An American story: Hasan Minhaj gets personal in ‘Homecoming King’

By Jim Sabataso
Correspondent

The glut of new standup specials on Netflix right now makes it difficult to single out just one for review. However, Hasan Minhaj’s “Homecoming King” easily rose to the surface. The special is a funny, engaging and poignant piece of television, in which Minhaj combines standup comedy with storytelling and multimedia to tell a his personal yet relatable story of growing up in an immigrant family in the U.S.

A correspondent on “The Daily Show” since 2014, Minhaj gained attention earlier this year when he hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner. President Trump — famously thin-skinned and unable to take a joke at his expense — skipped the event this year, but that didn’t stop Minhaj from roasting him in absentia. The set, in which the Muslim-American Minhaj took Trump to task for creating a climate of fear-mongering and bigotry, stands as a bold expression of free speech and speaking truth to power.

“Homecoming King” is a similarly politically charged 72 minutes of comedy, in which Minhaj discusses and grapples with bigotry he’s encountered over his lifetime. By adding this personal experience, Minhaj elevates the set above simply broad social critique, which makes it much harder for haters to dismiss.

He mines much humor early in the set by telling the audience about his immigrant parents and the burden they place on their children to be successful and driven. He makes numerous references to Indian culture, and even slips into Hindi from time to time, but always takes the time to explain those references in a way that makes it all feel relatable.

Things get a bit more serious as he begins to talk about the various kinds of racism he’s encountered growing up in predominantly white Davis, Calif. He shares a story about how his family was harassed and their car was vandalized after 9/11 that set his blood boiling at the time.

Another, more devastating story reveals the soft racism he experienced at the hands of his high school crush’s parents. The experience clearly left a mark, and Minhaj threads the story throughout the rest of the special, as he works through that pain and attempts to make peace with it.

In these moments, he compares his reactions to bigotry to his father’s. Unlike his father, who accepted intolerance as the price of being an immigrant, Minhaj, an American-born citizen deserving of and entitled to the same respect and dignity of any other citizen, refused to accept such slights. But his anger is righteous; Minhaj resists meeting hatred with hatred or playing the victim. Instead, he strives to rise above it all with grace, as much as it sometimes hurts to do so.

Despite the heavy material, the special is leavened and enlivened by Minhaj’s warm, optimistic energy and charming smile. The addition of multimedia elements, including family photos, infographics and social media posts that flash on the screen behind him as he speaks, provide visual aids that bring his stories to life.

Tonally, “Homecoming King” feels more similar to “The Moth Radio Hour,” the popular public radio storytelling program and podcast, than a traditional standup comedy set. The result is an intensely personal and immensely entertaining special offering insight into the modern immigrant experience, that’s of a piece with Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series “Master of None.”

It’s also a timely, trenchant piece of television given the current cultural moment, when so much derision is being directed at immigrant communities within the U.S. It’s unlikely Minhaj will cure racism, as he jokes near the end of the special, but listening to stories such as his grows empathy, and that’s certainly a good place to start.

CHECK IT OUT

“Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King” is now streaming on Netflix.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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