Hasan Minhaj, an American comic of Indian extraction, hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this year, an event that was famously boycotted by President Donald Trump. Minhaj, who has worked as a correspondent on Jon Stewart’s show, is a vocal critic of Trump’s policies, especially of the ban on Muslims from some West Asian countries from entering the US.
In his new Netflix standup special Homecoming King, Minhaj gives us an endearing peek into his life, which is classic immigrant territory. In the 1980s, his parents moved to the US from Aligarh and settled in Davis, California. (The special was recorded in the city on Minhaj’s request.) Through carefully constructed vignettes, Minhaj takes us through his childhood and adolescence, offering us a ringside view of his developing politics.
Minhaj explores race in his trademark style – a mix of cool and wide-eyed surprise. As a young comic, he is au courant with the latest pop culture references, and the sketch is peppered with mentions of icons as diverse as Drake and Mr Miyagi. His material too is broad-based, from lighthearted comedy about immigrant parents buying even milk as though it were the realisation of the American dream to darker episodes such as the time his family was threatened after 9/11.
But it is from successes and failures in love that Minhaj’s most affecting stories emerge. He recounts his high school crush on a white girl, which was reciprocated for a while until race came into the picture and the romance was nipped. He speaks about his marriage to a Hindu woman and the troubles he faced convincing his father of the alliance.
Minhaj has an attractive method that, common to comics today, uses a mix of video and photo grabs on the screen behind to cushion his material. The most hilarious part of the sketch has him showing clips from Facebook and Twitter of his interactions with the girl from high school with whom he reconnected many years later.
Minhaj presents his story as a mix of the comic and the tragic – news of his headlining a comedy club, for example, was accompanied by his father’s heart attack – making for an engaging patchwork that is like life itself. Politically, though, he is on less steady ground. His comedy, while deeply political, does not encompass the varying shades of the argument he is making. He harangues, rightly, against Muslim immigrants having to justify themselves after every terrorist attack. But his criticism of Trump fails to offer a better, more reasonable way to tackle this nebulous threat.
Likewise, his episodes on race throw around the word “bigotry” ceaselessly. Indeed, his personal experience in high school is classic racism, but by suggesting that vintage bigotry is the sole reason for the populist backlash now roiling the West, he, like many other intellectuals, oversimplifies the issue. Nobody in his right mind will dispute that two people of different skin colours deserve to be together. But a fear of the immigrant has broader economic and cultural roots, which cannot be wished away with a platter of Forsterian “only connect” didacticism.
Politics apart, Homecoming King is a wonderfully realised portrait of the immigrant experience. Desis abroad will find in its material much they can relate to. We live in fraught times, and comedy is one way we can bridge our differences. The hope is Minhaj will incorporate into his material broader shades of opinion while retaining his childlike glee and enthusiasm about coming into his own as an American.