On Sunday, after months of anticipation, Netflix debuted the first two episodes of former Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj’s new comedy talk show, Patriot Act. In building a 32-episode show that will take on politics from the midterms until the 2020 election, Netflix was banking on Minhaj’s ability to differentiate himself from an expanding number of late-night and comedy talk shows that all try variations of the same thing: discussing the increasingly bleak news in a funny, interesting way. Based on the first two episodes, it’s clear that Minhaj can deliver.
Like John Oliver’s Emmy-winning HBO series Last Week Tonight, on Netflix Minhaj has the freedom to create a show staffed with investigative journalists that feels “like a stand-alone miniseries that’s Trojan-horsed into a weekly show,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. He also highlighted the show’s format, which he described as a “visual podcast” meeting a “one-man show,” as a distinguishing factor. In the first two episodes, Minhaj stands on a platform that folds into three digital panels behind him. “It looks like Michael Bay directed a powerpoint presentation,” he jokes. As in his stand-up special Homecoming King, Minhaj brings high energy and charisma to the stage; even his body is telling a story as he gesticulates, walks from side to side, and occasionally points to specific people in the audience. There is no desk, no city skyline, no guest correspondent.
But in watching the first two episodes, it’s clear that the quality that sets Minhaj apart isn’t just the show’s format, but Minhaj himself. Minhaj is the first Indian American to host a comedy talk show, and with Patriot Act, he’s created a space for South Asians to vent our frustrations about the current political climate. In both episodes, the audience is filled with brown people. He remarks: “My god, there’s a lot of brown people, holy shit! It feels like my cousin’s wedding, oh my god!”
Both episodes center around issues that are especially controversial in the Asian American and Muslim communities. In the first episode, Minhaj turns a critical eye toward Asian Americans who, led by conservative lawyer Ed Bloom, are suing Harvard over its affirmative action policy. “He’s using us,” Minhaj says. “I find it hilarious that this is the hill we’re willing to die on. Our entire lives, we get shat on—oh you guys have small dicks, you’re bad drivers, you’re the color of poop, you smell like curry and kimchi. Nothing! We say nothing! The moment we can’t get into Harvard, we’re like, ‘I’ll see you in court, motherfucker!’” In the second episode, Minhaj dissects America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, particularly the conflict it poses for Muslim-Americans. “It blows my mind that it took the killing of a Washington Post journalist for everyone to go, ‘Oh! I guess he’s really not a reformer! Meanwhile, every Muslim person you know is like, yeah no shit,” he remarks.
Minhaj’s identity as the son of South Asian immigrants and a Muslim is baked into the show, but it wasn’t apparent, based on initial descriptions, what role identity would play in a show dedicated to, vaguely, “the modern cultural and political landscapes with depth and sincerity.” The name, Patriot Act, is a nod to former President George W. Bush’s sweeping legislation that increased surveillance on the Muslim community post-9/11. Minhaj created the show with longtime friend and collaborator Prashanth Venkataramanujam, who is also Indian American. Minhaj even teased the show with Queer Eye’s Tan France, who is the son of Pakistani immigrants, in a clip where Minhaj joked that he didn’t want to look like “Indian Big Bird.” And The New Yorker published a series of cartoons mocking anti-Muslim bigotry that were pegged to the show.
As an Indian American watching, Patriot Act feels like it was made specifically for me; when Minhaj talks about Muslims and South Asians, he stands in a room filled with brown people, says “we” and “our,” drops cultural references like “lotas,” explaining them to a larger audience after we get to laugh first. Few comics can do what Minhaj consistently does, which is to tease out the idiosyncrasies and absurdities of immigrant culture or religion without ever turning Indian-ness or brown-ness itself into the butt of the joke.
At a time when panels of all white people are debating banning Muslims from the country, and Asian Americans are consistently underrepresented on TV, Minhaj’s show is especially powerful. His show builds on the private conversations we have amongst ourselves about “shitty Indians,” as he calls Dinesh D’Souza and Bobby Jindal, are suddenly, even subversively, being aired on TV for a mainstream audience. “We can’t talk about shitty Indians without talking about the former governor Bobby Jindal,” he jokes. “What self-respecting Indian hurts colleges and hospitals?” Minhaj then takes it one step further: “They’re actually setting us free!” Minhaj exclaims, introducing my favorite segment of the episode, in which brown kids, inspired by D’Souza and others, aspire to be powerful criminals and xenophobes. “For once,” Minhaj says, “we can finally be as bad as we want to be.”
Though Minhaj has promised that he will rarely mention Donald Trump, Patriot Act brings a refreshing and much-needed perspective to political news and this administration, in particular. Trump has branded immigrants as criminals and rapists, and Islamophobia is higher now than immediately following 9/11. Patriot Act succeeds in its mission to break down complex political topics and uses jokes to feed a sharp, analytical perspective. But the show’s greatest strength—and its relevance—comes from Minhaj’s ability to relate the events through his personal experiences and perspective, a point of view that is underrepresented in the media. As the show evolves, my hope is that it continues to examine issues from the perspective of brown America, and in the process, humorously exposing the rest of America to a new set of ideas.