Hasan Minhaj tells jokes and truths in his University Lecture

Hasan Minhaj gives University Lecture

Published: October 29, 2017
Hasan Minaj performs at Syracuse University

Comedian and Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj spoke before a sold-out crowd in the Goldstein Auditorium Friday evening. Minhaj, who made national news when he hosted the first White House Correspondents’ Dinner of the Trump era, spoke at length about the place that Muslims hold in American culture before taking questions from Osamah F. Khalil, an associate professor of history, as well as from students.

Minhaj took the stage and opened with a short monologue that set the tone for the evening. While recalling a recent trip to Alabama to film a segment for The Daily Show, Minhaj, who is Indian-American, told the story of a Walmart employee worrying out loud that Minhaj might be a member of ISIS. “He thought ISIS, a global terror organization, was like, ‘You know who we need? We need an Indian boy band member. What’s Hasan up to these days?’”

The white American conception of brown people was the night’s theme, which Minhaj continued to develop with a bit about how the white Disney princesses were more oppressed than the brown ones. While Cinderella was forced to hang out with mice and Ariel gave up her voice to fit in, Moana liberated islands and Princess Jasmine “leaves on a magic carpet with a shirtless brown dude who’s best friends with a monkey and a possessed blue man who lives inside a bong.”

These jokes set up his official presentation on refugees, which included images and videos à la a Daily Show segment. Minhaj argued that modern Americans are particularly afraid of brown, specifically Muslim, refugees because Muslims are the object fear de jure, made worse by media depictions of terrorists in the post-9/11 era. But, Minhaj argued, this fear is both misplaced and counterproductive. In one memorable segment, Minhaj hired an insurance agent to draw up a policy insuring his tour against terrorist attacks. The man, whose job it is to determine the statistical likelihood of unlikely events and then assign a dollar value to the risk, insured Minhaj’s tour for less than a dollar a person, which was about one tenth of how much Kanye West paid to insure his own tour against himself.

Minhaj’s point was that Americans, specifically white Americans, have irrational fear of Muslims and people who look like stereotypical Muslims. Furthermore, this type of fear, which has extended to unlikely groups including Somali pirates in the past, runs counter to America’s supposed values of inclusion and freedom of religion. In the final segment of his speech, Minhaj laid out the ways in which Muslim immigrants have assimilated into American society, arguing that Muslims have adapted to the American way of life better than Americans have adapted to their presence. He ended the segment with an ominous warning that Americans would do well to look over refugee applications with compassion, because someday someone will be looking over their applications.

After his presentation, Minhaj sat down with Professor Khalil for the interview portion of the evening. Minhaj talked about getting his start in comedy during college, which he said he used as a “four to five year” process of shedding the parental expectation that he would become a doctor. Khalil asked Minhaj about working on The Daily Show and how it differed from traditional journalism. Minhaj said that the main difference was that he came to a topic with a perspective and that his main goal with his pieces was to find and expose hypocrisy on the other side of the issue. He gave the example of going up to delegates at the Republican National Convention and asking about how wonderful their state was before expressing sadness at the fact that he would be unable to visit because Trump was going to deport him. “I couldn’t do that if I worked for Politico,” said Minhaj.

Students’ questions ran the gamut from mundane to enlightening. While one questioner wanted to know about Minhaj’s favorite pair of sneakers (Air Jordan 3, White Cement), another asked about the state of satire, to which Minhaj responded that the best that satire could accomplish was to strike a person like lightning and inspire them to action. “There is no song, movie, or joke that can change the world,” said Minhaj, quoting Jon Stewart. “The necessary condition is the action of the people.”

Friday night, Minhaj struck a balance between telling jokes and talking about issues, and hopefully, as students streamed out of Goldstein, one or two of them had been inspired to act.

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is a freelance writer and Goldring Arts Journalism graduate student focused on writing about television and the arts scene in Syracuse, NY.