Hasan Minhaj wanted to make one thing clear at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit on Tuesday: He didn’t ask Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about his penchant for wearing blackface only because the story didn’t break until after their interview. The comedian and Patriot Act host sat down with Trudeau in September not long before three separate images of Trudeau in blackface resurfaced online.
“We sort of shot it months ago,” Minhaj told moderator and Sunnyside star Kal Penn. “We designed it to talk about the upcoming Canadian elections, but one of the big debates we had in the writers room—with the news team, I even had it with my wife….What do we do with imperfect progressives? That was really the debate.”
Trudeau just won re-election in Canada, although progressives lost their majority in Parliament. As he prepared for his interview ahead of the election, Minhaj said he was aware that Trudeau was, in many ways, the obviously better choice—but that didn’t negate his flaws, which Minhaj grilled him about in an interview that quickly went viral. (The video has now amassed more than 1.8 million views.)
“Justin Trudeau obviously was sort of the better choice for Canada the climate all these other things,” Minhaj told Penn. “But how do you adjudicate that? … Figuring that out was the big debate in the writers room.”
But Minhaj is no stranger to speaking truth to power. In 2017 he became the first comedian to host the White House Correspondents’ Dinner after Donald Trump’s election, and earlier this fall he appeared before Congress to urge action on the student debt crisis. Still, these efforts haven’t always been easy.
“When I got the call [to host the Correspondents’ Dinner] a couple years ago I thought it was a setup,” Minhaj admitted. “I thought, ‘Who passed on this?’” But the comedian said he got some good advice from fellow Daily Show alums Larry Wilmore and Samantha Bee—the latter of whom hosted her own event, Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, that same year.
“Sam was like, ‘If you got asked to do this, do it,” Minhaj recalled. “Larry said something very interesting to me. He said, ‘Hasan, you have a choice here. You can change things from outside the building or inside the building. And you have an opportunity here to say something from within the building.”
The gala turned out to be a high point in Minhaj’s career—a scorching address that both landed punches where needed and boosted Minhaj’s profile as a political comedian.
As the panel wrapped up, Minhaj reflectd on the impact comedy can have on politics—and the ways in which, sometimes, it does not spur as much change as some viewers might hope. For instance: No, none of the jokes any comedian has told so far have managed to unseat the president. But that’s always been the case, Minhaj argued; George W. Bush did, after all, manage to get elected twice during the height of Jon Stewart’s reign at The Daily Show.
“I think art has an ability to impact the world in ways we would never imagine,” Minhaj said. “I would have never thought that a throwaway joke by Hannibal Buress would lead to a Jello Bill Cosby perp walk. That joke that he threw out that one night in Philadelphia started that whole Bill Cosby reanalysis….I would have never thought a joke by Michelle Wolf would have prevented a comedian from performing at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. So there are jokes that you make that have an impact in ways that you can never imagine and there’s thousands of jokes on Twitter and shows that have zero impact. But that doesn’t negate the power of art.”
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