Why 'Daily Show' Correspondent Hasan Minhaj Chose the Hard Path in 2017 (Exclusive)
By Stephen Daw
Hasan Minhaj found himself at a crossroads in 2017. The Daily Showcorrespondent had to choose between doing what was easy and safe and doing what was hard, but exciting. Lucky for us, he chose the latter path. “I just ended up saying, 'Hey, burn the boats, we're gonna turn left when everybody's turning right,’” Minhaj tells ET.
The results of that left turn were Minhaj’s boldly disparaging speech at the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and his critically acclaimed Netflix special, Homecoming King, which examines the comedian’s life from a very intimate and personal viewpoint.
When Minhaj was approached about hosting the this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which was mired in controversy following the election of Donald Trump, he said that his reaction was far different from other comedians who were asked to perform. “This was a hot potato gig; nobody wanted to touch it,” he recalls. In fact, Samantha Bee, host of Full Frontal on TBS, hosted her own event, Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, on the same night. “But I saw it as this incredible American tradition. I just felt really honored and humble that a guy like me with my background -- a child of immigrants -- got to roast the president, the administration and the media.”
What ensued was a headline-making speech where Minhaj roasted President Trump as expected, but roasted him on his merits, and on his decision not to attend a dinner celebrating the First Amendment. (The D.C. event is also a fundraiser for college journalism scholarships.) “Donald Trump doesn’t care about free speech,” he said during his speech. “The man who tweets that everything that enters his head refuses to acknowledge the amendment that allows him to do it.”
None of the jabs Minhaj made were about anyone’s physical characteristics, such as appearance, gender or sexuality. He purposefully kept his jokes about the choices made by those attending. “You'll watch some shows, and people will be saying, 'So and so looks like so and so,' and it's basic third-grade bullying,” he says. “I wanted to roast the administration and the power structures that be, but I wanted to be cutting and not cruel.”
To Minhaj, it was less important to deliver one-liners than it was to honestly, and comedically, address the problems that were confronting America. “Bombastic rhetoric is getting the highest platform today,” he said. “But I would say it's far more clever and interesting and ultimately respectful to come at it from a place of empathy.”
Empathy was the key to Minhaj’s big year. Along with approaching the WHCD from a place of understanding, he imbued his one-man show and comedy special, Homecoming King, with that same sense of compassion.
The show strings together a series of stories about Minhaj’s upbringing in Davis, California, with his experience as a first-generation Indian American as a through line. He said that it was difficult to get so personal with his first-ever standup special. “There was a lot of stuff about my personal life and family that I hadn't really talked about publicly prior to that,” he said. “So to put that out on a platform like Netflix, where everybody can see it, was a scary thing. And the fact that it resonated and became this thing where people really connected with it and was so well-received -- I couldn't have imagined that.”
One of the concepts he tackles in the show is the idea of the “American dream tax” -- the idea that immigrants should put up with a certain level of discrimination as a kind of payment for being able to live in America. Minhaj says that concept is something he still struggles with today. “I wish things were a little bit easier. But I constantly remind myself, 'Hey, you belong here just as much as anybody else, and you have the audacity of equality.’”
Minhaj’s year of left turns also translated to his work on The Daily Show. This year saw the introduction of a new field piece series hosted by Minhaj called “Brown in Town,” where he traveled to places like Kentucky’s coal country and a town in Texas without clean water to examine why the mostly white citizens there decided to vote for Trump.
Minhaj says that stories similar to those portrayed in “Brown in Town” -- ones that come to the subjects out of a place of curiosity and compassion -- are the ones that should be shown more often moving forward. “I'm really proud of Trevor and everybody at the show, because I think it's a step in the right direction to the type of field reporting we should do.”
Minhaj says that his successful year is only the beginning -- his first feature-length film, The Spy Who Dumped Me, will debut in 2018, along with a Comedy Central special and two more projects that he “can’t quite talk about yet.”
Regardless of whether or not he finds similar success moving forward, Minhaj says he is glad for being bold in 2017. “Everything happened to connect this time, and I'm sure I'm going to make choices in the future that don't, but I'm proud to have made these choices that did this year. I actually couldn’t be more proud.”