Minhaj’s animated, immersive storytelling lends his Netflix show a cathartic feeling that keeps you engaged not only through the funny bits, but also the serious anxieties of being brown in the US.
You know those awkward childhood moments of disagreeing with your parents or being a jerk that still embarrass you whenever they pop into your mind? Or those moments of righteous indignation that propelled you into doing something petty that maybe now, all these years later, resemble something close to funny? Well in Homecoming King, Hasan Minhaj explores his experiences of growing up as a first-generation immigrant in hilarious detail, taking long-gone embarrassments and turning them into stories that feel vivid and immediate – as if you’re experiencing them in real time, only without the awkwardness.
Minhaj approaches the first-generation immigrant experience by unabashedly sharing personal instances from his life, starting right from early childhood. Sometimes he’s the bemused victim of casual ignorance (his crush told him he’s the “colour of poop”; a teacher at his all-white school called him Saddam Hussein during roll call), sometimes Minhaj is just a tiny kid trying to figure out why his father doesn’t embody the ideal American dad (“Immigrant dads just didn’t download all the Great Dad software”) and the thing all of us have thought at some point – “You want me to change my life because of what other people will think?” Other times, he’s a vindictive adult who can’t resist revisiting old hurts with the people who perpetrated them.
He’s an animated, engrossing storyteller in pursuit of something greater than a chuckle-inducing punch line. His physicality – striding and hopping across the stage, miming gestures with his hands, pointing and waving wildly to compliment his emphatic delivery, all contribute to an exceptionally entertaining set.
Sitting on a chair, Minhaj acts out awkwardly riding his bike to his prom date’s house, pausing his frenzied pedalling to check his armpits for sweat stains and odour. He sets it up beautifully – nerdy brown boy gets a chance to go to prom with a white girl – a species he’s assumed he’ll be ignored by for the rest of his life. So he defies his father, jumps out a second-floor window, bikes to her place in a cheap tuxedo, only to see his date getting a corsage from another guy. A white guy. Her mom’s explanation? “Oh honey, this is a big night for us and we’re going to be taking a lot of pictures.” Minhaj’s face holds nothing back, he looks about as crushed as he probably did the night this actually happened. As if he, like us, didn’t know that this story would end sadly.
“I didn’t realise that people can be bigoted even as they smile at you.”
It’s Minhaj’s reaction to insults like these – and how his father views them in a completely different light – that form the crux of the show. While Minhaj eagerly seeks a confrontation with his would-be prom date years later, his father’s only reaction is to tell him to let it go.
There’s another quietly devastating moment Minhaj shares that brings home the reality and complexity of a debate we’re all struggling with at different levels. What’s the best way to deal with racism and bigotry? Do you channel your anger and confront it head on every time? Or is it better to count your blessings, keep your head down and let insults slide?
After the family’s Camry (“the immigrant car of choice”) was vandalised in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Minhaj recalls being angry and panicky, whereas his father quietly swept the shattered glass from his own car windows off the street, as if he worked “at a hate-crime barbershop.”
It’s a touching, scary moment, due in large part to the fact that Minhaj has an incredible ability to draw on his past experiences as if they are no more than a day old. Yet again, his face conveys a scared bafflement that you can’t help but imbibe through the screen.
According to Minhaj, people from his dad’s generation – the ones who made the transnational leap – think that enduring racism to a certain degree is the price they have to pay to live in the US. Like an “American Dream tax”. But Minhaj, a US citizen by birth, says, “I actually have the audacity of equality.”
Which one is the right approach? Keeping your head down or fighting the good fight all day every day? Minhaj doesn’t know, and nor do most of us. And the admittance of this dilemma gives the show a cathartic quality that makes it feel like you just had a really great conversation with a close friend, only an exceptionally entertaining one. It feels good to be the intended audience for a mainstream media production – you get to appreciate gems like, “It’s a Fair and Lovely world, you gotta navigate it accordingly.” Small things, like Minhaj’s reliance on Hindi, with translations only tacked on as explainers, add to this feeling that the audience and Minhaj are just hanging out, sharing a few laughs as well as some anxieties along the way.
It’s not the laugh-out-loud moments that make Homecoming King a great show but Minhaj’s detailed, immersive, energetic narration – especially of those difficult moments that leave you feeling confused and stuck on the outside.