When Hasan Minhaj was selected to host the 2017 White House Correspondent’s Dinner, the first under (and without) a President Trump, many scratched their heads. It was only after higher profile names turned down the gig (Alec Baldwin admitted to being openly disinterested, and Samantha Bee refused to be asked and set up her own event across the street), supposedly, that the plucky 31-year-old Daily Show correspondent got the gig. His appearance ended up being a firecracker in an otherwise slow night, and the following day Minhaj’s name was on everyone’s lips (he wisely included a mnemonic device disguised as a joke in the set: “In four hours, Donald Trump will be tweeting about how badly Nicki Minaj did at this dinner.”)
Less than a month later, Minhaj’s debut special, Homecoming King, follows through on the potential the world saw at the WHCD, and succeeds it in ambition, style and pound-for-pound laughs. It’s dramatic and dynamic, and a near-flawless calling card for the performer’s voice and personal history.
Billy Crystal famously has told the story of a big-time audition at a comedy club in the 70s, where the comic kills in the room yet declined the job because his act “didn’t leave a tip” – meaning that despite the flash and noise of his reaction-packed material, there was no personal connection. No reason to come back for more. Minhaj has taken Crystal’s tip and runs with it, crafting perhaps the most personal hour since Mike Birbiglia’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend in 2013.
Directorially, this special is innovative without being alien. As some comics push the mold of what stand-up should be (Bo Burnham’s magic carpet musical pieces are so many things, and sometimes stand-up is one of them), Homecoming King may also be a one-man show, but it’s never not stand-up. But like Netflix broke the mold for sleek looking content with House of Cards five years back (remember the first time you the colorful elegance of Frank Underwood’s floating text messages?), director Christopher Storer has made a truly modern looking piece of stand-up, which utilizes a multi-media display in a way that doesn’t feel like an afterthought, or a total gimmick.
The pictures, video clips, GIFs, Photoshop creations (including a truly horrifying mash-up of Princess Peach and Toad), and other visual aids in the special serve to heighten the material, and do so naturally. Just as at some point in time, a stand-up first realized his microphone could also be as a tool of word illustration, Minhaj has done the same with his background. While this intention is not new — John Oliver’s Terrifying Times aimed at this target in 2008, among others – what makes the device land is its narrative power: serving not only to reinforce verbal jokes, but offering Minhaj a method to show without be forced tell.
Much will be made of the intrinsic novelty of Minhaj’s memoir-like story, as undoubtedly his upbringing — a California-born Muslim, the son of two Indian immigrants with a perspective of America before, and after, 9/11 – is as insightful as it is fascinating, enlightening or just simply valuable in a historical context. Watching the special hit so hard is sadly a reminder of the past generations of stand-up that simply come from the monotonous perspective of the same type of person, with the same type of story. Diversity is not just a moralistic good thing on paper – when a outlook comes from the source so purely, it can have a tangible effect on our understanding of the stories around us.
But the special, which is recorded in the performer’s hometown of Davis, California, is operating on multiple levels simultaneously. It serves as introduction to Hasan Minhaj, the stand-up comedian with a point-of-view – not just as one of the few Daily Show familiar faces still left from the Jon Stewart years. It also seems to be aware it is (at least partially) introducing people to both Indian and Muslim cultures. Meanwhile, Minhaj is also pointing out brown faces in the audiences and starting a dialogue, looking for confirmation and playing off push-back – a light-hearted version of this is the comic asking middle eastern attendees how their names were mispronounced in school, while the dramatic flipside comes when Minhaj recounts a painful speech his father gave, completely delivered in his native tongue. As an outside observer, the sounds of the audience are a healthy barometer of its make-up: “log kya kahenge” receives both chuckles and emotive awwws by maybe 30% of the triple-decker auditorium, before the joyous wave of noise that follows after its translated (it means “what will people think?”). Minhaj is mostly playing to the uninitiated, but never talks down to those in the know, which does indeed add an attractive level of mystery for those cultural moments without translation. Wonder is an underrated tool in storytelling, especially so in a stand-up set.
While the special sings in dramatic moments – the hard zooms during a direct address, a backlit shadow on the crowd at the mention of his father’s influence or the 360 degree whirl-around camera dances during the recounting of a racially charged incident that leads to smashed windows of the family car – the comedy is never backseat.
The hour makes abundant use of Minhaj’s honed TDS personality: the plugged-in Millennial, free-associating at hyper-speed and dropping an obsequious amount of pop culture trinkets along the trek. While some references are… fine (mentions of Tinder, Voldemort’s horcruxes, and Larry David all serve the tone, and likely will have cultural legs), others are ALREADY very arcane (You really think the extended joke about the 2015 NBC Uma Thurman miniseries The Slap is gonna make any damn sense in ten years? Shoot for timelessness, Hasan!) and are frankly, far from necessary additions. But for better or worse, the persona of Minhaj is never lost in either his meta-story or his (fully-engaging) dramatic constructs. As a comic, Minhaj is both an engaging ambassador prejudice awareness, and also just another dude doing a half-baked Drake impression. Which is exactly how you “leave a tip.”
Not until the last ten minutes or so do we get any juicy insight into Hasan’s life on the satirical juggernaut most people know him for – a move which serves the special well, as the gig becomes a columniation of his rise. He gushes about meeting the “Jewish Yoda” who hired him, and contextualizes the cultural moment that he believes lands him the gig (remember when pre-Batman Affleck yelled at Bill Maher over Islamic fundamentalism?). But by this point, you and the pre-taped viewers are fully on his side as he lands his dream job and discovers the cure for racism. Then, before you’re out of the trance, mic drop, roll credits. It’s over.
But for Hasan Minhaj, this whole ride has just begun. And he’s starting out with maybe the strongest debut special in twenty years.
Log kya kahenge? That hard work pays off, and a great story can capture a moment.