Hasan Minhaj knows that The Daily Show is preaching to the choir. The 31-year-old comedian is approaching his two year anniversary on the show, making him one of the few correspondents to serve under both the Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah administrations.
“What I love most about it is that I get to do stuff that is both funny and meaningful,” Minhaj tells The Daily Beast by phone just a couple of weeks before the 2016 election will officially come to a close, Trump-willing. He’s in Houston, on the road with his one-man show Homecoming King, which he will perform at the New York Comedy Festival on November 3rd. “Usually, for the most part, you have to pick or choose one or the other,” he continues. “But The Daily Show and political satire is one of those things that — those two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive.”
But despite all that, Minhaj, a first-generation American born to Muslim parents from India, worries sometimes that his comedy is only reinforcing the beliefs of his audience. That is why he jumped at the chance to host the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner — the somewhat neglected sibling of the more popular White House Correspondents’ Dinner — this past June.
With a captive audience of Congress members and the media who cover them, Minhaj knew he wanted to talk about the “sheer lack of political will” in Washington. “The thesis was based around, the amount of time you guys spend fundraising and not getting stuff done, you’re basically telemarketers that went to Harvard,” he says. “And then, Orlando happened.”
Three days before he was set to speak at the annual event, a gunman killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. “It was this really ugly cocktail of so many issues. Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, gun control, all these really ugly issues that exist in our country,” he says. So he decided to make inaction on gun legislation the centerpiece of his speech. “And why aren’t we talking about it?” he asks now. “The arbiters of justice are sitting in this room, it’s Congress. Gun laws are determined by Congress.”
“Look, on our show every night we get a chance to talk to the American people, but it’s mainly our fans,” Minhaj continues. “It’s people who like what we say and do. This was a rare opportunity to actually talk to the people who are responsible for this stuff. And I figured I would be remiss if I didn’t take that opportunity.”
“I was like, I’m not coming here to crush for Mitch McConnell,” he adds, laughing. “I would be really disappointed if I was like, Wow, Trey Gowdy thought I was hilarious. I’m not trying to do that.” He says he was nervous as he waited for his turn to take the podium because he knew he was about to be “Mr. Buzzkill” when “they wanted me to be the comedian.”
Like Stephen Colbert before him, who mercilessly mocked George W. Bush to his face at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Minhaj was sure he had “bombed” in the room. “It was crickets in there,” he says. It was only after video of the speech started to make the rounds on social media in the days following that he started to realize how much his message had resonated with people.
“It was really humbling to hear people go, thank you, this is exactly what I’ve been thinking and saying and feeling, thank you for telling them that,” he says. “I’m just an American citizen like everyone else and I’m not sitting at the power table in the room where it all happens. But those few opportunities that I do get a chance to sit down with a sitting prime minister, like Justin Trudeau, or a politician or member of Congress, I definitely want to say my piece and say what I feel and how I think a lot of Americans feel.”
Minhaj also sees a bit of himself in Colbert given the fact that he is now helping to reimagine what The Daily Show is in 2016 with Trevor Noah the way Colbert started off with Jon Stewart in the early 2000s. “It’s interesting, because working with Jon was very much like working with comedy dad,” he says. “And then now with Trevor, it’s like working with comedy contemporary or comedy brother. And I can imagine that the way Jon worked with Stephen is very similar to the way Trevor works with us now, in that we’re all building this thing together and it very much feels like an ensemble show.”
Noah has received some criticism over the past year for both his seeming lack of interest in the U.S. political process and his lack of edge when it comes to the show’s place in late-night’s satirical pantheon. But Minhaj insists that Noah’s “outsider” status has actually benefitted the show in its post-Stewart era.
“That’s sort of the necessary thing you need in comedy, and specifically in political commentary,” he says. “It’s this analysis of, wait, why is this happening? And then dissecting it from there. And there’s a lot of things we take for granted in this country.”
But even if The Daily Show has not been as tough on Donald Trump as Stewart might have been, it is a stretch to say they have gone easy on him. When The Daily Beast spoke to Trevor Noah earlier this year, he said he wasn’t sure The Daily Show would survive under a Trump presidency because of his promises to “open up” America’s libel laws.
“Yeah, it’s really funny, because as much as Trump says he loves America, he really just loves dictatorships,” Minhaj says. “He loves threatening to imprison his opponents. He wants to limit free speech. And yes, he has threatened libel against people that speak out against him.” This is why, he says, Noah compared Trump to an African dictator during his very first week of shows.
Minhaj too has used his own personal experience to inform the commentary he delivers on The Daily Show, whether it’s advising Muslim-Americans on how to conceal their religious identity on airplanes or forcing Trump supporters to confront a real-life Muslim at the Republican National Convention.
“I’m a first-generation kid in this country. I so identify with America and its culture. I’m a citizen, I was born here. I’m American,” Minhaj says. “At the same time, like most first-generation kids, I have this other identity to another country back home, which is India. What’s interesting is from a young age, because I had to have this dual narrative, I’ve always had a soft spot for other marginalized groups, whether that’s LGBTQ people, women, the African-American community, the Latino community, I’ve been able to connect to their civil rights struggle through my own feelings of racism or disenfranchisement.”
In the face of a major-party presidential candidate who has floated the idea of a ban on Muslim immigrants, Minhaj describes himself as an “angry optimist” when it comes to American democracy. “America’s unique ability to change and be super flexible is pretty dope, man. It’s pretty incredible,” he says, striking the type of hopeful tone that has been all but absent from the dialogue this election season. “And that’s what I want to contribute to.”
That attitude helps explain why he’s so eager for the presidential race to be over, despite the added material it’s provided for late-night television across the board.
“Oh, I can’t wait to get back to dissecting just standard D.C. corruption,” he says, enthusiastically. Unfortunately, he says, Trump has been “so loud and bombastic” that The Daily Show has had no choice but to go after him on a nightly basis. “Nuanced debate can’t stand up to a guy who’s calling women pigs and retweeting white supremacists.”