It's been about a year since comedian Hasan Minhaj joined the Daily Show's team of correspondents—since then, he's skewered everything from discrimination of Muslim Americans to gestation crates to #PopeMania. Now, he's got a new show, Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, which centers on his experience growing up as first generation Indian American and Muslim in a small agricultural city in California, debuting at the Cherry Lane Theater next week. We caught up with him to discuss diversity in comedy, new Daily Show host Trevor Noah, and the Wyatt Cenac/Jon Stewart fight.
So you have a show coming out next week. Tell us a little about what we can expect from Homecoming King. Homecoming King is a solo show I've been developing over the past couple years. It was curated at the Sundance New Frontier Storyteller's Lab. The genesis of it was this popular story I told on this Moth radio hour about me speaking out and going to prom and what happened that night. It's sort of an extrapolation of that night, what happened, what happened from there. It's an exploration of what I call the new brown America, the first- generation experience of what a lot of kids go through growing up in the United States of America. The story was so popular online; Catherine Burns was the creative director and said, "You should really develop something around this story."
It really resonated with a lot of people and kind of took on a life of its own. The local newspaper in my town picked it up and was like, "Who's Hasan Minhaj, who's Bethany Reeve, did this thing really happen?" What I found really interesting about it is that this story of love, forgiveness, racial tension and self-hate and all of these things kind of kept on evolving and breathing as time went on. I worked on it together with my director Greg Walloch and my interactions with this person continued and it documents a lot of those things.
Coincidentally enough, me getting hired at The Daily Show and coming to New York capped all of those events. We found these really organic threads that came through the whole show and we ended up calling it Hasan Minhaj Homecoming King: The Story of Brown America.
How did you get into comedy? I started [comedy] in college. I grew up in a pretty strict household in the sense that we just didn't have cable, so I wasn't familiar with what stand-up comedy was. I remember telling my friends that I thought stand-up comedy was like the thing that happened before the episode of Seinfeld
I was like, "Oh, this is what stand-up comedy is? This is the license they have to express their thoughts freely on stage? This is incredible." That's how I got into comedy. Performing it for years and years got me into long-form storytelling. I got into what Mike Birbiglia was doing and Spalding Gray and how the medium itself can evolve and change. Paul Provenza, who was a huge mentor for me on this project, told me something really interesting in regards to storytelling: "Well with standup you can play notes from A to M, but with storytelling and presenting comedy in the narrative and the narrative on stage through storytelling, you can play notes A through M as well as M through Z." And I found that to be really powerful and amazing.
How did you end up getting the gig at the Daily Show? Michael Che had left to do Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live and I got an email from my manager and the email was like, "Do you want to audition for The Daily Show?" I remember the subject header of that email. And I don't think it's an email that deserves a question mark; it's usually a period or an exclamation point. It's more of a demand: "You're auditioning for The Daily Show. That's what's happening." It was a dream gig. It had always been something I wanted to do. Like, that would be my dream to be on The Daily Show. I put together an audition tape and just sent it out; it was like a video link. Jon saw my tape, two days later they asked me to screen test in New York.
They wanted me to write another piece and I was like, "Oh, shit, I have to write another original piece?" I only had one good piece in me. I didn't think I could Larry David the situation into a Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. I was like, "I have one good piece in me." But, coincidentally enough, Bill Maher on his show did a thing where he was extremely Islamaphobic and it's great how racist people work like clockwork. And I was just like, "Amazing!" And, coincidentally, Ben Affleck was on the show that day, there was this clip that went extremely viral about how Ben Affleck kind of stood up for Muslims and was like, "Hey, you can't just put them in internment camps. We did that to the Japanese and it was a really bad idea, Bill."
And I fell in love with him. I fell in love with that little butt chin he has and I was like, "Goddamit, Ben, you may not be the hero we want, but you're the hero the Muslim world needs." I was so happy I forgave him for Gigli. That clip just won me over, man. And I wrote this piece called "Batman versus Bill Maher" and I did it at the desk with Jon and he offered me the job on the spot, which is just surreal.
How has the transition been from Jon Stewart to Trevor Noah? It's been pretty amazing. I don't know if you saw the episode last night where we talked about gun control and Planned Parenthood, but, man oh man, it's pretty incredible. Trevor is really talented. It was awesome. And the chat we did with Jessica—we're just in week two. I was really impressed. I can't express this enough: We have some of the best writers and producers in the business, it's no wonder, now being a part of the team for a while now, it's no wonder why they've won so many Emmy's. It's top notch.
And you see Jon's fingerprints all over the landscape. Oliver's show, Colbert's show, it's like, he really created and redefined the model of political satire in the late-night landscape. Trevor just has these incredible gifts—he's very different from Jon—but he has these incredible gifts and he's able to use the engine that was built here at The Daily Show in new and really interesting ways. You could see it last night: He's doing voices, impersonations, he can speak different languages. To use a sports analogy, as a quarterback he can do more than just throw the ball and hand it off. He can run outside of the pocket; he can do a lot of things that Jon can do. Jon has an amazing brain and as a political satirist, he's a Jedi. But I think Trevor has the seeds to be really, really, great.
There's been some talk, or at least there was a few years ago, about how there wasn't a lot of diversity on the Daily Show, in terms of correspondents, in terms of guests, in terms of writers. And of course, Wyatt Cenac had a problem with that that he brought up recently. Do you feel that the Daily Show is making an effort to be more diverse now? I can only speak from my experience, I don't necessarily agree with Wyatt's analysis of the situation. [Ed. note: Cenac left the show in December 2012; Minhaj joined in December 2014.] I honestly think Jon has been one of the most—look, I think the empathy and understanding he brought to issues was really important.
I can only speak from my experience, specifically in regards to a chat I did with him called Minhaj's Muslim Makeover, in regards to this United Airlines situation that happened with Tahera Ahmad. What went down was the morning of, I got a call from our executive producer who said, "Come in, Jon wants to talk to you about it." I went to the ECR, which is our re-write room, and I sat down with Jon and said, "You tell me about it. Tell me what this issue means to you."
And Jon, time and time again—you can even cross-check this with Larry Wilmore's analysis of chats with Jon, and by chats I mean the things that happen across the desk—is that he'll say, "YOU tell ME what you want to tell America. I don't want to narrate your experience as a Muslim-American in America. I want to hand the ball off to you and you go." We had a really great discussion about it and Jon's been an incredible mentor. Anytime I've had an issue or anytime I've been doing through something I feel is very nuanced, with analyzing America's international foreign policies, and the industrial war complex we have. Like, I'm this brown guy in America and I'm so proud to be here.
My mom works at the VA; she's been working at the VA for 15 plus years, and yet she's helping so many veterans coming back from brown, Muslim countries and my mom treats them. It's this weird -- sometimes I feel torn. It's this dual identity. I'm so proud to be American and at the same time I disagree with our foreign policy. How do I bridge those two things? Jon was one of the huge mentors in my life that was like, "Look, all you can do is just convey your narrative and perspective. It is a nuanced thing." Jon conveyed that beautifully. He has been so supportive of veterans' rights in this country, as well as being critical of our foreign policy and taking people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Judith Miller to task for falsifying information and leading us to war. And he helped me bridge those dual narratives by being empathetic, caring and understanding of the issues and giving people a platform to convey their narrative.
If there's any sort of disproof of this theory that Jon is racist, I don't know, man, he put two black men at the helm of late night. I don't know what else you can do. That's pretty incredible.
I think when the Wyatt Cenac story came out, people were pretty surprised. Obviously you can get a certain impression of somebody just because you see them on television every night, but it seemed even people who worked with [Stewart], it was surprising. It was like, where did that come from? His reaction at the office was, "Hey, is everything ok with Wyatt? Is everything all right?" Man, I could only imagine if I were in his shoes. I'd be like, "What? How did this happen?" But he's just a super sweet caring guy. The proof is in the pudding. The man left his position here and is immediately out putting rubber to the road and is fighting for the 9/11 First Responders bill. He's the kind of guy who, when he believes in something, he really cares about it and goes through with it to the fullest, whether or not it gets the attention in the press that it deserves.
Rosewater was one of those things where because of that field piece, Maziar [Bahari] got into a lot of trouble and a lot of people weren't touching that script. Jon was like, "All right, I'll direct it. I'll find a way to get the money behind it and convey this narrative, whether it's a box-office hit or not." Jon, to me, has been an inspiration and is a testament to passion and purpose and really putting your heart and soul into things. He's a true example of being the change you want to see in the world.
Veering away from the Daily Show, there's been some talk among comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Colin Quinn, you know, white male comedians who are concerned that comedy is too P.C. Do you feel that comedy has a diversity problem, or a problem with political correctness? I just think that everyone deserves a platform. That's it. Look, I think TV and film is a very visual medium. I think Lee Daniels captured that really well. I don't know if you saw the THR roundtable he had. He took some writers to task, saying, "How many African American writers do you have on your staff?" And he turned and he looked at some of the most successful and critically acclaimed shows. But here's the reality you face in the industry, which is that you write what you know. A lot of these rooms are dominated and helmed by white straight males, then the writers and the people around them are going to be that because they're going to write what they know and that's all.
My biggest thing and my inspiration for Homecoming King and bringing it off-Broadway is, "Hey, if you build it, they will come." And I've seen so many people and I'm inspired by their work, from Lena Dunham to Mindy Kaling being like, "This is my specific experience. I'm out here and I'm going to build that and I'm going to convey that and I'm going to share it with you guys." And it's resonated with people. Mindy is a best-selling author, she's a huge television personality. Lena is too. Those people are huge inspirations to me, that they've been able to be like, "Hey, I'm going to change the paradigm, just by putting it out myself." I don't know enough about the institutional powers that be and the media conglomerates that control the whole game; all I know is that I'm going to put up the work and reach out to the tribe. What I mean by that is that there are certain people in the artistic community that see this and when you put out something really great they're going to champion it. They'll cosign it, they'll back it.
Jon Stewart is one of those things. He put a Rockefeller chain around my neck and legitimized me in this business. The Daily Show has been an incredible platform. So has the Moth, and so has NPR, and so has the Sundance Labs. All of those people have championed me and championed this project and been so supportive. I'm just going to keep putting things out and hope they keep finding those people. I can't control what the people that "push the button" do, I can just control what I put out, but I have an amazing platform to do it. I just hope I reach out to people and connect to people in such a way that they continue to support what I do.
One of the things we're doing with the Homecoming King show, is that we have this really awesome feature that's debuting on the website called Share Your Story. Basically what's happen is that because of the popularity of the show, particularly the Moth piece, is that people are coming forward and shared their doorstep moments. Moments where they've put themselves on the line and weren't accepted for who they are. The crux of the show is this moment when I sneak out of my house to go to the prom with this girl I was in love with and her family doesn't allow it because their family was from Ohio. They would be taking a lot of pictures and her mom said it wouldn't be a good fit.
I describe that scene in the show and so many people afterward have come forward and said, "I've had similar doorstep moments. I group up in a small town in Anytown, America and I put myself up there whether it was in regards to my sexuality or creed or class, and I wasn't accepted for who I was." And that was really powerful to me so I collaborated with these directors, Hugo and Maria, in Brooklyn and we've created this website at HomecomingKingshow.com where people can share their stories. Because I think that's the power of storytelling. If it's just me on stage telling stories for like an hour that's great, that's fine, but like a sandcastle on the beach it gets washed away at night. It's so much more powerful if we can all share our narratives and doorstep moments and make us feel a little less alone. I'm just trying to use social media and new media as a way to capture that. Humans Of New York did a great job to capture that in Pakistan and Syria. They're making the world feel a little bit smaller and those narratives engender empathy among one another.
Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King debuts at the Cherry Lane Theater on October 15th: tickets here.