Kaitlin Fontana: You’re listening to On Writing, a Podcast from The Writer’s Guild of America East. I’m Kaitlin Fontana. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media discussing everything from pitching to production, from process to favorite lines and jokes, and everything in between. Today, I’m joined by Hasan Minhaj and Prashanth Venkataramanujam, co-creators of the Netflix series Patriot Act, whose fifth season debuts November 10th. I’m going to talk to them about how they joined forces to create their headline-making series, the importance of a unique take on the news, and why you can never have enough late night shows.
Hello, gentlemen! Thank you for joining me on the podcast today. This is a treat and an honor to have both the star and the head writer of a television show here together.
Hasan Minhaj: And co-creator-
Kaitlin Fontana: Co-creators, yeah.
Hasan Minhaj: We created the show together, yeah.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.
Hasan Minhaj: Thanks for having us.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, of course. And congratulations on the show. You have that rare thing, which is a new late night show that doesn’t get canceled in eight episodes. So, congratulations.
Hasan Minhaj: Oh, man. Thank you.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Savage.
Hasan Minhaj: Good [inaudible 00:01:09].
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Thank you.
Kaitlin Fontana: Tell me a little bit about how this show was born from your perspective and how the two of you came together to make it?
Hasan Minhaj: Prashanth why don’t you tell the story, how it all came together.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: So it’s a little farther back because Hasan and I have been working together for a while. And so after Homecoming King came up and we did-
Kaitlin Fontana: You’re special?
Hasan Minhaj: Yeah.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: He was thinking about doing his next one man show and we were kicking around ideas. I was working in LA, he was in New York, and then he would come up with the title, you were like, oh, I think this is-
Hasan Minhaj: Patriot Act was… I came with an idea, this could be a one man show. Sort of these stories about different political topics that I’ve covered in each act could be a particular topic that I never got a chance to really delve into, but I have these stories from field pieces and things that I’ve sort of investigated and looked into in the field.
Kaitlin Fontana: From the Daily Show?
Hasan Minhaj: Correct. There was just all these stories that don’t get to make it into the back end of an act one chat. And slowly started telling him some of the stories about immigration that I wanted to cover and just various topics. And Prashanth was like, that could be a show, each of those acts could actually just be an entire episode.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Because one of the things with Homecoming King and even with Patriot Act when he was talking about it from like a one man show perspective is, how do you stitch them all together if you’re going to do these in acts? How do you thematically link them? For a special, you have your life. Like your life links everything together, but if you’re going to touch on U.S policy, refugees here, refugees internationally, it becomes a lot trickier for it to feel like a cohesive personal thing, which is often what you associate with like a one man show. And so once the idea of like, oh, this could be a show, and then Hasan one of the things that matter to him a lot is like visual aesthetic, like the visual aesthetic of Homecoming King the show. I think this happens with a lot of ideas that you’re like, oh, there’s something here, but you can’t explain it. It just rolled down a hill. It just felt like there was this inertia to it that we couldn’t stop-
Hasan Minhaj: To be fair we got lucky too. A series of events unfolded that we didn’t particularly have control over, but it definitely helped as we sort of embarked on our relationship with Netflix. I had been at The Daily Show for about four years at that time, I had done this special that had really resonated on their platform. We had just finished the White House Correspondents Dinner. Prashanth was the head writer of that. So we had once again worked together on that, worked together-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: And I was working in Netflix on a show.
Hasan Minhaj: He was writing on another show at Netflix. And so they also happened to have this sort of vacuum in post 2016 America, where can we find sort of a political voice and I think they followed that thing of like, why don’t we pluck talent from the Daily Show to maybe start their own thing. So all those things just fell in our favor. I don’t really have control over that. But we lucked out and we happened to have an idea at the right place at the right time that matched with a home that was looking for something like that, too.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah. Luck is always a piece of the puzzle for sure. But I think that it bears repeating or mentioning for those who are sort of in the post 2016 haze that, you guys stepped into the breach to do the White House Correspondents Dinner in the new Trump era, as like a Muslim American man. When that was like, nobody wanted to touch it. And-
Hasan Minhaj: Yeah, it was pretty radioactive. When I got the call, and we were in New York, we were actually working on some other stuff. We were actually working on Patriot Act, we were going through what an act would look like. And I remember the first thing I told you is I was like, if they called me to do it, it’s bad. [crosstalk 00:04:56]. I’m not even the most popular correspondent on The Daily Show, how many people passed on this. So I thought it was a trick.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: You know how when you shop for a used car, you’ll be like, I’m looking for like a 2015 Toyota Camry. And you’ll be like, oh, they’re all like right around the same price. And then you’ll find one that’s $2000 cheaper and you’re like something’s fucked up with it, either it’s been in an accident, I don’t know what’s going on.
Kaitlin Fontana: Like a house that’s been on fire.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yeah.
Kaitlin Fontana: It looks fine but if you peel back the wallpaper-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: But there’s flood damage that they’re not showing you, that’s how this genre felt at the time.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, there definitely flood damage-
Hasan Minhaj: I think also the country was in a new sort of cognitive space to where I think as a nation we were willing, the Overton window of what we were willing to listen to and the different types of voices. And either extreme accommodated for me and Prashanth to step in and have a chance which I honestly think I wouldn’t have been able to get an opportunity like this 10 years ago. Even five years ago.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. So tell me about, you sort of touched on this Prashanth but tell me about the creation of the actual format of the show? It starts with thinking, if you try and tie this together as a one man show, it’s hard to kind of bounce from thing to thing. But if you’re just doing an entire episode, that’s one topic you can craft the whole thing around that.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Well, yeah, I mean, it’s no secret that like, Oliver has been doing those types of long form deep dives for a while, but one of the things that we had been talking about for a while is-
Hasan Minhaj: Visual podcasting.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yeah, like the inspiration for the show in a lot of ways came from podcasts because we both really like podcasts. I love podcast, but one of the things he grabbed-
Kaitlin Fontana: Oh, hey thanks.
Hasan Minhaj: Your man Jad, right?
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Oh, yeah, I love Radio Lab, it’s American life like, I just inhale this shit.
Hasan Minhaj: But you get this as someone who’s written in the format. One of the things that we loved the most about podcasting was the idea that you could have a singular voice, narrate a story, then go into a field peace. In the middle of the field peace pop out of the field peace go back to narrating.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: No one had done that before which is weird because these shows have been on for so long.
Hasan Minhaj: To go in and out and break form. And then within the studio, just provide exposition or a comedy, go back to pre tape like almost be Maestro to all these different things. And we kind of already had a formula with Mark Janowitz for the creative direction and the stage direction and lighting design. He designed Homecoming King, he’s the one who kind of came up with this idea. He came from the music space, and then brought that into the political comedy space. What if each of these big huge LED screens was almost like a digital chalkboard? And you could use these giant slats as ways to put up exposition or DataVis, which you normally wouldn’t be able to do if you’re sitting at a desk. Your OTS, you’re Over The Shoulder graphic is really small in relation to the size. I know, I’m kind of renerding out a little bit, but-
Kaitlin Fontana: No, I like it. You had me at DataVis.
Hasan Minhaj: Yeah. But in relation to the person with the best. You can’t fit that much. And to me what was cool about podcasting is because you had an unlimited amount of time, and the genre itself, people were implementing sound design into the body of what they were doing, it would be like, Ashley went into the woods and you hear like, [inaudible 00:08:28] the crunch, they were storytelling, they’re holding your hand through a very dense piece of legislation in Maryland about murder laws and the criminal justice system-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: But they are also scoring it, to also help, they’re adding this other layer that helps your brain take something that’s esoteric and attach an emotion to it. And so one of the things that we found with the show is if we can do it visually, this is like producing a late night show one on one, the show has to be so tightly wrapped around the host because it’s as we call it like a quarterback’s medium. The show can only go as far as where your host is willing to go and what kind of stories he or she wants to tell, and so even though we’ve opened it up and we have this sort of tabula rasa behind him, it’s very tightly wrapped around how he storytelling which is people make fun of this online he moves his hands a lot, he’s very energetic, he moves around, he likes different reference points, the audience it’s like a stand up special mixed with this.
The reason why it’s kind of like open terrain is because that’s the space in which he operates. And-
Hasan Minhaj: There’s only two main characters in the show, it’s me and the screens. And the screens are almost like Jarvis, where it’s like, I’m talking about something and then it’s like Jarvis show that fentanyl graph. It’s going to be funny.
Kaitlin Fontana: I promise.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Jarvis, show the overdose graph.
Hasan Minhaj: Yeah, just like that. That’s how we pitched it. We’re going to show the fentanyl graph but it’ll be funny.
Kaitlin Fontana: What do you think it is about you that, you sort of said this earlier what made you want to do this so visually, what is it about you that wants that?
Hasan Minhaj: I don’t know. I think when I was just a kid, this is going to sound weird, I liked video games, I liked product and I loved sneakers and I loved magazines. My parents didn’t let me have cable TV, so like even physical slam magazine, Sports Illustrated magazines, the way ads, the kerning of letters, the way things were sort of laid out to visually convey things. Even. I was a big fan of X-Men comic books between 1991 and 1993, the way different artists would convey a narrative. It sort of introduced me to a lot of things that I didn’t realize I was learning at the time story boarding, visual storytelling, colors, palettes, all of those things, in the way that can convey certain emotions and feelings.
Kaitlin Fontana: So we haven’t had a ton of late night folks on this podcast over the seasons that we’ve done. I’ve had a few, I think because I have a shorthand with some late night people. And I always think it’s interesting to dig in for those who are not as familiar with the format, if someone’s listening to this and they’re either just a fan of writers or they’re a screenwriter, or they write for scripted television, they don’t really know how it works. I always think it’s interesting to talk to creators about the actual process of creating crafting the segments, and on your show, it’s obviously very specific in that it’s this longer deep dive. How do you know when a segment is done? How do you look at something from your perspective in the writers room and say, this is finished, this is the thing that we’re ready to do now?
Hasan Minhaj: Prashanth you’ve got to answer that, the head writers got to answer that.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Television is so tightly timed, because something’s never finished, you just have to go okay, we need to put this up now and this needs to be done for all intents and purposes. But it never feels done, the best way I think I can answer that is, when I know a story has enough to go out the door, because-
Hasan Minhaj: It meets the editorial-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yeah, because there’s a lot of different components that need to be checked off that make a story worthwhile-
Hasan Minhaj: Do the video games episode. What was the thing because I wanted to do video games for a long time-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: That’s a good example.
Hasan Minhaj: He didn’t want me to do it.
Kaitlin Fontana: Why is that [crosstalk 00:12:34]
Hasan Minhaj: What was the editorial, because this happens a lot. We will get into it. I’ll come in. I don’t know, I’ll just drink Kanye juice in the morning and I’ll jumping on tables with my Beto hands and be like, we got to talk about this right now. We have to. And you’ll have this thing where you’ll like try to corral the energy and go like, okay, your take needs to clear this hurdle in order for us to be able to… So what was it about video games?
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Well, okay. So he came in, he was just like, really like, this is a big topic-
Hasan Minhaj: I was at the airport and I saw two or three kids. I had read an article about Fortnite addiction, and I saw two or three kids at EWR just have a full on meltdown when their parents took away their iPads because they were playing Fortnite, and I go, there’s something brewing here. This is a very real addiction-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: One of the things that he’s very good at identifying, is late night operates in the news, so there are stories that people just naturally care about, and there are stories they ought to care about. The news is often filled with stories people ought to care about. And he’s very good at identifying the ones they do. And so we always have this push and pull where the stuff people ought to care about has the most information out there for us to make the episode. But he sees an emotional reaction, he’ll see that it touches people and he’ll go, oh, people care about this, I would love to investigate this because I don’t know what makes them so emotional about this topic. I don’t know why they’re having this reaction. So he came in and was like, video games is something that we’ve never deconstructed on the show in a meaningful way. And I think one of the things that we love about the show is we get to do deep dives into topics that don’t traditionally get journalistic scrutiny or conveyed-
Hasan Minhaj: But you we can’t do it yet because if we just do a Fortnite episode, you’re just doing an explainer about what the kids are playing-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yeah, it’ll be like 60 minutes.
Hasan Minhaj: Fortnite, it’s not your kids playing with pillows in the living room anymore. It’s like-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: So once we looked into it and we found out that there are really big labor abuses going on in the video game industry, that’s when it was like, oh, we have a patriot act story now. Because it’s something that is culturally significant, something he cares a lot about, and it taps into some thing more substantive. It taps into a larger theme-
Hasan Minhaj: So Prashanth goes, I remember when you said this you go, this is a labor story disguised as a culture, popcorn video game.
Kaitlin Fontana: The best late night stories in my opinion are always the ones that are like it’s about X but it’s really about Y.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yeah, and you’re always looking for those turns. You’re always looking for like, climate change is the one that always comes to mind, it’s notoriously difficult to do a story about… It’s the ultimate ought to story. You ought to care about this. And you just find different ways to go, okay, what’s a new way to-
Hasan Minhaj: That other idea that you had. We did a China censorship episode, but it was about the me to movement in China. So everybody has tried to talk about China in varying capacities, even currently in the news. I wanted to do a big China censorship story. And we also had pitches about everything that was going on with Time’s Up and MeToo. And what an interesting way to elucidate the way there’s systemic push back to ground swell movements like MeToo. And to use China as the conduit to talk about it, I think is a much more interesting take of-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yeah. And also-
Hasan Minhaj: It give an international perspective to this, what was otherwise a domestic conversation.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: And really showed people that yeah, this earthquake that happened in the United States is having tremors all around the world. And no one’s really talking about that. And so yeah, it became like a censorship story that focused on me too.
Kaitlin Fontana: And then drilling down a little further, obviously within the segment there are jokes. And so from your perspective Prashanth and also I’m interested in yours as well Hasan like, when is a joke finished? When is a joke great? When are you like, yep, that’s the one from your perspective?
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: So the best version of a joke is you get to make a point in our medium, and the joke perfectly, it’s like a perfect connection to the absurdity or the argument happening in the piece of tape you just played or the hypocrisy you’re trying to elucidate, so when you just get that it just feels so good because the joke is perfectly delivering the emotional and comedic punch. What would otherwise be a super dry hypocrisy when you get to go, don’t you see what’s happening here? And then you get a joke off that. That’s always when jokes feel done.
Hasan Minhaj: My favorite is when we get to pop out of setup punch line and go into these runs. It’s almost like it feels like stand up. It’s like a 60nd or an 80nd run that has a very clear take. And then it’s tagged, tagged, tagged, tagged, like kind of crescendos to an applause break. And you saw there was like, the one that we did in the Indian elections episode, where we really talked about the geopolitical beef between India and Pakistan, and we ended with that big cricket joke, that was a run to me. And those are my favorite things to do on the show. It just like breathes life into the show in a way that the very tightly scripted setup punch, setup punch.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: The other reason why those types of runs are so helpful is that the show it’s a machine gun, it really is coming at you really fast for a reason, we want people to engage, we want to get this information out, it’s got to have an urgency to it. But when we get to do these moments where he pops out, and does like the commentary, it gets to within that episode, slow it down a little bit, and then you can jump back into the exposition, the story, the storytelling.
Kaitlin Fontana: It’s not even so much a sort of setup punch line situation as it is it sort of almost feels like a song, like a verse chorus kind of setup.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Exactly. Yeah.
Kaitlin Fontana: Hasan’s eyes lit up when I said that.
Hasan Minhaj: I love that.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: It’s pretty good analogy.
Kaitlin Fontana: Cool. Thank you. I love making good analogies-
Hasan Minhaj: But isn’t comedy so much analogy and metaphor and whoever finds the best one, that generally makes people laugh their heart, it’s like it’s always the fight for that.
Kaitlin Fontana: Totally. And just now what I experience is a thing that because I haven’t been in a late night writers room for a while it’s I got such a like, no, no, no, theater bar when you guys are like yeah, because I haven’t had that feeling in a while.
Hasan Minhaj: You know, I love the chorus thing? Chorus and melody are just these things that people intrinsically love. If-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: You have to think about it.
Hasan Minhaj: Yeah, I love like, hip hop. And there’s a lot of rapity, rap, rap, rap. Like I can do bars really, really fast. But the things that people love, is always the chorus or the melody. Do you know what I mean?
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, the hook not the-
Hasan Minhaj: The hook. Yeah.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: It’s the thing they can share with other people when that part of the song comes on. And it just feels natural. I mean, it feels like water, it flows, you don’t have to think much about it.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. So tell me about putting together the writers room for this show, and what kinds of decisions you guys were making as you did that? I know it rotates and it rolls through. But let’s say the first time when you were putting together the first writers room, what kind of conversations were you having in the room? And what kind of people are you looking for?
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Well, the first thing we did is like this is a very tricky format to learn how to write for and just understand the pacing. So the first thing we did is, Jim Margolis, who was our showrunner at the time, and I basically looked for the right stories to do blind submissions for the packet. So I put together a packet with Jim that was basically about the false missile alert in Hawaii. And we basically had people do blind submissions. And we did our best to reach out to all different corners of the writing world. I mean, we really wanted to make sure that we tried to, from up in-comers to people who are nominated for Emmys, and just really keep it as equitable as possible. But it’s hard. I mean, there’s a number of-
Hasan Minhaj: How many did you guys read through? Hundreds?
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: About 300 packets.
Hasan Minhaj: For how many spots? Seven?
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Eight. It’s really-
Kaitlin Fontana: That’s late night baby.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yeah, it’s really hard.
Hasan Minhaj: And by the time it hits my desk, it’s been narrowed down to-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Significantly.
Hasan Minhaj: Yeah.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: And then there’s also the personality. So it’s-
Hasan Minhaj: But then also the redundancy factor that you guys had to put in. You did a read, Jim did a read, [inaudible 00:21:33] did a read, then you corroborate, then you go back, because you corroborate and you go, you like number 101834? I love number 101836, then you guys would have these-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yeah
Hasan Minhaj: Both of you read again and I’m like, where are the packets? How am I supposed to read? You’re like no, no, I remember seeing that big Excel graph of like, it was round one of corroboration, but now is round two. Now it’s round three over. We’re just now debating these last four applications to make it into your pile.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yes.
Hasan Minhaj: Then we had another round of all four of us recorroborating-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: The thing that I’ve always felt when I was submitting the late night packet when I was submitting late night shows, that I was like, this is just going to end up in the trash. I can’t imagine that someone’s actually reading this for some reason. Because all that happens is, I get this prompt, I’d spend hours doing this packet, and then I just send it to my manager or this email address, and I don’t know what the fuck happens after that, it’s just a black hole.
Hasan Minhaj: It’s in Gmail purgatory.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: And I know how awful it feels when you’re sitting on the other side of that. You just hit send, and you’re like, this is so anticlimactic, nothing happens, no one pat you on the back. No one goes, good job. It just goes into the ether, and 99% of the time you never hear back. And so for us, i was really important to me that these people spent so many hours of their time submitting and taking the time-
Hasan Minhaj: He wrote a very sweet thank you for submitting email. It was very sweet. [crosstalk 00:23:07]. It was this long email, I was like, why are you making… But it was long and it also let them know you’re a human being, I just want to let you know I’m a human being, multiple human beings read your submission, firstname.lastname@example.org. And let it be known that four different people read this. There was this many people that applied. I wish nothing but [crosstalk 00:23:36]
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: I appreciate that but it comes from years of just being like, I don’t know what the fuck is happening, and you just want to know, you just want to know that someone read it. That’s all I care about. Someone read this.
Kaitlin Fontana: Because it’s so dehumanizing and remote to kind of experience.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: It’s such a hard process. It’s so hard and there’s so much anxiety there. [crosstalk 00:24:00]
Hasan Minhaj: When you have to audition as an actor, at least, with even the casting director you’re making eye contact, you can feel-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: You know they saw you.
Hasan Minhaj: Non verbal cues.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: You know they saw you [crosstalk 00:24:14] run into them at Panera and be like, you know who I am.
Hasan Minhaj: Yeah, you know me from the PetCo commercial audition.
Kaitlin Fontana: Do you have specific memories of a certain thing and a certain packet that you were like, oh, yeah, that’s it. Was there ever like big aha moments for you?
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yeah. So it was about people, whenever I saw a joke that was, this isn’t unsolicited advice, but this is how I was reading it. Anytime I saw someone make a really smart observation in the research or the footage packet that we gave them that nobody else found, that was always the thing that stood out to me. It wasn’t about whether or not they could write for him. It was about can I read and feel the gears turning in your head? Did you really analyze this? Did you really get the dirt under the fingernails? Because to me, this is the best part of the submission process actually. So many people are trying to write for him as opposed to just write funny stuff that’s well constructed jokes that at the very least elucidate some irony or something very clever and have a strong punch line. But so many people were trying to mimic his energy, we were getting so many Drake jokes, Pusha T jokes-
Hasan Minhaj: It made me hate myself-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: And there was a point where he was reading packets and he goes, is this how people see me? It was like-
Hasan Minhaj: This was personal fair.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: He was in like a hall of mirror and he’s being reflected back to us-
Hasan Minhaj: I was like reading I was like, yo, yo, yo, it’s Hasan Minhaj your favorite Indian boy toy, and this is Patriot Act on Netflix. And I was like, I hate me.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: It was insufferable. It was really funny to read that. So for us, we’re not always looking for people that know his voice, we’re looking for people that know, that are thinking about the news [crosstalk 00:26:04] other people that aren’t looking for.
Hasan Minhaj: Smarter than what I am.
Kaitlin Fontana: I think that’s really interesting to hear because I think a lot of us who work on packets regularly fall into that trap, particularly with a show that maybe hasn’t fully formed yet. All you have to think about is the person, you don’t necessarily have the voice of the show or you know what direction it’s going in particularly. Especially that first time it’s like aiming at the person is something that a lot of writers do I think.
Hasan Minhaj: What was that advice that Steve gave? This was actually really great. Remember when you would see a joke TK, you’d see a joke there. And he would say let’s say the joke is about an old person. Your immediate, almost like the Family Feud joke TKs you’re going to get oh, it’s about an old person. You’re going to make a joke about Ben Gay or dad shoes, or wearing your pants really high.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Suspenders.
Hasan Minhaj: Suspenders.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Or those butter scotch candy.
Hasan Minhaj: Yeah, hard candy. The best jokes are the ones where you’re like, oh, that’s so that thing. But I didn’t know that was the funny thing about being old. But it’s so true. It’s that like-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Two things are happening in that moment, you’ve made the observation and shown that it’s a new observation, about the thing and it hits so hard-
Hasan Minhaj: About a tried thing. So it’ll really shine because you’ll see, like 20 packets, and 19 of them will make the Ben Gay joke, some variation of that. And then the 20th one will be like, have you seen this new stone? There’s this new observation about this old thing that so makes sense, and you’re like, how did we not see that? And it’ll make you really laugh. Those are the best.
Kaitlin Fontana: So for people writing packets out there just find the thing.
Hasan Minhaj: Tell them your Mike Pence joke. Pulling the pants down.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: I don’t even remember how it was written. It was something about… I feel like I’m at a family party right. [crosstalk 00:28:00] yeah.
Hasan Minhaj: Okay, okay. It made all of us laugh very hard. But that was a prime example of, there’s been 10000 Mike Pence jokes written, but that specific observation that you made.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: And sometimes you just get it. And then sometimes you do have to work it. There have been times where I’m trying to work on a joke, and I’ll literally do joke drills to get myself thinking in joke terms, and then other times, it’ll just pop in your head and you go, oh, there it is.
Kaitlin Fontana: So as we discussed before we got on air. I used to work at Full Frontal. I think there’s this really interesting, especially now in the contemporary landscape of late night in New York City. It’s like the DNA of The Daily Show is all over everything. That sounds grosser now that I said it out loud. But I’m curious, specifically for you Hasan, what do you think that’s about and what have you sort of carried with you from The Daily Show into your show?
Hasan Minhaj: I think, probably the best thing that has been. We all sort of bear Jon Stewart’s fingerprints. And-
Kaitlin Fontana: That also sounds gross.
Hasan Minhaj: It sounds gross too. I didn’t think of a better way to say that. But the best thing that I think we all learned from him and from that institution was how important take is. We live in a world now where there is just a never ending glut of hyperlinks to new stories. But to condense that and elucidate that in a very clear, concise take, and oftentimes having the best take, is the most important thing. It was paramount. And I remember, there were so many field pieces at The Daily Show as a correspondent, I wanted to go shoot, but because it didn’t clear the barrier of it being a great take. Tim Greenberg, John, they wouldn’t let me leave. They wouldn’t let me go out and shoot it. And I sort of quickly learned that the most important thing that matters is really your take and your perspective. That’s all.
Kaitlin Fontana: I think that that obviously has leeched into Full Frontal, John Oliver, like all of those shows that carry, the people who came over from those shows really took that to heart. It’s heavily scripted into the world of those shows. So I just read that Vanity Fair piece about you. And I thought it was really great that you were talking about the specificity of being a person of color working in this industry and how there’s this kind of desire for poverty porn. I thought that was such a great phrasing. And I really loved when you said, we can’t get Lena Dunham freedom. We can’t say dating is hard. And I wonder for both of you there is an obvious sort of feel you guys are-
Hasan Minhaj: Like monologue always has to be like, and my father, who’s a member of ISIS, had me, and was holding me captive, and it wasn’t until I was given my Visa to America that, you know what I mean. And it has to be this-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: And that’s when I found out she was my sister and my cousin, and I was like, oh my God.
Hasan Minhaj: We’ve given you the stamp of approval, tell your story. We have to clear this like incredibly, we have to clear them a lot of hurdle in order for us to be like, all right, that’s a story worth telling. Whereas, like, every other untitled pilot, TK about some of my person is just like, I don’t know, I live in an apartment in Brooklyn and my parents say I can’t be with my boyfriend. It’s like the most like-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yeah.
Hasan Minhaj: you know what I mean?
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yeah.
Hasan Minhaj: That’s what I was really trying to say.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah, I appreciated that. And I sort of thought about it in the context of the show and the satire side of things, because I think that touches on one side, which is a storytelling side, a one man show kind of side, a scripted television show kind of side. But then the other side of that is satire and your perspective and your point of view of who you are in the world, your family, your background, and yours can’t help but be extricably linked to the things that you’re talking about in some sense. And the people that are watching are asking that of you. So I wonder how you sort of navigate that?
Hasan Minhaj: Well, it’s really interesting like to me, and we’ve had this conversation before. Sometimes the things and the perspectives that we’re hearing in late night, we have found it at times myopic. They’re talking about these topics in a very certain way, because it affects their worldview and the way they live their lives. And there’s certain things like immigration and foreign policy and all these other buckets that would never affect their lives, because they don’t have cousins that are trying to get visas. They don’t know what it’s like to grow up in that. They don’t know what it’s like to have an identity where you’re a US citizen and yet you’re watching people who have your very same name, get drone striked, by the wokest president of all time. They don’t have to square those circles in their head. They can just wear an Obama shirt and that’s that.
But I have this insider, outsider tug of war that I felt like, you know what, none of the guys I’ve even looked up to in late night they’ve never had to address these very complicated emotions. And I’ve had these like sessions with you where I talk about it and you’re like, okay, now how do we put that into something-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: But one of the questions we got a lot when we started the show was, do we need another late night show blah, blah, blah? And it just speaks to how our inability to see how big the world is, its enormous. And to even think that whatever, 15 or 20 or 25 late night hosts, is enough to capture the entire experience news stories. It’s insane.
Hasan Minhaj: Brazil, China, Hong Kong, India, Europe, it’s insane. It’s such a myopic point of view.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: And the fact that over half of them are very understandably focused on the president, leaves even more room to cover stories that are not getting talked about, and especially to more people that are now have access to the internet and television and are seeing people like us on TV. It’s such a crazy thing to say. You could have 50 late night shows and it still wouldn’t be enough to service all the perspectives and all the news that’s going on in the world.
Hasan Minhaj: It’s interesting, sometimes you read the YouTube comments and people will say, man, I wish we had a show like this in Sudan. I wish we had a show in the Philippines but because of freedom of speech laws and censorship, they don’t. So we’ve kind of also taken it as a responsibility sometimes to think about it, we’re on a platform in 190 countries, frankly, to write episodes about [inaudible 00:34:51] to me would be a missed opportunity.
Kaitlin Fontana: I think some of that to reflects sort of the changing utility of like what is late night for now? And how has that changed over the years? And the old sort of adage of it’s to put you to sleep, not literally but to put you into bed.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: to tuck you in.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, to tuck you in at night.
Hasan Minhaj: It’s TV NyQuil.
Kaitlin Fontana: And I feel like that reflected a certain time period when that’s what the country wanted, and now we’re in a more global society. And shows like yours look forward, they don’t look at the present they look at what’s coming down the pipe. And so I think that the people that can’t see the utility of that are the people that still want to be tucked in and night perhaps.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yeah, that’s fair. But I also think every week when the show’s on he says tonight, even though the show drops at midnight. It’s because everything is so on demand and you create the environment, people now they don’t need to be told where your show fits into their life. And so, yeah,.
Hasan Minhaj: But I’m optimistic about people and just our natural desire to try new things. You told me this remember? You were like every year, how many new network shows come out? And you were like, it’s by virtue of the fact that people want to find the new good place. The new Brooklyn Brooklyn, nine, nine-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: The entire business model is built on people being interested in seeing a new show. The ratings always spike, and it makes so much more financial sense for a network to cut off a show that’s underperforming in season three, and put that money back into a new show because people were willing to try it.
Hasan Minhaj: I believe that if we’re given a chance, I think people do want that.
Kaitlin Fontana: How much were you guys able to sort of relax into the new show Energy because you had a large show order compared to most late night shows? So was there a degree of relaxation that went into like-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: I’ll specify, most late night shows on Netflix. Because they don’t normally just do like what NBC will do with Lily Sing, where they go, yeah, it’ll end up being like 150 episodes, but that’s how long we’re going to try this out for. The trial period’s much shorter on streaming because people have to select you, they have to click on his face. Whereas they could be bouncing around channels and just land on Lily Sing.
Hasan Minhaj: NBC could just be on your [inaudible 00:37:32]
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yeah.
Hasan Minhaj: I think Netflix really did believe, we showed them a proof of concept. We showed them like we shot sort of an example of what an episode would be like. So those jitters about how’s the show going to find its feet, we had sort of addressed the visual and tonal language that could ease any concerns that they had, but I’m lucky like they did stick with and they gave us a significant order to say, all right, we’re going to see this through.
Kaitlin Fontana: So I know from working in late night also and then I wonder how you guys feel about when you do live this sort of, and your show’s a little different as is Full Frontal, when you live in this sort of, you don’t have to live necessarily in the new cycle but you sort of live adjacent to the new cycle day in and day out. How do the two of you take care of yourselves in that realm? And I find that to be a really interesting question because I think first of all late night, it makes us into monsters because the hours are crazy and you eat terrible food all day. And then on top of that, you’re just taking this steady media diet of terribleness. So how do you guys mitigate that first of all? Do you ever feel stuck in a satirical loop?
Hasan Minhaj: He need to do a better job.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: I know. I feel like we’re in a [inaudible 00:38:52] counseling.
Hasan Minhaj: Intervention. I actually set up this entire thing for that. He’s plugged into the matrix and it’s a huge problem.
Kaitlin Fontana: Tell him how he hurt you.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Okay, to be fair-
Hasan Minhaj: [inaudible 00:39:04]
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: The balance here in our partnership is one that, he can’t be exhausted when he goes out on camera and I tell him this all the time, I have a couple jobs as his friend but also like as a head writer and an EP, we can’t have any mistakes. The amount of mental energy that just goes towards that, I can’t send him out there with anything incorrect.
Hasan Minhaj: Why do you like Twitter so much? I hate Twitter.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: I hate it too. I mean, it’s definitely an abusive relationship for many people at this point not just me.
Kaitlin Fontana: Me too.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: But it just helps me know if [crosstalk 00:39:44]
Kaitlin Fontana: Oh, yeah. I’ve kind of curated though. The way that I’ve solved it is I’ve sort of curated it down to just like, film people I like, funny women and animal accounts that make me feel-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: [inaudible 00:39:58] But it’s one of those things where you have to have a pulse on what’s going on even if you’re not covering it day to day, because the show also has to be contextually true, and you need to know what-
Hasan Minhaj: I read print newspapers. You want to know why?
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: He got me into this actually.
Hasan Minhaj: Because the news stops. All you have is section A through 20, A1 through 20. You want the opinion page and I’ll do both. I’ll do New York Times and I’ll do Wall Street Journal. I’ll read Rupert Murdoch’s [inaudible 00:40:27] on the world and their opinion page which is nuts. That was wild. I’ll read the Dinesh D’Souza opinion piece, but it stops and that to me actually brings me peace, that there actually is a stop point. The fact that the internet and the scroll never ends, is just anxiety inducing.
Kaitlin Fontana: It’s totally anxiety inducing. That’s also why I like stores that only sell one thing, it makes me feel very calm.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: That’s why I love Chipotle.
Kaitlin Fontana: Here you go.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: [crosstalk 00:40:56] You don’t get stuck in choice paralysis, they know what they do. And honestly, this is something we talked a lot about the show we were like, do one thing really well-
Hasan Minhaj: We have no tots, we just go ahead into the main story.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: And then you can expand out once people know you do this one thing well. But yo don’t make like, Baja Blast as your first product, you got to make coke first and then experiment with cherry coke and diet, you know what I mean? That’s the thing. But it’s got to be contextually true. And then it’s also just to know like, is the joke we’re putting in our script the same joke everyone’s making on Twitter? About, we try to stay away from making Trump jokes, and only when the story permits it do we make like the Rudy Giuliani joke or the Ivanka joke-
Hasan Minhaj: I have the answer to your question.
Kaitlin Fontana: Okay.
Hasan Minhaj: this is how I take care of myself. So I’m a very lucky person in show business that I have like a family and people that love me. No, no, no I’m serious, I’m super lucky. Don’t laugh at that. I know you’re an atheist, but like, you’ve got to be thankful to God like I have that. I’m serious I have that in my life. I’m very lucky I have a wife and like a daughter. It’s so cool. I can be-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Hasan’s slowly been trying to convert me to Islam for like the last 10 years.
Hasan Minhaj: Because I’m doing the long play.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: It’s a really long play. And he’s committed. He’s just like business partner.
Hasan Minhaj: Dude, we have until the day of judgment. No, but I’m very likely to have that. And then also I have this other thing where I do like the NBA and I love professional sports, because you need things in life that are meaningful and meaningless. You know when you see people losing their minds over the New York Knicks, that’s not a thing. It doesn’t matter, but it’s cool to have something that is so filled with meaning and means absolutely nothing. And to have that is a cool thing, too, because you can feel something but at the end of the day, the fact that the Kings didn’t make the playoffs nobody was hurt by that. No lives were lost, it’s all just a net zero, it’s pure entertainment.
Kaitlin Fontana: And it’s clear, it’s a black and white thing. It’s like, you win or you lose end of story, which most things in our lives are very, very gray.
Hasan Minhaj: Very gray and complicated.
Kaitlin Fontana: Are you going to be okay? I feel like there’s a lot that’s been happening-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: The last couple cycles we’ve been getting it. But also when we were starting a new show, there’s just so much stuff that’s coming in. This is a new-
Hasan Minhaj: I love this guy, but he’s curious to a fault. That’s why you’re the best partner in the world, but it’s also a problem.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Therapist, you have anything to say?
Kaitlin Fontana: Hey, listen, I don’t get paid enough. I’m not making 250 an hour here.
Hasan Minhaj: That’s hilarious.
Kaitlin Fontana: So who were your writing heroes when you were first coming online as creative people? Who did you look to?
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: I was raised in the School of Carlin. From a stand up standpoint.
Hasan Minhaj: My two favorite writers right now are Jess Weck and Mike Trucker. They make me laugh so hard on Twitter, they’re so funny. They make me-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Mike is like my comedy big brother. [crosstalk 00:43:57]
Hasan Minhaj: Talk about taking jokes, Jess will have these takes where I’m like, I’m so dumb, why didn’t I think of that, it’s so funny? It makes me mad how funny Jess Weck is.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: What about growing up though?
Hasan Minhaj: Growing up like. Yeah I mean like the traditional sort of like stand up comedy Mount Rushmore, but I find it more interesting about what’s happening now. That to me is really interesting. Because it feels like it’s almost like the Mount Rushmore is being etched in real time, but we can’t tell whose faces who, we have this entire class of superheroes that are making their own legacy, which is really cool.
Kaitlin Fontana: Do you guys have a favorite segment that the show has done so far?
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: The Lola Modi interview.
Hasan Minhaj: On cricket corruption?
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yeah. That story was near and dear because it was something I’ve been wanting to do for a while but when we got him for as an interview-
Hasan Minhaj: Yeah, if he’s being extra-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: This is a perfect example of someone that’s huge in one part of the world, nobody has any idea, people online were like, oh my God you found Lola Modi.
Hasan Minhaj: You found him.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Hasan did a great job with the interview, he’s just an insane character and it was just we prepped the interview in a fun way, it was a lot of fun.
Kaitlin Fontana: What about you Hasan?
Hasan Minhaj: For me it’s just like doing episodes that scare me. Where I feel scared, and we pull it off I’m not even worried about the result like the Saudi Arabia episode scared me, Indian elections episode scares me. Affirmative Action scared me. They’re these like third rail topics. And that’s really my oxygen as an artist. Just trying to do things that scare me.
Kaitlin Fontana: I really appreciated the Canada episode recently.
Hasan Minhaj: Canada. That was a scary field piece to do.
Kaitlin Fontana: No one ever-
Hasan Minhaj: [inaudible 00:45:55]
Kaitlin Fontana: I know. And then imagine if you would have been a couple weeks later and you could have caught him post brown face skin.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: He would have canceled. [crosstalk 00:46:02] he’s not going to get caught in brown face and then sit down with my Hasan Minhaj.
Hasan Minhaj: What if is showed up in a light face? Hey, I’m Chad.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Of if you dressed up in an Arabian Nights theme. And then you were like, I heard the…
Kaitlin Fontana: Oh, my God, I hope you enjoyed that last interview with Trudeau because I don’t think you’re going to get another one.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Did you se Barrack Obama endorse him today?
Hasan Minhaj: Oh, really?
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Yeah.
Hasan Minhaj: Oh, cool.
Kaitlin Fontana: So what are you guys excited about next for the show?
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: I think one of the things I am really excited to do is like we locked in the visual language from the graphics and the cameras a while ago, and there’s still a lot of things I know our graphics team, which they’re like, some of the best in the business.
Hasan Minhaj: They keep getting better every-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: They do. It’s crazy how good they are. There’s still a lot of stuff, uncharted territory with the screens that I’m really excited to try.
Hasan Minhaj: Just animation stuff that they’ve designed-
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Different types of blocking using him and timelines. And there’s like a lot of cool stuff we’re kicking around visually. When we saw how depth plays on the screen. It’s beautiful. It’s really awesome. And it’s like a visual treat. And there’s a lot of stuff I think joke wise and story wise, there’s a lot of meat on that bone still that I’m excited to try.
Hasan Minhaj: And just from a take perspective, there’s been stuff that we’ve been pitching our friends and I have friends who live in other countries that when I pitch them to take of the story that we’re going to do. They’re like, That’s amazing. As long as you don’t die. Those things are really cool just pushing that.
Kaitlin Fontana: You want to continue to be scared?
Hasan Minhaj: Creatively like.
Kaitlin Fontana: Creatively.
Hasan Minhaj: That of feeling of. I don’t know if we should say this yet, but it’s important to say because it is argumentatively right. And we have a very rare opportunity to say it.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, to a large audience?
Hasan Minhaj: Yeah.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: And from a completely new perspective.
Hasan Minhaj: Yeah.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah. Well, guys, thank you so much for being here. I’m so excited that I got to talk to you. And I’m very excited to see the next season of the show.
Hasan Minhaj: Thank you.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Thank you. Yeah. I hope we talked enough about writing.
Hasan Minhaj: Take.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: We got some.
Hasan Minhaj: We hit the major beats.
Prashanth Venkataramanujam: Thanks so much for having us.
Kaitlin Fontana: That’s it for this episode. On Writing is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music is by Stock Boy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online at WGAeast.org. You can follow the guild on social media at WGA East and you can follow me on twitter at Kaitlin Fontana. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thanks for tuning in. Right on.