• STAGE HASAN MINHAJ'S SECOND ACT
HASAN MINHAJ’S SECOND ACT In The King’s Jester, the former Patriot Act host addresses his dust- up with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince
BY RADHEYAN SIMONPILLAI
HOT SUMMER GUIDE
Hasan Minhaj puts together comedy shows like brown people put together weddings. It's a huge production: with Broadway lighting, stateofthe- art designs and thousands upon thousands in the audience. In his first comedy special, 2017' s Homecoming King, Minhaj was bouncing around on stage as a dynamic Powerpoint- like presentation splashed across multiple screens behind him. The photos and social media screengrabs complement the former Daily Show correspondent's nuanced and incisive storytelling while using up the audience's capacity to engage with multiple media at once. That format would follow Minhaj to his weekly Netflix show Patriot Act, a sociopolitical commentary show that ran until 2020, where the comedian would present interactive deep dives on everything from Amazon's parasitic business model to Justin Trudeau's duplicity. Minhaj says to expect more graphics and animation in his new show, The King's Jester, which Just for Laughs is bringing to Toronto June 10 and 11. “The Broadway design on this show is spectacular,” Minhaj teases, adding that he got Tony award- nominated lighting designer Japhy Weideman ( Dear Evan Hansen) along with other ace collaborators to mount it. Minhaj is on the phone with NOW during a brief break from his tour, which is wrapping up after shows in Toronto and Montreal. It's a busy time for him. He's speaking to me from Vegas, where he just delivered a keynote at a business conference. He's going into pre- production on a new movie that he's producing and starring in for Amazon Studios – a comedy set against the cutthroat world of Bollywood dance competitions. But before that, he's prepping to record an upcoming special. Like most brown guys, he's got five hustles going at any given time. Minhaj's Homecoming King is my favourite modern comedy special, alongside Hannah Gadsby's Nanette. I had never seen a brown coming- of- age story as moving and relatable on a molecular level in any medium before it. “So much of our story as children of immigrants was not being reflected in classic Americana coming- of- age the way so many other stories have been told before,” says Minhaj, understanding the appeal. “As young brown kids growing up in the West, we still all felt those feelings of your first kiss, your first crush, unrequited love and overcoming obstacles.” Minhaj says we got to know who he is and what he's about in Homecoming King. In The King's Jester, he says he digs deeper into his own story, getting into why he believes what he believes and touching on intimate themes like fertility, fatherhood, family and freedom of speech. According to Minhaj, the show addresses a lot of the stuff he has dealt with since touring Homecoming King. If you haven't been keeping up, that includes decimating Donald Trump while hosting the White House Correspondents' Dinner, testifying before Congress on the studentloan crisis in the U. S. and, most famously, criticizing Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in an episode of Patriot Act. That episode, which aired almost two years before Patriot Act was cancelled, was controversially pulled down from Netflix in Saudi Arabia due to a legal challenge from the country's government. Minhaj had also endured threats that hit too close to home because of it. Expect him to get into it in The King's Jester. “This is the combination of the past five years of my life and why I do what I do,” he says. “Why did I decide to become a jester? Why did I decide to point and poke at kings? Where the discourse is in regards to who has power, who should poke at power and the role of justice in society, I don't think it could be any more present and timely.” In the following conversation ( which has been edited and condensed for clarity), we discuss the fallout over the Saudi Arabia episode, Minhaj's place in the spectrum of South Asian performers breaking down barriers and the cruel state of comedy today – where a show like Patriot Act, which is willing to punch up at tyrants, is no longer streaming, but comedians like Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais, who are eager to punch down on the trans community, are regularly platformed. NOW — Homecoming King felt to me like a bridge between Kal Penn and Iman Vellani. The scene changed. Before Homecoming King, the brown guys ( Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani) were kind of focusing on how they fit in with white society. But now you got actors like Maitreyi Ramakrishnan ( Never Have I Ever), Iman Vellani ( Miss Marvel), and those women in Bridgerton ( Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran) who are wholesale embracing their brown identity. Your whole identity – not just in Homecoming King but everything you do – felt like that bridge. How have you experienced that shift? Hasan Minhaj — For me, whether it was The Daily Show, Homecoming King or Patriot Act, there were so many things that I was introducing to the world. I think my role and the way the art resonated was to be a bridge between two worlds: to take Saudi Arabia, Indian elections, our story and what our parents are like and open them all up to mainstream Western culture. Even the stupid things ( like “what is a lota?”), the most innocuous small things, the little details and the nooks and crannies of our culture that make us special and unique, to take that from the margins to the mainstream. It really was to me like our introduction to the world. When I look at the world Iman and Maitreyi live in, I feel so happy for them. They don't have to introduce themselves to the world that way anymore. They get to get right to emotion, right to the core human feelings: love, jealousy, anger, envy, all of those things. Iman gets to be a superhero. It's just a beautiful thing to see. There are so many times over the past couple of years, where I just miss Patriot Act. Even right now, I wish there was an episode of Patriot Act on the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh; an episode that gets into how our governments won’t even go there, gets into all that’s been going on in Palestine. Do you wish you still had the platform to get into that? Is your stage show even able to adapt to include these topics? Every medium has advantages and disadvan tages to it. When I was at The Daily Show or Patriot Act, the medium was designed in such a way for us to digest, analyze and put out an episode. It really was like a political satire version of that show Chopped. Every day or every week, we’d be given these component parts. Licorice, cinnamon, half a mango and some coffee grounds. Go make a meal out of that. That’s what working at these types of shows is. “There’s a mass shooting, there’s an international story, there’s something happening with inflation. All right, go.” How are you going to make this comedy meal out of all these component parts? When I’m on tour and I’m building up a huge stage show, it’s kind of like a musician putting together an album. Really, what I have to do is distill what are the core, emotional, timeless stakes. I can be specific in the stories that I tell that obviously have historical and political references to. But what I hope is to make those stories timeless so that they plug and play into the headlines. Do you get into your experience covering the killing of Jamal Khashoggi? The parallels are there. When we get into The King’s Jester, we talk about the king and the kingdom. I don’t want to give too much away, but we go there. It’s definitely a political show but also a deeply personal show. I’m just so excited, man. Toronto’s one of those cities where, like New York, it has just shown me so much love over the years. What’s cool about the diaspora there is y’all have produced such a great, eclectic milieu of desi diaspora voices that have pushed culture forward. What Russell Peters did. What Jus Reign did. What Lily [ Singh] has done. I kind of walk in their footsteps. That’s the stuff I take for granted. Go back to 2005. Man, Russell was the one who made this whole thing a global thing. He’s a trailblazer. He made it possible. He made it one of those things where you’re just like, I didn’t see someone who looked like us selling out arenas. It just wasn’t a thing. This week we’re going to see Iman and we’re going to be like, “Yo, a brown girl is a superhero.” What that does to inspire people, it just let’s you know, it’s possible. I think of how outspoken you are. You really went there. You went there with Saudi Arabia. When people I know go there, when they are outspoken and say the things that some people don’t want to hear, you don’t feel the repercussions right away. You piss people off, they don’t respond. But then they get you later. Sometimes you’re fired or you’re cancelled for something else. Obviously I don’t know what went down behind the scenes with Patriot Act, but I can’t help but make the connections and start putting things together: the show being gone after that Saudi Arabia struggle. Can you enlighten me on that? One of the things that I have to be honest about is, yes, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia pulled down the episode from that country, but Netflix never stopped me from saying what I wanted to say. That’s a key detail. The episode still went up. It got pulled, but it went up. Nobody stopped me or muzzled me from saying what I wanted to say. What’s interesting now as artists, we don’t live in a domestic world. We live in an international world. Freedom of speech and what we can and cannot say is now being tested and put through a metric where it has to pass muster in 190 countries. Every country isn’t going to have the same freedom of speech laws that we have in the States. That being said, that’s not my concern. My job as an artist is to say what I truly feel. Being at Netflix was a really dope opportunity: taking our story and making it international. Homecoming King and Patriot Act, those stories are only possible when you can put it out in an international platform like that. I got to do six seasons of the show. I’m super thrilled. It was a dope experience. In Patriot Act, you were punching up, you were taking on bigger powers. Now, there’s all this controversy where you have Chappelle and Gervais who punch down and keep getting the platform at Netflix to pick on marginalized communities. That incongruity, it’s hard to reconcile. There’s two types of arguments that are happening right now. Can you say something? And should you say something? I think we’re conflating the two. You’re allowed to say those things. But the conversation that we’re having in the discourse is should you. Some people feel they should. And some people feel they shouldn’t. That is the Rorschach test of this whole thing. That being said, it’s a subjective thing. I’ve decided to cut my teeth making jokes about certain types of things. If you remember the cold open of the Indian elections episode, the first minute of it is a sketch of me with Indian aunties and uncles that we reached out to. And they’re all sitting with me. And they’re like, “Hasan do not do this episode. This is insane. Do not talk about politics in India.” That’s the thing. They’re saying you shouldn’t. Not that you can’t. All of the discourse about what people are saying is, is a matter of taste. Is this tasteful? Is this not? And for me as an artist, that’s one of the things I think about all the time. Hey, I’m going to get on stage. I got an hour of your time. Seventy minutes that you’re going to hear the King’s Jester. This is what I want. This is what I think I should say right now. This is what I want to share with the world.