Sony Pixel Power calrec Sony

Hasan Minhaj's Journey to Impact the World Through Comedy


By Stephanie Ornelas

Never forget, South Asians, we have been incredible contributors to film, arts, television, and culture. Just because they - meaning some sort of exec that you've perhaps met with - don't know, doesn't mean you are not valuable and we have not contributed immensely to culture and it's built on the backs and the ideas of the previous generations.

From South America to South Africa, award-winning comedian Hasan Minhaj has seen the world. And there's one thing people always tell him, no matter where he travels: We need The Daily Show here.

People come up to me and they go, we need a satirical show that can make sense of the chaos that's happening in our country, Minhaj tells Sundance Collab members during the virtual Spotlight Event Hasan Minhaj on Changing the World Through Comedy.

When Minhaj met with Collab members for the event on May 4, the first question producer of Collab events and moderator Wendy Keeling asked the Sundance alum was, Why comedy? She was curious what led him to pursue entertainment as a career. The webinar would turn into a powerful discussion comprising valuable advice, a deep dive into some of the projects that skyrocketed Minhaj's career, and the search for one beloved educator.

At one point in his life, Minhaj wanted to be a professional basketball player, he tells participants, but his gift of gab kept him off the courts - and probably for the best. Instead, he went on to have an incredible career as a stand-up comedian, writer, producer, political commentator, and actor, presenting the world with projects like Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, and Hasan Minhaj: The King's Jester. At the start of the session, he credits his high school teacher who saw something special in him - something he didn't see in himself.

I was a pretty precocious, rambunctious, troublemaker kid in high school, and I wasn't dangerous or anything, but I would speak up a lot in class. The way I stumbled into comedy was through forensics and speech and debate, says Minhaj.

I was talking up quite a bit in computers class. This dates me a little bit, but in the early 2000s, you would take these classes called computers class, Minhaj laughs. It was in that class that a teacher encouraged him to take his disruptive behavior and channel it toward something great.

My teacher Miss. Takeuchi - Miss T. - she said, Why don't we make a deal? You seem to have an opinion about everything - why don't you join the public speech and debate team and put this annoying skill that you have, that's a detriment to class, to use?' So, I started doing that, and I started winning regional competitions, says Minhaj. I didn't realize that that would be a skillset I could turn into a career until I got to college.

That really was my entry point into having a career in performing. A teacher saw something in me and helped guide me and find something that was inside of me. I owe a lot to Miss T. I'm still trying to find Jan Takeuchi, if anyone here through our network of people can find [her]. She's the reason why I'm here.

The personal anecdote led Minhaj to encourage viewers to speak up when they see something truly special in someone.

You have no idea how important it is to be seen. If you see something in someone, let them know they have a gift, [let them know] You have something that is uniquely inside of you that others don't have.' I think we all have that. And it may not be what we want. Like, what I wanted to be was a professional basketball player, but that didn't happen.

While Minhaj may not have made it to the NBA, he has made it to the White House more than once. He also made it to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as the senior correspondent for four years (2014-2018), something he says was always a dream of his. Minhaj learned from The Daily Show that to be successful in the craft of comedy, it's important to be more than just a comedian.

Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, they're both extremely funny, but them being funny is probably the second- or third-most interesting thing about them. The most interesting thing about them is that they're incredibly intelligent and deeply thoughtful, says Minhaj.

And I was thinking, How do I show these other parts of myself that you often show at the 9:15 a.m. pitch meeting? Or when you're in conversation with your friends?' And really, what you're trying to show as a performer onstage is, Can I be as interesting as I am offstage - or in my private life - onstage? How can I close that gap? How can I feel like there's less of a divide?'

Around the same time he began working on The Daily Show, Minhaj was performing at The Moth, a nonprofit performing arts theater and organization in New York. That's where he discovered that comedic storytelling was one way he could connect with his audiences authentically.

You have these stories that are both funny but also heartfelt that hit all the human emotions. That was kind of my strong suit, says Minhaj.

Hasan Minhaj and Michelle Satter at Sundance Institute's New Frontier Story Lab in 2014 Enter Sundance Institute. Minhaj had been workshopping this material in New York, he didn't know yet that his project had the makings of an off-Broadway show when he brought it to Sundance Institute's New Frontier Story Lab in 2014, a lab designed to support artists innovating the form of storytelling through visual art, media, live performance, music, and technology.

I worked on it with Michelle Satter, and I performed early versions of it with my advisor Sarah Treem, and they got to see the beginnings of what Homecoming King was, he explains.
See more stories from sundance

More from Sundance Institute


Inside the Archives: Registering for the Sundance Film Festival When Postage was Required

By Tanya De Angelis Let's travel to the days of dial-up internet, NES games...


2023 Merata Mita Fellow Caroline Monnet on the Power of Art and Film

During the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, the Indigenous Program announced Caroline Monnet (Anishinaabe/French) as the recipient of this year's Merata Mita Fe...


Get Familiar With This Fall's Filmmakers Through These 20 Sundance Films

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in Yorgos Lanthimos' black comedy The Lobster...


Introducing Sundance ELEVATE, presented by MUBI, the Institute's Professional Development Track

By Shira Rockowitz, Director, Producing & Artist Support, Feature Film Program ...


7 Tips for Navigating a Career as a Cinematographer According to the DPs of Mudbound and The Woman King

By Stephanie Ornelas 2018 was a year of progress for the field of cinematograp...


After Tiller and Thumbsucker Among Films With September Anniversaries

Heart-wrenching documentary After Tiller released to wider audiences in September 2013....


Sundance Institute Announces 2023 Latine Fellows & Collab Scholarship Recipients

Los Angeles, CA, September 6, 2023 - The nonprofit Sundance Institute announced today the recipients of the 2023 Latine Fellowship and Collab Scholarship, launc...


Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Liz Sargent, the Writer-Director of Take Me Home

One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a fro...


Release Rundown: What to Watch This September, From Suspenseful Fair Play to Inspiring Invisible Beauty

Alden Ehrenrich and Phoebe Dynevor heighten the tension in thriller Fair Play....


5 Transformative Sports Films Based on True Stories

Gael Garc a Bernal portrays the titular role in Cassandro, a biographical drama about the Liberace of lucha libre....


Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Richie Mehta, the Director of Poacher

One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a front-row seat for the bright future of independent filmmaking. While we can learn ...


Grief, Hustling, and Kindness Center the Brilliant Scrapper

PARK CITY, UTAH JANUARY 22: Director Charlotte Regan and Lola Campbell attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival Scrapper Premiere at Prospector Square Theatre...


A Magical Summer At Sundance Labs

Fellows, staff, and mentors at the 2023 Directors and Screenwriters Lab....


A Look Back at the Summer 2023 Sundance Institute Labs

Advisors and fellows gather for a meal at Sundance Institute's 2023 Native Lab....


Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Aleeza Chanowitz, the Creator of Chanshi

One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a front-row seat for the bright future of independent filmmaking. While we can learn ...


Sundance Institute Announces the 2023 Documentary Fund Grantees

23 projects to receive grants totaling over $1,000,000...


Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Veerle Baetens, the Filmmaker Behind When It Melts

One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a fro...


American Splendor and Thirteen Turn 20 This August

Paul Giamatti portrays comic book writer Harvey Pekar in American Splendor....


From the Labs: Coming Full Circle with Producer Diane Quon

Above: Diane Quon [right] and Emma D. Miller at Sundance Institute's 2023 Producers Lab By Stephanie Ornelas It takes a village to make a movie - and a s...


Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Robert Connolly, the Writer-Director of Blueback

One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a fro...


Release Rundown: Grand Jury Prize Winners Scrapper and The Eternal Memory Open in August

Harris Dickinson and Lola Campbell play an estranged father-daughter duo in Char...


What to Know About the 2024 Sundance Film Festival

Dear Sundance Community, Hello from New York! I've just returned from Utah, our home state, where we celebrated some of the films from last year's Fest...


8 Chilling Sundance Horror Films Directed by Women

Hanna Bergholm's Hatching looks at the horrors of coming of age....


Nothing Compares, The Janes, and More Sundance Films Nab News & Documentary Emmy Award Nominations

Earlier this month we woke up to the great news that several Sundance-supported ...


2023 Sundance Institute Producers Lab and Intensive Fellows Announced

PARK CITY, UT, July 24, 2023 - The nonprofit Sundance Institute today announced 10 producers selected to participate in the Producers Lab, taking place July 24-...


8 Sundance Beach Films to Fill Your Summer Days

By Stephanie Ornelas It's often said that time wasted at the beach is always time well spent. We're smack-dab in the middle of summer, and that means i...


2023 Sundance Film Festival Asia arrives in Taipei on 18-20 August 2023

Reveals lineup for the festival - Single Film Tickets to go on sale 31 July 2023...


Don't Forget Your Chance to See Festival Favorites for Free at Sundance Film Festival: Local Lens

By Lucy Spicer Are you a Utahn who missed out on the Sundance Film Festival thi...


5 Tips on Staying Relevant in an Evolving Film Industry According to Brian Newman and Ted Hope

By Stephanie Ornelas Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said that the only cons...


PAST LIVES wins Audience Award at the 10th edition of Sundance Film Festival: London

Picturehouse Central, 9 July 2023 - Sundance Institute and Picturehouse announce...


STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie and The Territory Among Sundance-Supported Projects Nominated for the 2023 Emmys

It's Emmy season, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has spoken...


Jam Out to These 10 Sundance Films on National Day of Rock 'n' Roll

[Above: Green Room] By Stephanie Ornelas Put on your blue suede shoes (or black if you're Johnny Suede) because today is National Day of Rock 'n' ...


Release Rundown: Hilarious Theater Camp and Heartbreaking 20 Days in Mariupol Open in July

Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon) and Amos (Ben Platt) are dedicated employees at Adi...


From the Labs: 30 Years of Advising From Icons Joan Darling and Joan Tewkesbury

(L-R) Joan Tewkesbury and Joan Darling at the 2018 Sundance Institute Directors Lab (Photo by Brandon Cruz)...


2023 Sundance Film Festival: Local Lens Announced

PARK CITY, UT, June 27, 2023 - The nonprofit Sundance Institute announced today the 2023 Sundance Film Festival: Local Lens program, a free summer screening ser...


D. Smith: Fighting for a Better World for Trans Women

Director D. Smith speaks during a panel at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Jen Fairchild)...


2023 Sundance Ignite x Adobe Fellows Announced

Artist-Development Program Supporting Emerging Filmmakers Ages 18 to 25...


Kristen Lovell: The Trans Community Deserves to Thrive

[Above: A still from The Stroll, coming to HBO and Max tonight at 9 p.m.] By Stephanie Ornelas Kristen Lovell wants you to know that trans people have a h...


Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Catherine Hoffman, Co-Director of Parker

One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a front-row seat for the bright future of independent filmmaking. While we can learn ...


To Listen Is to Learn: A Conversation With Bethann Hardison

[Above: A still from Invisible Beauty] By Stephanie Ornelas Just get to know someone that doesn't look like you. This was the response Invisible Beauty...


6 Powerful Sundance Documentaries to Watch Before Juneteenth

Descendant [pictured] received the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Creative Vision at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival....


10 Horror Films to Keep You Up at Night During Pride Month

[Above: Otto; or, Up with Dead People] By Stephanie Ornelas The LGBTQ community continues to fight for authentic queer representation on screen - but that re...


Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Tari Wariebi, the Filmmaker Behind We Were Meant To

One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a fro...


Dance Like a Director at the Sundance Institute Directors Lab

Pictured is Miguel Arteta, a creative advisor at the 2015 Sundance Institute Directors Lab....


Meet the Filmmakers Behind this Year's Sundance Film Festival Indigenous Film Tour

By Stephanie Ornelas Indigenous joy is what makes us wake up in the morning. ...


The 2023 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour Is Coming to a Theater Near You

Award winner When You Left Me On That Boulevard is one of seven shorts featured on the 2023 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour....


Check Out These Sundance-Supported Films at the 2023 Tribeca Festival

Sundance-supported A Revolution on Canvas (Untitled Nicky Nodjoumi) will have its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival. (Photo courtesy of Tribeca Fest...