Hasan Minhaj is one of the most exciting new variety hosts of the season thanks to his innovative Netflix series “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj.” The series has already won a Peabody Award, a Webby Award and Minhaj himself was named one of the TIME 100.
Minhaj recently sat down with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery to discuss all those awards wins, what separates “Patriot Act” from other late night variety programs and the process of injecting comedy into serious subjects. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: You just won the Peabody Award so first of all, what was that experience like getting a nomination first and then getting the win and accepting it?
Hasan Minhaj: It was so cool especially for this show to be recognized, especially because we are a news-driven comedy show and to be honored with other amazing journalists and investigative reporters, it was really cool to be in the same conversation as them and to win was just amazing. I remember when we told the staff here that we got nominated, everyone was so excited. It’s just a testament to all the work we put in this past year.
GD: Being a news-driven comedy show, obviously a lot of research is involved in the show, a lot of information, a lot of screens and data. How do you balance that informative goal and drive of the show with also the humor?
HM: We track these stories for months so a lot of what we do on the show is we initially put together a book report of what the world is of what we’re gonna cover, whether it’s student loans or drug pricing and then as we get closer to filming the episode, we infuse it with the comedy soul. It starts initially with the pitch, getting the pitch, the take, and the research book and the script together is probably the hardest part ‘cause you’re distilling a ton of information into 20 some odd minutes. And then you lace the jokes at the end. Believe it or not, the jokes come at the end and they’re kind of the easier part of the equation. The toughest part is making the editorial decision on what story we’re gonna do, why we’re telling that specific story and what is the comedic take that packages the entire story. Once you lock that in, then putting the jokes, it’s like frosting at the very end of the entire process.
GD: There are a lot of subjects that are incredibly emotional or heated, intensely political, obviously.
HM: Like sneakers. Sneakers is very political.
GD: They can be.
HM: We found a way to make something non-political political.
GD: Is there ever a topic where you’re conceiving of it and you think there’s no funny there? You can’t find the humor in that particular topic?
HM: It’s interesting. People always have asked me that question, “Is there any topic that’s off-limits or is there any subject politically that you can’t talk about?” I actually think comedy in and of itself as a genre is built on tension and pressure. So if you think about anything that makes a great joke, you’re building pressure through your premise and then you’re cutting it with a punchline. A lot of the subjects that we’re talking about are really tense. There’s a ton of pressure in student loans. There’s a ton of pressure in drug pricing and price gouging through the pharmaceutical industry. I actually think the tougher the subject is the more potential there is to cut that pressure with a joke. The test we have as comedy writers and performers is, “Can we find the right punchline to release all this tension?”
GD: It’s on Netflix, streaming, so unlike a show that airs once a week or once a night, you come out in six or seven episode batches.
HM: We drop almost like a podcast season where we’ll come out every Sunday in six to eight consecutive weeks and then we’ll roll out our episodes like that and then we reload and write for the next cycle.
GD: How does that affect the way you choose topics, going for things that are timely but also things that are more evergreen? The Saudi Arabia episode, you can go back and watch that and it’s still relevant.
HM: One of the big mission statements that I had going into the show is instead of getting caught up in the day-to-day tweets and the gaffes and the minutiae of everything that’s happening in the news, we try to look at larger trends and forces that are happening around the world and we try to connect the dots. What are a series of trends that we see that are happening in the current election process that we can talk about from a whole, from 30,000 feet? That’s why we’ll take something and come up with a piece on, say, the census or will come with a piece on red-lining or we’ll come up with a piece on student debt. What are a bunch of things that are happening that are indicative of a larger problem? That way it feels timely and timeless. So an episode like affirmative action, affirmative action has been around for a very long time in America. It’s very deeply entrenched in the meritocracy conversation that we have in this country but it’s incredibly topical because everything that’s happening right now with the Aunt Becky college admission scandal to the Harvard lawsuit that’s happening with the Asian-American students at Harvard. It’s finding that right balance. Even something as topical as Supreme is tied to something that’s timeless like hype culture. That’s existed since Beanie Babies or Tickle me Elmos or Faberge eggs. It’s finding that right story. What is this indicative of on a larger level?
GD: When going into one of these batches of six or seven episodes, what’s the process of writing or choosing topics? Is everything written and then you shoot six shows or is it more of a one at a time kind of thing? What’s that creative process?
HM: Because the show is so graphics-heavy, creating all of this, every show looks uniquely different. We have to measure twice and cut once. There’s a lot that goes into the actual green light process. If we’re gonna press go on a topic, we’ve really vetted it. We’ve really thought about it, our research work is done, we’ve had multiple iterations of the script already edited and put together. So we generally like to pick topics that I think we look forward to, saying, “Where are the trends and forces heading? What is something we can comment on that’s coming up?” And also, “What is the white space of stuff that’s been talked about in the news but hasn’t been talked about on the news comedy shows?” Anytime you look at the front page of “The New York Times,” sure, there’ll be stuff that’s America-centric in the far right corner but then there’s six other panels of stuff that’s happening all around the world that’s incredibly important but a lot of the shows don’t have the time or the distribution to get into why you should care about what’s happening in Venezuela or why you should care about what’s happening in Sudan or why you should care about what’s happening in parts of the Middle East or Africa. These are things that we have the ability to talk about because there is no limitation on the amount of time we can dedicate to each episode and we are in 190 countries. So one of the things that I really try to focus on is, hey, news in America is a very myopic thing. We think it’s very Trump-centric but global news is so much bigger than just what’s happening in the States.
GD: The news cycle feels so short these days. Things happen on top of things on top of things on top of tweets.
HM: Don’t you think it speaks to, sure, things are happening very fast but I think the thematic undertones of each of those headlines, those are pretty timeless.
GD: I agree, but are there developments that make you have to revise something on the fly? This larger story, this little piece of it, landed on a particular day? Have there ever been moments like that?
HM: Totally. There’ll be stuff where something will happen in real time, like with our Saudi Arabia story. It was a long lead story that we were tracking for a long time, then the murder of “Washington Post” journalist Jamal Khashoggi put everything into hyperdrive. Another example is the episode that we had with Brazil, [Jair] Bolsonaro and the rainforest. We had this huge piece on Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, he was set to speak here in New York, then all of a sudden that event got canceled, we had written this whole thing, this bit written around him coming to New York. That gets canceled on the fly. We then also at the same time were tracking a story about the Philippines midterm elections. So Bolsonaro drops out, we truncate our Brazil piece a little bit and then we insert a Philippines midterm election piece that same week. Stuff like that will happen but the core, the essence of what we wanna talk about, remains the same. I find it exciting. Those relevant, “Hey, this is happening right now,” I love that stuff. It gives the show relevance.
GD: There are a lot of topical comedy shows on these days. The format of this one is unique, or at least the setup. It feels very much almost like a standup special.
HM: Why do you say that?
GD: Because you’re literally standing up but it has some of the same energy addressing the audience sometimes directly. It feels in that way a little bit hybrid of standup and this sort of topical news. What’s that feeling on the stage when you’re juggling what’s on the screens and interacting with the audience? What went into going for that particular style?
HM: That was done by design. One of the things that a lot of these shows lock you into is you’re really confined by Camera 1. I look here, I’m right here, there’s an over the shoulder graphic and there’s a fake city skyline behind me, you rinse, wash, repeat. I was really inspired by the fact that if we have LEDs around me and it’s 360 degrees to my right, to my left, on top of me, even literally standing on an LED, what if the entire show itself became a set that can change literally every second? I’m performing and I’m explaining exposition and the stage itself is almost like Jarvis. I’m communicating and playing maestro to clips, graphs, SOTs, tear-outs, all of those things. Another thing that I wanted to do is I also felt like it was very confining to be looking at the camera and saying, “Hi, I’m Hasan Minhaj and this is the television show” when you’re performing in front of 200 people. I just like the ability to break things out, to deliver information to people at home and then also break the fourth wall and be like, “I know you’re here and this is insane that this is happening so I’m gonna direct this to you,” to really make the show feel like, “I’m at this live taping. I went to this live performance. Hasan performed this deep dive on Amazon and drug pricing. I saw that live. They were able to capture that really authentically.”
GD: Having that kind of interaction with the audience and have digital exclusives like deep cuts, you take questions from the audience, do you feel like the audience is a part of this show in a way that they’re not necessarily in terms of those other kinds of formats?
HM: Totally. When I think about this genre, which is late night variety, we’re not even attached to time because we’re on Netflix, people watch this whenever. People watch it OTT. People watch it on mobile. For me, the defining quality of this is genre is it is a host-driven medium. In other words, it’s not an ensemble cast. I am the limiting factor of the potential of the show and the reach of the show and people come to these shows because they want a take or a POV. So one of the things I’ve tried to embrace is, “Alright, let’s lean into that.” People are coming for my POV, people come to our tapings because they wanna see that live, people subscribe to our YouTube channel, people watch the stuff on Netflix, people interact with me on Twitter and Instagram. Let’s just lean into that, into the solo performance, late night variety host genre by directly interacting with them.
GD: I really do love that point of view aspect of the show especially in topics like Supreme or the episode about hip hop. A lot of shows cover a lot of topics and these were shows that did something rare to me, which is told me something I didn’t know about something I didn’t know and it was just eye-opening. When I saw the title “Supreme” on Netflix, I thought, “Oh, he’s gonna talk about [Brett] Kavanaugh.
HM: (Laughs.) Oh, you thought it was gonna be the Supreme Court.
GD: Literally I thought it was the Supreme Court episode. But I know a lot about that. I’ve heard a lot about that. A lot of people have covered it. Not a lot of people cover Supreme, necessarily, and hype culture.
HM: Do you know a lot about cricket?
GD: I do not. I did see a Vox explainer on Netflix. If you don’t have a personal passion for something, is that something you just can’t get into it or you avoid?
HM: No, I am not personally attached to the pharmaceutical industry but to me, it’s just about getting passionate about the myriad, a wide variety of subjects. For me, I’m passionate about everything from the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia to the rise of authoritarianism around the world to sneakers to streaming music. The connecting point is different in all of those things but I think people tap into my passion into those things. When we put something out every week, really, the two emotions that we’re trying to tap into is I wanna share stories with people where when they watch the show, they say what you just said, “How have I been living my life not knowing this piece of information? I’ve just been walking around and I had no idea this is why people line up outside of the Supreme store and this is how they control supply and demand.” Or two, “Oh my god, thank you for talking about that. I’ve felt this way for a long time but there’s no show talking about this topic. There’s no show that is taking the time to break down the politics of Brazil or the politics of what’s happening right now in India. Thank you.” There’s billions of people around the world that are waiting for those characters and those stories to be satirized but because of freedom of speech laws or it’s just actual industries in those respective countries, it hasn’t been done yet. I’m excited to be a part of that.
GD: You’ve been doing the show for a few months now. As you’ve had more experience doing it and getting more used to the format, the topics, the interaction with the audience, all that sort of stuff, have you been able to streamline or anything or anything that you felt was rough at the beginning that you feel like you’ve gotten better at? What have you learned?
HM: Yeah, I think what’s been really great is you can see the show really finding its groove now. Even if you look at early on, some of the graphics and the stage design that we had early on, it’s evolved and definitely changed and gotten better every episode. Some of these episodes that we’ve had, the Brazil episode, the Indian elections episode, the things and the swings we’re making is really ambitious, visually. Our graphics department is incredible. They are designing a unique stage show every week. It’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like that before where every week, every time I jump onstage, the world that’s around me is completely different. That is becoming more streamlined. The choices and the swings that we’re making are becoming more ambitious. We’re playing more with different colors, depth of field, different comedic runs, larger comedic runs and jokes with me interacting with a graphic. Those things are really exciting. Also, just the reach of the show. We’re now finding that, “Oh, an audience is willing to go there with me about this specific topic for 26 minutes. Alright. What if we picked this country or what if we picked this autocrat? That would be really exciting to talk about.”
GD: We started with the Peabody Award but you also won the Webby Award. This is a show that streams on Netflix so it’s already built-in web quality to it. Interactive media has become so all-encompassing. It’s not even interactive media anymore. It’s just what media is now. So what was it like to win that one and how did that compare?
HM: That was really cool. It was really fun to win a Webby and get a shiny spring and I love that the speeches are only five words. It’s a fast award show.
GD: Is that almost harder than giving an acceptance speech that you can go on and on about?
HM: No, there was two different versions. I did the, “This is going on eBay” but the alt version of the speech, this is just for you guys at Gold Derby, was, “Wow, I would like to…” And that’s it.