‘Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj’ is a breath of fresh air in the world of talk shows

February 12, 2020 — by Manasi Garg

In the very first episode of “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj,” a politically driven comedy show on Netflix that debuted in the fall of 2018, the host Hasan Minhaj tackles affirmative action. 

Pacing dynamically around the stage and surrounded by brightly colored screens, he tells the audience: “Affirmative action as we know it is about to die. And guess what Asian-Americans — we could be the ones who killed it.” 

Addressing a lawsuit against Harvard, Minhaj goes on to joke about the fight Asians are putting up against Harvard, expressing his amusement at this being “the hill [Asians] are willing to die on.” 

He continues in a tone of shocked hilarity: "Our entire lives we get shat on — oh, you guys are bad drivers; you're the color of poop; you smell like curry and kimchi,” Minhaj says, gesturing wildly toward the audience. “Nothing. We say nothing. But the moment we can't get into Harvard, we're like, 'I'll see you in court!” 

His audience explodes into laughter. 

From this very first episode, 33-year-old, self-described “American-Born Confused Desi” Minhaj sets the tone for the rest of the series, which just released its fifth season. There are around six to seven episodes per season; each episode is 25 minutes. The best way to describe them is the way Minhaj does: as a “woke Ted Talk” style monologue.

Unlike other political comedy shows, Minhaj does not rely purely on snark and sharp jabs at all the corrupt politicians and institutions to prove a point (although he includes a wide range of insults). He instead relies heavily on storytelling and detailing facts and punctuates his monologues with satire and descriptions of personal experiences.

In fact, the reason I love “Patriot Act” and prefer it over similar, news driven talk shows like “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” is its content and structure. 

Think of each episode as a cross between a documentary, a stand up show and a Ted Talk, each infused with Minhaj’s electric energy, impeccable comedic timing and natural ability to tell a story. 

Rather than being focused on the daily news the way other hosts like Trevor Noah or John Oliver are (each of whom is fantastic in his own respect),  Minhaj focuses in on modern issues, spending 25 minutes an episode on a single topic such as “The Ugly Truth of Fast Fashion” (Season 5, Episode 3) or “Why Your Internet Sucks” (Season 3, Episode 6) or “Fentanyl” (Season 4, Episode 2), which discusses the opioid crisis. His choice to broaden the variety of topics he speaks about while keeping them relevant lends both a sense of urgency and timelessness to each episode. 

Minhaj also deftly weaves in elements of his identity and his experiences as a young, Muslim, Indian-American who grew up in Davis, Calif., to immigrant parents by cracking cultural jokes and considering how his identity informs his viewpoints. For example, when discussing affirmative action, he tells the audience how in high school, he worried that as an Indian, a black student would “take” his spot at Stanford due to affirmative action, and realized only later in life the flaws in how he thought. But rather than limit the audience’s perception of the subjects he discusses (which range from the student loan debt crisis to censorship in China), this clarity of voice sets him apart from the current array of his mostly white counterparts. 

In fact, Minhaj is the first Indian-American to have ever hosted a late night talk show, providing a much needed perspective to the media industry. 

And Minhaj does his research. He does not pretend to be completely objective, but his empathetic presentation of facts and in-depth analysis still make the show one of my favorite ways to get news (or at least one side of it). Or as he puts it in “Supreme” (Season 1, Episode 5): “Do you know how many crazy smart researchers I need to sound like I know what I’m talking about?” 

For example, in “The Broken Policing System” (Season 4, Episode 6) Minhaj does not go on zealous rants attacking American cops (something that is tempting to do, given the current state of our justice system). 

Instead, he displays his interview with a former police officer and current law professor, pulls up clips from training videos for cops that highlight the encouragement of violence and also relies on researchers from the New York Times and ProPublica, using all of these resources to analyze the violence that pervades American police department. 

One of the most shocking revelations of the episode is that American police receive 129 hours of arms and weapons training at the police academy compared to just eight hours of conflict de-escalation. 

Despite telling us such bracing information, however, Minhaj skillfully intersplices jokes. In “Saudi Arabia” (Season 1, Episode 2), he calls Saudi Arabia “the boy band manager of 9/11” a hilarious, completely unexpected metaphor. A few minutes later, he delivers one of the most poignant lines of the series: “Whenever Saudi Arabia does something wrong, Muslims have to live with the consequences.”

And really, it is his ability to pivot from incisive humor to personal insight, combined with his infectious energy and culturally specific humor, that make him such a vital addition to the late night talk show scene.  

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On March 27, members of the Air National Guard converted the Santa Clara County Convention Center to a temporary federal facility for about 250 coronavirus patients. The center is to house those who have tested positive for the virus, but don't require intensive in-hospital care. More information can be found through the local news. Photo courtesy of Randy Vazquez of the Bay Area News Group.

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