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Sadness and laughter

Comedian Hasan Minhaj talks storytelling, "The Daily Show" and being brown in America

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In his new one-man show, Homecoming King, comedian, writer and actor Hasam Minhaj shares experiences from his first-generation Indian-American experience growing up in Davis, Calif. It's a tale that includes racism, schoolyard bullying, searching for the American Dream and, of course, prom night.

"I feel like a lot of these stories about immigrants and being brown in America haven't been told," he says. "These stories are timeless, but that voice has been missing."

Since starting out in the industry, Minhaj has built his career on a blend of the serious and the satirical, mixing laughs with more earnest storytelling, and personal anecdotes with political commentary. The comic got his start on the local scene around Davis and the nearby San Francisco Bay Area before taking his stand-up on the road and eventually to Los Angeles, where he landed roles in a variety of television shows, including "State of Georgia," "Disaster Date," "Arrested Development" and "Getting On."

In 2014, Minhaj joined "The Daily Show" as a senior correspondent and this summer he received national attention when he hosted the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner and took a long detour from his prepared set to deliver a stinging chastisement of Congress regarding their inaction on gun control after the Orlando shooting.

We spoke with Minhaj before Homecoming King comes to the Wilma this Sunday.

What have you learned by working as a senior correspondent on "The Daily Show"?

Hasan Minhaj: I've learned that what is most important in political satire is your take—your take is everything. To take esoteric concepts in the news and headlines—things that are complicated and convoluted—and boil it down into something that is digestible and meaningful. To find what is interesting and weird about things like economic sanctions, public policy and Congress.

It's not a great time to be Muslim American. What has it been like for you this election cycle? As a Muslim in the spotlight, how do you act or respond through your work?

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HM: What's interesting is that I think that there are things that are happening in the country that I'm not happy about. We're living in scary times. But my family immigrated here because there's tremendous potential in American democracy. It's an incredible thing and there is so much potential. When I see scary rhetoric, like we see with the Trump campaign, and those voices are getting taken seriously, the thing that I try to find solace in is the idea that I can take the helm and put forth my narrative and start a dialogue. That's my purpose. We have free speech where we can be critical without repercussions. I can say, "This is what it's like to be brown in America." And that is the point of the work I do.

In a recent interview with NPR, you said that many times laughter and sadness are essentially the same. What did you mean by that?

HM: For laughter and sadness, you are building to this emotional tipping point and each side of the coin can be cut with the other side. You can build from an awkward or sad moment and then cut that building emotion with laughter. Or you can build laughter and then cut that laughter with something devastating and tragic.

The first time I fell in love with someone was in first grade. And when I told her I loved her, she said, "You are the color of poo." It's a beautiful story of love, but it's cut with sadness. It is funny and sad at the same time. Because comedians master what makes people laugh, we're capable of knowing the other side of that coin, too.

Your comedy has a strong storytelling element. What makes a good story?

HM: I think a good story definitely has great characters, a nice narrative arc and something funny and meaningful with some closure in the end. I think a funny story has a lovable character that you are rooting for and that you want to see succeed.

What's your advice for comedians who are just starting out?

HM: Get up onstage as much as you possibly can. Don't worry about what other people are doing and instead write what you feel is truest to yourself. That is a big delineation. It's something I'm still currently working on as an artist: separating who you want to be from who you really are. The third thing is to live a life and mine from that life. Read books and experience new things. Finally, in every community there's generally a local scene. I would advise to go to that scene, rise within that community and don't be a jerk.

Who has been your greatest inspiration in comedy?

HM: Chris Rock. In high school, I was in speech and debate, and when I saw Chris Rock in college, I realized that comedy is just funny speech and debate. I realized that laughter is the most effective way to reach people. If you can make the other side laugh, you've won.

Hasan Minhaj performs Homecoming King on Sunday, Aug. 21, at the Wilma. 8 PM. $25-$30.

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