For those of you who can’t already tell by his work, Hasan Minhaj is the personification of coolness. He did a whole field piece about sneakers for God’s sake. But beyond footwear, Hasan is cool because he is a genuinely good person. In a genre ridden with cynicism and sadness, Hasan brings a unique point of view to comedy. He tells jokes from a place of hope. Both in his stand-up and as a Senior Correspondent on The Daily Show, his punch lines punch up at ignominious institutions, people, constructs—taking them down one laugh at a time. With his keen eye for what can be fixed Hasan’s comedy often feels like a call to action: like he’s saying, “Come on guys we can do better.” And then you want to because he so convincing, so funny, and honestly so right. Hasan has also taken the theater world by storm this year in his mega Off-Broadway hit Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, which ended it’s consistently sold out run last month. Unlike his regular stand-up sets, in Homecoming King Hasan used his storytelling talents to delve more deeply into his experience as a first generation Indian-American in high school. Hasan is doing good by doing good work, making America laugh in the process. In this interview, Hasan explains how.
When did you realize you wanted to pursue comedy?
I got into comedy when I was in college. In the dorms they had T3 Internet connection, which is really linked to media: movies…where people were really tautening stuff. If you wanted to watch The Simpsons there would be a guy who had all of The Simpsons, all of the Matrix, all of everything. When I grew up, we didn’t have cable in the house and so I had never really known what stand-up comedy was. I thought it was the stuff at the beginning of Seinfeld where he’s standing in front of the brick wall like [doing a Seinfeld impression], “What’s the deal with laundry?” And I thought, eh that’s not funny. I don’t like stand-up. Then I saw this Chris Rock special—my friend showed it to me. It was Chris Rock’s Never Scared and I was like, “Oh my God, I love this!” And that was the end of it.
Would you say that was the big inspiration to make comedy a career?
That was the moment when I knew I wanted to do it. I wanted to try stand-up comedy.
The Truth with Hasan Minhaj was such a great web series. Can you talk a bit about doing self-produced comedy as an aspiring comedian?
For me, I was part of the sketch group called GoatFace Comedy and the director, his name is Aristotle Athirase, he was one of the ones who said, “Hey man I really think you’re funny when you do this and you have a really interesting take and perspective on global and world events. You should share that with people and you should do this through this vlog.” And I was like, “Vlogging is usually annoying and people are holding a camera to themselves and yelling at the camera. I don’t think people will care to hear what I want to [say].” And my buddy, Aristotle…was like, “No, I’m telling you. It resonates with me and it resonates with everyone in the group so please do it.”
So we did it and it went great. One of the first episodes did really, really well and we stuck with it. One of the [motives] behind GoatFace was, “Hey, we don’t see ourselves on screen and why don’t we share what we want to see on the screen with the world. Why don’t we just make it ourselves?” I really think that because of the Internet and the democratization of the Internet, specifically with SLR cameras and blogging and podcasting, it has become a really fair and equalized medium for people to at least get their message out there. It may not be in a big Hollywood movie budget sort of way, but when it was something like The Truth or Indian Spiderman or any of the sketches that we shot, it really came down to us rolling up our sleeves and putting our blood, sweat and tears into it. [Sure] enough, it had an audience. People hadn’t seen stuff like that before and they really, really liked it.
Does the LA comedy scene greatly differ from the NY one?
I would say they’re different in certain ways and similar in certain ways. I think there’s something similar about both. Comedy specifically in LA, there are only like three major clubs—The Improv, The Laugh Factory, The Comedy Store—in Hollywood proper, and that’s it really. What came out of that is a burgeoning, blossoming scene of all these new alternative rooms where you’ll have stand-up comedy at a comic book shop or a taco stand: cool interesting ways to [put on] shows. That’s really awesome.
New York has that sort of tried and true—they have a ton of clubs in the area and then a ton of other alternative shows. In terms of quantity, there’re just so many shows in New York. And so you can get up a ton if you want to get up in New York, which is awesome.
And I will say that another thing cool about New York, I feel very lucky is, I got to launch my show Homecoming King, which was Off-Broadway. There’s such a culture for theater here in New York City where people love and appreciate theater. You can run a show for thirty nights and people will come all thirty nights because it’s a part of New York culture. “Oh, we’re going to go see a show.” It’s a thing.
How did the development of Homecoming King differ from the development of one of your stand up sets?
No that came about out of this story I told on The Moth Radio Hour called Prom. It was really a popular story on the podcast. Catherine Burns, the Creative Director of The Moth, was like, “I really like what you’re doing and I think that what you are doing is really important. You should flesh this out into something bigger.”
I kept working on it and mining stories from my life. I sort of pulled it out into this narrative theme almost like a brown John Hughes movie. It was growing up in Davis [California], and all the experiences I had, falling in love and not having that work out the way I had wanted it to. It tracked me through the course of my life.
One of the big themes that we hit in the show was, if love can be greater than fear. That was one of the big humanistic elements that we talked about in the work. What I found to be really interesting about that was when I was getting really personal and exploring it from a theatrical perspective with my director, Greg [Walloch], was that there are parts that are really emotional in the show—things you can’t do in a traditional comedy show. That’s why we brought it to the theater space. Then we developed it at the Sundance Labs and now we’ve brought it Off-Broadway.
So it feels very different from doing at set?
Yeah, it feels different. There are still funny moments, but it’s a theatrical piece. There are lighting cues, there are sound cues, there are visuals behind me and there are parts that just are not funny, at all. But they’re not trying to be funny.
What is the job of a Daily Show correspondent?
There’s two parts to our job. There’s what happens in the studio where we write pieces that we do in studio. And then we’ are also field reporters. All of the field reports that you see on the show where we’re interviewing other people, we’re out in the field and building those things. So that’s essentially what your job is, it’s two things. You’re either pitching and writing stuff for in studio or you’re pre-producing, producing, shooting or editing a field segment. Between those two things you’re also pitching and writing out new things, which is also important.
For you, where’s the line between funny and offensive?
Hmm, interesting. I think it’s all about intention. I know a lot of times that’s not brought into the story. A lot of times it’s, are you punching up or are you punching down? Are you punching up at institutions that should be taken down and they can take those hits, i.e. corrupt politicians or systems and structures that are in place that unfairly hurt women, children, minorities, other marginalized groups. Versus punching down at marginalized groups you’re hurting people who are already being stepped on. I think the biggest thing is seeing what is the artist’s intention behind their work.
For me, I’ve always approached it from one of those things where I want to do everything I can through humor and satire to spread love in some positive way, to move the needle forward in some positive direction to make things a little better for fifteen year old versions of me that are walking around. For future generations, I just want things to be a little bit easier, a little bit better. I think that one of the pieces of advice Jon [Stewart] gave me was, “Maybe with comedy you can’t change the world but we can offer people a moment of respite. That’s really what matters.”
How do you develop a joke?
That’s a good question. It usually starts with me fleshing out what I’ve been working on or what’s been on my mind. That’s really where it starts. It usually starts with something that’s not funny. I construct the argument and I build comedy around the argument.
What about when you’re doing field pieces where a lot of the time you’re making jokes at the expense of the person you’re interviewing? What happens when it doesn’t land?
The thing about being in the field is that we have digital tape. You can burn tape. What you see in a five-and-a-half minute or six-minute field piece, obviously the three interviews that were shot were many, many, many hours. But you boil that down to the bare essentials of what you need to convey the story: this is the narrative, this is the argument we’re trying to present, this is what we’re trying to show. We weave that together using those interviews…
There are structured questions that we ask. Then there’s also what you just find in the moment when you’re with [the interviewee]. People are saying very interesting, fascinating things and you’ve just got to roll with it. That’s what comes with the show. So, there are a lot of balls you throw up there and you’re like, ok, that did not land, or they’re not feeling the question, or this is not going the way I planned. You’ve got to stay in the pocket and stay with it.
What’s your advice for aspiring comedians?
Hmmm. I would say, just get obsessed with the process. If you fall in love with the actual process of doing the work, the things you lay out that are three months ahead of you, six months ahead of you, a year ahead of you, that will make you really, really, really happy. Just obsess over those things. If those give you joy, then man, you’re going to have an amazing career in life. You know, being creative and being able to do it for a living is a blessing, but getting caught up in the facade of what it means—how many Twitter followers are behind you, what show you work on, all that stuff—that is a never ending, never fulfilling, endless bucket that will never get filled up. There will always be a show that’s better than yours, or clothes that are nicer than yours, or a crew that cooler. Whatever it is, there’s always going to be those things that are going to be scratching at your ego going, Huh, don’t you want more? Isn’t this thing better? Look at what everybody else is talking about? Especially in this odd, Twitter/Instagram/Vine social media age where one day something is really, really hot and the next day something else. It will never stop. I would say that the thing that matters is the craft itself because all the external things will keep evolving and changing. But we will always need great writers, great poets, great journalists, great storytellers. Those people will always be valued so just focus and be obsessed with that.♦