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Hasan Minhaj, The Very Angry Optimist

The ‘Daily Show’ correspondent on the Stewart-to-Noah transition, staying positive in an ugly world, and doing his best to not embarrass his parents

One of the best changes to The Daily Show that Jon Stewart implemented in the later years of his tenure was encouraging the correspondents to develop their own voices. After the Comedy Central institution belatedly embraced diversity, the show stood out — and continues to do so — for its inclusion of perspectives still seldom found in the late-night landscape we might as well call Jimmyland. Whatever you may think of Trevor Noah’s takeover of The Daily Show (I personally think it’s underrated), it can’t be denied that the current contributors’ roster is arguably the best the show’s ever had. With his hard-hitting segments devoted to Muslim American issues, correspondent Hasan Minhaj has emerged as one of the most valuable voices of resistance in an increasingly Islamophobic country. [Note: Comedy Central and MTV News are both owned by Viacom.]

Minhaj spoke to MTV News about what he sees that most Republicans don’t, why he learned to run in suits, and why he talked about his mom in a standout segment about the Muslim ban.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

Can you talk about the Alabama field piece?

Hasan Minhaj: The Daily Show is one of the lowest-rated shows in the state of Alabama, so we decided to reach across the aisle and do a collection of field pieces about Alabama — to increase awareness of the show there, but also to learn about the politics, culture, and religion in Alabama. We are doing a whole series of pieces on it, so all the correspondents are going down there. I think it'll be really great.

Has anything surprised you when you've visited different places in Trump's America?

Minhaj: I did this piece called "Hasan's Farewell Tour" at the Republican National Convention, and I went up to different delegates and said goodbye to the states that I would never get to visit if Trump became president. What was really awesome: I'd meet a delegate from Montana and be like, "What's Montana like?" They'd say, "Oh, it's beautiful." "What do you love most about it?" "The weather's great, the springs are really lovely, and you look up at the sky and it's so blue." "Aw, man, I'd love to see that." "You should come on down!" "I can't." "Why?" "The person you're voting for wants to deport me from the country."

But what I found by doing that piece was [that] yes, there was a contingency of people that were treating the RNC like Racist Comic Con. But there was also a contingency of people that were voting for [Trump] that did not believe they were racist, sexist, or xenophobic. They just felt like the establishment hadn't listened to their concerns. Some of them reached out to me: "I love Muslim people. I have no problem with you guys. I don't think Trump's going to do that stuff." It was interacting with people in a real way, even though it was part of a piece, and not treating them as a monolith — and them seeing me and not seeing me as part of a monolith.

It's interesting that you're so optimistic about it, because I have a similar scenario going on with the extended family of my in-laws, who are very nice to me as a person of color, but also voted for Trump, with no regard for what he said about immigrants.

Minhaj: What the collateral damage will be, yeah.

That cognitive dissonance I find really infuriating, but it seems like it doesn't bother you as much.

Minhaj: It bothers me, but because I'm entrenched in this every day, I try to look at it like an angry optimist. In other words, I'm not happy with the state of affairs that we have. The rise of nationalism under the guise of patriotism is so effed up, and underneath this banner of "patriotism" is the worst of nationalist rhetoric: racism, xenophobia, sexism, [pitting] communities against each other, implicitly inciting race wars and stuff like that. So that's the angry part of it, but I'm incredibly optimistic about the potential to redefine what it means to be a "patriotic American" as accepting, open-minded, empathetic — all those things that this country has the incredible potential for.

There was a bit of a shift in my perspective on this. For 18 months, leading up to the November election, I did everything in my power to show how ridiculous and crazy [Trump]'s rhetoric was. I literally did a piece called "Donald Trump Is White ISIS." [But,] partisanship aside, there's a huge populace of people that were like, "I hear what you're saying, but I need something to change in my life, and I would like to have a representative that I think will [do] that for me."

We'll see how that experiment is going to work out. But if I want people to be empathetic to my struggle — they don't see hate crimes at the mosque, they don’t see people screaming at their cousins, brothers, or sisters who wear a hijab to "go back to your country" — I have to do the same.

I've always really liked your pieces on The Daily Show, but for me you took it to the next level right before the election, when you talked about your mom — who’s lived in the U.S. for 30 years — and her fears about whether she could come back into the country after visiting your grandmother overseas. Can you talk about why you wanted to include your mom in that discussion?

Minhaj: A lot of times, especially when it comes to political debates, people get caught up in esoteric statistics. So the realest thing I can do that has nothing to do with numbers is tell you my personal experience. And now, instead of dealing with these [hypothetical] people that don't really exist [because they’re] just part of a graph, you have to tell me, how do I tackle this?

The people I met at the Republican National Convention, I would ask them the same question: “What do you want me to tell my mom? I don't want to get into a debate about whether you think this policy is right, wrong, [how] it's been here since the NSEERS program. What do you want me to do in this situation?"

Anytime that we've been able to do that on the show, it's taken a lot of wind out of the sails of our critics. When Trevor was interviewing Tomi Lahren, what I loved the most about it was when Trevor reiterated four, five, six times: "OK, Tomi, you obviously have disdain for Black Lives Matter. How would you like me to protest, as a black man?" And her inability to answer that in a very specific, tangible way — that, to me, was the chink in the armor for her.

With the intensified Islamaphobia under Trump, how greatly do you feel a responsibility to speak out as a Muslim American?

Minhaj: It is an important time to speak out. I truly believe in the inherent goodness in people, and there are people willing to be allies. I choose to focus on the incredible potential for good that this otherwise ugly situation is bringing up. It's really awful, the rhetoric that's becoming part of the national discourse, but when it has such an ugly headline — that's what activated a group of people that was otherwise complacent to go, “Hey, I'm going down to the airport, and I'm going to hold hands in solidarity around Muslims in the arrival section of the airport." That's the thing I'm trying to tap into. That's why I've made a choice to be so public about my position.

What’s your sense of how things have changed behind the scenes in the switchover from Jon Stewart to Trevor Noah?

Minhaj: A lot of the day-to-day processes have remained the same because so many of the amazing people on the show are still there. The thing that's different is how Trevor views the world.

Can you elaborate on that difference in worldview?

Minhaj: Jon is a dude who grew up in Jersey, hosted the show for 17 years, and created this new way of doing satirical news. And Trevor is a guy who has grown up in South Africa, a child of apartheid, and his perspective [is of] not only a South African, but a foreigner to the United States and an internationally touring comedian who was a superstar around the world before he came to the States. When people were like, "Oh, wow, Trump is so crazy. That's so nuts, what's happening?" in the 9 a.m. meeting, he was like, "No, I've seen this before, in [Robert] Mugabe. I've seen Trump as an African dictator. You guys don't know about nationalist rhetoric all over Europe?" "No, I thought we were the center of the world." [He has the] ability to actually talk about that in a real way: "Oh, I've been there. I've talked to people there. This is just the remix on stuff that's been brewing for three, four years." That's something very special.

On a lighter note, how comfortable are you in those Daily Show suits?

Minhaj: It's a lot more natural now. At first, it was really weird [after] being a touring stand-up comedian that wears just jeans and a shirt. But now, it's almost like when you go from Clark Kent to Superman: "All right, I've got to go put on a suit and interview Justin Trudeau." It feels like it's part of the process. Oddly enough, I've been in enough places — they sometimes send you to places that are a bit scary — that I know how to run in a suit. Like, run fast. [Laughs.]

I wouldn’t be a good Asian if I forgot to ask: How do your parents feel about your comedy career?

Minhaj: Um, yeah. I'm sure you're able to relate to this. It was a struggle for a long time. They were rightly cautious, in the sense that they were like, "We want you to do what you want to do. We just also want you to not have to sleep on an air mattress for the rest of your life." What was beneficial for me was that I did everything I could to let them be a part of my life and show them how seriously I took comedy. This is my way of helping people and contributing something to society, and I'm doing everything I can to be as funny as possible without embarrassing them. They're proud now.


VMAs 2017