By Hillary Knouse
It’s tempting to call Hasan Minhaj’s Friday night show stand-up comedy. Ostensibly, it hits all the right notes: a single comic telling stories punctuated by funny one-liners; an open stage at the Mondavi Center in Davis with a single mic stand next to the obligatory stool full of water bottles; even the traditional opening act, another comedian sent to warm up the crowd with her own set. And yet, this was different.
The narrative arc of the soon-to-be-released Netflix special “Homecoming King” is a bit anti-climactic, falling somewhat short of a “theatrical debut,” but it well exceeds expectations for anyone tuning in with stand-up in mind. Minhaj uses pictures, videos and a series of changing backgrounds, as well as the entire physical space of the stage, to enhance his storytelling. He sets himself apart with the heartfelt sincerity of each of his stories. Each snapshot of his life is curated for its bittersweetness and ultimately delivers his unique perspective through relatable narratives of personal growth.
The final story of the show is a little lackluster. Minhaj overcomes the impulse to angstily pine after a high school crush who jilted him due to the color of his skin, but who,as an adult, is now engaged to another Indian man. Before the lights dim he flippantly declares “I’m the cure for racism.” A lighthearted ending to an ultimately feel-good show, but it lacks the poignancy that made the rest of his performance so special.
What “Homecoming King” excels at, however, is making a culturally unique perspective relatable to a diverse audience. Though relatively few people know what it’s like to grow up as a Muslim in America, much less a first generation Indian American, Minhaj manages to relay outlandish tales that resonate. At eight years old, Minhaj discovered that his family included a little sister that no one had bothered to tell him about. Shortly thereafter, he watched her receive the bike of his dreams for her birthday and his resentment was palpable. When Minhaj’s parents were resistant to meeting his fiancé because she was Hindi, and they were Muslim, his sister used her leverage as the “good kid” to sway them, and Hasan realized just how much he’d taken his sister for granted—a story somehow both culturally specific and incredibly universal. By framing his experiences through the humanizing arc of personal growth, Minhaj finds common ground with the audience. And that connection feels profound because he has an important story to tell.
As we become accustomed to daily news of hate crimes and immigrant bans it feels as though a significant portion of America has forgotten how to empathize with those different from themselves. That’s why the humanizing connections Minhaj makes with each of his stories feels important and rare. It magnifies the impact of stories like the Minhaj family car being smashed in the wake of 9/11. And it makes his father’s resignation to xenophobia at the time impactful and heartbreaking: “These things happen and these things will continue to happen,” he said. “That’s the price you pay for being here.”
At some point in the show, Minhaj asks “Do you ever get asked a question, and you feel like you have to answer for your entire race?” As the only Muslim correspondent on the Daily Show, I imagine this feels like his entire job. The singular voice he provides in “Homecoming King” does not fix the incredible lack of diversity in American media. It is an important start, though.