Hasan Minhaj shares a lot of comic ground with Aziz Ansari. Beyond their experiences growing up in 1990s America as the children of Indian immigrants, the two comedians have developed a similarly self-aggrandizing onstage brashness, a baller’s persona where name-dropping cockiness and pop culture markers point up their second-generation love of independence (and arrested adolescence). At the same time, both have made impressively insightful comedy out of trying to understand their parents’ very different experiences as new Indian-Americans. Homecoming King, a Netflix special of Daily Show correspondent Minhaj’s off-Broadway one-man show, finds the comic staking out his territory alongside Ansari’s Master Of None, with one of the most potently funny and thoughtful personal explorations of just what it means to be an immigrant, and the son of immigrants, in America.
Minhaj, with his boyish handsomeness and his California bro’s swagger (the special is filmed in Minhaj’s hometown of Davis) comes out of the gate dropping a clutter of pop cultural signposts (Drake, YOLO, comic books, #blessed, and the like) that belie the tightly written, startlingly heartfelt nature of his show. Making great use of a strategically deployed slideshow backdrop for emphasis, Minhaj takes us on a whirlwind tour of his life growing up alone until the age of 8 with his chemist father, his mother having remained behind in India to finish her medical degree. While comedians making jokes about their parents’ eccentricities isn’t new, Minhaj locks onto his theme of father-son conflict with a deceptively light touch that carries through the entire set. When a friend’s parents ask the teenaged Minhaj what he really likes to do, he answers, baffled, “No one has ever asked me that before,” referring to his father’s quick hand and rigidity as “a Guantanamo of the mind.”
As a kid wanting only to fit in with his overwhelmingly white, privileged classmates (“a bunch of Ryan Lochtes” is an especially able descriptor), Minhaj relates how his father’s expectations and sternness constantly clashed with the easy freedom all around him. Projecting film of 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali calmly winning the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee alongside footage of his impassive parents in the audience, Minhaj seeks to explain how that pressure (“conditional love” flashes over the kid’s unsmiling folks) turns Indian kids in America into “little Kobes,” cagily, desperately determined not to disappoint. A birthday trip to Home Depot (“You get to pick a door handle for the bathroom”) instead of Toys “R” Us could be a glib punchline, but Minhaj weaves his tales of paternal inscrutability into a long and flowing (but focused) narrative of personal discovery. For his parents, the American dream was all about your kids putting aside distractions in order to take advantage of the freedoms their parents have provided by coming to America. For the young Minhaj, it was about taking advantage of those opportunities to do exactly the opposite in pursuit of dreams (being a comedian, chasing girls) that carried the tingle of true freedom. “I had the audacity of equality,” explains Minhaj after a story about how the heightened ugliness toward Muslims, post 9/11, forced his family’s largely unspoken conflict out into the open.
That incident, and another high school-era event involving an elaborate secret plan to take his white best friend/crush to the prom, reveal Minhaj as an unexpectedly masterful storyteller. Aided by director Christopher Storer (who uses Jonathan Demme-style slow zooms to punctuate big moments with bold, to-camera closeups), Minhaj parcels out the big swerves and turns in his stories as patiently as did his parents about almost everything in their lives. (Like the time his mother finally got her visa to come to America, bringing along an unthinkably huge secret with her.) One of Homecoming King’s chief pleasures is how expertly Minhaj crafts these anecdotes—his mother’s return, a prom-night revelation, a family trauma, his Daily Show audition—his confident, energetic flow not so much disguising the craft as relishing in the telling, and in the effect it has on his rapt audience.
Tying his personal journey to that of other immigrant families in his position, Minhaj eschews direct attacks on subjects like Donald Trump, his wall, and his Muslim ban in favor of relating how racism impacts people of color in America on an inextricably deformational personal level. Minhaj gets angry, lashing out from his narrative against the killers of people like Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin, but his anger is in service of the greater story he wants to tell about how brown people in this country experience prejudice every second of every day—and what it makes of them. With his father’s stoic pragmatism as one pole and his own, more “liberated” anger and desire to fight back as the other, Minhaj, after wrenchingly relating how his Muslim family was subjected to frightening abuse after the 9/11 attacks, summarizes their combined response with the bitter, defiant summation, “If you come to this country, you pay this thing like the American dream tax. If it doesn’t cost you your life, you pay it.”
Minhaj, for all his polished, strutting banter, tries to find that balance, between his father’s world view and one he himself is still seeking, something that comes to a head when he relates how he finally confronted someone who had wronged him, years before. Just as Minhaj doesn’t shy away from earnestness in stating his take on racial issues, he’s also not afraid of looking like an asshole as he fumbles his way toward his own understanding of how race in America is even more complex than he imagined. The audience for this Netflix special repeatedly—and understandably, considering Minhaj’s storytelling skill—reacts with emotion as well as laughter, and, to his credit, Minhaj doesn’t appear to be fishing for affirmation. (A repeated refrain is that truly being an American is “not reaching for a co-sign.”) When the gasps and congratulatory applause come, they’re earned, but unnecessary. Like Chris Gethard’s similarly revelatory recent special, Homecoming King triumphs by transforming a seemingly intractable dilemma into thoroughly, hilariously human comedy.