IGNITE

Interview with Hasan Minhaj

by Danya Elsayed

The Homecoming King has arrived.

From the podium of his debate class to the podium at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, Hasan Minhaj has slowly but surely climbed the ranks of comedy superstardom. As a senior correspondent on the Daily Show, Minhaj uses his witty humour as a tool to convey his political opinions, and most commonly, to poke fun at his own struggles. 

IGNITE had the pleasure of hosting Hasan Minhaj for our last Real Talks presentation of the year. Minhaj captivated the audience with his energetic persona and thought-provoking discussion on American’s fear of terrorism and immigration.

We sat down with the brilliant Hasan Minhaj after his Real Talk to get to know him a bit more. Here’s what he had to say:

For a lot of people with immigrant parents, there’s a real push to pursue “stable” careers like becoming a doctor or lawyer. You went to school for political science but ended up becoming a comedian. How did that play out with your family?

“For me, I had an amazing cover; I was in college for four years, and you know when people ask you, ‘Hey, what do you do?’, you can say, ‘Oh. I’m a student.’ Since I graduated in five years which bought me half of a decade to really discover comedy, and become good in my local comedy scene and then travel to San Francisco. Right around when I was 23-24, I had a really tough conversation with my parents where I was like, ‘I’m going to get a day job, but it’s just a part-time job, not a career. I want comedy to be my career.’ My parents were like, ‘You should still take the LSATs to get into law school.’ Your LSAT scores last five years, so that bought me another five years where I could just drag out their disappointment. What was really cool is that they got to see the progression over time. You know, I was doing comedy almost 11 or 12 years before I got hired at the Daily Show. They got to see that Hasan’s opening for artists now, now he’s the middle act, now he’s doing bigger festivals, now he’s got a spot on TV. I’m lucky that they got to see the growth and transition of my career over time.”

Everyone likes to think they’re funny, but being a comedian takes hard work and dedication. What characteristics do you believe a good comedian should possess?

“I think that they definitely have to be likeable and want to connect with people in an audience. To be a really successful comedian you have to write a lot [and], you really have to mind your own personal experience and the human experience. A lot of the things in our day-to-day lives that we take for granted, good observational comedians are able to connect the dots and relate those things to other things. Becoming a good writer and understanding simile and metaphor is really powerful, that’s sort of the blueprint of comedy.”

Hasan Minhhaj holds hand over camera jokingly
Photo courtesy of GQ Magazine

 

You’ve said that you’re a proponent of freedom of speech and that anyone has the right to say what they want in the marketplace of ideas, because the better arguments will come out on top. Are there any issues that you won’t touch as a comedian that may be too sensitive for people?

“For me, I am a staunch proponent and advocate for freedom of speech, even if it hurts my own feelings. Because having those civil liberties has given me and my community the ability to communicate how we feel. I believe that even though you have freedom of speech, that doesn’t mean you don’t have freedom of consequences. Things will still happen if you say crazy things. I’ve always taken my platform as an opportunity to be like, ‘Hey if I’m going to die on a particular hill, then I’m going to swing for it’. I would rather swing up at things like corruption, or government policies that I feel are unfair, or corporations that are treating people badly. So to me, freedom of speech is like a lightsaber, and as Jedi, we have to wield that lightsaber with some responsibility. But unfortunately, we are living in a time when a lot of Padawans are using lightsabers when they shouldn’t.”

So any topic that you feel strongly about, you would cover without hesitation?

“Correct. But at the same time, I don’t try to be offensive for the sake of being offensive. To me, I have your attention for 30 minutes, so I’ll pick and choose my battles. A lot of the times when people are obsessed with the concept of free speech they want to be offensive for the sake of being offensive. There are these people online who are like, “Why can’t I say the c-word? Why can’t I say the n-word?” But wait is that the hill you want to die on? My thing is you can push the boundaries, but make the end destination of what you’re trying to fight for worthwhile. Whether it’s healthcare for all Americans, or if there’s a government policy you don’t appreciate, voter suppression, or combating sexual harassment in the workplace. Those are things I think are super tense, and super juicy, and people are going to be uncomfortable. But I think those are hills I’m willing to die on, rather than being controversial for the sake of being controversial.”

 

Comedian Hasan Minhaj
Photo courtesy of @hasanminhaj

 

Speaking of fighting for what you believe in, how do you think youth can get more involved in politics?

“I think youth are starting to get really involved. Two things I thought were great were the Women’s March, the March for Our Lives, and third, the Black Lives Matter movement. We’re seeing a young voter base actively participating in civil discourse and changing the narrative and history of our country and it’s pretty incredible. I see a lot of people criticizing kids, but I will say this, at least “these kids” — which I think is sometimes dismissive — are trying. The young adults are actually fighting for progress, and that to me in its essence is honourable. I consider myself an angry optimist; I’m not happy with the current state of our country, but I’m incredibly optimistic at its potential for change. So for me, the fact that people are having an offensive position and are willing to participate — that’s so much better than nihilistic perspective where none of this matters. I don’t agree with that.”

If there’s one piece of advice you can give someone who is getting bullied for something they can’t control like how they look, or where they’re from, what would you say?

“I would say, I completely empathize with what you’re going through. I went through the same kinds of things growing up. But I think the world deserves for you to unapologetically be yourself. I think the thing that I struggled with growing up personally when I was both in high school and even early on in college, is that I would try to be someone that I’m not, to try to fit in. But it’s never going to work. You come to a point in your life where you’re like, ‘Oh man, this diet Pepsi version of myself will never be accepted by the people that I’m trying to impress.’ So what does it matter? I might as well quadruple down on who I am and attract the people around me that appreciate me for who I am. That’s easier said than done, and I think it takes a long time, but that’s just how I try to live my life.”

Do you think it’ll ever be possible to just be a comedian and not be labeled a “Muslim comedian”?  

“All human beings, we’re trying to — in whatever art form we chose — to not to be lumped in as just a monolith. I want to be a great comedian, not just a great Indian-American Comedian. I think there are moments where, for me, I’ve seen it all unfold. The White House Correspondent’s Dinner was that for me. I was able to unite the room of journalists and convey about how we’re all sort of connected to each other. How journalists are the new minorities [and] now they know what it feels like to be us. That was a moment where we both connected, and it was like, ‘Hey we’re one in the same.’ Those are the moments that I strive for as an artist. If you can melt away a lot of the identity politics that have been used to sometimes divide us to show that we’re all the same — those moments are really powerful.”

Comedian Hasan Minhaj
Photo courtesy of Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity


If you’re looking for more Hasan comedy, check out his Netflix special Homecoming King. Thanks, Hasan for lighting up the stage with your fiery comedy, and thought-provoking opinions!

For more IGNITE Real Talks check out past interviews this year with Sophia Bush, Iskra Lawrence, Charlamagne tha God, and Dalton Higgins.

Follow us on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter to keep up with all our exciting events!