Minhaj, who was previously a correspondent for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and was Jon Stewart’s last hire, is now producing the sixth cycle of the comedy news show remotely from his own house during a global pandemic.
The latest cycle of episodes has included conversations about Coronavirus, the legal marijuana industry, the cost of college and the world of local newspapers as well as a passionate episode following the death of George Floyd.
He talks with Deadline about moving his latest showrunner into his house during quarantine to keep the show going, making an episode about the U.S’ broken police system last September, what he learned from Jon Stewart and how he hopes to cover the upcoming U.S. Presidential elections.
DEADLINE: You’ve been producing Patriot Act during the lockdown, how has that been?
HASAN MINHAJ: Our Patriot Act offices are right on late-night row so we’re on the same strip as The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, Full Frontal. When COVID broke out, it hit Manhattan really hard and we were in production and there was a live studio audience. The week of March 14, things started to get very strange in New York City, there were a couple of cases across the street at CBS News and 60 Minutes, which were directly next door. To keep staff safe, we shut down the offices and all went home and started working remotely.
[Showrunner] Prashanth [Venkataramanujam] and I started figuring out what the future looks like; we needed to figure out what that new reality looked like. We started putting together a proof of concept, Prashanth moved in with my family. We’re really close friends. We wanted to figure out how to deliver Patriot Act and make it feel like it’s not just live from my living room. We have such an amazing animation and graphics department, they won an Emmy last year, they really create the world that fans see every week. We showed the proof of concept to Netflix, we set up a green screen in my living room, we shoot it all on 4K cameras and then we deliver the raw files to VFX and graphics team and they edit it remotely. This wouldn’t have been possible without our graphics team and cloud computing.
DEADLINE: How was it doing the show without an audience?
MINHAJ: The audience is part of the fun of why we built the stage in the studio a specific way. I can deliver to camera and every couple of minutes you’ll see me break and play to the crowd. In this case, the tone and tenor and tempo of the show has me going for the primary camera and so the pace and urgency of delivery has sped up and the show feels a little different but I think it’s different in a good way. I’m able to communicate in a different way. The last few episodes, I’ve liked the urgency of it, not having an applause break or groan, I can just say how I feel straight to camera.
DEADLINE: You research your topics for months beforehand, how has COVID changed how you work?
MINHAJ: Those stories we’ve been tracking for quite some time, and as sad as it is to say, COVID only made them worse and acerbated the problem and the urgency of why we need to talk about them. We had been tracking a supply chain story and when COVID started breaking out at meatpacking plants, the real cost of life made that story more urgent. All of these stories, we thought were going to be evergreen, but when colleges shut down, the question of whether is college worth it, became more prescient.
DEADLINE: You did a passionate episode in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. What made you want to tackle that subject and how did you go about it?
MINHAJ: Nine months ago, we did an episode about the broken police system. It’s interesting to see that episode get a lot more love, not just on Netflix, but it got a resurgence on YouTube, where we saw more than 1M people sharing it all over again. Ironically, one of our case studies was in Minneapolis. If you want to learn more about qualified immunity, why it’s virtually impossible to sue a cop, police unions, warrior training, we covered that. When we did that episode, police unions and policing was still a very divisive topic, there were people that had a general apathy towards it that now are marching. I had a hesitation because I thought we’d lose a lot of the audience, a lot of people don’t have a negative relationship with law enforcement, they’ve been privileged not to have run ins with them, how do I explain this world to them. Now because of the sheer brutality of the killing of George Floyd and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, people are willing to listen. One of the beats that we had in that older episode was about the defund the police movement, we didn’t include it because we thought we were already going hard and what’s interesting is that if we did that episode now, I would probably add that beat.
DEADLINE: There’s been a lot of discussion about the place of talk shows and shows like your on a streaming platform like Netflix. What are the pros and cons for you?
MINHAJ: I think a lot of the user interface experience of when fans use Netflix. They see these shows as mini time capsules so what I wanted to do was when someone clicks on the tile of our show and they see each cycle, I want them to feel they can enter a whole world. When they click on Indian Election, they are going in to that world. It’s not the daily headlines, it’s not tweets or gaffes, it’s stuff with a longer shelf life. We want it to feel like you can come back and watch later because it’s an investigative case study on this topic.
When we are picking our topics, one of the things that I want to do, yes, I want to pick things that people are thinking about and feeling. If you look at the episodes we did this cycle, we wanted to open with rent and eviction because by the time we came back on the air, we were well past the health crisis, everyone knew you should wear a mask and wash your hands but the economic crisis and that anxiety is what we’re feeling. That shaped a lot of the topics that we picked.
DEADLINE: Do you see the show in seasons or as individual episodes?
MINHAJ: I see them in batches, in mini cycles or seasons. We spend all this time getting all the research and scripts together but we leave a little room to either change up the story at the last minute or completely cut something and add in a week or two a topic and do it very quickly to address the time. we are timeless, but we also have the opportunity to be timely. The episode with the George Floyd case is an example of that.
DEADLINE: Can you talk about collaborating with Prashanth Venkataramanujam (right)? You co-created the show with him and he’s now your showrunner.
MINHAJ: One of the things that we organically had a really great creative relationship even before I started on The Daily Show in 2014. We started writing together in 2010/2011, writing pilots and spec scripts and movie scripts. When I moved to New York we continued to work together on projects and right around 2016 there was a thing called The Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association – and we wrote that together and it was right after the Pulse nightclub shooting and the country was at a very strange moment where gun legislation was being talked about in a very serious way and I remember working on that speech with him and not just the jokes but also if I’m going to get the opportunity to stand before members of congress, what should I say? That speech kind of planted the seed of what we would end up doing together at White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2017 and then with Patriot Act, which we did as a proof of concept and then sold to Netflix. It really was a natural, organic thing. I’ve collaborated with other people before and sometimes those things go by the wayside because personalities are different or different styles and the way you work but this has been a really great relationship for the past ten years or so. It’s been really fun.
DEADLINE: You’ve had a few showrunner changes with Jim Margolis leaving and being replaced by Steve Bodow, who has now been replaced by Prashanth. What was behind those decisions?
It was one of those things when we first launched the show, we worked with Jim and Steve, we always wanted to make sure that we were accounting for our blind spots. The thing that I was aware of is that we’re both quite young and when you’re talking about global politics and policy positions, the last thing I wanted was to have a first-class ticket on the naïve train. When you’re swinging at these huge corporations like Amazon and you’re talking about tax reform, the last thing you want to do is have people watch and then roll their eyes at the arguments that we’re making. Having some of those older folks on staff, who have been at other political comedy shows in the past, served as that set of eyes that you need to make sure that I’m not saying something that I’ll be embarrassed about three months from now.
DEADLINE: Netflix has greenlit the series through to your next episode, episode 39. Would you like to do more? Are you in talks?
MINHAJ: We’re currently talking about what does election coverage look like in the future and what does that look like on Netflix and in the Patriot Act form. Covering election season is really really fun and I would really love to do it and it would be really fun to do it on a global platform while the world is watching.
DEADLINE: You were also meant to be hosting the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
MINHAJ: I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t even know what’s going to happen on Monday so we’re taking one week at a time.
DEADLINE: You worked with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. What did you learn from him?
MINHAJ: One of the biggest takeaways I got from Jon was learning how important taste is versus just being funny. He’s the master at synthesising your comedic taste. I really got to see that first hand. I remember when Eric Garner was killed and that was one of the most famous ‘I Can’t Breathe’ cases in America and I saw the way that he addressed the hypocrisy in the way that the news media and cable media was covering the story. They were lambasting Eric Garner’s background, you’d hear all of these excuses, and I remember being in the writers’ room with him and seeing how enraged he was and how he was able to channel that into a very clear coherent take in the show that night. To be in this moment six years later and to see bipartisan condemnation of the murder of George Floyd, I see that as progress because when Jon walked into that 9:15am meeting six years ago there wasn’t bipartisan condemnation, there were excuses. I was able to see first-hand how someone was able to take sadness and rage and anger and channel it into a very clear coherent take in six minutes.
DEADLINE: Has your show got easier to make as you’ve gone on?
MINHAJ: It’s definitely getting easier finding what my perspective and my voice is. Knowing that I should tap into that first and really flush that out first before I bring it to the news team and the writers. That’s the secret behind a lot of these shows, they are perspective driven shows and the host serves as the bottleneck. You can quickly tell if the host is just reading off the prompter and just phoning it in or if they are really speaking from the gut. I think right now people are looking for leadership and truth. There’s a lot of noise and shouting that’s happening on Twitter and I think we’re looking for leadership and truth and honesty right now.
DEADLINE: Would you like to take on other creative endeavors while you’re doing the show?
MINHAJ: Because of this pandemic, I’ve just been relegated to my house so it’s just me, Prashanth and the script so from a network perspective, I think Netflix is really excited because they know their two kids are just doing homework all day and can’t go anywhere else. I think we’ll explore different ways we can go out and be creative in 2021 but right now I’m looking forward to these moments, I think we’re in a very seminal moment in history, I’ve never seen this in my life, what I mean by that is collective activism. Apathy is at an all-time low. I think shows like are more important than ever and I’m lucky to be a part of it.