As a first generation Indian American, Hasan Minhaj remembers having a tough time explaining to his parents what pursuing a comedy career would look like for him.
“They were just like, ‘What are you doing? What does this entail?’ — that was their biggest concern,” he remembers. “The more I explained it to them, the more disappointed I would actually feel. I was like, ‘Look. I go on stage and tell jokes late at night in basements, and sometimes people get drunk and yell at me … You’re right, Dad. This is a horrible decision.’”
Little did his parents know, Minhaj would end up becoming a senior correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, where he now comments on cultural issues through a comical lens. On top of that, the 30-year-old humorist is also making his theatrical debut in a one-man show called Homecoming King, which is based on true events from Minhaj’s first generation Indian-American experience.
Throughout his childhood, Minhaj admits that he was never a performer — although he did spend time speaking in front of people while taking part in speech and debate activities. In fact, he didn’t really get a taste of comedy until his years at University of California, Davis, where he studied political science. “We didn’t have cable growing up,” Minhaj reflects. “I finally saw stand-up comedy when I was in college, and I was like, ‘Oh! This is funny speech and debate. This is the way I should present arguments.’” From here, he fell in love with the art form, eventually working his way up in the comedy world before landing on The Daily Show. And by working alongside Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah over the past few years, Minhaj admits he has grown as not only a comedian but also as a debate maker.
“One of the things that I learned at The Daily Show is to first figure out your argument, and then make it funny,” Minhaj says. “Too often, people are just trying to crack jokes. But believe it or not, having a great, sound argument is way harder than just making jokes.”
During a recent set at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents dinner, Minhaj was able to put these skills to the test, blasting Congress at one point for their inaction in passing gun control legislation. “I was like, ‘This is a huge elephant in the room, and I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to say this in front of Congress — the people that can actually pass common sense gun legislation,’” he says. So rather than throwing around “witty barbs,” he chose to instead speak on a relevant issue that he felt needed to be addressed.
“I just want to talk about things that I really care about,” Minhaj says. “That’s just the way I think.”
Much like his remarks from the Radio and Television Correspondents dinner, Homecoming King comes straight from Minhaj’s heart, highlighting real-life experiences that the comedian has had throughout his life. Over the course of a 75-minute narrative, Minhaj travels through different vignettes while touching on themes like heartbreak, racism and the American dream. Considering the seriousness of some of these personal stories, Homecoming King is not strictly a comedy.
“I remember distinctly being in class, learning about the Constitution, and learning that we have these unalienable rights,” Minhaj says. “When that wasn’t reflected back to me, there was a part of me that was like, ‘Hey, that’s not right. I’m holding this receipt, and on the receipt, it says this is what I’m supposed to be getting for the American dream.’”
Unlike much of his work on The Daily Show, Minhaj sees Homecoming King as a piece of comedy that can stand the test of time. “I’m making Donald Trump jokes today, and come January 20, those might not be relevant anymore,” he says. “But these true stories that are rooted in these central themes that have been prevalent in America since its inception remain relevant, even after the events themselves have ended.” With this in mind, he ensures that Homecoming King will not be his last time doing theater.
“If you were to think of comedic and emotional notes from A to Z, you can kind of only play notes A through M with just a microphone,” he concludes. “But when you take it to the theater and you’re doing things with actual physical evidence behind you, and you can use lights, sounds, video and all these different tools, you can play notes A through M and N through Z, which just opens up the possibilities. I can’t wait to continue to create shows like this.”