“I needed to get a news team around me, and that started with a really great news producer, junior researchers, and fact checkers...and pulling from...all these amazing journalists and we slowly built this team.”
If you think this describes someone constituting an ideal newsroom, you would be dead wrong. As dead, in fact, as the show that lasted for six seasons or 40 episodes. This was Hasan Minhaj describing how he pieced together Patriot Act on Netflix, the show that experienced an untimely, and for its grateful fans, an entirely unexpected demise last week.
But really, we should have seen this coming after the events in 2016. That’s when the rarely consulted but revered Oxford Dictionary introduced the word post-truth into its pages. The word, it said, “denotes circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. It was as if speaking truth to power had been undermined and we all allowed majoritarian propaganda to make its cute nickname official.
Twenty sixteen was also the year of the election of Donald Trump, who would go on to deny Minhaj the opportunity to roast him in person at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. For Minhaj, the event was a leg-up anyway. It was the first time a South Asian American was headlining the ritual and he began his routine with the effectiveness of a fortune-teller unaware of their abilities.
“For those of you who do not know me, I’m a correspondent on The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Now, I see some of you whispering to each other. What is Comedy Central? It’s basically an internship for Netflix.”
A show on Netflix did indeed come to pass. And, today, a Change.org petition seeks to reinstate that show, evincing the felt need for what it came to represent.
Funny investigative report
Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj started in 2018, porting comedy laced with commentary from broadcast television into the midst of binge-watchable sitcoms and dramas. It still had Minhaj’s quick-fire witticisms – his hallmark from his late-night political commentary and stand-up comedy days – but the aesthetic was distinctly different. Gone was the tight-fitting suit from his four-year apprenticeship under Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah at The Daily Show. Now clad in chic casual wear and sneakers, he burst onto a stage surrounded by giant digital screens.
“Patriot Act is different, it’s me standing up,” he told fellow South Asian American television star Tan France. It is “a funny investigative report meets comedy show meets Malcom Gladwell but funny...it’s on a bunch of screens like a Drake concert.”
This was a time when minority and immigrant politics had fractured American society and was beginning to find echoes across the world. The lack of adequate minority representation was a festering sore. Patriot Act addressed this inequity. Here was a show headlined by a second-generation Muslim immigrant willing to weigh in on matters far and wide. Suddenly, “woke culture” that sometimes threatened to descend into inflexible political correctness found a sensible alternative.
Each episode brought Minhaj pouncing onto stage. Eager to make the most of his time, he rattled through clever punchlines while gesticulating like a hip-hop artist engaged in a rap battle. His opponent? Every third-rail issue – the phrase used to describe topics that politicians on either side of the divide avoid for fear of looking bad. The opioid crisis, mental health, fast fashion, racism in policing, censorship in China, social media companies. If the subject highlighted an administration’s oddities, ineptitude or atrocities anywhere in the world, it was fair game.
For Minhaj, this meant courting controversy on a global scale. It began with an episode questioning the role of Saudi Arabia in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Before long, the rulers got Netflix to remove the episode in the kingdom. But this was just a warm-up for news comedy’s affable but incisive jester. What came next was a Twitter storm of epic proportion.
Just as India was readying for general elections, Patriot Act ran an episode highlighting the rise of the right wing in a secular democracy. Again, Minhaj was oddly prescient. The episode began with a skit in which older, first generation immigrant relatives and friends rebuked him for even considering it.
An outraged avuncular figure cautioned him: “Democracy is for people with power, people with muscle power and money power, it is not for you and me. You are going to make millions of people angry. They’re going to kill you.”
What followed was inevitable outrage eviscerating the show and its lead on social media in India. Yet, Minhaj persisted. Subsequent episodes of his award-winning show provided an update on the very controversies that attracted umbrage. Each time, his breathless a cappella on stage would be performed as if he were running out of time. When asked at the New Yorker festival why he took on these issues, Minhaj revealed what seemed like a premonition: “You don’t know how long you have these shows for. I really just want to use the opportunity that I have to say what I feel and to really just put it out there while I still have a chance to.”
Today, as dissent and democratic values are receding, we are marooned in a media wasteland strewn with left liberal fatalism and alt-right fabrication. What’s left are so-called news outlets that perform verbal mudwrestling and wear their political affiliations brazenly. Freud asserted that humour had three key functions: a regression to infantile modes of thinking, expressing anxiety, and a substitute for aggression and libido. Strangely, in a world where news organisations seem to be doing all three, all at once, it has fallen to thinking comedians to provide rational refuge with a dash of sobriety.
Protect the truth
Patriot. It’s a word that traces its roots to the late 16th century – an adjective that describes someone who passionately supports, is loyal to, and loves their country. Today, fundamentalists use it to valorise majoritarianism and box in dissenters by vilifying them as unpatriotic.
But nations are more than just physical borders and flags. For the most part, if nation states have framed their identity, it has been on the basis of on an idea. America as an upholder of free speech and capitalist fervour. China as a byword for a state-run economy. India as the champion of Asian democracy and secularism at scale. Each country is representative of a set of emblematic ideals.
As I watched the final episode of Patriot Act, I wondered if the series had all along been asking its viewers to be patriotic about the truth instead of petty parochialism. Truth not redefined by convenience, but truth representated by plain facts. In a world where rabid ranting passes off for perspective on primetime, Patriot Act was urging us to protect the truth from turning into farce. If we don’t, Minhaj would have made yet another inadvertent prediction. That our patriotism, no matter how passionately professed, will have been nothing more than an act.