Hasan Minhaj; For defining the narrative of a “New Brown America”

BY BENJAMIN SOLOWAY

Hasan Minhaj in New York on Nov. 27. (Jesse Dittmar for Foreign Policy)

HASAN MINHAJ, COMEDIAN,  32, UNITED STATES

NOTABLE FACT:

During an event in Sacremento at which writer Wajahat Ali was a panelist, Minhaj’s father pulled Ali aside and asked him to help convince Minhaj to give up comedy and attend law school.

It was likely not a coincidence that Hasan Minhaj, the 32-year-old pompadoured Daily Show correspondent, was chosen to host the first White House Correspondents’ Association dinner of the Trump administration. After all, just when the U.S. president was desperately trying to ban more Muslims from entering the United States, Minhaj — the son of Muslim immigrants from Aligarh, India — was making a name for himself as the right comedian for the wrong time.

Of course, Donald Trump — having been famously roasted by President Barack Obama at the 2011 correspondents’ dinner — chose to skip the event. But that didn’t deter Minhaj; on the contrary, he made the guest of honor’s absence, as well as Trump’s obsession with the media and its many shortcomings, the focus of his act that night. And his performance, which he called “one of the strangest events I have ever done,” won him acclaim. It also cemented his status as an avatar of the bizarre political moment.

“With all the things that are happening right now in politics, in Hollywood, in popular culture, the ugly but necessary conversation is happening,” Minhaj says. “Just because we can’t find the solution to it all this year doesn’t mean that it’s not progress in the right direction. That’s my position on it as an angry optimist.”

The final comedian to be hired by The Daily Show during Jon Stewart’s tenure as host, Minhaj has since joined an elite cadre of popular news satirists — including Stewart, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver — whose joyful embrace of “fake news” often gets at fundamental truths at which the mainstream media can only gesture.

“If political news is coffee, we distill it into funny espresso,” he says.

Since his Washington star turn, Minhaj has gone on to win even wider acclaim with his stand-up special, Homecoming King, which aired on Netflix in May. Although its inception long predates Trump’s presidential candidacy, the show nonetheless functions as a response to his provocations. In the New Yorker, Doreen St. Félix called the special a “loving arbitration, by a member of the New Brown America, on how to be a son of his country and his parents at once.”

She used a phrase Minhaj has often used to describe himself. “New Brown America represents a whole generation of kids that are descendants of either immigrants or immigrants themselves, that are coming to America, enriching what it means to be an American,” he says.

In Homecoming King, Minhaj uses a monologue, not a stream of jokes, to tell the story of his upbringing in a predominantly white California town. The narrative covers the hardships immigrants face as they carve out a place in their new homeland while also highlighting the many indignities of high school.

Minhaj is not the only brown comedian of Muslim heritage mining this territory today; the fraternity also includes Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani, among others. Wajahat Ali, a writer who has known Minhaj for years, says that’s no accident: Given recent events, Ali says, these comics have made the conscious decision to portray themselves as “protagonists of the American narrative.”

Indeed, nothing could be more quintessentially American. “We’ve seen it before,” Ali says. “We saw it in the Borscht Belt,” with performers like Mel Brooks, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles, Lenny Bruce, and Jerry Lewis — all minority comics who won over audiences of their day by “doubling down and owning their identity with some swagger.”

Minhaj’s comedy has occasionally been criticized for approaching the overpolished sentimentality of a TED Talk. (Minhaj may have hurt his case by eschewing a hand-held mic for one mounted over his ear, Tony Robbins-style.) But at a difficult time for Muslims and immigrants in America, Minhaj has found an effective way to describe a side of the United States that its current president ignores and rejects.

“That Rockwell portrait was always there, but brown dudes were never in it,” Ali says. “We had to make our own. And now there’s an audience.”

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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