Niche Comedy for a Wide Audience
What Hasan Minhaj’s “Homecoming King” teaches us about family, identity, and connection
My mom and dad have exactly one dinner party story. When asked about the light of their lives (read: me and my sisters), my parents rattle off our names — Adesh, Isha, and Disha — and await the inevitable:
Oh! Isha AND Disha? Did you want their names to rhyme?
Invariably, my parents wax poetic about the pomp and circumstance of Isha’s name: it was unveiled in 1988 in Nagpur, India at a Namakarana, a ceremony where friends and family gather several weeks after a baby’s birth to learn their name.
Smash cut to almost three years later. My parents have immigrated to Michigan and given birth to my other sister. But this time, they were exhausted from moving across the planet with an infant, and — due to legal limitations they were unaware of until minutes before leaving the hospital — didn’t have weeks to perfect the baby’s name.
Their only choice? Well, we already have Isha, so let’s just go through the alphabet and add the best letter. Aisha? Bisha? Cisha? Disha? Oh, I like Disha.
That story never fails to elicit a riot, not just from fellow Indians who were victims to hospital bureaucracy, but also those non-Indians who entered the delivery room with a name long picked out and exited with a bouncing baby bearing that moniker.
Though it sounds counterintuitive, in trying to relate to an audience they have little in common with, my parents don’t omit the specific, vivid, and oftentimes less-than-glamourous details of their struggles with immigration. Their story still resonates to anyone who has found themselves in a totally new setting, unfamiliar to rules and regulations, and offers a glimpse of our culture. My parents’ goal is to tell the raw, detailed, and unfiltered truth behind their immigrant experience, a classic story of learning by fire. My third favorite comedian, behind aai and baba, has demonstrated a similar desire.
In his Netflix special, Homecoming King, South Asian writer, producer, comedian, and pretty boy Hasan Minhaj discusses identity, forgiveness, and heartbreak with his “super white” audience in Davis, California. These universal experiences are couched in niche stories about immigration, the “American Dream,” and prom night — and that specificity allows Hasan to appeal to brown audiences and white ones alike.
One often-repeated tenet of comedy is that if a joke is funny, you shouldn’t need to explain it. But Hasan explains his jokes in a way that amplifies his storytelling. When he makes a niche reference to his culture, he both paints a vivid picture for his brown audience, and offers enough context for everyone else to follow along.
For example, when sharing the story of his parents’ courtship, he jokes about his mother “killing it” in a red lehenga (or, as Netflix captioned it, “Langa”). Hasan consciously chooses to not call her garment a “dress” or a “sari”. The terms might be more palatable, more familiar — but to use them would be like referring to cricket as baseball: you’d be in the ballpark, just not the right one. Us brown audience members appreciate the specificity; and rather than compromise for non-brown folks, he shares a photo of his mother from 40 years ago in said lehenga as an accompanying visual.
Hasan even has separate punchlines for different members of his audience. Although Hasan’s parents settled in Davis, California, his mom traveled back to India to finish medical school, so Hasan’s dad — for eight years — frequently made the 20-something hour trek to visit her. In 1993, after his mom’s visa was approved, Hasan was reunited with her — and she brought with her a four-year old girl named Aisha. Although Hasan had never met Aisha, she immediately hugged him and hollered “Hasan bhai.” The bulk of the laughs Hasan received from this story came after he defined “bhai,” revealing Aisha as his sister. But for viewers like me — those who know the language — the punchline landed early, with “bhai.”
Another important element to successful comedy is context. A joke can only work if the speaker and the audience share a mutual understanding. To that end, in addition to sharing images or translating words his audience might not know, Hasan also offers analogies to contextualize cultural experiences that may too be misunderstood.
Take arranged marriage — a concept often met with intense vitriol from outsiders and referred to as regressive, forced, or enslavement (though mysteriously, when white people embark on a similar journey — in front of cameras no less — it’s lauded as a “fascinating social experiment”).
Hasan demystifies the practice while satirizing it, calling it “Tinder with no photos” and fondly referring to his mother as “that chick,” to offer his audience a modern parallel of the custom. He’s not far off either: many arranged marriages today begin on dating apps and websites and involve far more autonomy from both participants.
Then there’s assimilation. For too many immigrants, assimilation has historically meant putting your head down and biting your tongue — and that dynamic has been enforced by the expectations of immigrant parents and society alike. Hasan sums up these complex pressures with a simple phrase in the climax of his special:
Log kya kahenge? What will people think?
Log kya kahenge when Hasan, a Muslim, marries Beena, a Hindu?
Log kya kahenge when Hasan attends prom with a white girl?
Log kya kahenge when Hasan pursues comedy instead of a “practical” career?
All of these situations are incredibly loaded, to say the least — colored by everything from the centuries-long Hindu-Muslim conflict to the Model Minority Myth. But the element that unites them is the persistent fear that others are watching, and judging, and — especially if you’re an immigrant — they won’t give you the benefit of the doubt.
And while it would be nice to chalk that fear up to unjustified paranoia, sometimes people are watching, and they do assume the worst — something my family learned the hard way. Shortly after arriving in Ann Arbor in 1990 — and armed with his J-1 Training Visa — my dad honed his expertise for decades in Nanomedicine, Pharmacology, and other lengthy words I cannot comprehend. But by 2010, his ambition had made him a target.
Following the 2001 anthrax attacks, scientists discovered that nanoparticles were used to disperse the powder more freely. A federal investigation ensued — and shortly before it closed, a government agent confronted my father about his research. His typical professorial jubilance for sharing his life’s work turned to dread as the agent revealed my dad was under surveillance for months. The investigator was more than happy to share why: he was watched partly due to his prowess in nanotechnology, partially because of a recent trip to India as a guest lecturer, but mostly because, as the investigator venomously said:
You’re a foreigner.
My dad hid this experience for over a year. But now, every time I ask him about that story, he tells me more. Initially, those details were terrifying. But I’ve since come to realize that they can be empowering.
Those details prepared my sisters and I to set sail, confronting headwinds and stormy skies in the form of prejudice and racism.
Any good speechwriter will tell you that details are not just dotted i’s and crossed t’s; they convey authenticity and honesty. Editing the narrative to make an audience more comfortable cheapens the story and deprives listeners — Indian or not — the opportunity to empathize with the storyteller.
Hasan’s stories and niche references validate our feelings of anger, insecurity, confusion, joy. And while one South Asian American on TV is empowering, representation is not just an Indian guy with a Netflix special — it’s hearing stories like those of my family and his.
Hasan taught me that the response to log kya kahenge is, “I don’t care.”
— Adesh Labhasetwar (Former WWW Intern)
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.
You can find Hasan Minhaj’s “Homecoming King” on Netflix.
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