At 33, Hasan Minhaj has already worked on The Daily Show, won a Peabody Award, and landed his own eponymous Netflix series, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. And, thanks to an episode that ended up being banned in Saudia Arabia, he's also already caused such an international controversy that his parents have taken to begging him to "just tell embarrassing stories about [his] childhood" to his thousands upon thousands of viewers instead. Minhaj, on the other hand, couldn't have been more pleased with the way things panned out. In fact, his crew has since formed an investigative reporting team so that they can make even more waves with season 2. (Sorry, mom and dad.) Here, the comedian talks more about controversy and his Indian-American Muslim identity—plus what he thinks about running for political office.
When was the first time you were on camera?
In the eighth grade, when I gave a presentation for a history class. My mom made a home video of me, and I was explaining Mesopotamia or something on camera.
Did you feel like you were at home—like you knew exactly what you were going to do with your life?
I don't know if I was at home, or even if I was particularly good, but I knew I was gonna get extra credit. That was the main thing—I had my eyes on the prize. I still remember it. I was wearing a long-sleeved, red shirt, and my eighth grade civics teacher still uses it as an example of like, "This is what you can do if you go the extra mile."
And now you do that all the time—you go the extra mile.
Now I do that all the time. I go the extra mile on camera all the time for extra credit.
So, when did you start to feel at home?
I started out doing stand-up comedy at U.C. Davis and then moved to San Francisco, which has one of the most interesting comedy scenes in the country. I got to be around some really great comedians—Ali Wong, W. Kamau Bell, Arj Barker—just as they were coming up. That combination of performers being under one roof really made me understand that in comedy, we're all mutants. It doesn't matter if it’s experimental or mainstream. We all have different superpowers, but all the mutants respect each other's superpowers. Early on, I learned that humor is a way to break tension. It’s a very powerful tool.
In the beginning, was your standup political?
No, it was just very desperate. Like, Please like me, please—I need to connect as quickly as possible. But the thing was, I had been doing speech and debate and forensics in high school. And I didn't realize at the time, but those are the seeds for what you need to do as a comedian. So by time I got to college, and I started to see standup comedy for the first time, I thought to myself, "Oh, this is speech and debate, but funny."
Do you keep things in a notebook? What’s your process?
Yeah. I’ll wake up in the morning. I’ll free write. A lot of my free writing is just raw emotion and feelings, just thoughts—a lot of complicated thoughts, a lot of messy thoughts. And then, because I'll work them out with my wife [Beena Patel], a lot of thoughts that make her say, "That’s insane. Don’t ever say that out loud." Then I’ll transfer it over to a second document, which is digital, so now we’ve gone from the pen to now computer. The second document is more like, "Hey, here’s the structure of what I’m trying to do." They’re almost like monkey bars—you go A, B, C to D. Then there's a third document, once I try out those main monkey bars. That one's called the Old Testament.
The Old Testament?
That is the act. That is from the moment of, "Hello, thank you so much for coming out tonight. Thank you so much. Good night." It’s word for word.
Do you do that for your wife, too? Do you film yourself?
I do that as I get ready for a special. I have Homecoming King completely transcribed—page one to page 49.
What does your mother say when she watches you do standup?
Well, my mom is more concerned about the political stuff.
Do your parents worry when your show takes on Saudi Arabia? Can you talk about the episode that was banned?
Sure. We did an episode about Saudi Arabia, analyzing not only the United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia, but Muslims' relationship with Saudi Arabia around the world, and the role that American politics play in that relationship. Then the episode was banned in Saudi Arabia—they pulled it off the service. So it started this whole international discussion and debate about the United States, our foreign policy, and censorship online. Obviously, my parents were like, "Please don't be at the center of these things. We don't want you causing international outrage and controversy. Please just tell embarrassing stories about your childhood." But that, to me, is the most powerful thing about comedy—when you go from reporting the news to making news and moving culture forward. It has ways to impact the world in ways we would never imagine.
How have your parents been reacting to this administration?
They’re definitely aware that something is awry in the Force. My parents have always reminded me that oftentimes, stability is a luxury that we take for granted in this country. You can wake up and go to Starbucks, and go get a Jamba Juice, and know that the WiFi works and Game of Thrones is queued up. things and systems are in place, and there is no massive, seismic variation to that, that's a blessing. My dad even tells me in Hindi, "We live in Heaven. This is Heaven. Everything is working. There is no pain or barrier of entry to these things." I try to remember that. Those things are worth fighting for, and those things are worth remembering and being grateful for.
Your Netflix show, The Patriot Act, is so powerful because it’s both micro and macro. Is it easier for you to be autobiographical or political?
Well, because of my background, and because of this moment in time, the personal and the political merged. I learned under both Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah. I got my undergrad degree for four years on The Daily Show, where you're steeped in politics and the news. It’s your life, day in and day out—you have to live it and breathe it. One of the things I realized is how much of the news just isn't covered, because our worldview here is so myopic—it's all about, "How does it connect to America?" But for me, as an Indian-American Muslim, I felt this insider/outsider relationship with America. So I totally get everything that’s happening here—the presidential tweets, the gaffs from your favorite senator or Congress member. But I also see the other eight panels on the front page news of the international global conversation that never get talked about, because the news becomes the president's tweets or a senator's gaff.
By the way, that has nothing to do with my own work or my own work ethic—there are billions of people around the world that acknowledge those other eight panels. I just happened to be this person with this background in this moment, when a series of events have unfolded that have allowed an Indian-American Muslim kid named "Hasan Minhaj" to host a show. I just happened to be one of the first people to stand up there and say, "Hey, can we take a moment to assess our relationship with this country? Can we stop to just talk about that before we dedicate an entire show to AOC's shoes?"
Have you always felt comfortable being autobiographical?
I became more comfortable telling my own story because I realized that take and contrarianism will only take you so far. If I come in, and I go, "You know, relationships are like this,” or “I feel this way about politics," it's great. You have a quippy one-liner, and you get the audience to laugh. That's fantastic. They remember you if you make them really feel something, if they feel authentically in that moment you were vulnerable, and you connected with them. Like, "Oh, man. I don't know if what he's saying is particularly funny, but I do know that he’s being very real right now." It's just a visceral feeling. I realized that was in the DNA of all of my favorite comedians.
Who are? On my Mount Rushmore, I would say my two favorite comedians are the most vulnerable: Richard Pryor and the modern savant Dave Chappelle. He is a proper modern savant.
Even now you think that? Even the new stuff?
Even the new stuff. Even as messy and complicated or whatever you want to say about it, he is one of the few Jedi that is performing this craft at the highest level, period. He's one of the few people that's willing to risk it all still on stage, stand with his convictions, tell an entire six-minute story that's providing historical context on his position and his feelings, and then be able to cut it with a joke.
You're doing that, too.
No, no. You can't make that comparison. That has to be earned. I'm still a Padawan. That's the Jedi.
Would you ever run for political office?
Are you sure?
I'm 100 percent sure.
I mean, a comedian just won in the Ukraine. A TV personality just won in Italy.
Well, we live in a time now where anything is possible. But politics are very complicated. And there are a lot of concessions that you have to make that, as an artist, I don't have to make. I'm very lucky—knock on wood— that I get to create and say the things that I want to say. I don't know if I would be okay with not being able to do that as a politician.
Here's a question for Hasan, non-politician: Where was your first kiss?
It was in front of one of my first crushes’ house, before she left for a trip to Europe. It was awesome, but it was also terrifying. She led the thing. She knew way more about that than I did. She kissed me and then used her tongue. It felt like there was an iguana in my mouth. It was just nuts.
How did you feel walking away from that?
I took my parents' car, and I remember I was breaking the speed limit on the drive home. I was like, "What's happening?" I think I passed through a stop sign. It was crazy. Then—this is going to date me—I went on AIM, and I told one of my friends. I kissed and I straight up told.
What was your screenname at the time?
Classic and timeless: "hasanminhaj1." Apparently, there was a Hasan Minhaj. I added them on AIM, because I had to meet this other person. Then one day, the door opened. Hasan Minhaj appeared, and I was just like, "Who are you?"
Did you meet?
No. Immediately, the door closed. It was a metaphor.