The ex-‚ÄėDaily Show‚Äô comedian has called his show a weekly ‚Äėwoke TED talk‚Äô, promising to deliver more than the average ‚ÄĒ and it deserves a chance
If deployed properly, self-deprecation can be the most valuable weapon in a comedian‚Äôs arsenal. Make a pointed critique of yourself before someone else can, play it off as a joke, and just like that, the potential diss has been neutralised.
That‚Äôs surely what Hasan Minhaj is going for when he refers to his news-comedy programme Patriot Act as a ‚Äúwoke TED Talk‚ÄĚ midway through the second episode, and yet the offhand remark does naught to change the fact that that‚Äôs precisely what this is. The phrase articulates a perceived objection to the show, but only succeeds in crystallising rather than dispelling it. He floats a succinct, cutting appraisal not so easily laughed off, the kind of compact dismissal that might as well come from articles not yet written ‚ÄĒ if Minhaj has room in his schedule to complete the remainder of this review, the door‚Äôs open.
‚ÄúWoke TED Talk‚ÄĚ pretty much sums up a show knowingly resistant to the tone and structure of the late-night culture that first spawned Minhaj. His mere presence invites comparison to his former home The Daily Show, and his once-a-week slot on Netflix puts him in line with Michelle Wolf‚Äôs recently cancelled The Break. In purpose, he‚Äôs closest to John Oliver and Last Week Tonight‚Äôs deep-dive ethic, but Patriot Act raises that show‚Äôs ‚Äúorganised ranting‚ÄĚ format to the Nth degree.
Each of the first two episodes screened for critics concentrates on one topic only ‚ÄĒ the first, affirmative action, the second, Saudi Arabia‚Äôs crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman ‚ÄĒ and eschews many of the trappings that have come to define the late-night genre. There‚Äôs no desk in sight; Minhaj gets a workout as he monologues with ample physicality and wild gesticulation across a screen-covered stage that he ribs as ‚Äúlike if Michael Bay directed a PowerPoint‚ÄĚ. (Another self-dig that doesn‚Äôt quite negate the criticism at its heart.)
He has no guests, and conducts no interviews. On the sliding scale between information and comedy, he falls closer to the former pole, matching Oliver and his team‚Äôs rigor as researchers without making an effort to mount some grand-finale prank or stunt. Minhaj dots his routines with one-liners playing to the upper-middle-brow crowd, slipping once again into self-awareness with an off-the-cuff comment about ‚Äúhitting all the pockets‚ÄĚ with an ‚Äúarthouse joke‚ÄĚ about Call Me By Your Name and an ‚ÄúAP Gov joke‚ÄĚ name-checking Hoovervilles. While his colleagues grapple for pageviews, Minhaj employs a refreshingly un-viral technique.
What Minhaj has that his de facto competitors so glaringly lack is his perspective, a voice that can stand out from the chorus of white men with identical haircuts. His heritage as a Muslim of Indian descent figures prominently into the fabric of both episodes, informing his commentary with insights that someone of a different background could not provide. He‚Äôs an object lesson in not just the moral but the practical benefits of a diverse late-night climate, showing how a plurality of vantage points cultivates a more well-rounded viewership. Whether in an extended bit about the customary Islamic bidet known as a ‚Äúlota‚ÄĚ or in an impassioned soliloquy about the conflict of worship demanding travel to Mecca despite objections to Saudi policy, Minhaj‚Äôs unique experience bolsters material that can sometimes verge on the overdone side.
Michelle Wolf‚Äôs finest hour on The Break came in the form of a meticulous, step-by-step dissection of the remarkably consistent formula that hosts use to keep an audience in their pocket. So much of Minhaj‚Äôs manner and content follows this model of pre-packaging, his edgelessness maximised to reassure, comfort, and congratulate the well-educated liberal audience invariably courted by shows of this nature. The crowd dutifully brays at every crack against Trump, secure that they won‚Äôt be challenged or implicated as part of the distinctly Republican problem. Like Hannah Gadsby‚Äôs Nanette, the original woke TED Talk, Patriot Act‚Äôs end goal seems at times to be a feel-good emotional catharsis rather than its ostensible utility as edu-tainment.
As a man of colour in a largely homogeneous field, he‚Äôs well-equipped to avoid this sort of tepid-pudding affirmation and pose difficult, discomfiting questions to the gargantuan viewership that Netflix offers. It is this critic‚Äôs sincere hope that Minhaj and his new enterprise will be afforded more time to come into their own and evolve past their flaws than their corporate superiors gave Wolf. Allotting 30 minutes to one topic should engender more trenchant reportage than most can manage, if Minhaj follows the more academic-minded direction suggested by the fitfully funny first two episodes. TV needs him, a notion that the first episode‚Äôs topic of affirmative actions meta-textually winks at. The least the man deserves is a chance to prove why.
Don‚Äôt miss it!
Patriot Act is now streaming on Netflix.