Open your laptop to your Netflix account, and right past the episode of “The Office” that you were just rewatching, nestled below the “Popular Right Now” section, you finally and inevitably will find comedian Hasan Minhaj’s surprised face on the digital poster for “Patriot Act: Volume 2.”
Click on it, and the artful opening credits sequence, that terminates with a semi-shocked, graphically illustrated Minhaj, is enough for you to put down whatever study guide, textbook or novel you were pretending to read and dedicate the next thirty minutes or so to Minhaj, his comedy and a mountain of news and political analyses you had never been more willing to receive with pure ease.
Hasan Minhaj is, in every sense, a contradiction. He knows that he discusses and pokes fun at topics that are extremely controversial, especially for a first-generation child of Muslim immigrants from India like himself, but he does it anyway. In Volume 1 of his Netflix long-form political talk show, “Patriot Act,” he uses “we” almost exclusively, as though his entire audience is in on his plethora of inside jokes.
He uses language to incorporate his cultural upbringing into his biting critique of everything from affirmative action to the streetwear brand Supreme, as though his viewers know the specific “uncles and aunties” he refers to, and as if anyone can understand his anecdotes that are nearly exclusive to those of a South Asian background. It’s fitting, considering Minhaj has previously noted that his brand of comedy targets an audience of “second-generation Americans of color,” a group that Minhaj deems a “New Brown America.”
As an international student from India, I often find myself changing around my accent to make it easier for the American I am speaking with to understand me, or using words I am not used to in my everyday language, like “elevator” instead of “lift” or “shower” instead of “bath.” Minhaj, on the other hand — forgive my millenial, crass language — “gives no shits.”
He doesn’t care that his audience most definitely consists of non-Indians; he assumes, right from the beginning, that his audience understands — which is precisely where “Patriot Act” finds its strength. Minhaj observes that people around the world have grown up learning about the United States — I, for example, learned more about America’s involvement in the World Wars than about India’s, despite the fact that all my schooling was done in India — and is making an effort to ensure that the opposite is true as well.
It’s almost as though he is telling his audience that, if they don’t understand what he is exploring through his offbeat “niche” cultural references, they should look it up. Along with political commentary, he is pushing his audience to learn more — to be smarter. He doesn’t force a conversation about India into his all of his jokes, but represents the cultural aspect of his identity by effortlessly and gracefully incorporating it into seemingly disparate topics.
At the same time, Minhaj is careful not to exclude any member of the millennial population, to whom his jokes and his content are primarily targeted. His “Digital Exclusives” are exemplary of this. From a collaboration with Queer Eye’s Tan France, who was born in England to Punjabi-Pakistani parents, to his review of Subtle Asian Traits, the meme page on Facebook that discusses a variety of Asian immigrant experiences in the West and that has over 1 million followers. In both of these videos, Minhaj charmingly makes references to his experiences as a part of the Indian-American community in a way that its other members can confidently relate. That’s what makes his comedy, his writing and his presentation so incredibly unique.
In a world where Russell Peters was once the most popular Indian-American comedian, Minhaj’s presence was, and still is, urgently needed. Peters used India as his gag and punching bag. Instead of using it as a precursor to joke about something else, he informed his audience of precisely the stereotype that they were used to hearing about the country. Through flowery, exaggerated accents, he coerced his audience into being hooked onto the entertaining, absurd India he depicted through his comedy. Minhaj grabbed all the objectionable traits of Peters’ comedy, broke them down and turned them inside out.
Beyond its cultural promise, “Patriot Act,” is a truly one-of-a-kind talk show. A half-hour show that airs weekly, “Patriot Act” has been dubbed by Minhaj “a woke TED talk,” although it is so much more than that. In every episode, as Minhaj talks about that week’s topic, the multiple screens behind him come to life, constantly shifting as he switches from punchline to punchline, with exquisite graphics and captivating titles. He makes a visual and comedic spectacle of every episode, and everyone from his studio audience members to viewers at home are so thankful that he does.
Since coming to UC Berkeley, I have met Indian international students like me, who have lived in the same country their entire lives and know firsthand what it means to them. I have also met Indians or Indian-Americans who have grown up in the United States, who have only experienced India through the lense of news, pop culture or perhaps their parents.
To me, Minhaj is a combination of these two. From my perspective, he can’t be blamed for not having the same view of India as someone who grew up there, but at the same time, he consistently incorporates his cultural identity into his humor and political discussions in a positive light. Netflix, comedy and the entertainment industry needed Minhaj, and he obliged. And for that, Hasan Minhaj, “New Brown America” — and audiences across the world — thank you.