You could say that the first minute and a half of Homecoming King go about like any comedy show. Hasan Minhaj gives props to his hometown Davis, California (where he chooses to film the special), cracks a couple of expected jokes about being a newlywed, fires a few zeitgeist quips about Tinder and modern dating.
Then the true setup begins — on screen behind Minhaj flashes a geographical image of Aligarh, India, the setting for his parents’ unorthodox love story. It’s a visual cue that tells us as viewers what to expect from Minhaj’s Netflix special as he deliberately introduces us to his heritage: y’all, we’re getting a culturally and politically charged life story.
Memoir comedy isn’t a form of entertainment one would associate with Minhaj. Most would recognize his name for his work as a Daily Show correspondent for both Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah. More recently he made waves for his monologue at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, made more monumental by the fact that it was the first Dinner held under the shadow of the Trump administration. Which is to say, then, that Minhaj’s comedy is comfortably at home with the political. It just so happens that this time around, Minhaj turns the mirror on himself. In Homecoming King, he reflects on a life that spans from his childhood to when he lands his Daily Show gig, allowing the audience to see the highs, lows, and hard-to-untangle complexities of being a minority that only a biography can give.
When the tone shifts and we back away a bit from the comedy aspect of the show, we’re reminded that Minhaj’s subject position — an Indian Muslim son of immigrants in xenophobic America — contains dramas and sorrows which can’t be escaped.
And in terms of telling a life story, Minhaj absolutely crushes it. His tone and stage presence is akin to the kind of b-boy swagger you’d expect from your best dudebro friends, which allows him to energetically jump into various parts of his personal history — from his childhood, to his unique relationship with his father, to the perils of navigating generation gaps. He describes the act of compromising with his parents as “a finite number of hands you can play with them over the course of your life.” “You’re not gonna be a doctor? Boom, that’s a hand. You wanna marry a white girl? Boom that’s a big hand!” We get to learn about “Log kya kahenge,” Hindi for a phrase anyone in a strict family has heard to their chagrin, “What will the neighbors think?” which whenever uttered, Minhaj notes, causes a star to fall from the sky.
The thing about Homecoming King is that at some point, you forget you’re watching a stand-up comedy performance. At one point in the show, Minhaj describes his experience witnessing his father receive a death threat, which culminates in the car windows of his family car getting smashed and his father sweeping broken glass off the driveway. These moments of gravitas, which are as important as the jokes, pepper the entire show. When the tone shifts and we back away a bit from the comedy aspect of the show, we’re reminded that Minhaj’s subject position — an Indian Muslim son of immigrants in xenophobic America — contains dramas and sorrows which can’t be escaped. These experiences of discrimination and prejudice are what Minhaj aptly calls “the American dream tax,” the price immigrants and minorities pay to stay in the U.S. And it’s the biggest strength of Homecoming King, the way Minhaj can draw from these complex personal experiences to make you laugh one moment and break your heart the next.
True to the title, this Netflix comedy special is a story about an underdog coming out on top despite everything. Spoiler alert, you get a happy ending. And yeah, you still have the jokes, you still get to laugh, but it wouldn’t be remiss to say that Homecoming King is just high quality comedy. It’s damn good storytelling.