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With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense for how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood’s top writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.
Hasan Minhaj was prepping his weekly Netflix show Patriot Act for a seven-episode return in late March, when the virus broke out in the U.S. Now, thanks to virtual communication apps like Zoom and Google Hangouts, the comedian has spent the quarantine workshopping how he can turn his graphics-heavy series into a timely virtual show. “We don’t have a studio and we don’t have an audience,” he says, “but we still have all the elements that I think make Patriot Act really cool — the graphics, the data visuals, all of that stuff that people really, really like.” Minhaj and his wife also welcomed the newest member of his family, a baby boy who he’s dubbed a member of “Generation C” for being born in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic.
Here, he opens up about his new juggling act, his now-delayed return as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner host and his burning itch to get back onstage.
Let’s start easy: how are you?
I’m doing good. My daughter just woke up from her nap upstairs, so I’m hiding in the basement from her because right now she’s super into daddy. She will find me.
What do your days look like now?
My day starts when her day starts. My wife and I just had our second child. My son was born just recently. Having a 2-year-old daughter who licks door handles and puts everything in her mouth was challenging enough. Now you have paranoia on top of that.
Well, congrats on the new addition. I would not normally ask, but given the circumstances, how recently was he born?
He’s a Generation C baby. He was one of the chosen few who was born during this period of time. But thankfully he is healthy, he’s happy and he’s with mommy right now. What has happened now is we’ve gone from zone defense to man to man. So my 2-year-old daughter is with me and our newborn son is with my wife. So basically I spend my day juggling meetings for Patriot Act and keeping her occupied. And luckily, my mother-in-law is staying with us, so whenever I’m in a meeting, I’m able to give my daughter to my mother-in-law, but then she eventually does find me.
Without prying too much into your personal life, what was the delivery experience like? There’s a lot of talk about spouses being kept out of the hospital for safety reasons. Was that the case for you guys?
We were lucky enough that that policy wasn’t in place when he was born. I was able to be there, but I remember when they discharged us and we were coming home and we watched the news. It was this very humbling experience because as a father and a husband I was experiencing such incredible joy. There was this really beautiful moment where the four of us were, like, holding each other and doing that very slow drive back to our place — but at the same time, you’re checking the news and you’re realizing abject horror is breaking out across the world.
That’s a lot of emotions to experience at once.
Yeah, and the big thing was — and I still don’t have an answer to this — but I just felt humbled as to why we were chosen for us to have this safe, wonderful moment amongst the backdrop of this global pandemic. On this very same day, certain people were going through incredible hardship and, for whatever reason, God or the higher powers that be have chosen for it go smoothly for us. It was just like, “Hey, to the man upstairs, thank you so much for looking out for us today.” You realize how small you are and how little control you have.
What would you say has been the easiest adjustment during this period?
I already was a fan of athleisure, so it’s been an easy transition going from Nike sweatsuits at home to wearing them all the time.
What about the hardest?
The hardest thing has been realizing how quickly 2-year-olds get bored with activities. I’ll have a lesson plan. I’ll be like, “We’re going to read from this time to this time.” I even ordered one of those stomping pianos, like from the movie Big. I thought she would love it because as a kid I wanted one of those. It arrived in the mail. She opened it up. Ten minutes in, she was done. I was like, I thought this would at least get me through a couple of days! So that’s been the toughest thing, not knowing if the game plan of keeping her occupied until 7:30 p.m. is going to work.
What’s the most challenging decision that you’ve had to make since the quarantine began?
Look, I had principles at the very beginning — but I have fully embraced bribery. People don’t know, bribery really works with children as well as adults. I was like, “We’re not going to do screens. I’m going to use this as an opportunity to personally reflect. I’m going to use this as an opportunity to do flashcards. I’m going to teach her how to construct very short sentences and put together words.” No. She dictates what we do. I really thought I was the offensive coordinator for her life and now she’s calling the plays at the line of scrimmage and I’m just going along with it.
What’s her ideal day look like then?
Well, right now it’s raining outside and she has these rain boots that she really wants to splash around in and get really dirty. The thing is that we can only do that once because we’re not doing multiple baths a day. So it’s me containing her. It’s keeping her inside until I decide we can go out together and then come back and do the bath thing. Those are my day-to-day struggles now.
What have you learned about yourself during this period?
I have felt this very new emotion, which I think a lot of us are feeling, where you’ll feel simultaneously terrified about what’s happening in the world but also equally bored, if that makes any sense. Like, it’s abject horror what’s happening across the globe, and then at the same time right around 8:30 p.m. tonight, I’ll be like, “I’m so bored.” There’s tons of stuff to watch, but I have no desire to watch it.
You have plenty of time to work on your show, I assume?
Yeah, and on a positive note, I will say — because we’re all working remotely on Patriot Act — I’ve definitely learned what I love most about the creative process and what is absolutely necessary. I love the human interaction of being in a writers room and bouncing ideas off of each other. And even though the new reality is requiring us to do it through Zoom and Google Hangouts, I have realized that I, as a performer, crave that human interaction. It makes the joke-writing process and the story-writing process a lot smoother. I never realized how much I needed it but I really need it. But I will say, doing it all virtually is effective. You are able to get stuff done. It’s just wild. I miss being in the room with everybody who I work with. I miss us goofing off and going on weird tangents and sometimes you can’t do that virtually.
Zoom doesn’t seem to lend itself to that in the same way. You’ve had to push back the show’s return, too, yes?
We were supposed to be back March 29 and we had to push our schedule back. Especially in New York that week, there were a bunch of cases happening at CBS right across the street. So ensuring the safety and the health of everyone was really, really important. So, we took a beat with production to make sure everybody was safe and everybody could work from home. And then it was about implementing a process that could work, that’s going to allow us to put out our episodes. But I’m really excited for people to see the new iteration of the show and what it looks like. We’re definitely leaning into the times that we’re living in right now.
What’s the best advice that you’ve given or received about staying sane right now?
A friend told me to check the news once a day and after you’re done checking the news, go do something physical. So, even if it’s taking a walk or doing 20 jumping jacks. Reading horrible news does something to you biologically, so putting that energy and that anxiety into physical movement is better than just kind of sitting and dwelling on it. And that’s been really useful.
When it does come to consuming news, who have become your most trusted sources during this time?
I feel like I’m becoming my dad because I really like Fareed Zakaria’s weekly columns. My dad loves Fareed Zakaria. I think my dad’s dream is that I just become Fareed Zakaria. [Laughs.] And then the other person I love reading is Nicholas Kristof, who writes for The New York Times. They have approached this pandemic both very realistically but also in a measured way, and I think that has vibed with me well. Whereas sometimes you can go down the opinion-page rabbit hole and really freak yourself out. If you really want to freak yourself out, just wake up in the morning and read The Wall Street Journal opinion page.
What have you been watching, reading, playing or listening to as a reprieve?
I’ve been reading Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. That book is amazing. I’ve always been a nonfiction person, but I think that because we’re living in a dystopian new society, it just got me on a fiction kick. So the two books I’m reading are that and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which oddly enough was written in the early 90s but talks about a dystopian future. It predicted a lot of stuff that we’re living through now. For me, that’s been more fun than reading or watching the news, just kind of having something that takes me to another world. And I’ve had this opportunity to catch up on movies that I previously did not get a chance to watch.The Farewell was on my list. I knocked it out two nights ago and I felt so proud of myself. It’s so good.
Are you dusting off any old hobbies or finding new ones?
I mean, this is a super old hobby that I haven’t done in probably 33 years but finger painting. My daughter’s really into finger painting. There is something really amazing about just getting the tactile touch and just splattering it around on the page. I draw the line at finger painting, though. My daughter right now is really into dirt clods and rocks, too. I don’t find them fascinating.
The finger painting sounds therapeutic at least. What are your go-to comfort foods right now?
I’m more in charge of meal prep with baby girl, so I’m definitely leaning into, like, sophomore year Hasan in college. Today for lunch we had quesadillas and I’m not ashamed. She was hungry and I had to make something quick. And look, I’m not going to lie to you, I didn’t use the grill. I used the microwave.
I’m not judging you. Have you found yourself stockpiling anything lately?
No, but what I did notice this morning when I was looking through the cupboards is that we have a lot of enchilada sauce. We have, like, 12 cans of red enchilada sauce. That’s a lot of enchilada sauce.
I see a transition from quesadillas to enchiladas in your future.
Well, now, that’s a little more involved …
How would you describe your coronavirus-era wardrobe?
Nike outlet chic. You now how the Nike outlet will sell you, like, a triple XL bright orange sweatshirt? That’s the vibe I’m into right now.
What is atop your to-do list once this is over?
Selfishly, I’m going to want to get back onstage. I miss performing in front of a live audience.
You were getting ready to host the White House Correspondents’ Dinner again before all this, right?
Yeah, if things were going according to plan, right now I would have been prepping for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. It’s been moved to August now. But I would have been doing a bunch of sets around town and we would have been in the middle of the cycle. There are all these plans that I had. I think that what I’ve just become better at is [realizing that] we all have to look out for each other. I’ve been calling family members, not only here in the States, but also India. India is dealing with their own lockdown and their own public health crisis as well. So, I’ve sort of relinquished the idea of, “Hey, I shouldn’t be doing X, Y, and Z,” and am just trying to focus on, “Hey, these are your new circumstances. Try to make the best of today.” So now I’m going to go get my daughter and we’re going to go splash around in the mud.
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