Photos by Leysha Caraballo.
On April 29 of this year, the first Muslim comedian to host the White House Correspondent’s Dinner took the stage. He was following in the footsteps of a number of America’s most popular comedians, including Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and the man who made him famous, Jon Stewart. Of course, this wasn’t the only thing special about the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in 2017. In fact, the biggest elephant in the room had to do with another man entirely: The President of the United States, whose whole administration had decided to skip the dinner. Who had been tasked with the job of entertaining this large room of people in such a tense political climate? Entering: Hasan Minhaj.
Hasan Minhaj is most well known for his work as a Senior Correspondent on “The Daily Show,” where he was the last correspondent to be chosen by Jon Stewart before his departure. He has also received critical acclaim for his one-man show “Homecoming King.” It premiered Off-Broadway in 2015 before it was filmed for a Netflix special. Generally, his comedy tends to center around topics such as politics, immigration, and his experience as an American-born Indian Muslim. He has a special skill for making serious statements about these issues while still being appealing and exceptionally funny. His one-man show is an excellent example of this, for throughout “Homecoming King” he seems to find light and comedy even in the darkest moments of his life.
UNC Charlotte students were able to see Minhaj on Nov 8, in the Popp Martin Student Union. He was featured as a part of the Forty-Niner Forum Speakers Series, presented by the Center for Leadership Development. The Series typically brings in two speakers a year; past speakers include Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers, comedian W. Kamau Bell and Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson. Since the event didn’t have a ticketing system, whether or not someone was able to get in and where they sat was determined by who lined up first. Thus, even though the event was not supposed to start until 7 p.m., there was already a line by the time I arrived at 5:30 p.m.
The event itself actually began around 7:20 p.m., though this was explained to the audience as a result of issues getting Minhaj to campus. I appreciate that those running the event informed the audience of this, instead of allowing us to sit and wonder where he was. Looking back on it though, I sincerely wish we’d been able to have that extra 20 minutes. This was because Minhaj is one of the most compelling entertainers I’ve ever seen. From the time he walked on stage to the time he left, he exuded a confident and relaxed stage persona. The audience (including myself) was absolutely captivated.
Once the event had started, Minhaj immediately launched into about 20 minutes of stand-up material. All of the jokes were new, as I didn’t recognize any of it from interviews or “Homecoming King.” Not only was the material new, it seemed to come from Minhaj’s head while he was performing. Of course, while all of it was likely prepared in advance, it only highlighted Minhaj’s ability to seem completely authentic and unrehearsed. His best jokes included a comparison of white Disney princesses to those of color, a story about Samsung Galaxy Note 7’s that served as a metaphor for racial stereotyping and his cut Ben Carson jokes from the White House Correspondent’s Dinner.
Following his standup, Minhaj took questions from the audience. Questions ranged from deeply personal (“Have you ever been bigoted toward another person?”) to completely off-the-wall (“Why are buildings called buildings when they are already built?”). Minhaj answered all of them with his signature blend of heart and humor. Some of his answers even turned into comedy bits themselves. For example, his answer to the aforementioned building question resulted in a two to three minute long roast of the student asking the question. The most frustrating part of this portion of the event was that a number of students asked questions that could be answered by watching his comedy special, something Minhaj picked up on and then explicitly stated in his answers. Overall, the event ended all too soon. In total, it lasted only forty minutes and was over by 8 p.m.
After the event, the Forty-Niner Forum Speaker Series hosted a meet and greet event with Minhaj in Bistro 49. The line for this formed before the prior event had even ended, as students ran out of the event to get in line while those hosting the event called out raffle numbers. I managed to grab a spot relatively in the middle of the line. As a veteran of meet and greet events at sci-fi conventions, I couldn’t imagine that the line was long enough that I wouldn’t get through to meet Minhaj. However, I was quickly proven wrong. I waited in line for an hour and only moved a couple feet. By 8:45 p.m., those associated with the Speaker Series were already informing those near me that we would likely be unable to get in. This didn’t really seem to have the desired effect on those waiting.
Eventually, it became quite apparent that many people in line were going to be unable to meet Minhaj and the doors to Bistro 49 were closed. People around me were upset, hurt and a bit desperate. Though the Speaker Series gave out highlighters and phone chargers to compensate for the missed opportunity, this did not seem to pacify the line in any significant way. Though some people did begin to disperse, a majority of the line began to surge towards Bistro 49. It was uncontrolled and chaotic. Eager students rushed down the tight hallway and gathered almost mob-like around the doors. Despite warnings and insistence that they would not get to meet Minhaj by those associated with the Forty-Niner Forum and the Popp Martin Student Union, the crowd did not fully disperse until asked to by campus police.
Overall, Minhaj’s exceptional performance as a speaker overshadowed the chaos that came afterward. His standup material was original, timely and made every person in the packed ballroom laugh. He seemed completely comfortable on stage, which caused the audience to feel more relaxed in return. While I appreciated that the audience had the opportunity to ask questions, Minhaj was so engaging that I also just wanted to listen to him perform stand up the entire time. Granted, it would have been called a comedy show if that had been the plan for the evening and luckily, Minhaj is naturally funny even when put on the spot. I can’t imagine it working as well as it did with a number of other comedians.
As for the meet and greet afterward, the problems it had were mostly due to the Forty-Niner Forum Speakers Series’ apparent underestimation of Minhaj’s stardom. While the event itself had been moved to the student union from its typical location in McKnight Hall (likely to accommodate the expected larger crowds), Bistro 49 is simply not a good location for a meet and greet. The narrow hallway to its entrance tightens crowds and obscures sightlines, making it hard to gauge how far away one truly is in a line. Not only that, the line’s size seemed to far exceed expectations. Since Minhaj could only sign autographs and take pictures for a set amount of time, the line should have been managed more efficiently to get more people through it. A number of students that were able to meet Minhaj informed me that while there was a set amount of time allowed per student, it seemed hard to enforce. In my opinion, a pre-sold ticketing system would have benefitted both the main event and the meet and greet. It would have cut down on the premature line forming before the event, as well as prevented the chaos that ensued after students found out that they would be unable to meet Minhaj. If only a realistic number of tickets are allotted for the meet and greet, students won’t get their hopes dashed in an attempt to get into an event that can only truly tolerate a specific number of people.