If deployed properly, self-deprecation can be the most valuable weapon in a comedian’s 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 neutralized. That’s surely what Hasan Minhaj is going for when he refers to his news-comedy program Patriot Act as a “woke TED Talk” midway through the second episode, and yet the offhand remark does naught to change the fact that that’s precisely what this is. The phrase articulates a perceived objection to the show, but only succeeds in crystallizing 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 – if Minhaj has room in his schedule to complete the remainder of this review, the door’s open.
“Woke TED Talk” 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’s recently cancelled The Break. In purpose, he’s closest to John Oliver and Last Week Tonight’s deep-dive ethic, but Patriot Act raises that show’s “organized ranting” format to the nth degree.
Each of the first two episodes screened for critics concentrates on one topic only – the first, affirmative action, the second, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman – and eschews many of the trappings that have come to define the late-night genre. There’s 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 “like if Michael Bay directed a PowerPoint”. (Another self-dig that doesn’t 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’s 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 “hitting all the pockets” with an “arthouse joke” about Call Me By Your Name and an “AP Gov joke” name-checking Hoovervilles. While his colleagues grapple for page views, 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’s 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 “lota” or in an impassioned soliloquy about the conflict of worship demanding travel to Mecca despite objections to Saudi policy, Minhaj’s unique experience bolsters material that can sometimes verge on the overdone side.
Michelle Wolf’s 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’s manner and content follows this model of pre-packaging, his edgelessness maximized 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’t be challenged or implicated as part of the distinctly Republican problem. Like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, the original woke TED Talk, Patriot Act’s end goal seems at times to be a feelgood emotional catharsis rather than its ostensible utility as edu-tainment.
As a man of color in a largely homogeneous field, he’s 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’s 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’s topic of affirmative actions meta-textually winks at. The least the man deserves is a chance to prove why.
Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj is released weekly on Netflix on Sundays