At a time when almost all news from the White House sounds like it’s straight from The Onion, you’d think political comedy would feel obsolete right about now. However, it’s flourishing, perhaps mainly thanks to our inherent human need to laugh in the face of evil buffoonery. The Daily Show has produced an excessive amount of offspring in the form of similar political comedy/news shows hosted by pretty much every correspondent who ever popped up during Jon Stewart’s tenure. By next year, when TV executives run out of names, I fully expect a janitor who worked at The Daily Show during its 2003-2004 season to snatch his own show on TBS.
Not all of these shows stick around—ask Michelle Wolf and Larry Wilmore, sadly—but most have managed to carve out a niche audience for themselves through content and a tonal approach that’s different from The Daily Show, and/or by having a host who represents a segment of the audience that was previously untapped. Of course that doesn’t mean that Samantha Bee’s show, Full Frontal, has to only cover issues from a female perspective. Some of that perspective itself might not even be intentional, but just the natural reaction coming from a comedian with a viewpoint that’s not male. That’s partly why Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix political comedy show, Patriot Act (an Apple keynote presentation version of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight), is important. It doesn’t just deserve attention because Netflix pulled one of its episodes from Saudi Arabia last week, but because of how and why it’s unique. Thanks to Minhaj’s embrace of his age and ethnicity, the show appeals to millennials as well as Central Asian and Middle Eastern Americans.
As an Xennial—yes, that’s a thing—who’s three sit throughs of the Lord of the Rings Extended Trilogy away from turning 40, I have to admit that some of the millennial lingo and references go over my head, even if I understand their importance to an audience that doesn’t remember a time when the internet didn’t exist. It’s embarrassing for me to admit that when I saw Minhaj was going to tackle something called “Supreme” in an episode, my first thought was, “Is the application of sour cream on a taco really that political?” It turns out Supreme is an apparel brand that’s hyper popular among millennials, so Minhaj uses it as a jumping off point to dive into market hype and how companies can control demand and supply to the detriment of the consumer. A spoonful of lit—kids still say “lit”, right?—references makes the serious sociopolitical content go down. This clever approach isn’t exactly subtle, nor does it necessarily need to be; Minhaj himself ends the first season by stating that the next season will begin with him using Lil Wayne’s neck tattoos as a metaphor for exploring how Sri Lanka fell into a Chinese death trap.
The aspect that directly appeals to me is Minhaj’s background as the child of a Central Asian Muslim immigrant, allowing Minhaj to directly relate to the American experiences of that demographic. I’m a Turkish-American immigrant, and as those who got bored one night and fucked around on Google Earth for fifteen minutes can attest, Turkey is a different country than India, where Minhaj is from. However, I can still relate to a lot of the immigrant humor, and Minhaj apparently wants me to, since he proudly combines Central Asian and Middle Eastern Americans into the “brown” category.
Patriot Act’s appeal to my kind ranges from the sly to the evident. Some of the little details might not be picked up on by non-brown audiences, but they are a welcome addition for us to feel represented. The logo of the show itself is a satirical dig at the draconian and secretive ways the US has dealt with Islamic terrorism, leading to the demonization of millions of brown Americans who come from Muslim heavy countries, covering the screen with the all-so-familiar black bars found in heavily redacted documents that draped over years of “the war on terror” like a cloak of shame. Not all representation has a tragic undertone. Something as simple as Minhaj using Indian names as characters in comedy bits, instead of the usual white bread placeholders like Tim or John, makes my weird-ass name, a point of utter confusion and hilarious misspellings by Starbucks baristas across the country, at least feel, well, not so weird anymore.
The more obvious connections are more emotionally potent. Many shows similar to Patriot Act has passionately skewered Trump’s xenophobic and racist rhetoric and policies against brown immigrants. Yet there’s a difference between passion that derives from empathy, and one that comes directly from the heart due to personal experience. At the end of his episode about immigration, Minhaj delivers a heartfelt monologue about how he might not have been born if 45 was president when his father immigrated from India, since the administration’s clear bias against Muslims might have kept him from building a life here. I was looking at my five-year-old daughter at the time, and the thought of her not being born because of the possibility that I wouldn’t be admitted into the US in 2002 because I was coming from a majority Muslim country, even though I’m an agnostic who heavily flirts with full-blown atheism, hit me hard. How else would I accrue the pheromones that come from the knowledge of pissing off every white supremacist and white genocide wacko in the country with my Turkish/Agnostic/Russian/Jewish offspring?
Of course not every subject in Patriot Act is directly about generation and ethnicity, but representation in any random subject still matters. Last Week Tonight or other political comedy shows could do an episode on Amazon’s predatory practices as a monopoly, but would any of them have the insight to show how racist fairly recent Metro PCS ads were against Indian-Americans? Or poke fun at how Patriot Act is Netflix’s attempt at balancing out the Islamophobia in their hit show Bodyguard? Or even turn the tables on his own heritage by pointing out Gandhi’s racism against South Africans? Such honesty, blunt sense of humor, and transparency is important for us Americans of every background. Embracing the beauties and absurdities in our culture and applying them to the overall American experience is how we “assimilate,” and Minhaj is certainly doing his part.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.