The Goatface YouTube channel grabbed my attention during grad school while I was researching for my thesis and scouring the internet for signs of non-tokenized, unstereotypical brown characters in popular media with depth and interiority. Goatface’s refreshing response to this lack of representation in 2011 (when all we had were Aziz, Mindy, and Kunal), was to explicitly poke fun at the narrow roles brown people occupy in the popular western imagination.
With his work on Patriot Act, Minhaj is bringing that same spirit of pulling back the covers to reveal ugly truths, but this time his audience potentially numbers in the millions and his topics are of global concern. Still, what could feel for him like the insurmountable pressure of bringing high energy, concise context and thoughtful analysis to international crises every single week doesn’t seem to be phasing Minhaj all that much. When we talked over the phone, Minhaj spoke with an ease and informality that reminded me of shooting the breeze with my brother. And that’s exactly what he aims for. Here’s the transcript of our chat below:
Hasan Minhaj (HM): Hey, what’s up Anjali!
Anjali Misra (AM): Hey Hasan! I know we only have a short amount of time, and I have just a couple of questions for you about your work. Full disclosure, I’m all caught up on Patriot Act, I saw Homecoming King live in Chicago with my mom, I watched every Goatface skit during grad school and I watched the Goatface Comedy special last night.
HM: Oh man, that’s a lot of me.
AM: No pressure.
AM: So with all of that content swirling around in my mind, I guess I’m wondering about…some of your work hints at or talks about how brown people, or South Asians, have — for a long time — have been the “safe brown” people to put on TV and in popular American media. And I’m wondering if in recent years you see a shift in that. Do you think in Hollywood, South Asians are being accepted more as nuanced, multidimensional people? Do you see a shift? Or what’s happening?
HM: I think I definitely see an overall shift in everything that’s going on in Hollywood in general. And I think that a lot of different voices of creators of color are coming of age to sort of really really be unapologetically themselves. And I’ve just seen that across the board, whether it’s the work that Ryan Coogler’s been doing, whether it’s the work of so many others; actors like John Cho and Mindy Kaling. A lot of creators of color, whether they’re actors, directors, writers,are just taking more creative chances, and I think as those projects succeed we keep inspiring one another to push the boundaries in our respective fields.
AM: So there are also a few moments on Patriot Act where you’re explicitly calling upon a lot of Asian American communities, and specifically the South Asian American community to interrogate our own roles in some of the bigger issues in society like immigration reform and affirmative action. What has been the reception of that from folks in those communities?
HM: Yea that’s been really interesting. You know, there’s been a group of people, especially with the affirmative action episode, there’ve been people from the community that have been like “thank you so much for calling out anti-black, and anti-brown rhetoric within our own community.” That’s something that really hasn’t been talked about.
My thing was that I just wanted to be really really honest. Especially with that episode. For me the thing that really bothered me was that there were a lot of people from the community marching for this cause, under the guise of “ra ra, I’m the Asian MLK,” and this has nothing to do with civil liberties, or civil rights or equality for all. This is about, you know, your son or daughter, getting into Harvard. So can we just be real? And there’s moments like that where I know it doesn’t get huge laughs, but that’s the power of comedy to me, that you’ve curried the favor of the audience to laugh so that you can have unfunny moments where you can say “I just have to be one-thousand percent real, like c’mon. This is not it.”
And then I like to also just have moments where, you know, even in the writing, there will be moments where there isn’t a word or a phrase that perfectly captures it within the English language. Like there was this moment in the immigration enforcement episode where you definitely see the drum being beaten for xenophobia in regards to immigrants coming and we definitely have these amazing graphs that show that is just fundamentally not true, and that as immigration has gone up, the number of crimes [in the U.S.] committed by immigrants has gone down. And I go “that gap is there because of our parents yelling at us.” Like, “yup, we are darpoks.” It’s a word in Hindi that so perfectly describes, I think, that fear, anxiety and pressure that our parents put on us, of like “you cannot mess this up.”
AM: Yeah, I mean, all good points, all very true! And every once in a while on Patriot Act, you tend to speak directly to certain audiences or groups, and I’m wondering if you consider the show to have a specific audience, or does it shift depending on the content? How does that get written or decided?
HM: Well, from a macro perspective, I like to pick stories that I feel aren’t being talked about, that exist in the white space, that exist outside of “oh, did you hear about what’s happening in the Mueller investigation,” or “oh my god, did you hear about the Michael Cohen thing?” You know, the day to day Twitter sugar that’s existing that’s like “oh man, I have to write a joke about this right now.”
I feel like what I try to do is provide an analysis of things that are happening in the world that maybe you just need a lot more time, nuance and depth for. And I think that’s really where this show shines. And also picking stories where I have a really passionate connection to it, and that can be connected back to who I am as a South Asian American Muslim. That’s what made me [cover] Supreme [on Patriot Act]. I’ve always been a child of Hip Hop, basketball, streetwear, sneaker culture. So those were a guiding force, but it’s weird because I don’t know if I have a primary audience. I didn’t plan it that way, but I definitely am really proud to be South Asian, and I don’t half-step that.
“I think that means people see themselves or they see their family in me, and that’s awesome.”
To me, assimilation isn’t the win. To me, the win is really authentically being myself. And sometimes we do these Q&As between the shows, and people will be like, “hey, you remind me of my cousin,” or “you remind me of someone I grew up with,” and one of the other writers was like “that must suck!” and I’m like “no, I think that’s cool!” I think that means people see themselves or they see their family in me, and that’s awesome. I want people to feel that way.
AM: Who are some up and coming performers you’re excited about?
HM: One person I’m really excited about is Aparna Nancherla. She’s really really talented, she’s great, she’s super interesting, cool, and she talks about mental health in her stand-up. Also just her style is way different than what a lot of other people are doing. I really love her. And Fahim Anwar is hilarious, he’s one of the funniest pure stand-up comedians I’ve ever seen in my life.
AM: What’s next for you? What are some future projects of yours that you’re excited about?
HM: Ha, I’m trying to do a good show every week. That’s my biggest responsibility. But I am really excited about cycle two [of Patriot Act], and adding new interesting segments. That’s honestly what I’m really really excited about.
AM: Well, we’re all excited to see it!
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Anjali Misra is a Chicago-based nonprofit professional and freelance writer of media reviews, cultural criticism and short fiction work. She earned her MA in Gender & Women’s Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she spent nine years as a student and community organizer, focusing on inter-ethnic solidarity, interracial coalition building, and gender justice. She is an avid sci-fi media fan, and Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan is her patronus.