Q&A: Hasan Minhaj talks activist art, comedy and getting the audience to listen

April 23, 2018, 1:00 a.m.

Best known for his role as a Senior Correspondent on “The Daily Show,” comedian and performer Hasan Minhaj spoke on Friday at Dinkelspiel Auditorium. Amongst many endeavors, including hosting the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, his critically acclaimed comedy special “Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King” and guest starring roles on television, Minhaj will soon depart “The Daily Show” to helm his own weekly Netflix talk show, including some content he previewed at his appearance on Friday. The Stanford Daily had the opportunity to talk with Minhaj about the nature of activist art, connecting to everyone through comedy and hoping that audiences will listen.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What would you consider activist art in arts and entertainment? Do you consider art, especially in the realm of identity and community-specific issues, as activist work?

Hasan Minhaj (HM): I think it depends on the artist’s intent. If their intent is to raise awareness on certain issues, whether that’s knowingly or unknowingly, it would be activist art.

TSD: Do you consider your work and art to be activist?

HM: Yeah, so it’s interesting because my intent usually comes from a place of curiosity, as you saw during the show. There is a central question that I’m trying to answer. You saw the preview of the big refugees headline, like “Should we let them in?” I’m coming at it from a place of curiosity, and some people are like “Oh! That’s a form of activism!” especially for this headline in particular. I think it walks this fine line. It’s sometimes not up to me to decide; it’s up to the audience to decide.

TSD: Asian American representation in media has reached a certain turning point today, and as three Asian American women in journalism, we’re proud to see people like us excelling and voicing themselves in the industry. “Homecoming King” was so special to us because of its specificity and focused on your experience. At the same time, do you ever feel like your identity constrains you to certain topics or that the public expects certain things from you?

HM: There is an incredible universality to specificity, but I think sometimes there is a slight disadvantage because they see me and go, “Oh, he has this specific agenda. I don’t want to hear this.” To me, one of the biggest things that I take inspiration from, and I think comedy takes a lot of inspiration from, is music. Great songs are able to just communicate to everybody. Music is sort of like the universal language in connecting everybody, and comedy is similar to music in some ways. My goal is to overcome any sort of preexisting notions the audience has of me through jokes and laughter. I can sort of sneak my way into maybe you hearing my side in some way. Now whether I do that effectively or not is a whole other question! (laughs) There are some YouTube comments that are like “Nah! Thumbs down!” Like all right! BallDrake79, you win!

TSD: When you’re doing stand-up, how much does the site of the performance affect how you deliver your work or your interactions with the audience? Who would you consider to be your target audience and what do you want them to take away from your work?

HM: My target audience is anyone who’s willing to listen. (laughs) Yeah! Anyone who’s willing to sit down and pay attention. I just hope that again, the biggest thing that they take away is that they can listen with an open mind. As performers, we’re just pouring our hearts out onstage. These are our thoughts, and these are our feelings, and hopefully you guys give it a shot.

Contact Samantha Wong at slwong ‘at’ stanford.edu, Alli Cruz at allicruz ‘at’ stanford.edu. and Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Read the Daily’s first opportunity to hear from Minhaj in a joint conversation with Roy Wood, Jr.

Olivia Popp was a managing editor of Arts & Life for volumes 251 through 254 and the editor-at-large for The Stanford Daily's board of directors for volumes 254 and 255. She hails from Michigan and enjoys science fiction TV shows, independent film festivals, and the Bay Area theater scene.Samantha Wong '18 is the former Executive Editor of vol. 252 and former Managing Editor of The Grind. She is majoring in Human Biology with a minor in History. To reach her, please contact slwong 'at' stanford.edu.

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