Comedy in the Trump Age

Just about a year ago, while other comedians on the late-night scene, from Seth Meyers and John Oliver to Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee spent the evening denouncing then-candidate/full-time racist hairball Donald Trump, who was in the throes of accusations of coziness with Vladimir Putin and Islamophobia and racism, one man had the courage to ask the really tough question: if he could ruffle Donald Trump’s hair.

I’m talking, of course, about the infamous segment on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, where Jimmy Fallon spent the interview asking the softest of softball questions, without a hint of pushing him on any issues or criticizing anything he ever said. The segment was widely criticized, with many suggesting Fallon was helping to humanize or normalize Trump.

What was the issue, exactly? After all, Stephen Colbert also had Trump on as a guest last year, and Seth Meyers had Kellyanne Conway on just eight months ago. And sure, Fallon asked some pretty tame questions, but he isn’t a journalist, and it’s not his job to ask the tough questions. Is he really to blame for trying to keep his show apolitical, to want mass appeal? Apparently, yes.

In the Trump era, it’s become increasingly clear that few people are interested in that kind of mass appeal. People want sharper comedy, comedians who aren’t afraid to be critical, to call out bullshit when they see it, to denounce hate. It’s no wonder that the more sharply political late night hosts, like Trevor Noah, Oliver, Bee, Colbert, and Meyers are getting ever-increasing audiences and attention.

Indeed, consider the fact that Colbert’s most popular segments on YouTube are monologues where he denounced or criticized Trump. Bee’s show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee is almost dominated by Bee eviscerating Trump to shreds, perhaps most notably with her segment “Pussy Riot”, made shortly after that tape with Billy Bush came out. For six glorious minutes, Bee alternated between strained, venomous sarcasm and unsurprised fury, unleashing a badly-needed female perspective, noting: “We know this is shocking for most normal men, but every woman I know has had some entitled testosterone monster grab her like a human bowling ball.”

Not only that, but even the relatively apolitical Jimmy Kimmel got a moment in the sun during the height of the health care debate. After an emotional monologue where he discussed his newborn son’s heart condition, Kimmel begged Congress not to remove protections for those with pre-existing condition, pleading in a cracked voice, “If your baby is going to die, and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make.”

And even more recently, as Trump refused to outright condemn white supremacists and Nazis in Charlottesville, late night hosts ranging from the less political James Corden to the more political Meyers  lined up to criticize his silence and condemn white supremacy in the strongest terms.

And in the world of standup comedy, the specials that have been more widely celebrated have recently been those that either dealt specifically with politics or the issues on the periphery, even if those jokes weren’t the main focus. Jen Kirkman discussed sexism and harassment in Just Keep Livin’?, Roy Wood, Jr discussed race and blackness in Father Figure, Hasan Minhaj discussed Islamophobia in Homecoming King, and Maz Jobrani discussed being an immigrant in the aptly named Immigrant.

Even here in Canada, comedy has taken an ever-sharper political edge. Just take the satirical site and now comedy show The Beaverton, which in addition to featuring video segments and articles mocking Trump and the alt-right, also isn’t shy about criticizing the Canadian alt-right, especially in their biting satire of the alt-right, heavy on racism and light on facts Canadian “news” site, The Rebel with their own spin, The Rebelton.

There are still plenty of (mostly straight, cis, white, male) comedians who don’t like this shift at all. Fallon, for his part, has been reluctant to change his show toward a more political tone. Obviously, that’s his prerogative. However, it’s worth noting that we aren’t living in an age when politics is business as usual. The United States’ president is a racist, a misogynist, and Islamaphobic. He’s in cahoots with white supremacists. He and his party don’t care about the effects of their actions, even when people’s lives are at stake. Health care? DACA? Climate change? Just some pieces in a cynical, spineless game. No offense to Jimmy Fallon, who I’m sure is a very nice guy, but it’s irresponsible to avoid this stuff altogether as though they’re just touchy political topics. Comedy has evolved to acknowledge that reality, whether or not all comedians want to get on board.

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Review: Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King

You might recognize Hasan Minhaj as the Senior Indian Correspondent over at The Daily Show, where he was hired in 2014. Since then, he’s done numerous pieces on a wide variety of topics, many of them focusing on Islamophobia and how it affects Muslims in the U.S. and abroad. He also did a noteworthy interview with Justin Trudeau, where he (Hasan) wore a Canadian tuxedo and, among other things, asked the PM to apologize (or not apologize) for everything from Drake on Degrassi to Justin’s Movember goatee. In any case, on May 23rd, Hasan Minhaj also released a new comedy special for Netflix called Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King.

About a half-hour into Homecoming King, Hasan relates a story about how, following 9/11, his family got an anonymous phone call in which he and his father heard someone repeatedly calling them racial slurs and accusing them of aiding terrorists before saying their address and threatening to kill them. Hasan describes looking at his father after and says, “Do you ever see your parents, and see the mortality in them?” Minutes later, the family heard the sound of their car windows being smashed in. He compares his own reaction, running around looking for the perpetrators, to that of his father, who sweeps up the glass “like he works in a hate crimes barbershop.” While Hasan’s father asserts that “these things happen” and considers it the price of being an immigrant, Hasan has a different realization: “We really are from two different generations…I was born here. So I actually have the audacity of equality…I’m equal, I don’t deserve this.” Following this incredible speech, Hasan adds on that his father once tried to return used underwear to Costco. Hasan will tell you all about how annoying he initially found his younger sister (who he didn’t even know about until he was 8), before he reveals that she is currently an accomplished attorney, and that she interfered on his behalf when their parents were reluctant to accept Hasan’s relationship with his then-fiancée (now wife), who is Hindu, not Muslim.

Hasan Minhaj performing in Homecoming King

That is the genius of Hasan Minhaj’s comedic style. In one moment, he is completely serious, relating the intensity of the racism and Islamophobia he and his family have experienced, and in the next, he is quipping about the oddities of these experiences. He laughs at the differences between himself and Bethany, his white friend/crush in high school. In one particularly amusing moment, he describes sneaking out of his house in a JC Penny suit and six puffs of Michael Jordan cologne, and biking to Bethany’s house to be her prom date. However, he arrives to learn that Bethany’s parents have found a white boy to be her prom date instead — because they were taking pictures and didn’t think Hasan would be “a good fit.” The camera zooms in on Minhaj’s face, betraying heartbreak and shock and confusion, as though he is still a kid in high school having his prom hopes dashed. He contrasts this type of quiet racism with other types he’s received. Bethany’s mother is sure to call him “honey”, say that the family loves him, but it is still brutal. Shaking off the people who refer to him and his family with racial slurs is one thing, but shaking off the more subtle hatred from supposedly nice people is much harder.

Minhaj’s comedy and his sharp takes on racism and Islmophobia are desperately needed in this political climate. He wants to ensure that he and his family are seen as multidimensional people. He is honest about his childhood, neither pushing away some of the less seemly parts of it nor allowing the accomplishments of his family to be pushed away either. More than anything, he is here to remind us that he cannot be boxed off as being just an Indian Muslim, and that he is not willing to allow his identity to be erased or pushed aside. He peppers his jokes with Hindi and Urdu, and also mocks himself for his work in a Pizza Hut commercial. He comes off as fun and cocky, brimming with a confidence he may not have had in high school.

Hasan ends the show by discussing his audition for The Daily Show, in which he did a piece about Ben Affleck defending Islam on Real Time with Bill Maher (you know, the guy who just said the n-word on TV). We don’t see the audition, but considering the brilliance of the comedian saying it, and the fact that it evidently worked, we can imagine that it was pretty darn funny. Homecoming King was an awesome comedy special, and I honestly can’t wait for him to continue with new material both on The Daily Show and off it.

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