'Patriot Act's' Hasan Minhaj on the Value of Being an Outsider in America

'The Daily Show' alum and Netflix host talks about why audiences are seeking out voices like his.
'The Daily Show' alum and Netflix host talks about why audiences are seeking out voices like his. Hasan Minhaj
Images courtesy of Netflix

Californian-born Hasan Minaj may be as American as apple pie, Walmart, and bacon served atop of a football, but at times, he says he doesn't feel like a local.

"There have been moments when I've felt like, man… I'm kind of an outsider regardless of what's on my birth certificate," the comedian and current host of Netflix’s Patriot Act says. "I don't fit in at the party."

When you're the first Muslim Indian-American TV news-meets-comedy host in literal existence as well, that doesn’t exactly help either. The son of immigrants, he spent two-and a-half years at The Daily Show as a senior correspondent, toured for a one-man stand-up comedy show in Homecoming King (2017), which started as an off-Broadway show, but was picked up by Netflix and premiered in 2017 as a Netflix Original Comedy Special.


Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj is a tailor-made project for the comedian to deliver news in his own quirky way—left-leaning with the views of a brown dude who treats issues as an outsider. In one episode, he breaks down the unrest in Sudan and discusses Pinterest "hacks" with a Sudanese activist. In another, he's discussing the absurdity of Internet equality with giant screens, and social media screenshots as his backgrounds.

He's had the perfect résumé for someone with a voice that matters, and with the season 3 finale of Patriot Act having just aired, I had a chance to chat with the host about why audiences are increasingly turning to voices like his for answers.

VICE: As someone who meshes comedy with stories of corruption and crisis, how do you consume that information without destroying your faith in humanity?
Hasan Minhaj: What's wild is when it comes to the variety of topics we cover on the show; there's been incredible darkness. Some of the topics and subject matter we've covered involved drug pricing and the protests currently happening in Sudan. But in-between all of that, we've always been able to find glimmers of hope. Whether it's the Sudanese protestors or even a community that's setting up municipal broadband to fight back against larger broadband monopolies, it's all hope. I've tried not to end any of my pieces with the feeling that all is lost and that the world is ending. I've tried to find threads in the soil where there's hope and promise.


Where does that positivity come from though, especially when you're exposed to so much darkness?
To me, optimism is a more productive choice to denialism. Even in stories as dark as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi when we covered Saudi Arabia, we made sure to bring up, that despite there being a ton of media coverage around the bad, Saudi activists are continuing to fight to lift the woman's driving ban or for the right of freedom of speech. There are all of these things that I ultimately see as really admirable and commendable.

I guess I'm wondering how you filter out that information without having it weigh on you. Unlike some who cover these topics, you occasionally get close and personal with your subjects.
It's interesting because the actual task of doing the episode is the heaviest lift. Believe it or not, focusing in on one specific topic and having it consume my mind for long periods is actually a really good thing for me. It's so much better than a life of being on a show that was on every single day. If it were linked to American politics only, my life would be connected to a never-ending tweetstorm of insanity. I wouldn't be able to take it.


When you decided that you didn’t want to be another Indian Seth Myers, when did that eureka moment occur?
The truth is that I've always wanted to lean into my strengths. I adore visual storytelling. I love using screens, data visualization, tear outs, clips, and having a runway room to dive into something in a deep, meaningful way, all that good stuff. That's how I wanted to structure every act on Patriot Act. It's built on everything that I've worked on in my career, and it embodies my attitude. I'm completely into moving around a stage while using my hands to explain things in a very detailed way (laughs). But also, it's about the breaking down of that information in a way that's simple, digestible and easy to understand. Our team of graphic designers and researchers all work in lockstep to create a show that's unique. Every episode looks different, and I'm just thankful that it still looks, unlike any other show that's on right now.


You've also broken down issues of Sudan's unrest better than many news outlets, for example. Do you think it says something that many of us are looking to entertainers for real answers versus news organizations and world leaders?
We live in this specific age, and that isn't a bad thing. People want issues to be explained coherently, quickly but with gravity. Comedy and political satire are currently some of our best ways to communicate these esoteric topics in a very quick, easy, and digestible way. That's why an audience turns to it. It's more palatable than say, reading The Economist (laughs), even if I have the utmost respect for journalistic outlets. They're doing incredible work, and without them, I wouldn't have any informational backbone to my pieces. We're a news-driven show, so we need journalism to back up all that good stuff that we do. In the end, it's about synthesizing that information, showcasing trends, and making jokes around it all.

Shifting gears a bit, I think one of the things that I love is that you get personal about your family and heritage as you inform. How has your background informed your perspective?
I'm an Indian American Muslim. I'm always reminded of that. And as a result, I've always had an insider-outsider relationship with America. I'm a citizen, and I grew up here and loved it as any American kid would. But at the same time, there have been moments when I've felt like, man… I'm an outsider regardless of what's on my birth certificate. I don't fit in at the party. And believe it or not, that's how the rest of the world feels about America. They have an inside or outside relationship with this country, where, because of our power and America's position in popular culture, everybody knows about us. They know about our politics, music, films, TV, and at the same time, people in South America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and around the world are asking the same question. What the hell is going on in America? That's the same feeling of an insider and outsider. Coincidentally enough, it's also been a huge strength for me when I've tried to connect with local and international audiences at the same time.


And you have. Does the response to Patriot Act surprise you?
Yes, it's always humbling. You have no control over the way something connects or resonates with people. You put it out in the world, and it's no longer up to you anymore. Now your art is out in the public, and it's out there to be consumed and judged with a determination of it's good or not. When I think about that, just the fact that there are people out there watching these episodes every week. The fact that they're sharing them and talking about them in a way that moves the needle in some way is amazing. I've been so proud of our team. And it's incredible especially as such a young show. To get the looks that we're getting right now is both humbling and encouraging.

What's your view on the state of entertainment when it comes to black and brown people in entertainment?
I'll say that we're living through a very critical inflection point for artists of colour in the entertainment industry. There's a huge desire from platforms to buy and purchase content from a specific point of view. So to me, there's an opportunity for us to create work that is very specific in touching markets that have never been touched before. Seeing shows like Insecure and Rami are testaments to the idea that you don't have to make broad generic comedy or film choices. You can make things that are specific and unique. And the digital model behind platforms like Netflix allows us to find audiences that can be significant in size. That point of view is what shaped a lot of the decisions I made to press play on specific episodes that we did on the show.

The sport of cricket, for example, is something we don't play here in America. But it's the second most watched sport in the world. We're talking about two billion people who are watching cricket in the Cricket World Cup. That's a massive part of the world that a streaming platform can reach. And YouTube also lends to the idea that we're touching every aspect of the world. That means a lot to me, and that's what is at stake right now for creatives of colour with an international perspective. It's an exciting time we're living in.

Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.