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Opinion | Meet Hasan Minhaj, ‘Patriot’

Netflix's 'Patriot Act' is the first ever late-night style show with a Muslim host, and comedian Hasan Minhaj deserves our attention

As an Indian there’s something casually revolutionary about watching Minhaj.
As an Indian there’s something casually revolutionary about watching Minhaj.

There is no desk. Hasan Minhaj, the razor-sharp Indian-American comedian, uses his new Netflix series Patriot Act to deliver politically aware commentary the same way a rapper would lay down a verse: on his feet, clad in solid sneakers. This instantly differentiates the comedian from his peers—the closest parallel would be Last Week Tonight With John Oliver—and Minhaj frolics like a mildly electrocuted MTV host while educating us on wind turbines and that time Harvard University was really into eugenics.

This takes some getting used to. Minhaj moves so frantically that it initially feels like the frame rate is skewed, as if Netflix were doing a Hotstar (true story: Hotstar broadcasts their premium content 5% faster than it was originally broadcast, according to Medianama). I confess I was immediately annoyed. The big-eyed jumpiness makes Minhaj appear like that animated Microsoft Office paper clip that would jump up in the right corner at the bottom of the screen, unwanted and unliked, telling us how to write letters. Except this guy makes sense, and we could do with a listen. Settle in quietly, then, and let him do the jumping around as he pivots from subject to subject.

Patriot Act is a landmark. It is the first “late-night" style talk show anchored by a Muslim, and Minhaj delivers both perspective and street cred. He is a comedian unafraid to be politically savage (“Donald Trump tweets at 3am sober," he said, while hosting the White House Correspondents Dinner last year. “Who is tweeting at 3am sober? Donald Trump, because it’s 10am in Russia. Those are business hours"), yet he also typifies the new-age comedian who bares himself on stage and gets disconcertingly personal, as demonstrated in his justifiably acclaimed Netflix special, Homecoming King.

“Hindus like cartoons," he said on Homecoming King. “They’re like, ‘Oh, this is a cartoon Ganesh, I’ll just put this on the wall.’ And Muslims… we don’t really, uh, like cartoons. We’ve got to be better about our cartoon policy. Because of this we’ve been killing each other for centuries." Over at the Patriot Act, he explains that “Mecca and Medina are the Muslim ‘Infinity Stones’ of holiness," and how “Saudi Arabia was basically the boy-band manager of 9/11. They didn’t write the songs, but they helped get the group together."

Written and co-created by Emmy-nominated writer Prashanth Venkataramanujam, Patriot Act drops new episodes every Sunday. These are 20-something minute single-subject deep dives, into topics as diverse as Affirmative Action and the way Amazon is taking over the world—which feels a bit slippery considering he’s performing for an Amazon competitor, but Minhaj colours no cow sacred. He fires a shot at the popular new series Bodyguard, saying that Netflix broadcasts both the “first Muslim talk show host…and Bodyguard. Stay woke, Netflix. Bodyguard is good, right? It’s so good you almost forget about the Islamophobia."

As an Indian viewer, there’s something casually revolutionary about watching Minhaj fly. Every now and then he uses a Hindi/Urdu word or phrase, unapologetically urging the world to use lotas instead of toilet paper, and when he has to draw up examples, they often end up being Kunals and Kabirs instead of Steves and Roberts. The crowd always has Indian and Pakistani faces who completely get these jokes about Indian aunties, and who are inevitably, at some point, shocked by this guy originally from Uttar Pradesh but born and raised in California. We haven’t seen this brownness before, and it feels exciting and inclusive.

John Oliver taught us all a lot about well-researched long-form exploration, and there’s much to be said about the way immigrant comedians and journalists are the ones holding the mirrors up to America. Another one getting better with each episode is Trevor Noah, the South African host of The Daily Show, whose Between The Scenes videos on Facebook are particularly brilliant. Minhaj—eager to laugh at himself as long as he’s the first one to make the joke—is aware of the similarity, and at one point says that a particular subject he’s discussing will only truly explode “when John Oliver does it better in two weeks". The more the merrier, then.

During the show, Minhaj surrounds himself with data—one of his first jokes on Patriot Act is that there are so many screens that it looks like Michael Bay directing a PowerPoint presentation—and he skews to a younger audience than his contemporaries. He doesn’t talk down. He’s one of the gang, meddling, questioning and learning, as opposed to somebody who knows better. Even his bouncy energy is symptomatic of a generational restlessness, animated enough to keep viewers from looking away to the screens in their hands. What he’s saying matters. Like that blasted cartoon paper clip, you can’t ignore him.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

He tweets @rajasen

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