“Netflix Has a Talk Show Problem,” declared the headline over John Koblin’s New York Times piece last month. Koblin was noting a worrisome trend for the streaming giant, as five high-profile talk shows have come and gone from Netflix in the past year: Chelsea Handler’s Chelsea, The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale, The Break with Michelle Wolf, The Fix, and Norm Macdonald Has a Show (or rather, had a show).
There’s a perfectly good reason for this, explained Koblin. You see, “talk shows make for an awkward fit with streaming,” because late-night comedy is appointment viewing and Netflix is whenever-the-hell-I-want viewing. A streaming show might take weeks or months for viewers to discover. Talk shows can’t wait that long because all those Putin jokes start to go bad after a few days, like fish from the supermarket.
That’s Koblin’s story and he’s sticking to it ... or rather, he sticks with it all the way to the 15th paragraph, where he carves out a huge exception for three talk shows on Netflix that are doing just fine: David Letterman’s My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act, and Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. All three follow classic talk-show formats, yet apparently do not “make for an awkward fit with streaming.”
May I suggest that what Netflix actually has is a money problem — too much of it. The global programming budget for Netflix this year is an estimated, not a typo, $15 billion. And that kind of cash lends itself to flinging a whole lot of crap on the wall to see what sticks. (I’m not recommending this, but if you search for “Netflix Original horror movies” you’ll find things like The Open House, which could not have cost more than 50 grand to make and features the pointless torture and killing of everyone decent in the film.)
So sure, give McHale a deal and see if his 20-year-old Talk Soup format is any match for your kid’s Twitter feed. Pay Norm Macdonald to troll Netflix subscribers with a half-hour version of his bizarro podcast. As for giving Michelle Wolf one episode for each of her 10 minutes of fame, it’s certainly not the dumbest idea Netflix has had.
Somewhere in all this, Hasan Minhaj got a deal, no doubt thanks to the reception of his 2017 Netflix special Homecoming King, which won a Peabody Award. And that one decision made all those other lead balloons worth the trouble. Indeed, Netflix’s competitors are the ones with a talk-show problem, because they don’t have Patriot Act.
The show returns for another cycle of episodes beginning Sunday August 4th, but there’s no need to wait. Go back and watch any of the nineteen razor-sharp monologues Minhaj has delivered since Patriot Act arrived nine months ago. As I said, it’s a classic format, not as venerable as the Letterman’s guest-and-taped-bit template, but still instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up watching The Daily Show and Colbert Report. But the caffeinated pacing, global outlook, and affable sincerity of Patriot Act put it in a class all its own. You might even say it’s the first post-Trump news show, with the comedy explainer who can make you feel just a wee bit optimistic about the future.
The difference is apparent the moment the skinny host enters to wild applause at the opening of Patriot Act. For the next half hour, Minhaj nervously prowls the stage, a huge wraparound video board behind him, another video floor under his feet, displaying a fast-paced parade of infographics, images, and source notes, while he delivers the journalism and jokes. It can be a bit overwhelming at first; Minhaj uses a TelePrompTer like Mo Farah uses a treadmill.
He does everything fast, it seems. The 33-year-old son of Muslim Indian immigrants had a rapid ascent in the comedy world, landing a coveted correspondent’s job on The Daily Show, as one of Jon Stewart’s last hires, just six years after winning a talent competition on a local radio station. Along with his writing partner, Prashanth Venkataramanujam, Minhaj has already picked up two Peabodys, winning the second for Patriot Act barely six months after its debut.
Like John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO, Patriot Act chooses topics, usually one per show, that will have a long shelf life. But Minhaj’s subjects are decidedly more international than Oliver’s. Corruption in Brazil. Elections in India. The #Metoo movement in China. Here’s how he introduced a show on the recent ouster of longtime Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir:
“Now look, I know coups in Africa are like trailers for Marvel movies: You’re like, ‘Another one?’ But when the coup in Sudan happened this April, the people were euphoric, because life under Omar al-Bashir was awful. During his reign, Bashir enacted a strict form of Sharia law, locked up thousands of political dissidents, and carried out the ethnic cleansing of non-Arabs in Darfur. Yeah — Darfur also happened under Bashir.”
And just like that, Minhaj makes Sudan matter again. Because he selects some of the most criminally overlooked stories on the planet, he doesn’t have to rely so much on Taylor Swift jokes to keep viewers’ attention (though he made one anyway during the Sudan show). And he doesn’t have to justify his topics to Netflix executives, who are well aware that their viewers are globally curious, embracing documentaries like The White Helmets and docuseries like Casketeers.
There’s a millennial earnestness to Minhaj’s monologues that is striking when compared with the hard-bitten tone of Last Week Tonight. (Oliver’s last “report” on Sudan was 12 years ago and actually had nothing to do with Sudan.) Minhaj loves to celebrate underdogs, like the ragtag doctors’ group that led the resistance to Bashir, or the hip-hop artists leading other anti-oppression movements around the world.
The studio for Patriot Act is surprisingly intimate given that the stage has more wattage than Times Square. The audience, tightly packed around the proscenium, is young, multi-racial, and hip to just about any topic Minhaj throws at them, even cricket (“no, not the phone service used by drug dealers!”).
In reality, he’s playing to a much bigger crowd. I loved his reaction when Netflix, at the request of Saudi Arabia, blocked viewers there from seeing the episode of Patriot Act that addressed the human rights abuses linked to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “Clearly, the best way to stop people from watching something is to ban it, make it trend online, and then leave it up on YouTube,” Minhaj tweeted. Then he added a link for fans to donate to relief efforts in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is wreaking war and famine, adding, “Let’s not forget that the world’s largest humanitarian crisis is happening in Yemen right now.”
Patriot Act is a great show, but I don’t tune in just to be entertained. Watching Hasan Minhaj at work gives me hope that maybe, someday, these millennials will actually clean up the mess we’ve left them.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star. Sign up to get all his Primetimer reviews at tvbarn.com.
TOPICS: Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, Netflix, Chelsea, Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale, Last Week Tonight, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman, Norm Macdonald Has a Show, Hasan Minhaj, John Oliver, Late Night