For those with a John Oliver-shaped hole in their lives – either because his show is now hibernating until February or, as in my case, because you simply grew tired of the series’ wall-to-wall Trump coverage and increasing proselytizing – I come bearing good tidings: Netflix’s “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” is a funnier, fresher, less snarky version of “Last Week Tonight.”
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Yes, this is yet another political comedy show – something you would think we need like another far-right party in Europe or another Franco brother. Yet in a line that doesn’t quite reflect how sharply written his show is, Minhaj himself points out the uniqueness of this particular series: “I’m the brown one! That’s why you have to watch.”
To put it a better way, Minhaj is a 33-year-old, Indian-American Muslim who’s as passionate about his Air Jordans as he is about discussing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Can’t wait to hear what he hopefully has to say about Israel and the Palestinians.) He’s also served his comedy dues on “The Daily Show” (between November 2014 and August 2018), done the comedy circuit (his 2017 comedy special “Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King” is also worth a look on Netflix) and is now perfectly primed to offer his own perspective on matters both weighty and frivolous.
Netflix has commissioned 32 episodes of “Patriot Act,” and it’s to be hoped they give Minhaj more of a chance to find an audience than another alum of “The Daily Show” and the White House Correspondents Dinner received earlier this year. (Michelle Wolf’s “The Break” was unceremoniously canned after a short run that indeed mirrored the show’s title.)
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Six episodes in, things are looking extremely promising – although I’m not sure how many people actually know “Patriot Act” exists. I only heard about it when an online stunt generated a few headlines after the show’s fifth episode (about the Supreme streetwear brand). Otherwise, it suffers the dilemma facing every Netflix show when you open the streaming service’s homepage: getting lost in the crowd.
This show deserves a wide audience, though, because Minhaj’s is a voice well worth hearing – if only because it provides me with a much-needed education on Muslim and Indian culture (is it just me who didn’t know what a lota is?).
A new episode drops every Sunday and the show is at its best when it covers subjects close to Minhaj’s heart – although given that these topics vary from Amazon to Mecca, and from streetwear to immigration enforcement, he does have a broad range of passions.
Filmed in front of a studio audience, the show wisely dispenses with the customary desk configuration and has Minhaj simply delivering the material – like a cross between a TED talk and a stand-up set. And if his hyperkinetic delivery isn’t enough for you, the bank of screens behind has a “Michael Bay directed a PowerPoint presentation” vibe, as the host himself puts it.
Minhaj’s ease in front of a live crowd is also a huge advantage – when one esoteric punch line elicits only a smattering of laughter, he breezily brushes it off with “I do my jokes for four people at a time,” thus generating a far bigger laugh.
With its well-researched stories (each lasting about 20 minutes; sometimes there’s a subsidiary story, sometimes not), there’s a lot to engage viewers here. At times, I was even reminded of the “Reithian principles” of public service broadcasting that have sought to guide program makers at the BBC for generations: inform, educate and entertain.
More woke than comatose
Of course, this is a show that pitches its tent in the exact same spot as all other political shows: to the left of center (and yes, to quote Lyndon B. Johnson on J. Edgar Hoover, Minhaj is most definitely inside the tent pissing out). I guess the argument is that if you’re on the right and want to see a comedy show, you already have a whole channel to yourself on Fox News.
What’s great about “Patriot Act” is that it avoids the overbearing preachiness John Oliver was dispensing of late. Its audiences may be more woke than comatose, but Minhaj himself knows that his “wokeness” goes only so far. In the show on Amazon, for example, he lists a long list of the website’s many sins, but admits he’ll still be using it for its convenience: When it’s a choice between woke and lazy, he’ll choose the latter every time.
While it’s true that much of the humor is derived from a series of “It’s like...” set-ups, it’s also true that these lines are often very funny. Here are a few that spring to mind (and there are better ones I haven’t listed here):
1. “Saudi Arabia was basically the boy band manager of 9/11. They didn’t write the songs, but they helped get the group together.”
2. “‘Non-criminal arrests’ is such an oxymoron. It’s like ‘Chatty Clarence Thomas’ or ‘Remorseful Louis C.K.’”
3. “The Carlyle Group is something you’ve heard of but have no idea what it is. It’s like ‘Ray Donovan.’”
4. “Here’s a simpler way of describing predatory pricing: Picture a mom-and-pop store. Now imagine Amazon as the Menendez brothers.”
5. “Dinesh D’Souza is on the Mount Rushmore of shitty Indians. Twice. He’s that bad.”
If I have a criticism, there are moments when the show strays too close to “Last Week Tonight” territory (when Minhaj discussed U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in the show on oil, I was expecting him to show clips of Zinke calling himself a geologist, which is a running gag on Oliver’s show). The challenge will be finding the subject matter that plays to Minhaj’s strengths and doesn’t feel like the result of a writers’ room brainstorm.
Most of the half-dozen episodes have been excellent. But there are two standouts you must seek out even if you don’t plan to watch the entire series: the shows on Saudi Arabia and immigration enforcement. The former was recorded after the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and offers a brilliant crash course on everything you ever wanted to know about the kingdom – but with added jokes. Did you know, for example, that MBS’ nickname in Saudi Arabia is Abu Rasasa, or Father of the bullet. “That is the most gangster name ever,” says Minhaj. “Do you know what ‘El Chapo’ means? ‘Shorty.’” He flips between humor and earnestness effortlessly, and after delivering some killer one-liners he concludes by noting: “Saudi Arabia is only 2 percent of the entire Muslim population. But whenever Saudi does something wrong, Muslims around the world have to live with the consequences.”
In the most recent episode to air, Minhaj unearthed some amazing footage of the architect behind Trump’s war on undocumented immigrants, Stephen Miller, when he was a 17-year-old, tennis-playing virgin. After Miller admits concern about his receding hairline (he was right to be worried), Minhaj interjects: “Did your hair leave you, or did you just deport it for being brown?”
With a team of nine others in the writers’ room, this is clearly not a one-man show. Yet it succeeds or fails on Minhaj, and his endearing personality and warmth make “Patriot Act” a show that all nationalities can embrace. Even better, it gives the older demographic (cough) an opportunity to learn new pop culture terms like “Indian fuckboy” and “Dick appointment,” even if we are reliant upon Google to enlighten us.