Minhaj tackles hot-button issues in the first two episodes of his new show.
Political comedy has disappointed under the Trump administration. Whereas baby boomers like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert directed their comedy at disaffected, college-aged millennials, the thrust of The Daily Show and its copycats under Trump has been millennials telling jokes to anxious boomers. Trevor Noah had his flirtatious “civil conversation” with Tomi Lahren and mocked Antifa. Samantha Bee has made a habit of punching left at Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein while backing charter schools in her downtime. Potential millennial and Gen Z viewers have turned to podcasts for their political fix as these shows fight over Rachel Maddow’s audience.
It was only a matter of time until a young comedian saw an opening for a comedy news show with a millennial point of view, delivered by an actual millennial. Hasan Minhaj has seen that opening and wants to run straight through it.
Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj debuted on Sunday with two ambitious episodes that took controversial—even courageous—stances on issues of the day. Despite being fronted by yet another Daily Show veteran, Patriot Act’s format bears more similarity to John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, devoting the bulk of its episodes to a monologue on a single topic. First up for Minhaj: affirmative action and Saudi Arabia.
As an Asian-American from a Muslim family, Minhaj offers an interesting lens through which to explore both of these topics. In the same way that a skilled female film director can subvert the male gaze, Patriot Act feels radical simply by having a thoughtful, conscious point of view that deviates from the default white perspective of the average late-night show. References to Asian parents, Asian customs, Asian stereotypes, and Asian problems abound, though the show still feels effortlessly accessible to a non-Asian audience. This happens thanks to Minhaj’s charisma and his team’s (led by co-creator Prashanth Venkataramanujam) sharp joke writing.
In tackling affirmative action, Minhaj threads a needle that should satisfy most liberals and impress most progressives in the audience. He carefully wades into the tricky waters of identity politics versus intersectional analysis and fares better than anyone who tried to earn the Democratic nomination in 2016.
“I am ripping on uncles in our own community who lack self-awareness and propagate anti-Black and anti-brown rhetoric just so Asians can get ahead,” he says, speaking on the case of Asian-Americans fighting against affirmative action at Harvard. “Is this really about civil rights or about your kid getting into Harvard?”
Minhaj speaks bluntly, but he still cracks jokes as well. (“Caltech had nine Black students; there were more Black people in the Wu-Tang Clan.”) In the course of the first episode, he dismantles Edward Blum’s Students for Fair Admissions—the organization that fronted Abigail Fisher’s affirmative action case against the University of Texas at Austin and is now challenging Harvard for alleged discrimination against Asian-American applicants—so thoroughly that Blum would be brave to show his face in public any time soon.
The second episode of Patriot Act is even more daring. Earlier this year, Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman (M.B.S.) was the toast of Hollywood and Washington, D.C. But American media has backtracked on its adoration since the murder of Washington Post journalist and American resident Jamal Kashoggi, in which M.B.S. has been strongly implicated. Minhaj takes it upon himself to call out the hypocrisy of his peers and to call on his fellow Muslim-Americans to take a stand against Saudi Arabia.
“It took the killing of a Washington Post journalist for everyone to go, ‘Oh, I guess he’s really not a reformer,’” Minhaj says. “Meanwhile, every Muslim person you know was like, ‘No shit!’”
From there, Minhaj reads Saudi Arabia the riot act. “Saudi Arabia was basically the boy band manager of 9/11,” he jokes. “They didn’t write the songs, but they helped get the group together.” He explains Saudi Arabia’s genocidal actions in Yemen in 40 seconds—which is more time than most news programs, let alone comedy shows, have dedicated to the atrocities committed there over the years.
Finally, Minhaj calls out Hollywood and Silicon Valley, reminding the audience that “Saudi Arabia has invested $3.5 billion in Uber alone,” and cheekily adding, “Saudi Arabia and Uber are both places women drivers don’t feel safe.”
Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj has room to grow. Thirty minutes of nonstop monologue in front of graphic-laden screens looks modern, but can feel clunky. Minhaj and his writers sometimes toss out jokes that are a little too niche for a show outside of IFC. (A Call Me By Your Name reference falls particularly flat.) And Minhaj himself comes off as manic in spots, lacking Trevor Noah’s polish and John Oliver’s cool. All of this will presumably improve in time.
And really, all of those things are secondary when you have something to say. That’s exactly what Minhaj and company have going for them. Every celebrity wants to be political right now, but not all of them should be. At a moment when everyone seems to be talking, Hasan Minhaj has a voice actually worth listening to. That should be all that really matters.
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