In his latest venture, Patriot Act, comedian and former Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj makes history as the first Muslim to host a late-night show. Netflix, which has seemingly become the favored platform for creators looking to distribute their content, releases new weekly episodes of the show. Minaj uses his latest endeavor to discuss important topics such as the dark underside of companies like Amazon and clothing line Supreme, Affirmative Action, and American dependency on oil. While he offers a unique and insightful perspective on these issues, what I find most interesting is the show’s aesthetics. By blending the styles of late-night, stand-up, and TED talks, Minhaj (along with other late-night hosts like Samantha Bee) attempts to popularize a hybrid comedic televisual format. In the first episode of Patriot Act, the comedian explains his thought process for birthing the show: “I wanted to make a show that was about culture and politics and the news, and I wanted to do it surrounded by iPads…It looks like Michael Bay directed a Powerpoint presentation. It’s insane.”
Patriot Act borrows from a lot of different traditions. Minhaj carries his body as if he is performing stand-up. He paces across the stage, situating himself in front of various persons in the in-studio audience. However, because he divides his attention equally between his live audience and his at-home viewers, the comic’s gaze transitions back-and-forth between the members of his front row and the camera. While it seems like a simple gesture, there is something about the vacillation of his eyes that causes a rift for me as a viewer. His body suggests that I am sitting in the audience of a live stand-up performance, but his eyes tell me he is filming a show. It is almost like I am never really sure if he is talking to me. In some ways, it’s almost like watching my significant other have extensive and intimate eye contact and conversation with someone else in my presence. It negatively impacts my ability to connect.
The rhetoric and the graphics give it a late-night feel minus the symbolic desk. Minhaj reads from a teleprompter, ensuring his words match some of the graphics that pop up across the screen. He moves through his sentences quickly, packing a lot of information in the process. Some jokes act as piercingly superb critiques, others as voiced footnotes in an academic-style paper. Unfortunately, this need to get through the script to showcase the amazing writing often does not allow room for laughter. It is cut short, and so is the space for connection. Ultimately, it appears that in the process of hybridization, the performer-audience relationship is compromised.
This genre-blending structure is not exclusive to Patriot Act; it is actually an extension of Minhaj’s overall style as seen in his 2017 Netflix stand-up special Homecoming King, where the comic uses a souped upstage, with background graphics on a screen to punctuate his humor. But again, the comedian’s desire to move through his scripted performance complete with visuals does not allow enough space for the relief of tension or the climax of pleasure that is expressed through audience laughter. The visuals are a reminder of the pre-scripted nature of the performance. It no longer feels like an interaction for the audience members. Ultimately, Minhaj’s style works well within the Patriot Act framework, but as far as stand-up comedy, it takes out an essential element to stand-up. It minimizes the conversational aspect where, through humor, the comedian makes himself vulnerable so that he, along with the audience, can co-create the ephemera ripe for laughter.