In episode 2 of Netflix show Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj, the comedian delves into the many grim orders of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, one of which is the detention of Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal and the subsequent hostage video released. It’s a sombre topic, but Minhaj breaks the tension by pointing out what appear to be “two solid-gold lotas right behind him”. Not only is it a joke that is uniquely Indian, but it’s one that mines humour out of a tough situation. The episode, which began with the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, now segues into “booty health tips”.
The transition isn’t hard, says Minhaj over the phone. “The key is finding things that feel interesting. It’s that simple. Once you have a clear take, you’ll see how quick the jokes come on top of it. Jokes are easy, the take is the hardest part. You need a take that’s clever or interesting. We establish it by a sort of thesis statement at the top of every act.”
Patriot Act’s format – a lengthy monologue based on in-depth research into a single topic, backed up by infographics – might remind some of another Late Night alum, John Oliver. But that’s where the similarities end. Where it doesn’t conform to the late-night standard is the absence of a bulky desk. Minhaj saunters across the floor, delivering something of a cross between “if Michael Bay directed a PowerPoint presentation” and “a woke TED Talk”, as he describes it. Behind him, pie charts, bar graphs and maps dance in and out of the screen in sync with his speech.
“I just wanted to do a show that was different. I love standing, I love moving my hands, I love storytelling, I love using LEDs and big screens and the actual speeches that I write to tell a story. I love walking and storytelling. I also love investigative reporting and politics. That was something that was part of The Daily Show. So I kept everything that I love and I eliminated everything that I thought was unnecessary and antiquated. If I had kept those things, before you know it, I’d have been behind a desk and there would’ve been a huge city skyline behind me. And now it just feels authentic and not like everything else,” he says.
All three episodes that have released so far feel like stand-up routines, combining the heartfelt storytelling of Minhaj’s 2017 Netflix special Homecoming King, with the scathing political wit of his White House correspondents’ dinner speech.
Even the show’s title is a reference to the USA Patriot Act signed into law by President George W. Bush following the 9/11 terror attacks. “It’s a huge, controversial and unfortunately forgotten piece of legislation that really came to life during a critical time in my life, I was in high school. The title felt incredibly American, but the invasion of privacy in assigning criminality to one group of people felt so un-American. The time came to develop the show and we were developing each ‘act’ of it, I just felt that calling it Patriot Act was just redefining the Patriot Act. It’s also when people break it down: Oh wow, it’s really interesting that a guy named Hasan Minhaj could also be a patriotic American,” he says.
This sentiment carries over into the show, with Minhaj infusing each episode with his own experiences as an American man born to Muslim family from Uttar Pradesh. Some are poignant, some self-deprecating, but all sincere. In ‘Affirmative Action’, the case against racial quotas is interspersed with what it means to be a first-generation American growing up in Davis, California. “Hey, if you’re Asian, don’t check the box. It’s going to hurt you,” Minhaj recounts being told while filling out college applications. Similarly, a critique of America’s murky relationship with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in ‘Saudi Arabia’ segues into an exploration of his own identity as a Muslim – “Whenever Saudi does something wrong, Muslims around the world have to live with the consequences: Hey, don’t chop off my hand Saudi-style.”
He laughs at the suggestion that his monologues could be described as ‘theatrical’ or ‘dramatic’, a style that sets him apart from other late-night hosts, saying it takes a lot of work to get them that way. “There’s a lot of drama there, that’s for sure. But I spend a lot of time writing and auditing the scripts. A lot of our stories have been developing over a long time. While we’re writing, it’s like a recipe. We’re going: How much of it is going to be serious? Okay now we’re going to break out and do a comedy routine and then go back to it. We really try to work on the actual configuration of the show which I don’t think has been done in the late-night genre.”
Netflix’s order of 32 episodes – one every Sunday – set to air in 190 countries, puts Minhaj in a position to affect real change through his platform. After he called out the United States Central Command for describing some Saudis as having “some later mixture of Negro blood” in its training manual, it apologised for its offensive language, saying it had pulled the document from its website. But the comedian isn’t taking himself too seriously. “I just want to be telling stories from a different perspective that hasn’t been done before,” he says.