Jerk’s Q&A with Hasan Minhaj
In case you were wondering, it costs less than $1 per person to buy terrorism insurance for a crowd of two hundred people… which is exactly what Hasan Minhaj did.
On Friday, October 27, University Union held its University Lecture series, featuring comedian, actor, and Daily Show correspondent, Hasan Minhaj.
Not only did the comedian insure the entire population of Goldstein Auditorium, but he also reminisced about his steamy interview with man-crush Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, called out the systematic oppression of white Disney princesses, claimed that he in fact is related to Nicki Minaj (she got the butt, he got the height) and created a platform to bring attention to the daily struggles of Syrian refugees.
Jerk met with Minhaj after the show to discuss, his road to success, the current political climate, and the importance of representation and equality in America.
Jerk: You said that you got into comedy your sophomore year of college. When did you realize that comedy is what you love?
Minhaj: I didn’t have cable television growing up, so I didn’t have any Comedy Central. I didn’t get to see any of those half-hour specials that were a big deal growing up. I thought standup comedy was the beginning part of Seinfeld! Those seconds where he’s just like, “What’s the deal with laundry?” But then a buddy of mine who was in the dorm with me was watching Chris Rock’s “Never Scared” and I remember watching it in his dorm room being like, “Man, this is crazy! He’s really saying this shit! He’s going after Bush and he’s talking about the war in Iraq! And there’s two thousand people there?!” The way that he was constructing his arguments reminded me of speech and debate. When I was doing speech and debate in high school, any time I made the judges laugh I would always get extra points. So, I was like, “I can do that.” It played to my strengths. Unfortunately, the NBA dream didn’t work out… Nah! But you know what I mean? It played to my strengths! I was like, “I’m good at this.” I started a comedy group on campus and we applied for funds to bring other comedians to campus so I could open for them. Then I would do the coffee house open mic series. Then I’d go drive to other cities. Drive to Bay Area. Drive to Sacramento. Go to shows out there. I started putting myself in that sort of local rotation, that’s it. I just wanted to be one of the funnier guys on campus or the funny guy in the city. And that was a really cool personal mission and I’m glad I kept it that way, to grow locally and expand from there.
Jerk: You are in an industry that’s really based on name recognition. How do you deal with the fact that a lot of people mispronounce your name?
Minhaj: It’s one of those things where, unfortunately, the way vowels and consonants are pronounced in English, names like Hasan become HAH-sin, Asif becomes a-SEEF. It’s a tough thing…It’s just the nature of the beast, I guess.
Jerk: How has multiethnic solidarity influenced your comedy and your life?
Minhaj: To me, what’s really interesting is racism, xenophobia, homophobia… all that stuff comes from a place of, Hey, there’s this marginalized group. We don’t like the way they look or their religion or their values or their sexual orientation, so let’s push them out of existence. And so what’s interesting is the ugly whisper that exists in the human condition––to hurt the quote unquote other––the way that manifests itself is different for each group, right? Whether it’s the African American community and police brutality and the criminal justice system, Muslim Americans with travel bans and islamophobia, Latino Americans with immigration reform and all that stuff. The core, ugly feeling behind all of that is the same. So, one of the things that I try to tell people is that civil liberties are an all-or-nothing game. A victory for the African American community or the LGBTQ community is equity that helps everybody. Equality is an all-or-nothing game, you know? And I think a lot of the time, you lose sight of that.
Jerk: How has writing for comedy changed in this new political environment since the election?
Minhaj: I think political culture has become popular culture now, which is really crazy. Being at the conventions and seeing E! News there and VH1, I was like, “What is going on?” This is the Democratic National Convention and it’s being covered like it’s the VMA’s, you know? It’s forced all of us to just raise our game because reality is up for grabs…There was a period of time where you could just be like, the earth is round and if you say it’s flat, people will objectively ridicule you. But athletes will be like,
“Yeah, the earth’s flat.”
“Alright! So when you played Boston…”
I’m like, wait, wait, wait. Are we gonna skip past that? That’s the time that we’re living in! I hope it’s just a moment where there’s misalignment in the force and we get it back to equilibrium.
Jerk: How do you go about the writing process of trying to take on something very serious and difficult?
Minhaj: I try to write from an honest place. I also have a counsel. There’s other comedians and other writers that I work with to go, “Hey, what do you think of this?” Then, I also test stuff on stage. I work it out and you feel it out. That’s one thing I hope we don’t lose from live comedy…We don’t have Microsoft Word documents where we can try and cut. We try and cut in front of people. It’s one of the few art forms where to get better you have to fail in front of people. If it’s a big show, my advice is, do a bunch of smaller shows, seek counsel with other collaborators and people with fresh eyes that you respect and then combine the two data points to come up with a plan of action. If you’re bombing and your friends are like, “This is not a good idea,” then don’t do it. But if you have the right idea and it needs to be tweaked and refined, give yourself the chance to get it to where it needs to be.
Jerk: How do you think you’ve had an impact as a comedian?
Minhaj: There’s a certain level of pressure now to be a political comedian in 2017. People are like, “You guys are the new news!” That’s scary because that’s not entirely true. I even admitted on stage [that] I have bias in what I’m saying. It’s why I also got terrorism insurance for everybody! I clearly have a take and a perspective. One of the things I like about comedy—and even good journalism—when you have a true freedom of the press as a marketplace of ideas, my hope is that the best ideas rise to the top. My job, as a comedian, is to be cutting but not cruel. At the White House dinner everybody was like, “Go after Barron. Go after Melania.” I’m not gonna go after his kid. I’m not gonna go after the First Lady. Whatever my opinions are about them is irrelevant. It is far more effective, to me, to make fun of people for their character because those are choices that you make. Not the color of your skin. Not the way you look. Not your gender. It’s far more cutting to do the “I do Nazi Steve Bannon” joke because that has to do with the choices he’s made. I remember one of the jokes we had that we cut was like, “Steve Bannon looks like a bunch of chicken cutlets stapled together.” You know? It’s like, alright, it’s funny! But, to me, I’m no different than the Pepe The Frogs that come after me that call me a camel jockey. I’m just name calling. But when you come after me for my character, that’s far more cutting and effective than just being like, “You look like blah blah blah.”