‘Patriot Act’ is more of the same

Despite acclaim, Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix talk show reprises the format and liberal politics of its contemporaries.

‘Patriot Act’ is more of the same

Despite acclaim, Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix talk show reprises the format and liberal politics of its contemporaries.

Hasan Minhaj wants to teach you about politics, but he also wants to be himself. In a promo for his new Netflix original series, Patriot Act, in which he gets a makeover from Queer Eye’s Tan France, he is charming and self-deprecatingly aware about how grandiose the attention feels. He tests out Ed Hardy-style bomber jackets, jokes about the real pronunciation of his name (“It’s a brown thing”), and worries that a canary yellow sweatshirt might make him look like “Indian Big Bird.” Sincerity and relatability are his forte. He introduces Tan to the term “fuckboy” (definition: “a guy that leaves you on read, ghost you, and is probably online at Supreme”) and is nervous that glasses might make him look dweeby.

Tan reassures him that he doesn’t need to worry about being cool. “Look at what you do for a living. You’re representing brown people. You don’t need to try to be cool. You are cool.” Looking at Minhaj, who could disagree?

After years of Colberts and Fallons, white liberal men who address the latest Trump debacle with a sing-a-long and a wink, Minhaj feels like a relief. His unapologetic brownness is so refreshing it’s easy to forget that Patriot Act isn’t that much different from the other feel-good television programs where a liberal comedian spoon-feeds you the center-left take you already know. “Think of a funny investigative report meets comedy show meets political satire meets Malcolm Gladwell, but funny,” Minhaj explains to France — a description that’s easily applied to The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, Full Frontal, Problem Areas, or any other late-night political-leaning talk show. The main difference is that instead of sitting behind a desk, he’s standing up, introducing a segment about Harvard’s admissions lawsuit the way Ryan Seacrest would introduce the next contestant of American Idol.

Somewhere between the first court jester and Pete Davidson’s storybook civics lesson on “civility,” mainstreamed during the Jon Stewart Daily Show years, comedy ceased to be just mass entertainment. Joke-makers became the stalwarts of the resistance, before the resistance had a name; late-night was elevated to essential part of our democracy. Now there’s no shortage of left-leaning comics cracking wise about politics. The New York Times dedicates a section to “The Best of Late Night,” where it recaps episodes play-by-play, like a highly anticipated game at the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals. Out of the ten headlines I saw on the page when I recently checked, eight directly referenced Trump (the other two were about Mueller and Republicans.) They’re written the way you’d cover the Drake-Pusha T beef: Trevor Noah Accuses Trump of Fearmongering Before Midterms. Kimmel Wouldn’t Want to Be the Spy Who Has to Listen to Trump’s Calls. Colbert slams, bashes, pillories, criticizes, attacks … something unbelievable, but really unspectacular, about Trump.

The unrelenting repetitiveness of political comedy has subjected audiences to what NPR critic Linda Holmes calls “dunk fatigue,” a phenomenon she praises Hasan Minhaj for breaking through. But I’m not particularly convinced.

There are two ways critics have differentiated Patriot Act from a landscape burdened with comedic monotony, enabling those like Vox’s Karen Han to maintain that Hasan Minhaj has “created something that feels fresh and new,” even as she conceded that he’s “not really doing anything that hasn’t been seen before.” The first tactic is highlighting its platform: critics claim Patriot Act could be the “first great late-night show” for Netflix, which has a spotty record with talk shows following a string of canceled attempts by Chelsea Handler, Joel McHale and Michelle Wolf.

But the real thing that sets him apart is his ethnicity, and so the second tactic is to harp on what makes him interesting: Minhaj is the first Indian-American to host a weekly political edutainment series. In an article detailing late night’s struggle to adjust to the social media era, The New York Times’ James Poniewozik praised Patriot Act as a shrewd series fit for a “post-TV generation,” but the most that Poniewozik could come up that differentiates Minhaj is his upbringing. The implication is clear: the only thing required to upgrade a format that has become tired is to lean into Hollywood’s obsession with “diversity.”

The argument is that Minhaj’s ethnicity gives him critical outsider status in an industry dominated by white men. Nowhere is his identity more important than in Patriot Act’s first episode, about the affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard University. Han writes that “there’s a certain cosmic irony in how the topic … is mirrored in the fact that Minhaj is the person leading the discussion.” His identity enables him to directly address issues that affect his communities, like anti-black racism among Asian Americans.

Despite the supposed novelty of his perspective, the talking points in Patriot Act affirm those of every standard liberal: affirmative action is good, white conservatives are bad. Like any segment involving Asian Americans, there’s a classic math joke. “For someone representing Asians, you are really bad at math,” Minhaj remarks of Edward Blum, the conservative legal strategist who spearheaded the lawsuit. Minhaj isn’t explicitly catering to a white audience but isn’t resisting the tropes they’ve grown accustomed to, either. (The live audience, at least, seems to be composed mostly of non-white faces, who’ve earned the right to be in on the joke.) He draws regularly from stereotypes of Asian parenting, lampooning Yukong Zhou, the president of the Asian American Coalition for Education, which filed the lawsuit against Harvard, as a “total tiger dad who has been priming his kids for academic greatness.” CalTech is conspiratorially referred to “Asian Paradise,” due to its 43 percent Asian makeup.

Minhaj is eminently likeable, and occasionally tells the audience information they might not already know, like the 1974 Supreme Court case Lau vs. Nichols when groups such as Chinese for Affirmative Action help set the legal foundation for bilingual education programs. But a more troubling aspect of the show gestures to a fundamental issue within late-night comedy: its tidy delineation between those who are “good” and those who are targets. Minhaj too easily flattens his opponents into obtuse “others” with irrelevant side tangents that attempt to undermine their credibility. The kernels of truth in their arguments are easily ignored in the chase to the next segment.

Dr. Ajay Kothari, yet another anti-affirmative action character with a thick accent and a “ignorant uncle” personality, is mocked for offering deviating accounts of how much money he brought to America — in one clip, it’s $6, in the next it’s $8. Similarly, Minhaj ridicules Edward Blum for being inconsistent with the percentage he believes constitutes the Asian American quota. But leading audiences through a montage of these small inconsistencies is a diversion: Between 1992 and 2013, the share of Asian Americans in Harvard applicant pool did double. Even if the percentage of Asians at Harvard has increased slightly, as Minhaj shows, it’s not enough to convincingly wipe away the legitimate suspicion that Harvard is practicing some form of manipulation.

But in order to sustain the laughter, these useless diversions are necessary. In a later episode about Saudi Arabia, Minhaj spends as much time airing at a MTV Cribs segment of rapper Trick Daddy endorsing baby wipes (“This keeps boo boo stains out of your drawers,” Trick Daddy exclaims) and comparing Post Malone to dogs as he does covering the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Like his Cliff Notes summary, the two bits combined claim about 40 seconds, and audience members are more likely to remember the parts about butt cleaners than the Houthi rebels. His Amazon episode fixates more the bizarre commercials of tech companies than the abominable labor conditions in Amazon’s factories. And when it eventually addresses predatory pricing, it offers no recourse for political action, leaving viewers with no idea what to do with the information. “I’m still going to use Amazon,” Minhaj admits, unashamed.

None of these issues can be solved with diversity, or a smiling face trying to placate you about your decisions. At best, Minhaj’s religion gives him blanket credibility when he calls Saudi Arabia “the boy band manager of 9/11,” but considering Minhaj is an Indian-American stand-up comic from California, his opinion on geopolitics doesn’t really deserve much more weight than anyone else’s, even if he is Muslim. As for his segment later in the episode about “shitty Indians”: well, it’s not like we need an Indian person to inform us that Dinesh D’Souza sucks.

In college admission, diversity is the mechanism by which Ivy League universities upgrade themselves without fundamentally altering their rules. A change in composition does not automatically equate to a better system, and a similar thing could be said for late-night comedy. When Minhaj calls Patriot Act a “woke Ted Talk” but then jokes that he’d still choose Prime Now over water and heat, it’s hard to tell what there is to laugh at, especially when the audience just claps along.

Catherine Zhang is a writer and comedian in Cambridge, Massachusetts.