When Hasan Minhaj was denied entry to the Howdy Modi event in Texas last year, it was the most in-character thing that could happen. He seems like the kind of guy who’s always up to some shenanigans, running off on side adventures when no one’s looking. You tell him to sit still for five minutes and, next thing you know, he’s run off and is on a train to Ambala or something. He’s an enthu-cutlet.
It’s just his thing. He’s excitable and jumpy, he speaks really fast, and he moves his hands around a lot. And occasionally, during somber moments, he’ll give that really solemn look to the camera. You know the one. He gets too hammy and theatrical at times, but that comes with the territory. Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj, his Netflix show where he dives into a new subject of socio-political relevance every week, is popular precisely because of this quality. The latest “volume” (or season) of the show, its sixth, came back to our Netflix and YouTube screens last month, some episodes performed in quarantine with no audience laughter sound-tracking his meaningful pauses.
It’s already sparked a much-needed conversation about casual racism in India, with West Indies cricketer Darren Sammy posting a video about a racist nickname he’d been assigned during his time with the Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL in India. Sammy mentioned how he only learnt the real meaning of the term after watching a clip by Minhaj from a recent segment about the police murder of George Floyd.
The thing about Minhaj, the reason why he has such a wide influence—he was literally on Time’s list of 100 most influential people of 2019—is a certain restless affability about him. Even while dealing with a subject as loaded and dense as the Lok Sabha elections of last year, he was happy to play the fool. “Damn, Shashi’s thicc,” he said while interviewing the verbose Shashi Tharoor. This disarming quality—the ability to play the court jester—allows him to build a certain level of trust with the audience, who are then more receptive to the politically charged material that his show takes on each week.
It’s a trait he shares, loosely, with John Oliver. He has become a pretty well-established name in the world of political comedy, crossing over into the mainstream—even getting namechecked by Arnab Goswami—thanks to his very British reactions to absurdity. His go-to move is the bewildered look he has on his face at the stuff happening around him. Oliver, from his days as a pasty college professor on the cult sitcom Community, has felt like the kind of guy who isn’t afraid to just goof off and make jokes about himself bang in the middle of a serious diatribe.
They make it ‘relatable’ and lively and fun and palatable, dismantling the scare quotes that inevitably bracket ‘politics’ in normal conversations.
Using humour to speak on heavy political issues—right from the late night talk show-host tradition to standup to Netflix shows to Instagram rants—requires a delicate contrast between the weighty subject matter and a deftness of touch in its treatment. It should feel like you’re sitting around with friends you like, cracking jokes about the latest political nightmare. There’s a collective understanding that what’s happening is terrible, but we’re allowed to laugh at how tragic and messed up things are.
For that to happen, there needs to be a sense of implicit trust between performer and audience. These are professional joke-writers, so there will always be funny lines. But if you’re trying to educate your audiences about real-life events of real consequence, you can’t just rattle off a series of that’s-what-she-saids. A preexisting relationship between the comedian and the viewers makes it easier to broach sensitive subjects—something comedians such as Michelle Wolf or Jon Stewart or Varun Grover in India have built in their own unique way.
Without it, the whole thing falls apart, especially in the deeply polarised world we live in, as noticed in the backlash to bits about India that Minhaj and Oliver have done in the past. Or the time Trevor Noah did a joke about the Indian army and, as you’d expect, was treated to the choicest of slurs. Noah’s style is driven by his remarkable range of impressions and caricatures, allowing him to talk of race and revolution in his comedy with ease. But he was still absolutely battered online by a new audience unfamiliar with his work.
When that trust does exist though, it allows the comedian to overcome the biggest barriers to entry when it comes to sociopolitical material—audience partisanship, or worse, apathy. They provide short, neatly-packaged primers on things that are happening, with lots of visual gags and throwaway punchlines and the works, as a way to bypass the elliptical nature of global politics. They make it ‘relatable’ and lively and fun and palatable, dismantling the scare quotes that inevitably bracket ‘politics’ in normal conversations.
But this illusion of friends discussing the headlines can only go so far; there’s only so much info you can pack in 20 minutes. The limitations are built into the format, and there’s always the possibility of slanted opinion or incomplete research being presented as fact. Or a superficial takeaway. On Patriot Act,when you look at the episodes about India, it’s noticeable that most of what Minhaj is saying is neither new nor novel for people with a cursory understanding of the subcontinent. But it serves as a strong enough introduction for a new, diverse audience.
It’s about walking that line, as Minhaj does on Patriot Act, usually successfully. Do you get into the space of activism in your comedy, like Jon Stewart sometimes would, or do you risk a shallow, superficial engagement with the subject that doesn’t achieve its intended goal? Get too sanctimonious and “leftist”, and you risk alienating the audience because no one likes a blowhard. Not angry enough, and you get dismissed as bandwagon-hopping fluff. There’s no perfect solution, and personal biases can easily erode the fragile trust allowing comedians to speak out.
But ultimately, these artists try to direct people to new ideas, or at least build a foundation as a springboard for more engagement and political action. They aim, nobly, to leverage their credibility to spark a curiosity among their fans to become more aware. From this perspective, political comedy is not an end in itself. Instead, it provides a safe jumping off point for the viewer’s own political journey—a way of softening the harsh realities you’re entering, not a replacement altogether.
Implicit in that perspective is the understanding that comedians are offering a guide map here, not a stone tablet. If audiences take political comedy content like Patriot Act with a pinch of salt, as intended, it can be a valuable entry point into issues that we might care about if only they weren’t obscured by jargon or political partisanship. Far too often though, skepticism gets thrown out of the window in favour of celebrity cult worship. Best case scenario, that leads to the regular cycles of exaggerated outrage we see whenever someone’s favourite late night comedian is caught out saying something ill-advised. Worst case scenario, you risk turning your whole political discourse into a series of running gags, or as we know it, Trump’s America. When it comes to political comedy, like with anything else in life, trust—but verify.