Hasan Minhaj has said that he wants to be more than just the “Indian John Oliver.” Or as he tells me, “I’m not going to open up with, ‘Did you hear what happened this week?’” That drive to bring something different to the very crowded “late-night” space is front of mind for the comedian as he prepares his new addition, Patriot Act, premiering this Sunday on Netflix.
On a recent Friday afternoon, with just over a week to go before he unveils his new show to the world—literally, since it will be available in over 190 countries—Minhaj calls The Daily Beast from his New York office to talk about what it has been like to go from being the Scottie Pippen to Jon Stewart’s Michael Jordan on The Daily Show, as the rabid NBA fan puts it, to becoming the star of his own project.
His training ground included the ultra-personal Netflix special Homecoming King as well as the first White House Correspondents’ Dinner performance of the Trump presidency. In that speech, Minhaj made the brilliant observation that Trump’s “fake news” attacks have made the press know “what it feels like to be a minority.” He told the media, “That’s why you gotta be on your A-game, you gotta be twice as good, you can’t make any mistakes, because when one of you messes up, he blames your entire group.”
But those moments in the spotlight pale in comparison to Patriot Act, which arrives on Netflix in a moment of uncertainty for the viability of topical talk shows on the streaming platform. After canceling shows from Chelsea Handler, Joel McHale and Michelle Wolf over the past year, Netflix is taking a big bet on Minhaj, ordering 32 episodes of Patriot Act upfront.
Meanwhile, as an Indian-American Muslim, Minhaj is a non-white host in a landscape where shows from Larry Wilmore and Robin Thede have been canceled by Comedy Central and BET, respectively, leaving Trevor Noah, who took over for Stewart on The Daily Show, as the only non-white host on the air.
Unlike some of those other shows, Minhaj is thankful that he will “have time to really develop and hone our voice and our position in the marketplace.” Now he just has to hope that the audience will stick with him on that journey.
Your new show on Netflix is called Patriot Act. What has that term meant to you over the years and is this your attempt to reclaim it in some way?
Totally. Obviously the original one was a terrifying piece of legislation and yeah, look, I thought this title could be a really cool way to flip it on its head. Especially because when people look at me or someone of my background they often think they wouldn’t be patriotic.
This show is your act of patriotism.
And I just love, by the way, that we were able to get all of the social media handles. I can’t believe the FBI, the NSA and the CIA didn’t claim @patriotact. It legitimately blows my mind. Somewhere Dick Cheney is just like, how did we not do this?
There are obviously so many topical comedy shows now, many of which from your former Daily Show alumni. How do plan to differentiate yours?
I think one of the really interesting things that we’re doing on the show is picking topics and investigative reports that are generally overlooked. We definitely get sucked into the news cycle of “covfefe” and responding to that stuff and one of the really cool things about working on this show is that we get to talk about stuff that’s happening now but also about stuff that has a shelf life for six months to a year. We’re trying to answer bigger questions that exist in the zeitgeist and things that have been discussed and argued and debated for a long time. Things like gun control, things like affirmative action, immigration, those things aren’t going away.
Yeah, I mean, because the show is going to be on Netflix, it does inherently have a longer shelf life than a lot of these other, more ephemeral shows. Presumably people will be able to watch these episodes forever.
For me, the medium is the message. Because it’s on Netflix you hear that [makes Netflix logo sound] and immediately start watching. Sometimes people are engaging with it that week or eight months from now. So for me, that really shapes the topics that I’m going to hit. I’m not going to open up with, “Did you hear what happened this week?” No, because a month from now or two months from now or six months from now that’s going to no longer be relevant.
There are certainly a lot of benefits to having your show on Netflix, but also potential drawbacks. They have struggled with this “late-night” space, whether it’s Chelsea Handler’s and Joel McHale’s shows getting nixed or Michelle Wolf’s show canceled after just 10 episodes. Did that latter decision in particular make you concerned about their dedication to this type of programming?
I mean, I was definitely rooting for Michelle’s show and Joel McHale’s show and everyone’s show because I think a rising tide lifts all boats. They’re friends and I think they’re both incredibly talented. But I think that, again, one of the things that we have that is to our advantage is that we have a pretty significant episode order, so we have time to really develop and hone our voice and our position in the marketplace. And say, hey, this is what you can get from this show. These are the types of stories and perspectives you’ll be able to get from this show that you might not be able to get from others.
What do you view as the biggest challenges of hosting a late-night style show on a streaming platform?
More than the streaming aspect, because we have such a good situation set up on the social media side, I think the biggest thing is the greatest challenge that all artists face. You’re going to speak from the heart, you’re going to speak authentically, you’re going to want to connect and tell a great joke and have great material, but will it connect? And that’s the same feeling that I had with the Correspondents’ Dinner, with Homecoming King, with any of the segments I wrote for The Daily Show. Hey, I’m speaking from my heart here, will people care? That’s just an intangible and a variable you can never answer, you just try to do the best you can. And the rest you put in the hands of the people.
Speaking of The Daily Show, I read that Jon Stewart challenged you and the other correspondents to push the limits of what The Daily Show could be when he left in 2015. How are you applying that challenge to Patriot Act?
When he sort of gave us that little speech in his office, I really internalized it perhaps a different way than other people did. For me, when he talked about manipulating that chess piece, I really think he was referring to, “What can you do with this format besides looking down the camera and having an over-the-shoulder graphic appear over your right or left shoulder? How can you sort of manipulate and change this thing that I’ve done for the past 17 years?” But that’s just a style thing. The second thing that I sort of thought about was being able to speak to issues from a perspective that I think a lot of people don’t really speak to. I mean, my name is Hasan Minhaj. I’m an Indian-American Muslim child of immigrants. But I’m just as American as anyone you went to college or high school with. But my perspective and my viewpoint on foreign policy, on immigration, on a lot of the hot-button issues that are dividing the country right now, that position is very different from a lot of people’s position in late-night. Just look at what’s happening this week with Saudi Arabia. My take on it is very different from other people’s take. And it’s directly linked to my identity and life experience.
The Jamal Khashoggi saga seems like the type of news story that you might want to tackle on this show, but at the same time there’s nothing inherently funny about it. So how do you reconcile that? How do you figure out how to make it work on a comedy show?
I know this isn’t a super popular opinion, but I’ll be honest with you, I actually think the jokes are the easiest part. The biggest and the toughest thing is the take. What is your take or position? How do you slice through this otherwise really dense, esoteric, sad thing? And if you have a take with really great clarity or perspective, tagging it with jokes, that’s the easy part. Twitter is a joke machine, you can get all of those things there. But I think storytelling and a really curated, distinct voice, I think that’s what people come to these shows for.
I’m curious, when you were at The Daily Show, did you feel pressure to talk about subjects that relate to your identity? Or did you try not to do that all the time so you weren’t just the “Senior Indian Correspondent,” which is a type of designation I think they’ve moved away from a bit in the Trevor Noah era?
What was great was as you develop your voice on the show, you get to do a lot of different things you were passionate about. I would do this recurring segment on the show called “Livin’ on the Street” where I played this super high-strung, possibly coked-out Wall Street banker guy who was talking about Bitcoin or whatever was happening in the economy. So you were able to spread your wings as you spend more time on the show. And I love Jon and Trevor for giving me that opportunity. I think the thing that you come to realize, especially being a correspondent on the show, is you are sort of the Scottie Pippen to their Michael Jordan. You are definitely there to facilitate the larger vision of the host. The biggest thing that was tough for me was I definitely like storytelling. And in order to properly tell stories, you need runway room. You need more than three-and-a-half to five minutes to really spread your wings and dive deep into things. And that’s why I think that things like Homecoming King or the Correspondents’ Dinner, people got to see another side of me, because I had time to share my perspective on the country. Or to speak about my identity in America and what my story was.
So now that you are the Michael Jordan of your own show—
[Laughs] No, no, no, I’ve got to earn that title. Right now I’m the Jud Buechler.
What do you want to do with that responsibility in terms of the message you’re putting out there with your show?
The biggest thing that I try to do is just honestly speak from the heart and tell stories that haven’t been told before. Because I think for the longest time people with my background have either been spoken to or spoken for. So I just want to share stories and perspectives that people haven’t heard before, to add something new to the conversation. We’ve just finished our first three test shows and I really think we have something exciting and new to share.
I think a lot of people will come to this show knowing who you are, but there are also people who will stumble upon it on Netflix, whether they are in this country or anywhere in the world. What do you hope someone who discovers your show while just looking for something to watch on Netflix takes away from it?
I just hope they go, wow, I’ve never seen something presented this way from this point of view. And the fact that he was able to distill that between 20 to 30 minutes is pretty incredible. I hope it means something to them and moves them in some way. That’s all you can do as an artist. So I’m crossing my fingers and hoping it connects.
This interview has been edited and condensed.