Hasan Minhaj On 'The Daily Show', DJ Khaled And The American Dream
Originally published on Slant.
It's hard to know what to expect when you're standing in the lobby of The Cherry Lane Theater waiting for Hasan Minhaj's one-man show, Homecoming King, to begin.
The theater, which happens to be New York City's longest continuously running off-Broadway theater, is tucked inconspicuously on Commerce Street, far from the marquees of Times Square, yet still separated from the artistic enclaves of Greenwich Village. The posters of past shows adorn the walls of the lobby, featuring all-time great playwrights like David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Edward Albee, Gertrude Stein, and more.
Is this going to be a comedy show? Serious theater? Something in between?
In Homecoming King, Minhaj recounts usually hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking anecdotes about growing up the son of Indian immigrants in Davis, California. While the show explores themes like first love and the American Dream, in the end, everything comes down to one Hindi phrase repeated throughout the evening: "log kya kahenge?"
"What will people think?"
So while Minhaj's show is extremely personal, focused on his memories of being picked on, being stood up at prom, and eventually finding career success as a new correspondent on The Daily Show, it's really about something more universal: fear of judgment and how that fear stifles our identities and relationships.
I met with Minhaj at The Daily Show studio in Hell's Kitchen to talk about his new show(s) and what he's learned from mining the past for laughs and life lessons.
SD: So why do you call your show Homecoming King? What’s the meaning behind that name?
HM: Yeah, to me it was actually a play on words because I never went to a school dance or any of that stuff growing up. And so that whole culture was foreign to me. I kind of grew up like most kids in high school. I was not part of the "cool crowd" and I was just kind of meandering and figuring out my way through high school, especially being a first generation kid.
There wasn’t a whole lot of diversity at my school. These things were so foreign to me. I actually called it that because the center of the whole show is based around this love story, me falling in love with this girl for the first time and it centers itself around that. And between me and Bethany Reid, you see it play out through the play and then everything comes around.
And so, to me, it’s a story of how I think love can truly overcome fear. Everything comes full circle. And, unlike The Daily Show, which is such a topical show, this is such a personal narrative about my experiences growing up in Davis that it was kind of like a homecoming of sorts. My goal is to eventually bring it to Davis.
SD: How does someone go about writing a one man show? There are so many standup elements in it, but there’s obviously this narrative running throughout that’s not a typical standup set. How did you decide, "Okay, I’m going to turn this into a theater piece" versus "I can just use this and go to clubs and talk about some of these segments?" What was the starting point?
HM: There’s this thing called The Moth which is a really, really popular radio show where two stories are told live on stage. Katherine Burns, who is the creative director of The Moth, came to Los Angeles for a Moth story slam with a bunch of comedians and the theme was heartbreak. And this was about two and a half years ago. I get a call and she goes, "Hey, I would love for you to do this show." I go, "Is it a comedy show?" And she says, "No, it’s a storytelling show and the theme is heartbreak. So just tell like a five-minute story about heartbreak."
I’m driving. I’m like, heartbreak? And I thought about the first girl I ever loved and the first kiss and all these things that happened in my life. And that prom story came up, specifically about me not being able to go to prom with her and the reasons why. And I was like, "Okay, I’ll tell the story."
I didn’t tell it in five minutes. It took me like 12 minutes to say. I lost the story slam so bad. I placed like last in the story slam. Piccolos were going off every minute I was over, so I’m standing there at the doorstep (piccolo noise) and then her mom says (piccolo noise). It was like the worst. And I lost miserably, but Katherine came up to me after the show and was like, "Hey, there’s a pretty powerful message to what you’re saying. I think you should explore it further." I was like, "Really?" She was like, “Yeah, you should continue to flush it out."
Coincidentally enough, as I’m working on the story and the themes within the story of love and forgiveness and hate and self-hate and all these things, the love story continued to evolve and grow, which you see in the show. Things were happening in real time. I get a call from somebody at the Sundance Labs, which is a very popular labs program. A lot of projects, like Fruitvale Station and other sorts of things that were curated and developed in labs, they make them into movies.
SD: Your thing is just like Fruitvale Station (laughs).
HM: Yeah, yeah police brutality, people dying. The same thing (laughs). But, a lot of young artists develop and curate their projects there and then bring them out later.
So I did it, I developed it, at the New Frontier Storytellers Lab, which is a lab designed for new mediums of narrative storytelling. I got paired with this advisor named Sarah Train.
Sarah Train is the creator of the show called The Affair on Showtime and she’s a really popular playwright. So she worked on it with us and helped us develop it further and she was such a great mentor. We came out of that lab and then, coincidentally enough, I got hired to join The Daily Show.
I was like, this is great. We could bring it to New York. And I was working on an ending, I was like where does this end? How does it all come together? And then you see the ending that happened literally as I was moving to New York. And it was just like, what?
And my director Greg Wallach was just like, "Dude, that’s the ending." I was like, “holy shit, yes it is.” Like everything kind of came full circle and so that was really, really cool. And it was something that I had been working and mining in my own mind for years and years and then these threads started appearing throughout the show and throughout my life. And Greg, my director, Greg Wallach helped me find those narrative themes that I didn’t necessarily see.
He locked in on something really interesting where he was like, "Hasan, I see something powerful in the doorstep scene." Because he’s like, so many people have felt "other."
And when we started talking about that theme, and specifically the theme of log kya kahenge (what will people think), he was like, "Dude, that’s one of the most pervasive things that exist in human existence."
I didn’t realize how just a microcosm of not being able to be with this person that I really cared about, those moments present themselves again and again and again and repeatedly at different crossroads of my life. Even when I go out and I tell the story about me getting married to my own wife, this idea of log kya kahenge presents itself again, and I won’t be surprised if it presents itself again further through my marriage and when I have kids. I’m sure it’s something that exists in society.
SD: How much can you trust your own memory as you're writing this show? And how much did you use other people to help jog your memory to help it feel really true?
HM: This is a trip, man. People that I grew up with have come to the show. It’s just nuts, man. Bethany has come to the show with her husband!
But it’s a two-way street. They have a different recollection of events. Like the bullies that bullied you in high school believe you may be wrong.
Like I tell that story with Kevin McShane, my friend who got beat up. He came to the show, he flew up, he lives in Tennessee, and he was like, "Dude, I don’t even remember the fight. I don’t even remember it." And it’s kind of weird because he got in so many fights. He got bullied all the time.
And the kid who bullied him also came to the show and now he’s a successful investment banker. He had no idea he was the guy I was referring to. He had no clue. There’s people like Bethany who genuinely change for the better and I’m so proud of that. I’m so proud of her and her husband and the future that they’re going to create. Like, they’re going to have these future Zayn Malik babies. Their narrative in this country is completely different from the generation before. It’s beautiful and I think it’s what humanity should aspire to be. It defies color, religious and cultural barriers.
Whereas, this other guy, he’s an investment banker. He’s proverbially eating everybody’s cookies. He is eating America’s cookies to this day. So yeah, he fucked over my friend Kevin McShane and he’s fucking us all over. He’s totally going The Big Short on all of us.
SD: Let's talk about your family and some of the topics that you explore in 'Homecoming King.' What was it like growing up as a first-generation immigrant in Davis, California?
HM: You know what’s crazy? I literally just wrote something down, I was just jotting shit down the other night, and it’s, hang on (searches through bag). This is how it felt, I was just on the train and this is exactly what it was like.
(reading) "I feel like first generation kids were a generation lost at sea."
The people before us, our parents, don’t quite get it. Like, when I told my dad David Bowie passed away, he doesn’t quite get it. American popular culture is just not completely there. He’s like, "Was he like Michael Jackson?" I’m like, "Yeah, he’s kind of like Michael Jackson." Do you know what I mean? I’m trying to contextualize. He’s trying to distill it through what he sees on television and experiences through his coworkers, but he’s not quite getting it.
Meanwhile, I’m living through it. I speak Hindi at home, I've got American friends, I’m a part of Americana. Like baseball and apple pie and biryani. Both of those things are, not one more or less, this fused thing.
My kids won’t have to go through this dual narrative the way I did. They just won’t have to. They’ll be like, "Yeah, I’m American, my dad’s American, everything I talk to my dad about he totally gets and there’s no divide." The only divide that we’ll then have is just a generational divide. Like, they’re going to be into some sort of app or technology that I have no idea about.
SD: Yeah, they’re just going to be living in some sort of virtual reality. (laughs)
HM: Yeah, yeah. They’re going to be in Oculus Rift and I’ll be like, "Back in my day, we had to watch porn on a screen like normal people."
SD: How are Indian parents different from American parents?
HM: I think that their concerns are just really because they risked so much to get here. They want to hedge their bets to secure the best possible future for their children. So much of what they are about and the decisions they made were about survival.
That I decided to do comedy or get into the arts was so hard for them. And I’m sure every kid experiences this. They’re like, "We just want what’s best for you. We just want you to be okay." And that’s one of the biggest things that we’re seeing in this country with this idea "tiger moms" and "tiger parents."
I think both sides can learn from the story. Our parents are like, "We know no one, we have no existing connections to the system and the powers that be, our kids, can’t get internships because their uncle doesn’t work at the company. Or there’s no existing power structure of people that look like us and have our name here."
So they just have to excel by merit. That’s why my dad is like, "Forget this comedy thing. I need you to study right now because you don’t have an uncle or a cousin or somebody that you can call that works at that firm. You’re going to have to get it off your merit alone."
Through my parents’ sacrifice, I was able reap all the benefits of the American dream without having to go through so much harrowing, horrible bigotry and institutional pushback. I’ve been able to benefit. I’ve been very lucky.
SD: One of my favorite parts of the show is that you drop a lot of hip-hop references. Who are some of your favorite artists? Who’s on your iPod or Spotify playlist?
HM: Hip-hop was such a huge part of my life growing up because it’s aspirational. Hip-hop, to me, is the American dream. Coldplay isn’t (laughs). You know what I mean?
So it's like, "I don’t care if the system’s behind me. I’m going to get it whether you want me to or not."
That so speaks to Syrian refugees, that so speaks to the groups of like Latino immigrants that are coming here for the first time and learning English and speaking Spanish at home. Hip-hop is so that. It’s so aspirational in its nature. It’s so carpe diem in its nature.
I grew up during what I feel is one of the heydays of hip-hop. Tupac, Biggie, Jay, Eminem. That was my rotation. Now I think Kendrick, J. Cole, and Drake are the guys that are really doing things that are interesting and creative.
Hip-hop has influenced the show and my act because it's so much about narrative storytelling. I love that. It’s about painting a picture of "this where I’m from, this is where I’ve gone and this is what I want out of the world."
SD: What was it like meeting Jon Stewart for this first time? People fantasize about that.
HM: Like dude, New York City, Hollywood, these things seem a million miles away. Number two, Steve Carrell, Steven Colbert, Rob Corddry these guys seem, they seem light years away like it’s like I don’t know how do you even do that? You know, you can’t even conceive the idea of ever even meeting them and so I used to watch the show growing up and was like, "Wow, this is incredible." And what I loved about it was how funny it was, but how it also moved the national dialogue forward.
You have this vision of Jon and the thing that changed it was when I saw him in person. He stepped into the light on The Daily Show set when I was testing for the show. He’s shorter than I thought and he hadn’t shaved, so he had scruff on his face. And, dude, it was like I looked up and I was like, "Dad?"
He is one of the biggest mentors of my life. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for him. He took a chance on me and, to take it back to hip-hop, he gave me the Roc-A-Fella chain. That chain changed my life. He’s the best. Really, who you see on-camera, this person who’s really kind, considerate, caring, and sensitive, is the way he is off camera. It’s not a farce at all.
SD: When did you decide to become a comedian? Who were some comedians that inspired you?
HM: Chris Rock and Greg Giraldo, may he rest in peace. To me, the reason why I loved comedy specifically and why I love doing what we do at The Daily Show is the fact that to me the great comedians are great at speech and debate. They are phenomenal at presenting an argument and then providing evidence as to why you should believe their argument. So Chris Rock, Giraldo, these guys were great at being like, "Okay, here’s my hypothesis. You don’t believe me? Let me provide some evidence, here, here, here and here."
And they were able to distill really, really esoteric and tough concepts and boil them down to their core essence. Or, they were able to go, "Hey, here’s something none of you guys have really seen and allow me to paint a picture for you," and then everyone in the audience goes, "Yes, that’s so true."
They’ll do one of those two things or both of those things, and when a comedian does that, you’re just like, "Oh my God, this is incredible." And as soon as I saw Chris Rock’s special, Never Scared, in college, I was like, I want to do comedy. I want to do this.
SD: What are some issues that you think deserve more coverage on 'The Daily Show?' What are some things 'The Daily Show' could be doing differently?
HM: One thing that I think that we’re doing in this new era, which is really, really cool, is we’re expanding more into the digital space. We’re doing this just by virtue of the fact that we’re still a television show and we only have 22 minutes to play with. There are certain field pieces that we’ve done in the past where we wish we could do a deeper dive. And now, we're able to do that online. Those things don’t get to always make it into Act Two of the show and you just have to cut for time. That’s been really, really, really, really, really cool.
Also, what’s great is that Trevor [Noah] wants to really double down on the idea of us being The Avengers. He’s like, "Bring the stories that you want to bring to the forefront." So I was like, "Look man, I love sneakers."
He’s like, "Do that!" And then I was like, "I think DJ Khaled is one of the most fascinating social experiments of this year. This dude is legitimately fascinating."
Trevor's like, "go."
Like, we were shooting the scene for the "Another One" and the shoe name-off thing. I was like, hey, so here’s what we’re going to do — you name the shoes, Khaled, and I’ll riff and also name the shoes. He’s like, "No, no, no. Let’s just vibe, let’s vibe, let’s vibe." He didn’t want direction. He was already in Khaled Mode, and that thing that you saw online that’s only like two and a half minutes...Dude, he gave a 10-minute speech that we had to boil down. He won’t, he literally won’t stop. You can’t call cut on Khaled.
SD: Yeah it’s cool you’re talking about the digital possibilities and opportunities. I'm not used to seeing ''The Daily Show' on something like HypeBeast.
HM: That’s something that wasn’t in the previous era of the show. And, look, Jon had a very, very clear vision of the show. And that’s what he wanted to do, but that’s one of the best pieces of advice he gave all of us: He was like, "Make the show that you want to make."
So, Pusha T debuting a song on the show, that’s something part of this new era. Another thing that I’m really, really excited about is that we’re going to start covering international elections. We’re going to be doing stuff that’s in the world, and I think that’s great. I think opening up a dialogue to all those other countries and what’s going on in other places around the world would be really, really awesome.
SD: We'll end with some fun stuff. Kill, Fuck, Marry: Jordan Klepper, Roy Wood, Jr., Ronny Chieng.
HM: Oh shit. You definitely, definitely want to fuck Jordan Klepper because you want your children to have that great coif of hair. I think if both of us made it, we would have a gorgeous baby with awesome hair.
You want to marry Ronny Chieng because he’s really attentive. What you don’t see on camera, he obviously his character on the show he’s very irritated in a way at humanity. He’s a very sensitive man. He’s a great listener. I would love to build a long-term relationship with him.
You kill Roy Wood, Jr., not because he’s the black correspondent on the show and you have to kill him. That’s not it. He’s freaking hilarious. Roy is so funny, just by virtue of my own survival, I've got to kill him.
SD: To stay on top. Nice. I just want to end with some word association. Instead of like, long, drawn-out questions about these people, just what comes to your head once I say it. Ready? First up, Donald Trump.
HM: WISIS (White ISIS).
SD: Kim Davis.
SD: Trevor Noah.
HM: The mixed-race man of the future.
SD: Barack Obama.
SD: Man buns.
SD: Aziz Ansari.
HM: Canada’s finest.
SD: Bernie Sanders.
HM: The future.
SD: DJ Khaled.
HM: (pause) I can’t even put this into words. Hip-hop’s Tony Robbins.
SD: Bill Cosby.
HM: (loud exhale) Can you put that into words?
SD: Hillary Clinton.
HM: Just anything about Oregon? I think about really nice people. The Pacific northwest is just filled with kind people.
SD: Jon Stewart.
HM: Legend. Mentor. Jedi.
SD: Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you wanted to get to?
HM: I feel like what we do on the show is so topical in nature that it’s kind of like bread, where it ages. You can’t be like, "Hey, you want to watch The Daily Show from February 21, 2005?"
And Jon, one of the pieces of advice he gave us was, "What we have on the show ages like bread, but I want you guys to make things that age like wine."
You want to create things in your life that hopefully can stand the test of time. Ideally, doing this, I’m making this so that a 15-year-old version of me can see it and be like, "Oh man, I needed that." It's so cool to see different generations of people come to the show. So I think it’s everybody’s story.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Cover photo courtesy of Hasan Minhaj