Hasan Minhaj is having quite the year. Back in April, the comedian and Daily Show correspondent was the featured performer at the prestigious White House Correspondents Dinner. Now, he has a new Netflix special called Homecoming King, out today.
The special is based on his one-man show of the same name, which he’s been performing live and refining for years now. Homecoming King’s central story is about a girl in high school whose parents forbade from going with Minhaj to prom because he wasn’t white. We spoke to him about that experience, as well as his WHCD evening, political humor in general, and the life of a Muslim comic in Trump’s America.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Give us a little background on how the show came together.
HASAN MINHAJ: I’ve been working on it for about three years or so and it was kind of a long time coming…. I’d been doing standup comedy for years; I was living in L.A. at that time and I actually got invited to do a Moth story slam where they wanted a bunch of comedians to tell true stories about their lives. They didn’t have to be funny, but the theme was love and heartbreak.
So I told this story of my first love and my first heartbreak and Catherine Burns, the creative director of The Moth, saw it and was like, ‘Oh my god, that is incredible. What ended up happening to you and this girl back in high school?’ She started helping me flush it out and then I met with my director, who helped me sort of build it out into this bigger show. And then eventually I got hired to work at The Daily Show, so I brought it to New York and I did it off-Broadway and toured it and then shot it as a special.
Has the girl in the story reached out ever since it became the central part of your show?
Oh, yeah. She’s seen the show and what’s awesome is, is that Bethany’s an amazing human being. Obviously, I’ve changed names and stuff to protect people’s privacy. But what I love most about it is, when you watch the news and you see everything that’s happening in the country and the world, it’s sometimes a huge bummer, and you sometimes feel helpless. You feel like you’re just like the cog in this giant wheel of events and things that are happening in the world that you have no control over.
But sometimes life writes better punch lines and endings than even you can. What’s cool about the ending — and I don’t want to give it away — is that with Bethany’s story and my story, it’s proof that generational change is possible with just one choice, and that to me is really cool. And it’s my own personal story. It’s not an esoteric statistic that came from a Facebook article that I got from my newsfeed. It’s a real thing that happened in my home, in my community, with a person that I know, and that gives me a lot of hope, especially as we engage in these situations in our homes and in our communities where, you know, we’re living in a very divided country and a lot of times the things that we see that are going on in the world, they feel hopeless. I mean, Homecoming King follows a narrative between high school to when I’m 28, 29 years old. I got to see with my own eyes real change actually happen.
Has being on The Daily Show changed audience expectations for your comedy?
When people would come just to the show, they were expecting something incredibly topical and political. What’s interesting to me is that it may not be topical, and the topics in Homecoming King may be more evergreen, but I do think the subject matter and the way in which it’s engaged is kind of political. We are talking about larger macro themes of stuff that’s going on in the country, so I do think it’s incredibly political.
Has The Daily Show taught you a lot of lessons in comedy?
Yeah. The biggest thing that I’ve learned since joining the show is, like, jokes really aren’t enough, at least for me personally. Jokes, are like dessert or like bread. They’re really delicious and fun to eat at the time and… but you kind of forget about them. Like, what was the real entrée or the meat of what you want to talk about? That’s your take and your perspective.
Every morning at the show in the 9:15 a.m. meeting, we start with the take. These are the events that happened, but what is the take? What is the analysis? What is the argument that you’re making? And then you can reverse engineer jokes. Jokes are actually easier to come up with. Take and position, that’s the thing that makes Trevor Noah who he is. Jon Stewart who is, Stephen Colbert, Sam Bee, John Oliver, Hasan Minhaj. That’s what makes us who we are as satirists. That’s been the biggest thing that I’ve learned at the show.
The White House Correspondents Dinner was an unusual event this year because, of course, the principal of the event — the president — didn’t show up, yet you performed anyway. Talk about that experience.
When you’re up there, it goes by so fast.… I don’t know if you can hear it on the CSPAN broadcast but there’s a lot of groans in the room. There’s groans in places that you wouldn’t expect. When I opened the set and I did what I thought was a softball joke about USA Today, which is just kind of a generic publication that you get when you stay at a hotel. The USA Today joke got a huge groan. It felt like I was in an arena in ancient Rome and I was fighting a lion inside of a stadium and people were like, “Off with his head!”
In my mind, I was sort of roasting the establishment, the president, the administration, and the news media. But I knew that once I came around third and started to go home, the point that I was trying to make is that now you know what it feels like to be a minority. That to me was the unifying message of: Hey, I, as a fake journalist, am legitimately rooting for journalists because you guys are actually how the president gets his news, so despite my criticism, you have to be twice as good. You have to be the bigger person and you can’t make any mistakes because when one of you messes up, he blames your entire group — and now you know what it feels like to be a minority. That’s what it’s like for us.
But I felt truly honored to be there because it’s a cool American tradition. It’s the only country in the world where a person like me, an Indian-American Muslim guy, can get up on that stage and make fun of the president. That to me is such an amazing American tradition that’s been happening since 1921 — and the guy didn’t even show up to honor the amendment that lets him tweet whatever he wants. So to me, I don’t care what side of the aisle you’re on in terms of what political affiliation you have, I think we can all agree this is an amazing American tradition — and the one guy who owns the concept of patriotism and being a true American that wants to make America great again didn’t even show up to honor it. That sucks. And I think people, regardless of political affiliation, can agree on that.