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Hasan Minhaj's 'Patriot Act' helps diversify late night comedy

tv review

Hasan Minhaj, host of "Patriot Act," performs during the comedy show in 2016.
Hasan Minhaj, host of "Patriot Act," performs during the comedy show in 2016.

Hasan Minhaj’s "Patriot Act" is not original. The show is one of dozens populating the now bloated late night talk show format. But what the show lacks in originality, it makes up for in being sharper, funnier and more engaging than most of its competitors.  

"Patriot Act" feels like a cross between a late night show and stand up comedy. Minhaj is standing the entire time, delivering a monologue with limited cutaways and no interviews or guests. Like Minhaj’s previous stand up comedy show "Homecoming King," "Patriot Act" is available exclusively on Netflix. In the second episode, he aptly described the show as a “woke Ted Talk” (his Steve Jobs-esque outfit fits the bill for this claim). The set is essentially floor to ceiling projectors, which Minhaj jokes makes it “look like Michael Bay directed a PowerPoint presentation.”  

Outside of these small changes, the show is clearly closely modeled after John Oliver’s brilliant "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver." The format is nearly identical: Both shows air on Sunday nights, and inject comedy into in-depth coverage of a serious political topic for 20 minutes. There is even a cutaway at the end of "Patriot Act"’s second episode that feels beat for beat like a segment on John Oliver’s show, and if it was stuck into one of his segments I might not be able to tell the difference. These similarities are not a bad thing: John Oliver’s show is critically revered and deservedly so. Oliver has mastered the art of dissecting his topics and consistently brings gut busting laughs alongside informative topical discussions, but after watching "Patriot Act," it is clear that the original reigns supreme.   

This is not to say Minhaj’s show is bad or that it even falls into the tired comedy tropes some late night hosts seem to rely on these days. He produces quality material and breaks from the mold by providing jokes deeply rooted in his identity, something other white late night hosts cannot really do. The topics of his first two episodes, affirmative action and Saudi Arabia, are closely linked to Minhaj’s Indian heritage and Muslim religious beliefs: Asian Americans filed the lawsuit that has recently put affirmative action back in the spotlight, and Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam.  

The jokes rarely miss, as Minhaj has always been in the upper echelon of comedians, especially when harnessing his identity to contribute to the comedy. The pieces are more compelling than most in the genre because Minhaj tries to avoid many of the tired, generic jokes that other late night hosts make about popular topics, particularly concerning the Trump administration.  

The show is not perfect by any means, and it clearly has some flaws in this initial stage. The jokes, though different than most on late night, do end up feeling a bit repetitive by the end of the segment. In the first episode, multiple jokes make fun of colleges based on their academic rigor, with decreasingly marginal returns. 

His delivery is also a bit off: His erratic hand motions can be distracting throughout the episode, and he sounds a bit too enthusiastic when discussing somber topics.  The projectors can be similarly distracting, as they are constantly changing and take up most of the screen. But they do allow Minhaj to put up interesting infographics that could not exist on other late night shows. Finally, the editing is atrocious. The camera angles switch every 10 to 15 seconds, and sometimes they do not even line up with which camera Minhaj is looking at. It is distracting, sometimes even headache-inducing.

Despite these flaws, it is important to remember that Minhaj’s show does not have to be perfect or even as good as "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver." The show is substantively better than many of the mainstream late night shows from people like Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and James Corden, and it is an important step in diversifying the field of late night comedy. The show is a tremendous feat for Minhaj and Netflix and is off to a promising start. 


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