, to create a series for them, Minhaj had a very clear sense of what he didn’t want to do.
If he didn’t assert himself and find his own approach, he said, “I was going to be in a suit, behind a desk, in front of a fake city skyline, and people would be, like, ‘Oh, it’s Indian John Oliver.’”
The news stories he should focus on, Minhaj said, were the ones in which he felt some sense of personal investment. “Not, do I have a take?” he said. “But do I have the best take? I have no desire to be the 19th hyena jumping on the carcass. Do I have something of value to add? Then let’s do it.”
Minhaj’s comedy peers believe that he has as good a shot as anyone at finding a new approach to this well-worn genre. But no one is in denial about the challenges he faces, either.
“You never know what’s going to hit and what’s not going to,” Jon Stewart said, but when it came to Minhaj, “I’d buy that raffle ticket any day of the week.”
Though other recent shows with promising hosts had been short-lived, Stewart said, “I don’t think it says anything about the talent of the individuals. If you told me, ‘I’m going to let Jordan Klepper or Robin Thede or Michelle Wolf do what they do,’ I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that’s a smart choice.’”
Minhaj said he was determined that Patriot Act not come out of the gate looking like “this open mic that Netflix is paying for as we figure it out.” He could still remember the day he learned that Wolf’s and McHale’s shows were both cancelled and how it ratcheted up the pressure on his project.
As he recalled it, “Prashanth [Venkataramanujam, a fellow comedian and longtime friend] walked into my office and he could see that I was definitely stressed. He goes, ‘Remember, this is how you felt during the correspondents dinner.’ It’s this massive question mark — what is going to happen?”
Don’t miss it!
Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj streams on Netflix from October 28.