For the premiere of his documentary Stand-Up Planet, before he became a Daily Show Correspondent, I got to sit down with comedian Hasan Minhaj to discuss the new wave of international comics, how to be funny instead of offensive, and much more.
Roni Canieso: Stand-up Planet is a politically and socially conscious documentary about you traveling the world looking for comics. Was it a challenge finding things that are universally funny across different cultures? What does universally funny mean to you?
Hasan Minhaj: Some of the comedians, say, from South Africa or India will switch between English and their native tongue, whether it’s Swahili, Zulu or whatever. What was funny was to see a language you don’t understand and still see the joke crush and kill and make you laugh. There’s a certain rhythm to comedy and you can tell when certain people are funny — there’s just something funny about it the way, sonically, comedy is delivered. It triggers something in our brains that makes us think “oh, this is funny!”
RC: How do you write jokes that don’t enforce stereotypes, come off as politically incorrect or use racism for a cheap laugh? A lot of your comedy delves into race and race issues. Do you have a way you do it so that your jokes are more of an homage than just straight offensive?
HM: Every joke and every video I do is not perfect. On some level, it might offend someone somewhere. I do the best I can to punch up, not punch down. In other words, try not to push down on groups that are already being objectified and shat on: women, minorities. I try to punch up to institutions and organizations that can take it: Coca-Cola, political injustice, politicians that are corrupt. Those people can take it, you know?
RC: How did you choose the comics there were featured in the documentary? What made them stand out for you?
HM: A good friend of mine once told me, “you need to live the life worth writing about, a life worth talking about.” That’s what makes great art and great comedy, a really great personal experience. So we’ve found not only the funniest comics, but the comics with the most interesting journey. Aditi Mittal was one [comedian] in India, she’s one of only three female English speaking comedians [in the country]. Her whole journey is, “I don’t even wanna be called a female comedian.” Her mom is one of the first female television producers in India — just kicking ass! Like literally taking perception and barriers and just kicking them down. I was like, “this is rad! We should show more stories like this!” She’s kicking down barriers of perception, gender roles and censorship … super dope!
The comic that we followed in South Africa was Mpho Popps. HIV and AIDS awareness is a big issue there. A lot of people with HIV and AIDS aren’t championed — they’re shamed into staying quiet. With cancer you’re a champion, everyone is like, “oh, this is a disease … we back you!” but if you get HIV and AIDS, a lot of times people feel like, “oh, that’s your fault, you brought this upon yourself. So, it’s not our job to protect you, empower you and support you.” This comedian, Mpho Popps, his uncle died of HIV and AIDS. He’s found a way to tell the story about his uncle hiding it, and he talks about it in such a hilarious way.
Now, I know that sentence sounds super weird, like, “how can a dude talk about his uncle dying in a hilarious way?” But here’s the thing with comedy: life is freaking sad and horrific. It’s filled disease and death, but it’s also filled with humor, love and redemption. And comedy plays with both of those things. You can make life so much more palpable and livable if you just laugh at it, and you laugh at these things that are kind of scary or wrong or weird … we found people from around the world that were able to do that. That’s what I think is so interesting about the film. Ultimately, this film isn’t really about me, it’s about comedians around the world who are adding to this global dialogue.
RC: What do you think is the future for awareness, diversity in media and stand-up comedy: English, non-English, all of that?
HM: Turnin’ up. Just turning the fuck up. It’s artists coming out and just being everything that they want to be. One of my favorite people on Twitter is this girl named Ayesha A. Siddiqi. She said, “Be the person, as an artist and creative, that you needed when you were 15.” That’s something that I think about all the time. When I was 15, in middle school and in high school, I didn’t like who I was. I didn’t like the color of my skin, I didn’t like not fitting in, I didn’t like inviting school friends over to my house. I felt really insecure about who I was and my identity and stuff; and now, I’m doing everything I can to just turn up and share that experience. To stand up on that stage and be like “Yo, my family’s from Aligarh, first generation, boom, boom, boom … I’m proud of who I am.” We’re out here and we’re doing it really big.