Comedian, actress, podcaster, and overall scene-stealer Phoebe Robinson sits down with comedy’s golden boy Hasan Minhaj to chat about changing the game—for good.
By Phoebe Robinson
Photographed by Tawni Bannister
Hasan Minhaj is many things to many people: the groundbreaking comedian who performed at the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, representing the silenced voices of brown, Muslim, and first-generation Americans; a popular satirist on The Daily Show; the Peabody Award–winning star of the one-man show Homecoming King (which I was lucky enough to see at Cherry Lane Theatre in NYC before Netflix grabbed it up and turned it into a special); a writer on the Ms. Marvel comic book series; and, most recently, he put a ring on his relationship with Netflix by teaming up to launch a weekly television series called The Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, kicking off October 28th. Impressive, huh? Even more so, considering the guy is coming off his North American stand-up tour, Before the Storm. Accomplishments aside, to me, he’s a friend who’s Disney prince–level adorable—except instead of stealing bread and flying around on magic carpets, he makes me laugh and think. So four months after his wife, Beena, gave birth to their daughter, Hasan and I caught up the best way two thirtysomethings with thriving comedy careers know how: via a swanky magazine-interview that goes deep into parenthood, the power of positive thinking, and why no one should be mad at LeBron James.
Dude, this has truly been a crazy big year for you—becoming a father, starring in your own Netflix show, and joining the Ms. Marvel creative team. Did you envision your life like this? I know whenever people are asked this question, the response is always, “I had no idea,” but to reach your level of success is not accidental. Did you visualize this and work to make it come to fruition?
I mean, with your book, did you go, “I’m going to write a book, and it’s going to be a New York Times bestseller”? Or was it more of like, ”I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can on this one thing”?
And if it snowballs, great. If not, you just put that on the shelf and move on to the next. Sometimes things start clicking back-to-back, and you’re like, “Wow! That’s really cool. I’m super grateful.”
You know, I feel like every time we see each other, we talk. We’re always having these semi-deep conversations.
[Laughs] Yeah, when we saw each other at the Knicks game, you were like, “Hey what’s up?” And I was like, “Beena’s pregnant.”
[Laughs] Yeah, I was like, “Oh my God, Beenaaaa! Preggers in the Louboutins.”
But for real, one of the things I like about our talks is that I’m super into self-help and positive thinking, and you’re a very positive thinker. I want to talk about that because there are so many people hurting out there who may feel that positive thinking is a luxury [people like] you and I can afford. Also, the world is straight-up a mess right now, and some might think, “What can positive thinking accomplish?” How do you think about positive thinking in terms of your life and the world at large?
Phoebe, you’re coming in hot with the philosophical questions! I mean, what is life? Is it meaningless? Is this real? Does it matter? [Laughs] I am generally an optimistic person, but look, I think you take it situation to situation. I do think that overall, there’s a net positive to being optimistic, no matter what the scenario is. Even if you’re trying to defy all odds, just being optimistic about it generally leads to more positive results. Like, do you remember auditioning for JFL [Just for Laughs, an annual comedy festival] when we were starting in comedy?
Oh yeah, I auditioned for four years, and then one year they refused to see me. After five years of the answer being no, I was like, I’m done. Like, they’re not interested; it’s fine. But it took me a long time to be OK with it because I felt like my career wouldn’t take off if I didn’t get it. Then I said to myself, “I can allow this festival to define the rest of my career, or I can figure out how to make my career outside of someone saying yes or no to me.”
Yeah. For me, I did it seven years in a row.
Oh my gosh.
And by the time I got it, it didn’t even matter anymore. But the thing I’m disappointed in is that I had a Murphy’s Law mentality about it. I was like, “This show’s gonna suck; it’s gonna be a seven o’clock show; I’m gonna go up first; the audience is gonna be all industry; I’m gonna tank; no one’s gonna like my material.” And that’s exactly what happened!
Yeah! I tanked it! People always say, “You’re so cheery!” But there have been so many times in my life when I’ve chickened out. That’s why I’m most proud of the times I said, “No, fuck that. I’m going for it.” Like when I graduated high school, my dream was to go to UCLA, and I got in! I did the campus tour, and it was everything I’d dreamed of. It was beautiful, the weather was amazing—it wasn’t 118 degrees like it is in Sacramento. But I chickened out. I was like, “This is nothing like the town I grew up in. Will I fit in?” I got scared and decided to go to UC Davis, the college in the town I grew up in.
Wow! Looking back, do you regret it? I mean, did you even have the awareness that you were chickening out, or were you lying to yourself about wanting to go to UC Davis?
Yeah, I was lying to myself: “No, no, no, it’s better. You’ll save money living at home; you’ll get a better GPA.” I completely lied to myself. In the end, I met my wife there and everything worked out great, but what I distinctly remember was having that fatalistic mentality instead of just being optimistic, like, “It’s gonna be scary, but you’ll figure it out. Believe in yourself.” That’s how I’ve tried to approach life since.
OK, let’s switch gears and get a little less “What is the meaning of life—”
[Laughs] Wait! Why are we both into this optimistic, carpe diem, self-help stuff? I think that’s the bigger thing. What hugs did we not receive as children…?
[Laughs] I’m a workaholic through and through and can be really tough on myself. There’s a point where being hard on yourself can be a good motivator, make you want to deliver quality or whatever. And then there’s a point where you’re mentally abusing yourself.
Yeah. You know what’s crazy—I’ve also realized this as I’ve gotten older—is that no one really cares, so don’t worry. You know what I mean?
Yassss! OK, I want to talk about your Netflix show. It’s revolutionary. There’s never been someone who’s looked like you, hosting their own weekly series like this. I don’t want to get into like [mocking voice], “You’re a person of color, do you feel a lot of pressure?” I don’t think that’s the right question, but I do wonder: Do you feel that because there are so many shows coming out starring people of color or queer people, that this is the new normal? Or do you think it’s a trend?
I one hundred thousand percent believe it’s the new normal. It’s been so cool to see that not only are these new voices working, but they’re objectively awesome. They’re winning awards, setting the precedent of excellence. So it’s not “Oh, it’s the token show; we threw them a bone.” This show happened, it’s incredibly groundbreaking, and it’s winning Emmys and Oscars. That has been super inspiring to me. [When I was] growing up in the ’90s, success in show business looked a very specific way. I’m sure you felt that way too.
It’s so dope to see you, Abbi [Jacobson], Ilana [Glazer]—all my friends becoming really successful. It looks like so many different things now, which is awesome.
It is awesome. You were a breakout star on The Daily Show, and certainly the White House Correspondents’ Dinner made you even more next-level. What made you feel it was time to step fully in front of the camera as host of your own show and be responsible for every W[in] as well as every L[oss]?
The Daily Show felt like my comedy undergrad. Jon [Stewart] and Trevor [Noah] and everybody at that show taught me how to look at the news, break it down, and establish a comedic take. But obviously there is a limitation to mediums, being a correspondent. You’re coming in on the tail end of an act and providing commentary. One of the things I really wanted to explore with Homecoming King was: Can I narratively story-tell using comedy, audio, visuals, screens—all these mediums? That was really exciting, and it worked! Netflix approached me. I remember having this conversation with Jon when he left [The Daily Show]. He very candidly said, “I’m leaving because I’ve manipulated these chess pieces in as many different directions as I could over the last 17 years, and now I’m opening it up to you guys to see where you can take it.” Politically, people who share my background—immigrants to America, children of immigrants, Muslim Americans—so many people of minority groups have either been spoken to or spoken for. I don’t think my perspective on the world has really been heard.
Having this voice in a political and cultural show is powerful. I want to reclaim what it means to be a patriotic American, so the show is called The Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. The Patriot Act is actually a piece of legislation that was passed during the Bush administration to spy—legally spy—on Muslim Americans. It was given a patriotic title to make Americans feel like we were being kept safe. I really wanted to subvert that meaning and do deep-dive, investigative headline pieces that reinterpret what it means to be a patriotic American. We’re looking at affirmative action and voter suppression, but cultural issues too, like international elections.
That’s so cool, you’re really going for it. I want to switch gears again. I’m not a parent, but I’ve heard from parents that there’s a level of fearlessness that happens. Like, “I don’t have time for that, I have a child to keep alive.” Do you think that fearlessness has informed your comedy?
Yeah, when my daughter wakes up in the morning, she looks at me and thinks I’m a giant that can do and solve anything. Sometimes I think I have to be as brave as she believes I am. This might sound corny, but you also get to a point where nihilism and negativity—that shit’s corny. It doesn’t get you anywhere. Now that I have her, I want to do work that makes the world a better place for her.
I consider you a pretty evolved dude, and whenever I think about heterosexual parenthood, I think about gender dynamics. Society teaches us that there are distinct parental roles men and women fill. Have you and Beena fallen into or subverted those roles in ways you didn’t expect?
Beena and I have been together for a really long time. There was a period in our relationship when she had a Ph.D., and I was straight-up doing Pizza Hut commercials.
I’m not joking! She’s Dr. Patel, and I’m trying to sell pizza sliders on TV. There was also a time when I was really busy, and she was transitioning from working in L.A. to working in New York. So I think the biggest thing we’ve tried to do is support each other as partners in each chapter of our lives and careers.
You guys are goals, for real. I also wanted to talk stand-up with you because you’re just coming off a tour, Before the Storm, which is very exciting. Stand-up is everywhere right now, which is both good and bad. Where do you think you fit within that comedic landscape, and what do you think separates you from the pack?
You’re basically asking me to humblebrag?
What’s cool about the proliferation is that it’s forced all of us to go, “All right, what am I doing that hasn’t been done before?” On this tour, it’s stand-up, it’s investigative reporting, it’s a live show, it’s theater—it feels like a visual podcast. On my last tour, it was me miming all of these personal experiences from my life. This is the next phase in the evolution of my work: using my background and take on the world to analyze what’s happening in the country and around the globe. One thing I think comedy should take from music is pushing the genre. Even a genre like hip-hop has multiple subgenres. There’s backpack rap, there’s trap, there’s Macklemore…whatever that is.
[Laughs]. I want to rewind to the last time I interviewed you, which was for my Sooo Many White Guys podcast. We were saying we want America to succeed and fulfill the potential we believe it has. How are you making sense of the way immigrants of color are treated in this country, knowing people would target you if you weren’t famous?
Look, I’m not happy with the current state of the country. But I consider myself an angry optimist, meaning I’m not happy, but I do think the country has an incredible amount of potential. One thing Jon taught us at The Daily Show is that there’s no joke, song, or movie that can change the world. All you can do is present information in a funny or interesting way and hopefully strike a chord in people’s hearts that gets them to do something—because the necessary condition to any form of change is people taking action. That’s how I’ve tried to deal with it. I have a platform. I have this show where I can say things that haven’t been said before. I can make it compelling and funny so that, hopefully, people think about these issues in a different way.
I want to close by asking you what you hope for the future of America and your family.
Man, you’re really hitting me with the presidential nominee questions!
We want to know the true Hasan! Everyone already knows you like sneakers and basketball.
OK, I’ll say this: We’re living in a very angry time right now. I hope we all understand that just because you can cancel someone on Twitter, doesn’t mean you can cancel them from life. They’ll still exist. You can’t cancel your family, friends, neighbors, coworkers. My hope is for compromise, empathy, and understanding to come to the table at some point.
I like that. Finally, who’s your basketball team right now?
The Sacramento Kings.
OK, this might be controversial to you, but you know I’m from Cleveland. You know I love me some LeBron James. So I guess I’m Team Lakers now.
Oh no! You know what, he’s an amazing person. I love LeBron.
Me too! He’s so legit.
He’s putting all of Ohio through college. What can you say about him? Are you going to say, “I hate LeBron”? Are you going to burn his jersey? He’s putting more kids through college than the Ohio state legislature.