“I’m the cure for racism,” Hasan Minhaj declares at the end of his new Netflix comedy special Homecoming King. It’s clearly meant as a ridiculous announcement, and it gets a huge laugh, but Homecoming King is so good that, for a moment, you feel like there might be a smidge of truth to it.
Seven minutes into Homecoming King, I was already texting my brother my favorite lines. Not only does Minhaj have an uncanny ability to find humor and depth in the everyday traumas of being the child of immigrants—whether talking about how “immigrants love secrets” or the deeper, more cutting observation that “brown love is very conditional”—but he’s also managed to bring universality to very personal stories about interracial teen love, racism, forgiveness, and his landing a gig at The Daily Show. But Homecoming King does more than just prove Minhaj’s comedic genius. It also propels the very format of the comedy special itself forward.
Homecoming King is not a typical comedy special. Parts of it aren’t even funny—they’re raw and sad and helpless and angry. Minhaj’s set is an mixture of stand-up set, Moth-style storytelling, and Ted Talk. One moment he has you laughing, and the next moment there’s utter heartbreak. His stories are all threaded by the same themes of dealing with race and racism, overcoming his own ego, and growing. And because they’re told in chronological order, Homecoming King is essentially one long coming-of-age story.
Minhaj also includes a very visual component to his set (this is the Ted Talk aspect), wielding images both as guides and as punchlines.
He features embarrassing (but humblebrag embarrassing) pictures from high school, an actual list that appears as he’s listing the differences between Hindus and Muslims, footage of an Indian kid winning the Scripps Spelling Bee, and an American flag whose stars drop off as Minhaj recounts what it was like to be the victim of post-9/11 Islamophobic harassment and vandalism. He also makes eye contact with the camera from time to time to really drive a point home, a strong visual cue in itself.
Minaj is a hilarious and absolutely biting comedian, but he’s at his best when he’s earnest and honestly unpacking a poignant situation for us. That approach gave us the standout moment of the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, a painfully awkward position that he somehow gracefully pulled off, and it was certainly a standout moment in Homecoming King. Minhaj describes the night after 9/11, when the windows of his family’s car were smashed in and he couldn’t understand why his father wasn’t saying anything or expressing any anger. He goes on:
My dad’s from that generation like a lot of immigrants where he feels like if you come to this country, you pay this thing like the American Dream tax. You’re going to endure some racism, and if it doesn’t cost your life, then hey, you lucked out. There you go, Uncle Sam.
He explains that as someone born in the United States, he had the “audacity of equality,” a line that feels very familiar to many children of immigrants like me.
So many of us have had this conversation with our parents. Even when they’re antagonized, harassed, or worse, they can only hope for the best because they feel they don’t have the social leverage to fight the worst. That inadvertently leaves the task of doing more than just coping with injustice to their kids.
It’s also a conversation you would never find in a lot of comedy specials. So much of comedy pits itself directly against political correctness, subverting earnestness, and not giving a damn if your feelings are hurt because kids these days with their trigger warnings and their therapy are big old babies. But Homecoming King leans the fuck out and subverts that.
One of the other things that resonated with me is that Minahj does not use an Indian accent in his set at all. I don’t know exactly what informed the decision (and it could be that his parents, like many immigrants, have American accents), but when Minhaj impersonates his family, particularly his father, he never uses an Indian accent. He speaks Hindi throughout the set, he makes his voice gruffer, he makes a lot of jokes about Indian people, but never is the Indianness the butt of the joke.
It’s this meticulous attention to detail and dedication to something greater that makes the special a triumph that’s shoving comedy and storytelling in a new direction. Hasan Minhaj might not be the cure for racism, but there is definitely something medicinal about Homecoming King.