In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
This looks to be a breakout year for The Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj. The up-and-coming comedian acquitted himself nicely as the host of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which would have just been the least popular ticket in town had it not been for Minhaj’s incisive remarks and energetic delivery. We’ll get to see more of his comedic stylings in Homecoming King, which begins streaming on Netflix May 23. In his first stand-up special, Minhaj weighs in on immigration and assimilation, while also touching on lighter subjects like love. Ahead of the premiere, The A.V. Club posed our 11 questions to Minhaj, who revealed a love of truth, justice, and American author Beverly Cleary.
1. If you could spend the rest of your life inside one movie or TV show, which would it be and why?
Hasan Minhaj: I’ll say Back To The Future Part II. It would be so cool and interesting. How often do you get to see—you know how you’ve always wondered, what would happen if my life was unfolding in front of me? Have you ever wished you could step outside of it and see things happen? They basically do that in the film. There’s Marty’s future and also his parents’ past. And how cool would that be, for me, to go back to Aligarh [India] and see how my parents met? Of course, I would have to hide in the bushes or behind cars, but I would actually get to witness history.
2. Do you have a favorite swear word or phrase? How often do you use it, and in what circumstances?
HM: I will say that the thing that I use too much, and I need to stop, but the F-word is pretty great. When you say it, it’s so viscerally strong. It also serves as a great punctuation point—it can really emphasize how dumb something is. I’m a fan. I need to not use it as much, obviously, because of FCC guidelines. But I’m a fan of that word.
3. How did you spend your last birthday?
HM: My wife and I went out for dinner. It was really, really great.
4. What is the worst professional advice you’ve ever received?
HM: Okay, so this was before the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: “Burn the entire room down.” And that was some of the worst advice I’ve received, because I think the dance is—you have to singe, not burn. There is a fine line. I remember this from high school speech and debate. If you want to take down your opponent, you do it tactically, point by point. You don’t just come in like Scarface and shoot up the entire room. You want it to be surgical. I think a lot of times with comedians, the advice is that they want you to go in there and give ’em hell and completely eviscerate the room. But there’s an art to roasting. Sometimes you want to walk in, and from joke number one, you want to come out swinging. But there is a methodical way to go about it. So that, to me, is something that is just the worst advice. “Give ’em shit from joke number one.” But no, you want to ease your way in a little bit.
5. If you were a medical doctor, what kind of doctor would you be and why?
HM: This is me being super practical: I would probably be a dermatologist, because they have great work-life balance. Not because I’m passionate about people’s skin. They have great hours. I have friends who are dermatologists, and they tell me it’s great.
6. What’s your perfect Sunday?
HM: You know, yesterday was pretty good. My wife and I called our parents for Mother’s Day. We went and had an amazing lunch. And what was great was, we skipped that great influx of brunch people. We went at 3 p.m., so it was this perfect time, when the brunch people had just left, and it was before dinner time, and it was just quiet and really nice. We walked around to a farmers market. I had a really nice coffee. The weather was perfect. It was that perfect morning in New York. We walked around and talked. We came back home, we took a nap, which was awesome. We got up, and we watched a movie. I was folding stuff out of the laundry, and you know when you’re doing that and the clothes are warm, and it’s like you’re folding warm toast? It was like that. And we went to bed by 10:30. It was incredible. It was a great Sunday. We were lazy, but we spent time together. We got a lot done, but it was also a lovely day in New York City with my wife.
7. What do you get snobby about?
HM: I would say sneakers. I’m very, very specific about them. I’ve always been a fan. It’s not just certain brands, it’s also the model of the shoe, the cut of the shoe, the colorway of the shoe. Someone will say, “Hey, this is the Air Jordan this.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but that’s not as rare as this Air Jordan, in this colorway.” It gets very specific—it’s the make, the model, the colorway. As a kid, I always wanted to have sneakers, but I didn’t always get the ones that I wanted. So now, I’m reliving my childhood through my feet.
8. What book have you read the most?
HM: To Kill A Mockingbird. I read it in grade school, and I really liked it, and then I reread it in college, and after. I’ve always thought it was a great book, and it was one of my inspirations—I wanted to be an attorney. Before delving into comedy, that was one of the paths I was going to take. And the idea of litigation and defending someone in court, To Kill A Mockingbird was an inspiration for it. Atticus Finch is a great lawyer. He stands for truth and justice. In the Depression-era South, the odds are stacked against him and his client. So to me, stand-up comedy is funny speech and debate. It’s funny litigation. You’re making an argument, but in a funny way. You’re making your case. So, to me, it was that without all the humor. But using the legal system as a way to help someone who’s innocent, that to me was a big inspiration.
9. What are you afraid of?
HM: I’m afraid of ketchup. I hate it, hate the smell of it. The reason why I’m always freaked out whenever someone opens a bottle of it around me is because when I was a kid, during lunch, they’d serve french fries. And there was this kid named Travis, whose nose was bleeding, but he was putting all this ketchup on his fries. I was watching him in absolute horror as he shoved ketchup-soaked fries into his mouth as his nose was bleeding. The blood was dripping into his mouth as he was eating his fries, and I have been terrified of ketchup ever since. I hate being around it. It’s awful. That’s why I eat mustard or mayonnaise with my french fries.
Another thing that I am legitimately afraid of is having loved ones go through problems with health. It’s one of those things where you want to take away their pain or suffering, and you can’t. It’s a really shitty thing about being human. When it comes to matters of health, it’s the one thing you can’t control. Being healthy is the crown that only the sick can see. A lot of times, we take it for granted. But the few times that I’ve seen loved ones in the hospital or not being able to do something they could normally do, it really sucks. And there’s nothing they can do about it, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m genuinely afraid of that. I’m a big believer in doing everything you can and everything in your power to change the outcome. But health is one of those things you can’t control, and it’s a very scary thing for me.
10. Who are you a big fan of that we wouldn’t necessarily guess that you’re a big fan of?
HM: I’m a huge fan of Beverly Cleary. I think Beverly Cleary is the shit. I love Ramona Quimby, Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Beezus And Ramona, The Mouse And The Motorcycle, Dear Mr. Henshaw. Those are some of my favorite books. I’m a huge fan of her. I was really into Beverly Cleary and Marc Brown, the author of Arthur.
I’m looking it up right now on Wikipedia, and she’s 101 years old.
The A.V. Club: Maybe after this, you guys will meet.
HM: I should meet her! [Reads off Cleary’s Wikipedia page.] “The majority of Cleary’s books were set in the Grant Park neighborhood of northeast Portland…”
I should so meet her! Wow! That means in ’81, when she wrote Ramona and Dear Mr. Henshaw, just all these iconic books from my childhood, she was in her mid-70s. That’s incredible.
AVC: I think we need to make this happen now.
HM: Yeah! Okay, this is a true story. When I was in elementary school, I went to school with a kid named Michael Cleary. We would write these letters, you know, to the president or your pen pal. And Michael Cleary bragged that his aunt was Beverly Cleary. I don’t know if this was true or not, but when I was in third grade, I wrote a letter to Beverly Cleary, and I gave it to Michael. Instead of turning it into [my teacher] Ms. Sanderson, I gave it to Michael. It was right before Thanksgiving break, and I gave it to Michael and asked, “Will you give this to your aunt?” And he said, “Yeah, sure I will.” And I don’t know if it was true or not, but I gave it to him in full faith that he was going to give it to her. She was a huge inspiration. I’ve been a huge fan my entire life.
11. What advice would you give to your younger self?
HM: I would say, be as honest with yourself as possible, and try to make friends with people who like you for you—not an iteration of who you are, or who you think you should be—but really like you for you. And when you’re creating whatever you want to do in your life, just try to create and put out the truest version of yourself into the world. So I would be speaking to a younger self who wants to make art and comedy. And just be as honest with yourself as you possibly can. And it’s not going to work for everybody, and I know you’re going to be afraid of that, but please don’t worry about being accepted by everybody. The people who like you and want to be around you, that’s what matters, and that’s what’s healthiest for yourself.
12. Bonus 12th question from Gorillaz’s Murdoc: The greatest inspiration in my life is me. Who’s your greatest inspiration, and what would you say to them if you met?
HM: My biggest inspiration is black America and what they’ve done in the arts. I have always felt like an outsider in America, and what black Americans have done to add their chapter to this book called the American dream, and to be so unapologetic and true, and have added so much to art and culture in the world. Some of the greatest inspirations in my life have been black Americans. Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Notorious B.I.G.—they’ve all been great storytellers that were unapologetically themselves and added so much to this thing called the American dream. And me, as this Indian-American Muslim kid who was trying to add his narrative to the story called the American dream, add his chapter—new brown America wouldn’t be possible without black America. And I just wanted to say thank you. They’ve been a huge inspiration, to myself and this country.
AVC: What would you like to ask the next person?
HM: You have 24 hours to live. What do you do that last day?