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Hasan Minhaj on Cancel Culture: ‘It’s Freedom of Speech Conflated with Acceptable Speech’

Even after threats to his family and growing political division, the comedian tells IndieWire he still believes people are empathetic at their core.

Hasan Minhaj: The King's Jester. Hasan Minhaj at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Cr. Clifton Prescod/Netflix © 2022

“Hasan Minhaj: The King’s Jester”

CLIFTON PRESCOD/NETFLIX

Hasan Minhaj contains multitudes.

The comedian who hosted Netflix’s “Patriot Act” calls them “Instagram Hasan” and “iMessage Hasan.” In his new special, “The King’s Jester,” Minhaj describes getting swept up in the former, obsessed with virality and online clout at the cost of what really matters.

“There’s Twitter chatter, and there’s IRL chatter,” Minhaj told IndieWire via Zoom ahead of the “King’s Jester” premiere on Netflix. “And I think it’s important for us as performers, artists, and journalists to be able to discern between the two.”

He cites the Twitter headline of the day at the time — BuzzFeed’s Try Guys — and notes that this isn’t something affecting the day-to-day of most people in the country, including himself. A lot of what divides people is arbitrary; Minhaj believes in the power of comedy and shared experience to bring people together.

“One of the things that I tried to do that I learned from Jon [Stewart] was if you’re sincere, honest, and a good faith actor and your art, people will surprise you with how much they’re willing to listen to you,” he said. “You can only actually determine that by testing what you do, and stand up comedy, jazz, live performance — these are American art forms where you are quite literally testing this material with an audience. They are going to implicitly and explicit tell you whether or not they agree, disagree, or are aghast by what you’re saying. That’s really important to me, and that gave me a ton of hope.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

IndieWire: Of all your specials, this is the one that feels most like classic standup. Was that deliberate?

Minhaj: The thing that we wanted to lean into the most when we first started the special — I definitely want to open up with a confession that I felt like the audience didn’t or wouldn’t know, which is why we open the special with that line: “Do you want to know a secret? For four years, my wife and I, we couldn’t get pregnant and it was my fault.” But then that whole chunk about varicocele repair and Arjun and MDs and DOs, I really wanted it to feel like a funny journey. So the setup-punch nature of that first act is pretty heavy on the setup-punch type jokes, and then we eased into the storytelling. But that is something that I was mindful of. I didn’t want people to be sad out the gate. I wanted to let people know, “Hey, I’m going to be vulnerable, I’m going to be honest, I’m going to share something you probably don’t know about me — but it’s going to be fun. We’re going to have fun. It’s okay, I’ve processed it. We’ve healed, me and Beena are great.” You come to find out we have two kids, all as well. I wanted it to be a fun ride that has storytelling as well, but it’s gotta have jokes.

To that end, was there ever a consideration of maybe not doing the elaborate set design, and just having you and a mic and a stage?

I was wildly inspired by Spalding Gray. If you look at Spalding Gray’s storytelling specials, it’s pretty incredible. He’ll just do these storytelling monologues that are at times comedic in nature, at times dramatic in nature, but he has set design and lighting design and stage design. I love visual storytelling. But what we wanted to do — Prashanth [Venkataramanujam] and I, who’s the director of the special — is first start with the storytelling itself, and then build based on that. If you notice, the special has less cues than say “Patriot Act” or even “Homecoming King,” but the emotional themes we convey through color. James Turrell was a huge inspiration, and Scott Pask our stage designer designed this really beautiful Turrellian world that used color as a language. Those saturated colors just conveyed all the themes of the show.

Tell me more about the production design, about the lighting and screens and the piece in the middle.

Prashanthtells me that all the time: “Start with the actual story itself first, then let stage design, lighting design and art design come from that it will speak to you.” And one of the things that we looked at once we started to get the show in shape is that there’s just these real emotional chapters here. There’s the vulnerability of fertility and male infertility in the first act, the second act of introducing “Patriot Act,” the idea where it came from, the Saudi embassy. Then later, we have clout, and finally we have the jurisprudence of jokes. But each of those themes has a feeling: Vulnerability, anger, clout, envy, ego. I’m a huge fan of James Turrell, and I was like, “Color could be our tool.” So instead of graphics, data, and other things that are so cerebral, color is just such an emotional tool.

…The stone in the middle — if you look at a lot of Turrellian exhibits, they’re built in a natural space. Turrell will just use light and color on natural stone sometimes to convey an emotion. And then one of the things I was thinking about with the King’s Jester and the Philosopher’s Stone, they’ll use that plinth to either sit or pontificate on. The Oculus above pays homage to Turrell in those circles, and then also can serve as a lighting source to focus you during certain dramatic parts or serve as a color chapter header throughout the special.

A man with a microphone stands on a stage with a stone plinth at the center, "The King's Jester" written in large white letters on a screen behind him; still from "Hasan Minhaj: The King's Jester."

“Hasan Minhaj: The King’s Jester”

CLIFTON PRESCOD/NETFLIX

We spoke a couple years ago, right before you launched “Patriot Act,” about the power of comedy to reach across the aisle. It has been a few years since then, and things have only escalated, but I would love to check in on your thoughts.

Look, we took the show to Iowa, Montana, South Carolina — pretty much any state Hillary Clinton wouldn’t go to I went to — and the amount of warmth that people had, and acceptance. I don’t know if there’s a ton of Desis in Des Moines. That’s not who filled that auditorium. It was people that were willing to hear my story, and hear about government overreach, and the Patriot Act and Hamid Hayat, and all these things that had nothing to do with their lives in Iowa. I’m really quite touched and amazed by the spirit and optimism that I felt from them. I know there’s a lot of nihilistic, dark takes out there, and I’ll let people run with that, but that’s not what I saw. I want to believe what I what I saw and believe in the human spirit.

I’m glad to hear that you’re still in a good place with all of that. What about cancel culture and sensitivity?

It’s freedom of speech being conflated with acceptable speech. The way I talked about it in the show — I think “the jurisprudence of jokes” actually was my kind of essay to the conversation that’s being had right now in regards to censorship. What’s happening right now is there is the idea that is your First Amendment right to freedom of speech: “Am I allowed to say this?” versus “Is it socially acceptable to say this?” And those two ideas are being conflated. Everybody has the right to say whatever they want, politically, culturally, they can scream out racial epithets, if they so please. Is it in good taste to do those things? There is just a cultural conversation happening around the Overton window of what is socially acceptable to say, in which places. That’s really it. We’re just having a conversation of, “Hey, you can talk like that. Is it cool to talk like that on stage at the Oscars, in a basement at the Comedy Cellar, at Radio City Music Hall, on Facebook where your mom can also see it?” We’re just having a conversation about decorum and where it’s appropriate to say those things. And I think that’s okay, and I think we’ll hopefully figure it out.

You talk in the special about some of the threats to your safety and your family — I’m so sorry that happened. Did that contribute at all to the end of “Patriot Act?”

No, that didn’t contribute to “Patriot Act,” but it certainly contributed the choices that I made in regards to what what type of material I would do, and how far I’d be willing to take a joke. I can’t tell you how many scripts there were where there was some stuff where I really go mask off, and there’s parts of me where I’m like, “Hey, man, if you do this, there could be no coming back.” So Beena and your kids, they don’t have a right to vote on this. My kids can’t speak on this just yet, but Beena deserves the right to veto this, and I have them to consider as well. So as I’ve gotten older, those moments made me realize, “Hey, you have to consider other people. You’re playing for not just yourself. There’s other people that are part of your life, and they don’t always get to vote on what you say or do, so act in their best interest as well. Act like you’re a diplomat for their best interest.” That really shaped my decisions and my comedy.

I would like to circle back about Queen Elizabeth II who was alive when you taped this, but there is a section where you say “Fuck the Queen.” Would like to revisit that joke at all?

Yeah, no. Two days ago I was in London. I had two shows at Hackney Empire, and I did the joke exactly the same way.

And finally, I noticed that you’ve launched some impressions this time, a very good Kumail and Aziz. I guess the obvious question is: When are you going to host “SNL?”

Oh, that’s a Lorne Michaels question. And I also have a Jason Statham. (lowers voice) “All right, here’s the thing.” That’s all I have.

I think that’s all you need. I think that’s the sketch.

I have those three. I think that’s enough to triangulate in a monologue.

“Hasan Minhaj: The King’s Jester” is now streaming on Netflix.

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