Hasan Minhaj, the stand-up comedian and “The Daily Show” correspondent, performed at Winterfest on Saturday, February 3. We talked to him backstage before the show.
Campus Times: You had performed stand up for seven years before headlining. Was that ever discouraging?
Hasan Minhaj: It was discouraging, but I was lucky that I got to start comedy in a place that’s — this is gonna sound like I’m making fun of Sacramento — but not a premiere, A-list market, like San Francisco or LA or New York, so I was just really, really obsessed with building up as much time as I could, opening for headliners, and just trying to find my voice. And whenever seasoned headliners would come in, I’d be like, “Whoa, these guys are really really good. I have quite a ways to go.” So, it was discouraging, how good some of the headliners were, but it was encouraging that [I felt like], “Hey! I’m a little bit below the radar. I can keep cookin’ and keep getting better at my craft.
CT: You talk a lot about your parents in “Homecoming King.” You joked about your father at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. What was their reaction when you said you wanted to do comedy?
HM: (Laughs) Um, they took it pretty tough, but you know, I feel like the snake venom of my dreams just slowly went through their body over the past decade. And so it washed over them very slowly where it went from, you know, “Okay, you can’t do comedy. Okay, this is just a phase. No, seriously. Please stop doing comedy. Okay, we can’t change you, just, At least be good at this. Hey, we’re proud of you.” It was like working through this whole cycle.
CT: Do you give your parents a heads up if you’re going to talk about them in a set?
HM: You know what? I am genuinely very lucky. My dad has an incredibly good sense of humor. I actually got a lot of my stage presence, believe it or not, from him. He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life. He’s very charismatic, he’s an incredibly good public speaker. I know that a lot of parents would be mortified at their children saying anything about them, but my dad really takes it all in stride, and I really respect him for that, because there’s so many people that I’ve made fun of, people that are far more powerful than my dad — politicians, people in public office, that don’t have that level of sense of humor or are just humiliated. [But my Dad’s outlook is], “Hey, we all can laugh at ourselves.” So, it’s pretty cool. He’s really genuinely very cool about it. But I’m also lucky that I genuinely do love my parents. And I lucked out there. You know, we have a relatively positive relationship.
CT: Were there any comedy bits when you were first getting interested in comedy that you would watch over and over again?
HM: I watched Chris Rock’s “Never Scared” a bunch, I watched a lot of Mitch Hedberg, I watched a lot of Demetri Martin, I watched a lot of [Dave] Chappelle. And then I just started going backwards and started watching Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce, and I started just going back in like comedy history, which was really really cool too.
CT: Would you agree with the assessment that your comedy is kind of a means to an end of delivering a message?
HM: I genuinely do feel like I use comedy as a tool to share something with the world. I feel like a lot of the things I’ve experienced in my life or a perspective that I have, I really, really would love to add something to the chapter that is this book called modern comedy. I feel like I’m in a very specific, interesting time in history. Son of immigrants, Muslim-American background, growing up and becoming an adult post 9/11, finding my way in America, I’m an American citizen, but at the same time, sometimes I feel like I’m less than, and I try to use comedy as a tool to describe my perspective and my view on what it means to be a patriotic American.
CT: At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, were you a bit afraid that a roast would get a bit too deep under the president’s skin and something terrible would happen?
HM: To be honest with you, dude, President Trump, he is such a mastermind of the media and he’s almost like a professional wrestler. I was prepared for him to literally kick through the back doors of the Washington Hilton, WWE style, and I’d be like “Oh, holy shit! It’s Donald Trump!” And he’s there with, you know, Steve Austin and Triple H and he was gonna come in and just DDT me through a table. I was literally expecting that. So, I had a list of jokes called Defcon Orange in case he showed up. And it was just, you know, comedy jokes ready to go in case he burst through those doors.
CT: What is it like going into a event like that, where you know that half the room is going to not be laughing on principle?
HM: I got a great piece of advice from Larry Wilmore. Larry was just like, “Look. You’re not playing to that room. You have a very rare opportunity to roast that room on behalf of the world and the country. So just keep in mind you’re playing to C-Span, which will then play to the internet.” But when you’re in the room, yes. You are sweating. You are like, “Wow, they are not taking this well.” And you have to be up there for a half an hour, which is a long time. But I didn’t realize how well it went until I was coming around the closing bend and I talked about the importance of journalism and how journalists aren’t the enemy of the people and in fact the type of persecution that they’re dealing with in their fight with the administration is similar to what minorities feel. So I was like, “Congratulations, now you know what it feels like to be a minority.” And I feel like there was a release in that moment. They understood where I was coming from in that moment. I could understand where they were coming from. So when I talked about the significance of the night, and that was sort of towards the back three minutes of the speech, and then I could feel like, “Oh, this is clicking. They’re really into this.”
CT: Is it tough to limit your criticism to jokes?
HM: Well, I’m very lucky in the sense that one of the things that I try to do in my comedy is — I can pivot between jokes and earnestness. And the more I’ve been able to just lean in to that superpower, I’ve found I’ve been able to open up a whole new sort of creative level for me that I find to be really, really interesting, hitting both highs and lows through jokes and through silence. And that, to me, is really, really rewarding, to be able to play all the notes.
CT: “Homecoming King” had parts that were really very cinematic. Are you a movie guy?
HM: I’m a big fan of pushing the medium and saying, “Where can we take this?” You know, “Where can we take the comedy special? How far can we take it?” And I was really, really inspired by a lot of the comedians in Europe that come out of Edinburgh that do these like big, ornate, one-man shows or one-woman shows that are sort of centered around a specific idea or theme. And then I was also inspired by the way stage is presented in films. Specifically in the movie “Birdman.” I loved how there were parts of that movie that were entirely one take and how you could bring the camera on stage literally inches away from your face and they could document an entire performance and it felt really palpable and real. It was one of the first specials where I really wanted to storyboard scenes and emotional moments, to go, “Oh, let’s try this here and do this here.” It was a swing and I just wanted to present it to the public and go, “What do you guys think of this? I think that this could be an interesting place we could take comedy specials.”
CT: Is working at the “Daily Show” as busy as it looks?
HM: Yeah. It’s crazy. It’s so fun. It really is. It’s like being on — you know the TV show “Chopped?” It’s like a political version of the TV show “Chopped.” It’s like, “Look, you have gummy bears, you have a memo, and you have this crazy thing happening in Saudi Arabia. Talk about it.” And you have to build a meal out of that. And then as soon as you’re done, it just washes away and you gotta do another show Tuesday.
CT: So how is it you set about writing a segment?
HM: You know, it just gets you to just sort of really be present and believe in the process, which I think is really good.
CT: What don’t you have time for now that you miss from back when you had more?
HM: You know, one of the things that I miss is sometimes having a little bit of a creative break from the churn of the news cycle. It would be nice to sometimes just step away from it and sort of fly at a higher altitude, not be so caught up in the cycle of covfefe and just be one tweet away from ruining your entire day and then having to react to that.
CT: Do you have any advice for any aspiring comedy writers who might be reading?
HM: I think one of the best pieces of advice that I’ve been given is to practice your craft every day. Even if it’s writing 100 words or 200 words or free-writing. Practice your craft every day and make it a part of your life and really understand that you’re playing the long game. I didn’t get to join the show until I was almost 30 years old. I was 29, I think, at the time. And I had started in college when I was 18 or 19, so it was a long time before I got to join the “Daily Show,” but I was really proud of just the progress that I made every day, every six months, every year, that, “Hey, I have five minutes now, I have 10 minutes now, I have an hour now,” and realizing that if you really do love comedy or writing, you’re playing for life. And so, in the grand scheme of things, two years, five years, 10 years, it’s nothing in the scheme of something like a 60-year career.