TV & Movies

Why Hasan Minhaj's Stand-Up Is What I Wanted Russell Peters' to Be

TBH, it's a good thing that Minhaj didn't hold a mic during his Netflix special, because it is pretty much back-to-back mic-drop moments

Hasan Minhaj on stage wearing a jean shirt with American flags projected on screens in the background

(Photo courtesy of Netflix Canada)

When I first heard about Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix stand-up comedy special, I was in no rush to watch it. Despite seeing his brilliant performance as host of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and his on point segments for The Daily Show, I saw the posters for Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King and simply expected a new-age Russell Peters.

I streamed the special one day while cooking dinner, expecting it to be simply amusing background noise, but within 10 minutes I found myself completely drawn in by a comedy set unlike any I had ever seen before. Minhaj is not a new Russell Peters. He is better.

I vividly remember watching Peters’ 2004 Comedy Now! stand-up video with my entire family. Aunts, uncles, cousins and even my grandmother, who speaks minimal English, were absolutely howling as Peters riffed on what we largely considered inside jokes among the Indian community.

For a short while, that viral video made being Indo-Canadian cool. We were the funny kids who could imitate our relatives at the drop of the hat. I killed at parties replicating his classic “somebody gonna get a hurt real bad” line in my terrible over-the-top Indian accent, which TBH sounded nothing like my real relatives.

In that 45-minute set, Peters had members of my Indo-Canadian laughing at ourselves, at others and at the world we live in—but more than that, he made us feel seen. He was pulling from experiences that we didn’t even realize we shared, and putting them out there for the world to hear.

But with time, I realized that as much as Peters had put the cultural experiences of people like me on the public’s radar, his comedy also gave non-Indians free rein to speak in an outrageous accent and joke that India literally smelled like shit. We were laughing along, not realizing that we were the butt of the joke.

“A close look at some of Peters’ jokes illustrates that his casual use of stereotypes may, in fact, hurt somebody real bad after all,” wrote McMaster University media professor Faiza Hirji in her 2009 study examining the content behind Peters’ comedy. While the legendary stand-up set did break barriers for cultural comedy and open doors for more pluralism and acceptance, Hirji notes that Peters is far from a “diplomat of diversity.”

Minhaj was one of the millions that watched Peters’ most famous comedy special, and like me, he told Vulture that he remembers that set being a defining moment for Indians in mainstream media. But by the time he got his own headlining stand-up show, Minhaj took a decidedly different approach.

In Homecoming King, this proud Californian does away with the typical formula for cultural comedy that relies on stereotypes and cartoonish accents, and instead dives deep into his own experience, inviting the audience along with him from the moment he figured out he was a different colour all the way through to understanding prejudice within his own community.

I found myself laughing along, and surprisingly tearing up at more than one point because Homecoming King is less of a comedy hour and more of a live memoir told by an incredibly energetic narrator. Unlike Peters’ comedy, Minhaj didn’t rely on over-the-top impressions of his parents to get easy laughs, but instead replaced lines like “somebody gonna get a hurt real bad” with “Log Kya Kahenge” (translation: What will people say). I won’t spoil why that tagline still gives me shivers as I type these very words, but trust, that alone is worth giving this special a watch.

In addition, unlike Peters, Minhaj doesn’t delve into the experiences/stereotypes of other minority groups. Instead, he sticks to what he knows—his own life story of growing up Muslim in America, including how including how 9/11 felt like an attack on his country and the racism that followed on 9/12 felt like an attack on his family. The result is a comedy special that could almost double as a TED talk.

As a performer, Minhaj credits Peters with opening doors (in some cases literally) for a more brown faces in comedy, and that cannot be ignored. Questionable jokes aside, Peters was a pioneer.

“What Russell did, which allowed Mindy [Kaling] to exist, I think their fingerprints will be seen in the next generation which allows more specificity to be there,” Minhaj told Vulture. “I don’t know if it’s a product of the choices were making or if we’re just riding a wave in history that we don’t know we’re riding.”

Peters may have paved the way, but with his unique blend of humour and heart, Minhaj is taking cultural comedy in the direction it needs to go.

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