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Comic Hasan Minhaj On Roasting Trump And Growing Up A 'Third Culture Kid'

Dec 29, 2017
Originally published on January 3, 2018 11:35 am
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. This week, we've been featuring some of our favorite interviews of 2017. One of them is Terry's interview with Hasan Minhaj, a correspondent on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah." Minhaj was hired by Jon Stewart just a few months before Stewart left the show. The Trump administration has provided plenty of material for satire, but has also created serious concerns for the Minhaj family. His parents are Muslim immigrants from India. The night after the election, Hasan Minhaj talked about his fears that his mother, an American citizen who was visiting family in India, might be prevented from returning to the U.S. because of the Muslim ban proposed by President-elect Trump.

Terry spoke with Minhaj in April 2017, shortly before his Netflix comedy special "Homecoming King" was released. It's about growing up in Davis, Calif., the son of immigrants. Here's a clip. It's the story of an anonymous threatening phone call his family received at home right after 9/11. Just after the phone call, the windows on the family car were shattered. Hasan went out into the street to see if he could find out who did it.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "HOMECOMING KING")

HASAN MINHAJ: I looked back. In the middle of the street, my dad's in the middle of the road sweeping glass out of the road like he works at like a hate crime barbershop, just like...

(LAUGHTER)

MINHAJ: ...We got customers. We got to clean this up. Zen brown Mr. Miyagi just, like, not saying a word. I run up to him. I'm like, Dad, why aren't you saying something? I'm not asking you. Say something. He looks at me and he goes, Hasan, (foreign language spoken). These things happen, and these things will continue to happen. That's the price we pay for being here. And that's when I was like, oh, no, we really are from two different generations, like, BMX bikes aside.

But my dad's from that generation like a lot of immigrants where he feels like if you come to this country, you pay this thing like the American dream tax, right? Like you're going to endure some racism, and if it doesn't cost you your life, well, hey, you lucked out. Pay it. There you go, Uncle Sam. But for me, like a lot of us, I was born here, so I actually have the audacity of equality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: That's an excerpt of "Homecoming King." Hasan Minhaj, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love this new show.

MINHAJ: Thanks for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit more about the difference in your point of view about what it means to be an immigrant and a Muslim in America now and what the difference generationally between your father as an immigrant and you as somebody who was born here?

MINHAJ: Yeah. The biggest difference between - and I feel like a lot of third culture kids feel this. And I identify as a third culture kid, meaning that, you know, my family is from Aligarh, India. They immigrated to America. I was born here. I exist in this hyphen. I'm an Indian-American Muslim kid, but am I more Indian? Am I more American? What part of my identity am I?

And one of the biggest things immigrant kids oftentimes feel is it's this big disparity between our parents and us. Our parents are staunch pragmatists. And we actually - I consider myself to be an optimist, you know? So when my dad immigrated here - we talk about it in the show - there's this thing called, you know, the American dream tax.

You're going to come here. You're going to endure some struggles, some problems. But if you don't die, if it doesn't cost you your life, well, hey, you lucked out. My dad is a child of partition when it happened in India. So if I explain the concept of micro aggressions to him, he's like I dealt with full-on aggression. You're lucky. Put your head down and go. Like...

GROSS: Partition is when Pakistan divided from India.

MINHAJ: Correct.

GROSS: And there was a lot - on both sides of this new border - a lot of violence and a lot of death.

MINHAJ: Yes, and it was one of the largest mass exoduses of people from India to Pakistan. My dad's family stayed in Aligarh in India, which was a huge decision because you're dividing a country based on religious lines. So the things that he saw and witnessed as a kid, he doesn't want to hear about my identity crises at school, you know, and how I want to just, you know, fall in love and fit in. For him, things that he witnessed during that generation and era were very, very extreme and oftentimes violent.

But what's weird is, you know, for me as a kid growing up, going to school, taking honors gov in high school and learning about equality and civil liberties, you actually at a young age have this sense of optimism where you're like, oh, so I am equal. That means that I shouldn't be treated this way. And that's where there's this big sort of differentiation between us and our parents.

And, you know, that night, you know, when I tell that story of September 12, it was the first night of so many nights where I kind of was put in this position where - do I think like my dad? You know, do I sweep up the glass that's in the road? Do I sort of just forget this hate crime? Do I sweep up the glass, that way the neighbors don't see it, and just go back inside and actually be grateful that they broke the windows on the car, they didn't break the windows to the house and try to, you know, come in and do something and just, hey, just count my blessings? Or do I use this as a moment to be like, no, this is wrong, and I should I should speak up and say something?

Because it's these moments where maybe my generation can move the needle forward a little bit and talk about this. And I even say it in the show, that pendulum swings back and forth for me all the time. I don't have a clear, you know, that this is the way you deal with this. There's sometimes where maybe my dad's right, and there's sometimes where I'm like, no, I think he's wrong. I think being an angry optimist is the solution.

GROSS: So there are a lot of cultural differences between you and your father.

MINHAJ: Yeah.

GROSS: And let's start with the fact that your father hadn't even met your mother when he decided to marry her. Can you describe the circumstances of their marriage?

MINHAJ: My dad was doing grad school, and he was in Aligarh. You know, he was of age to get married. And he had heard about this girl named Sima (ph), my mom. And I talk about it in the show. The hype around Sima, she was like the iPhone 8 of Aligarh. People were just like, oh, my God, have you heard of this girl named Sima? She's very slim and slender, and her family owns a camera.

And my dad was like, oh, my God, a camera, I can't believe this. You know, so he just - off of just this Yelp review of who she was and what her family was like, he just ran down to my grandfather's house and laid it all on the line. He's just like, what's up? I'm Najmi (ph). I'm a chemist. I'm going to America. Please let me marry Sima.

And in 10 minutes, he married a woman he had never laid eyes on. And it's a pretty incredible story when I think about it because that level of decisiveness is something that I don't have. I'm his son. I don't have that level of decisiveness, but because of that decision I'm here, and it's pretty wild.

GROSS: OK. So he marries your mother without meeting her.

MINHAJ: Yes.

GROSS: You, on the other hand, you were born in 1985. So you grew up with, like, hip-hop.

MINHAJ: Yes. Yeah.

GROSS: You know, you grew up with television and movies, but the kind of television or movies where sex is a constant presence.

MINHAJ: (Laughter) Right. Right. Right.

GROSS: And sex before marriage is a constant presence.

MINHAJ: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And so again, like, the difference between, like, your father's cultural values growing up in India and your own growing up here are so much at odds with each other.

MINHAJ: Yeah.

GROSS: Was it hard for you to - and obviously, like, you wanted to fit in when you were in high school. Was it hard for you to find a place where you could survive at home and be your father's son, but also be the person you wanted to be at school and with your friends?

MINHAJ: Yeah. His rules with me growing up were very simple - no fun, no friends, no girlfriends.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MINHAJ: You can have fun in med school, which is just like a huge lie. Terry, that's just a blatant lie. It never - you know, you go to a club, and you just see a bunch of dudes going crazy. Like, what's going on, fellows? Oh, what's going on? Residency. Like, I'm having the time of my life. It doesn't work like that. But I felt, like, for my dad, I am his first round draft pick. You know, like, I'm the LeBron James to his franchise. I have to deliver the dream.

GROSS: Let's talk about your mother.

MINHAJ: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, we talked about how your father decided to marry your mother through kind of hearing about her through word of mouth and seeing a picture. So they got married. They moved to the States, but she went right back to India soon after because she was studying medicine and wanted to complete med school there.

MINHAJ: Yeah.

GROSS: So basically for the first eight years of your life, you were brought up by your father with occasional visits from your mother.

MINHAJ: Yes, yes.

GROSS: So when your mother returned for good to your home and the family was reunited...

MINHAJ: Yes.

GROSS: ...The family suddenly got much larger because your mother brought with her a 5-year-old girl who you were told was your sister, the sister you'd never met because your mother and father conceived your sister in India during one of his visits...

MINHAJ: (Laughter) Right, right.

GROSS: ...To India to visit your mother. So you were kind of stunned when you found out that you had this sister that nobody ever told you about. Why didn't they tell you?

MINHAJ: I think it's one of those things where - OK, this is an important piece of information, but obviously, you know, it's finesse for the one-man-show format. My younger sister Ayesha was born in the States. And then at two months after her birth, she went to go live with my grandparents and be raised there. So I didn't officially, you know, get a chance to really meet her until I was 8. My grandparents were in India, and it was set up in such a way that that way she could be raised, and she was around cousins. And it was an amazing way for her to grow up.

Our narratives are very different. She grew up in India, like, literally in Tooka Village. She was around people that loved her and were there for her. And I was this brown kid who was alone in America with his dad. And so when she came back, I was just like, I hate this person. Like, who are you? I just want a mom, now I got you.

GROSS: So I'm going to stop you here because...

MINHAJ: Yeah.

GROSS: We have a clip from your show "Homecoming King" in which you talk about how you felt about your sister as this kind of, like, intruder in your life...

MINHAJ: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...When she came to live with you. So let's hear that clip, and this is Hasan Minhaj from his new Netflix comedy special "Homecoming King."

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "HOMECOMING KING")

MINHAJ: I hated that brown girl so much. Can I be honest with you guys?

(LAUGHTER)

MINHAJ: I totally understood the wall. I was like, build that wall. I was like a little Republican.

(LAUGHTER)

MINHAJ: I get it. I remember leveling with my parents at the dinner table. I was like, look, Mom, Dad, let's just be real. Oh, my God. These brown people - oh, geez...

(LAUGHTER)

MINHAJ: ...Coming into our house, eating our fruit roll-ups.

(LAUGHTER)

MINHAJ: They don't speak the language.

(LAUGHTER)

MINHAJ: I say we tell them to go back to where they came from. That's just me. He's like, Hasan, you can't say that. We're family. We're all that we have. I'm like, no, that's on you and Mom.

(LAUGHTER)

MINHAJ: While you guys decided to get your Angelina Jolie on and bring over this fob in a frock - that's on you. That's not on me.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. That's Hasan Minhaj from his new one-man show. So you describe in your show that you took all the anger channeled at you, all the anger channeled at you because you're brown and Muslim, and you channeled it at your new sister. How did you realize that you were doing that?

MINHAJ: I didn't realize how messed up it was until there was this incident where, you know - I wanted to be treated special in a certain way. And then when my sister got there, my dad took a lot of that guilt and not being able to be there the first several years of her life, missing her first steps, her first words, all of those things, and he got her this gift that I always wanted, this blue BMX bike that I had wanted. It was in the Toys R Us kids catalog, and I had this cut-out on my wall.

And then for her fifth birthday, he brings everybody in the living room, and he gives her this bike. And I stole that bike from her, and I - like, I took it around the block, even though she let me - she lent it to me. She's like, you can take it out for the first ride, and I took it. And I popped a wheelie, and I actually fell off the bike, and I messed up the bike. It, like, fell over, and all the blue paint got, like, chipped off the side of the bike. And I remember her running over and just crying, bawling.

And I remember looking down at her and being like, wow, like, this is really messed up. I resent this girl. I hate her. She's like my foil. But I've been looking for acceptance from everyone at school, and she's - just wanted to hang out with - that's all she wants. She just wants to be around me. She wants me to teach her about America and teach her English, and she just wants to be my best friend. What am I doing? And it was sort of this moment where I remember finally kind of realizing - it was the first time where I realized maybe family and looking out for one another is an important thing. Like, it's right here underneath my nose, and I should value it.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to an interview with "Daily Show" correspondent Hasan Minhaj. Terry interviewed him in April. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS' "TRANSITIONS")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with "Daily Show" correspondent Hasan Minhaj. He spoke with her in April, shortly after hosting this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner. His Netflix comedy special "Homecoming King" is about growing up the son of Muslim immigrants from India.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So you tell a story in your show about how you were about to perform at The Comedy Store in New York when your sister calls you that your father is about to have a quintuple bypass after having...

MINHAJ: Yeah.

GROSS: Did he have a heart attack before that?

MINHAJ: A heart attack. Yeah, he had a heart attack.

GROSS: So you...

MINHAJ: It was The Comedy Store in LA.

GROSS: Oh, in LA, OK. So you were closer to his home than I thought.

MINHAJ: I'm closer to home, yeah. I'm living in Los Angeles at the time. I get a call from my sister. Hasan, come home. Dad had a heart attack. You need to come home now.

GROSS: Right, because your family was living in Davis, Calif.

MINHAJ: Yes.

GROSS: So you - first, you do your show at The Comedy Store. Then, you go to be with your father. So what was the calculus you did in your mind to decide whether you should cancel your show and just leave or do the show first and then go? That strikes me as a really hard choice that you made.

MINHAJ: Yeah.

GROSS: One I'm not sure you were happy with.

MINHAJ: Yeah, I'm not. I'm still not happy with it. Sorry, it's just like - it was a very ugly thing. You know, I love my dad a lot, you know? And it's something I'm not very proud of, but I was very angry at that time. I was living in LA, and I'm pursuing comedy on my own terms. My parents, specifically my dad, wasn't very, you know, supportive of it. And I remember when I got the call to go home, my sister was really worried, and I was just thinking, yeah, I got to do this set. And in my head, it was basically just like, you know, this is my time now. Nobody can tell me what to do. No one's going to control whether I can leave the house or not. He doesn't get it, but I'll come - I'll come home after the set. And I'm very embarrassed that I made that choice. It was just...

GROSS: Don't you think in a way sometimes that the tighter a parent's grip is the more, like, you have to just, like, double down when you're breaking away and, like, demand, like, no, I'm drawing the line, you know? And you sometimes do, like...

MINHAJ: Yeah, but just in the face of a heart attack - I mean...

GROSS: No, I know, and you sometimes do things that you're not proud of as a result. But I do think that that is a phenomenon - do you know what I mean? - that when a parent holds on tight...

MINHAJ: Yeah.

GROSS: ...It's so hard to kind of break away and become the person you want to be that you sometimes do some really...

MINHAJ: Yeah. And it was just...

GROSS: ...Like, stupid, even dangerous things.

MINHAJ: Yeah, it was just a kind of ugly thing, you know, because I knew better. But, yeah, in that moment, it's just - I was feeling that grip for so many years that you finally sort of feel free and, yeah, you just want to be your own person and make your own choices in spite of that. And I decided to do a set. And I've done thousands of sets, but that night, I decided to do that set because it was almost just, like, defiant in a weird - in a strange way to be like, no, I'm going to - I'm going to come home on my own terms and, you know, there's nothing you can do about it. And...

GROSS: But you talk about when you did come home and you saw your father and you said goodbye to him before the surgery, before the bypass. And you thought, if he dies, like, if something happens to him, I will never have really gotten to know him.

MINHAJ: Yeah.

GROSS: And you talk about how you decided then that you'd better really get to know him as a person better. And it sounds like you did. What did you do to be able to do that? Because as somebody who you've described as keeping secrets and not being forthcoming with you, how did you change the terms of your relationship?

MINHAJ: I was forced to. I don't think it was as much of an act of bravery and courage as it was he had to sit and recover in the hospital. I'm a full-time stand-up comedian. My sister and my mom actually have real jobs. So I'm just forced to sit and talk to him in this hospital room. And you run out of stories. There's only so much "Wheel Of Fortune" you can watch. And so (laughter) I started telling him stories about my life, and he started telling me stories about his life because we just were together all day for weeks. So I was able to start to piecemeal things about his life, and he started to hear stories from my life. And that's how we were able to sort of bridge that divide. And I realized a lot of the things that he was keeping secret he just didn't want me to worry about, you know? He just was like...

GROSS: Like what?

MINHAJ: I mean, things like, why didn't you ever tell me how you met mom? Or why didn't you guys tell me more about the Ayesha stuff? Why - logistically, why didn't you just talk to me about it? And, you know, my dad was actually really honest. He was like, I could tell when I would look at you, you were having a tough time at school. You were having a tough time fitting in. If we dangled that over your head - oh, you know, you actually have a sibling, you actually have a sidekick who looks like you, who has the same skin color as you, who you could share a lot of these experiences with, oh, but she's in India - it would just - it would break your heart to have that reminder be dangled over your head. You know, they're just like, I kept that information from you so that maybe you'd be safe or things would be easier.

The thing that I kind of told him - and, you know, he's said the same thing about me - why would you keep all these things from me? I kept - I had the same reasoning with him and Mom. I didn't tell them about sneaking out of the house or falling in love or kissing a girl or trying to go to prom, all of those things, because I didn't want them to worry. But everybody's worrying about what other people will think. The truth is still the truth, and it's the most powerful thing you can share with a person that you love.

So it wasn't until, you know, my dad and my family seeing death that we had to be like, all right, we got to be on the same page, and we got to talk about this stuff. It's one of those things where it's a reminder of, you know, your parents' mortality.

BIANCULLI: "Daily Show" correspondent Hasan Minhaj speaking to Terry Gross in April. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERRY SLINGBAUM'S "WATER GAMES - RAVEL RE-IMAGINED")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with "Daily Show" correspondent Hasan Minhaj. His Netflix comedy special "Homecoming King" is about growing up the son of Muslim immigrants from India.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: There's a moment on your show that I really love - and I don't know. I mean, there are a lot of moments I really love, but I'm going to mention this one.

MINHAJ: Yeah.

GROSS: You talk about how you auditioned for "The Daily Show" and how you got the job and everything. And then you say to Jon Stewart, Jon, my dad knows you.

MINHAJ: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: And, like, I love that because your father probably had no frame of reference for any of the comedy you were doing or for any of your comedy...

MINHAJ: Nothing, yeah.

GROSS: Nothing. But I guess he knew "The Daily Show."

MINHAJ: Yeah. "The Daily Show" oddly became the current equivalent of journalism. You - he actually would see clips of it, and he held Jon in the same esteem that he would hold, you know, Dan Rather. So to him he was like, oh, this is a guy who's actually doing something good for society. And I would, you know, sometimes tell him, you know, Dad, you know, Jon is a stand-up comedian. He's like, no, no, no, he's - this guy - he's a news anchor. He's just funny.

He doesn't tell jokes to drunk people at 2 o'clock in the morning. That's what you do. This guy's not a clown. He's a real - you know, the real deal. And so when I had that moment when I got the job, I wanted to share that Oscar speech with Jon. All I could say was like, my dad knows you, and he's like, all right, I'm sure he does. All right, man. I'll see you later. Like, Jon doesn't understand the magnitude of what that meant, but for me it was a huge deal. I had been doing stand-up 10 years, one month and nine days. And to finally have something where your parents know what it is, it was just - it meant everything to me.

GROSS: After the election, you did a piece on "The Daily Show"...

MINHAJ: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And it ended with you talking about how your mother at that moment was in India visiting family. And she called you and said to you, do you think it's safe for me to come home? You know, do you think I'll be able to come home back to America? And you said...

MINHAJ: Yeah.

GROSS: ...I don't know.

MINHAJ: Yeah.

GROSS: So it sounds like it was a horrible, frightening moment for you. What was the outcome of that?

MINHAJ: We got her home ASAP because I didn't know. We were doing a live show that night. It was our election night special. We had a script written that was, you know - it followed what we thought was going to happen, that Hillary Clinton would be president. As the states - the results were coming in, we're literally tearing apart our script. We're rewriting a one-hour live show in real time. And I'm on WhatsApp audio with my mom - my mom being like, we're watching the news. I'm with your grandma. What's going on?

And so I'm trying to write jokes about Trump winning the election while I'm on kayak.com, like, looking up tickets for her to come back. I'm also looking up, like, what's the legal recourse? How does it work? All of a sudden, I have to become an immigration attorney, a son and a comedian all in one. It was just - it was a horrible 48 hours. It was the worst. It was the worst. And not knowing that everything will be OK was just really awful. It was really, really awful.

GROSS: But you managed to get her home.

MINHAJ: We did. We did. We managed to get her home before the Muslim ban happened, too. I didn't want to risk anything. Like, we got her home - she was supposed to be there for several months, and we just got her home ASAP.

GROSS: Hasan Minhaj, it's been really great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

MINHAJ: Thanks for having me, Terry. I appreciate it.

BIANCULLI: "Daily Show" correspondent Hasan Minhaj speaking to Terry Gross this past April. Like the other conversations we replayed this holiday week, it's one of our favorite interviews of 2017.

On Monday's show, we conclude our holiday series featuring some of our favorite interviews from 2017 with Jonathan Groff. He stars in the Netflix series "Mindhunter," played King George in "Hamilton," was the voice of the ice man and his reindeer in the film "Frozen," and starred in musical "Spring Awakening" and the HBO series "Looking" about a group of gay friends. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a healthy and happy New Year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.