Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” stretches confines of genre

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BY SAVANNAH HARRIMAN-POTE ’20

“Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” hit Netflix on Oct. 28. The weekly web television series is the latest contribution to the ever-growing news-satire genre, and yet another win for 31-year-old comedian extraordinaire Hasan Minhaj.

According to Vulture, Minhaj’s meteoric rise to stardom took off when he hosted the 2017 White House Correspondents Dinner. In May 2018, he dropped his first comedy special, “Homecoming King,” on Netflix. With his comedic momentum in overdrive, Minhaj left his position as a correspondent for “The Daily Show” in August 2018 to host “Patriot Act.”

Minhaj is the fifth “Daily Show” correspondent to receive his own news commentary show: Stephen Colbert started “The Colbert Report” in 2005, a mock-conservative complement to “The Daily Show”; John Oliver jumped ship in 2013 to host HBO’s “Last Week Tonight”; Samantha Bee left shortly before the departure of longtime host Jon Stewart for her own hosting gig on TBS; and Jordan Klepper received his own short-lived spinoff series, “The Opposition with Jordan Klepper,” on Comedy Central in 2017. With the exception of “The Opposition,” which was canceled after less than a year on air, these shows have all been smash hits.

While “Patriot Act” takes certain cues from its predecessors, it is notable for its distinct point of view. Minhaj imbues each of the episodes with his life experiences as an Indian-American Muslim. He uses his platform to speak directly to members of his own community, both for comedic effect, but also for sincere reflection. The latter was demonstrated powerfully in episode two when Minhaj condemned Saudi Arabia’s behavior in Yemen. “As Muslims […] we access God through Saudi Arabia,” says Minhaj, “a country that I feel does not represent our values.”

Flori Needle ’20, one of the founders of Mount Holyoke’s most recent satirical newspaper, “The Holy Yoke,” appreciates the new perspective Minhaj brings to the format. “It’s really interesting to see him come to life in the face of the current administration because there’s no one like him,” said Needle. “His perspective on the Middle East is something that I’ve never had, at least in the way that he’s presenting it. It’s less convoluted than [the way] they present it in a lot of news stories.”

Minhaj and his peers in the news parody genre are often compared to actual news organizations. In some ways, this is purposeful and part of the joke — both Trevor Noah, the current host of “The Daily Show,” and John Oliver deliver their comedic monologues from behind a desk, in the style of Walter Cronkite.

But the similarities extend beyond the facade. At its core, “Patriot Act” has the same objective as its mainstream journalistic counterparts: it genuinely seeks to inform its audience.

So it follows that there are times when the reality of Minhaj’s subject matter disrupts his comedic routine. After his 40-second summary on the conflict in Yemen, Minhaj stops the audience and says, “Don’t clap, that’s a global atrocity.” Likewise, a quip coupling Saudi Arabia and Uber as the “two places where female drivers don’t feel safe” caused Minhaj to ask his audience, “Too real?”

Whether or not to call “Patriot Act” journalism may be left to the discretion of the viewer. Needle is unequivocal about the fact of “Patriot Act”’s journalistic integrity. “It’s just in a different form than it has ever been before,” said Needle. “It can be difficult for traditional journalists to get on board with that [but] it’s definitely journalism. I don’t know what to call it except journalism.”

Hannah Goodwin, Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Mount Holyoke College, is more hesitant to call “Patriot Act” journalistic, but she does acknowledge its value. “I definitely think these shows have value beyond comic relief,” said Goodwin. “The news comedy model associated with shows like “Patriot Act” […] is really fascinating: it gives outlet to the absurdity of politics today without having to hew to a pretense of unbiased reporting.”

Ultimately, both Needle and Goodwin consider “Patriot Act” an important accomplishment. Goodwin said, “At a moment when reading any news source can feel positively apocalyptic, these shows make it possible to engage critically with current events while feeling some emotions other than despair — which is pretty impressive.”

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