Netflix’s latest venture, Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj, attempts to morph the news show into stand-up comedy, a field Netflix has dominated. By tackling stories that aren’t necessarily ‘news of the day’ but still will remain timely, the show has a good shot at making it on Netflix, which has tried several times to launch a talk show property to no avail. Michelle Wolf’s The Break was too similar to standard TV fare: monologue, desk segments, sketches, and a guest. Why would viewers turn to Netflix for a Sunday talk show that would be irrelevant in a few days? After striking out with Wolf, Netflix may have finally found the formula for streaming political comedy.
Each 20-something-minute episode of Patriot Act focuses on just one topic, or as Minhaj describes it, “a woke TED Talk.” Think Last Week Tonight With John Oliver but in lieu of a desk, the host delivers passionate monologues standing while graphics fly on the video screen walls behind him. (“Like Michael Bay directed a PowerPoint presentation,” Minhaj quips.) He draws from his four years as a senior correspondent on The Daily Show, his stint hosting the White House Correspondents Dinner, and a career in stand-up.
And while, yes, Patriot Act is unabashedly partisan, the episodes don’t revolve around Trump’s antics. Instead, Minhaj delves deep into issues that aren’t narrowly partisan. So far, he’s tackled the affirmative action lawsuit Harvard is facing, Amazon’s relentless tactics that put entire industries out of business, and most poignantly, the grim truth about Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “It blows my mind that it took the killing of a Washington Post journalist for everyone to go ‘Oh. I guess he’s not really a reformer,’” says Minhaj. “It’s time to reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia. And I mean that as a Muslim, and as an American.”
Every segment so far has excelled. Minhaj comes from an Indian Muslim family and his identity grants a perspective that differentiates him from Colbert, Oliver, Bee, Meyers, and the horde of Jimmys. While Trevor Noah plays the part of a recent immigrant who is flummoxed by America’s predicament, Minhaj grew up in the United States, and can use his heritage to illuminate delicate topics. For example, he discusses how he was told in college prep classes not to check his race. “I thought I wasn’t gonna get into Stanford because some black kid was gonna take my spot,” Minhaj explains. “But I didn’t get into Stanford because I was dumb!” You can see the Asians in the audience nod in agreement.
It seems clear that Minhaj’s background allows him to get away with jokes that other comedians might be afraid to make. While breaking down the United States’ ties to Saudi Arabia, he jokes that the country “was basically the boy band manager of 9/11. They didn’t write the songs, but they helped get the group together.” Another riff explores “shitty Indians.” “If you’ve been watching the news lately, a lot of us have joined the dark side,” he begins. The primary targets are John Kapoor, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur who tried to bribe doctors into prescribing his drugs, former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who drove his state’s budget into the ground, and the universally reviled far-right political commentator Dinesh D’Souza. But instead of the usual barbs thrown, Minhaj ends the segment with a pretaped sketch of Indian children excited that they are no longer confined to the roles of doctor, lawyer, and engineer. They can be as bad as they want to be!
A perfect balance of informative and hilarious, Patriot Act is a welcome addition to the crowded late-night landscape.
Elazar Abrahams is a former intern at Tablet, and will attend Yeshiva University after a gap year at Netiv Aryeh in Jerusalem.