The person who has done the most for American comedy this century won’t be there. But a star could be born nonetheless at this year’s White House Correspondents Association dinner.
Breaking with 36 years of US political tradition, Donald Trump will not attend the April 29 event. (He announced his decision in February, before being invited. Many of the president’s staff will also skip in “solidarity.”)
And since Trump won’t step up to try and up the ante set by Barack Obama’s infamous 2011 “Nerd Prom” roast—when the then-reality TV star was in attendance as the butt of Obama’s birther jokes—the stakes are high this year for someone other than the US chief executive.
That puts all eyes on the 2017 host, The Daily Show‘s Hasan Minhaj.
You might be forgiven for asking, Hasan who?
While Trump leads a “BIG” rally on the same night at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex—home to last weekend’s far-more adorable alpaca jubilee—Minhaj will take on the infamously challenging gig in Washington, DC
The 31-year-old comedian is not nearly as well known as most previous emcees, who have included Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers and Jon Stewart. (They don’t always get rave reviews from the famously tough crowd.) Typically booked by February, A-list stars reportedly turned down the gig this year, including CBS late-night host James Corden. Samantha Bee will host her own “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner” on TBS the same night.
So should you tune in to the traditional dinner? Here’s what we know about Minhaj to help you decide whether to check out the live broadcast on C-SPAN and MSNBC.
He’s a senior correspondent on The Daily Show
Minhaj joined The Daily Show in 2014, one month before Trevor Noah, now the Comedy Central program’s host, took over from Stewart. Throughout his career, Minhaj has focused on dismantling racist and religious stereotypes, especially regarding Islam and Muslim Americans. Growing up in a largely white neighborhood in Davis, California, the son of Muslim Indian immigrants, Minhaj was subject to bias at a young age. He frequently channels his personal experience and stories—like this hilarious set about his first crush, who said he was the color of poop—into his work.
Minhaj became interested in comedy while studying at University of California, Davis, where he majored in political science. After a brief stint in engineering, he moved to Los Angeles and was a finalist on “StandUp NBC,” a nationwide search for diverse comedians. He appeared in guest roles on Arrested Development and Getting On, but gained traction with “The Truth with Hasan Minhaj.” The 2014 web series dismantled racism in politics and pop culture—like this brutal takedown of Ashton Kutcher.
Stewart, as host, backed his rise, praising Minhaj as more than “his tall and amazing hair.” Minhaj gained wider attention on The Daily Show with his 2015 “Muslim Makeover“—a response to the rampant discrimination against Muslim American women. He declared that “anything on a plane is weapon to a Muslim. The corner of a Doritos chip can slice a neck,” and that “scarf around the head is way scarier than scarf around the neck.”
From there, it wasn’t a long trip for Minhaj to get to Trump.
His Trump critiques transcend comedy
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign—in response to Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign promises—Minhaj embodied the role of “designated Muslim guy” more explicitly. In his most viral clip, shot at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, Minhaj issued his goodbye to America in anticipation of a threatened crackdown on Muslims. “Republicans were showing me so much love,” he says after chatting with numerous white Trump supporters as part of the bit “Even their accidental racism was kind of adorable.”
But after the election Minhaj put comedy aside for a moment with a emotional monologue explaining why he feared for his life under a Trump presidency:
“It used to be, when I walked on a plane, I could feel the stares and suspicion. And it sucked—but at least I knew the president of the United States had my back,” said Minhaj, “But now, that asshole in seat 21B calling the flight attendant, trying to get me thrown off the plane? Now that guy is the president.”
He closed with an anecdote about his mother, a US citizen for 30 years, who feared she wouldn’t be able to re-enter the country after visiting family. “There are a lot of people telling me, ‘Hey, man. Don’t worry. Trump’s not really going to ban all Muslims,’” he said. “But I don’t know, man. That is my mom. And I need her back home because I love her—and she owes me $300.”
His off-Broadway show comes to Netflix in May
While working for The Daily Show, Minhaj, who lives with his wife, Beena, in New York, wrote a one-man theatre piece, Homecoming King. His critically acclaimed performance, exploring his experience as a first-generation Indian-American growing up with a strict father, premiered in New York in 2015. It’s centered on his father’s reaction to Minhaj being asked to prom by a white friend: “Hasan I will break your face.” The show will stream on Netflix next month.
He’s no stranger to Washington correspondents dinners
Last June, Minhaj performed at the 2016 Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner. The routine bodes well for this year’s performance. It was a mix of hilarious jabs, like comparing Hillary Clinton to a Toyota Camry, and intelligent, direct critique. Just four days after the Orlando, Florida club massacre, Minhaj called out lawmakers for their inaction on gun control:
“The sad reality is that stuff like this is going to continue to happen unless we realize that civil liberties are an all or nothing game,” said Minhaj, as the room fell quiet. “So whether you like it or not we all have to step up and fight for each other, otherwise the whole thing is a sham…You get paid almost $200,000 a year to write rules, to make our society better. Not tweet, not tell us about your thoughts and prayers. To write rules to make our society better.”
Sharp commentary, coupled with well-timed comic insights, is what we should expect from Minhaj’s 2017 Nerd Prom performance. The big night represents a undeniable step up in his career, but he has supporters believing he will make the event his own.
“Hasan’s smarts, big heart, and passion for press freedom make him the perfect fit for our event,” says White House Correspondents Association president Jeff Mason, “which will be focused on the First Amendment and the importance of a robust and independent media.”
Everything Minhaj has done so far says he is up to the dinner’s high-wire challenge, one that the leader of the free world chose not to accept. He can be highly competitive, and a bit cocky—at least that’s what my boyfriend said after competing with Minhaj and Ronny Chieng, another Daily Show correspondent, in Chelsea Piers rec-league basketball. We’ll see how that translates on-stage.