With his speech tonight at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Hasan Minhaj provided better “The Daily Show” marketing than anything Comedy Central has done since Jon Stewart left the show. He also turned in the best WHCD speech since fellow “Daily Show” alum Stephen Colbert in 2006.
But where Colbert’s masterpiece performance came from insulting George W. Bush, a sitting president, to his face – and in the process making it OK for the rest of the media to admit maybe Bush wasn’t a very good president — Minhaj’s performance tonight shined for what amounts to the opposite reason. Though Minhaj did spend some time laying into President Trump with very good zings, the bulk of his speech focused the media, telling them straight up that despite the Trump administration’s open hostility, they’re not doing as remotely good a job as they should.
Minhaj softened up the crowd by opening with some jokes at the expense of USA Today, a paper he said is “what happens when the coupon section takes over the newspaper.” That drew polite, but nervous laughter, since USA Today was in the room, and the crowd was rightly inclined to show some professional courtesy. But what they might not have expected is that Minhaj was coming for them next.
After 10 minutes or so talking about the Trump administration, Minhaj turned his attention back to the press. And as with Trump – about whom he said “every time Trump goes golfing the headline should read ‘Trump golfing: apocalypse delayed'” – he pulled zero punches.
“Unlike Anderson Cooper’s bone structure, you have been far from perfect,” Minhaj began. “Remember election night? That was your Steve Harvey Miss Universe moment… Because it was all fun and games with Obama, right? You were covering an adult who could speak English. And now you’ve got to take your game to a whole new level. It’s like if a bunch of stripper cops had to solve a real-life murder.”
At this point the mood in the room turned, and from then on whenever the camera panned to the crowd it showed a sea of polite, but indisputably stonefaced silence.
Minhaj plugged on anyway. Next he took a swipe Fox News, noting the network’s in-progress sexual harassment crisis and its well-known ideological bent. “I’m amazed you even showed up. How are you here in public? It’s hard to trust you guys when you backed a man like Bill O’reilly for years,” he said. “But it finally happened. Bill O’Reilly has been fired. But then you gave him a $25 million severance package, making it the only package he won’t force a woman to touch.”
“I like the watch Fox News for the same reason I like to play ‘Call of Duty.’ I like to turn my brain off and watch strangers insult my family heritage,” Minhaj added.
Next up, MSNBC, a network Minhaj eviscerated for its inconsistent editorial focus, and for coverage of Trump administration scandals he said bordered on conspiracy theories. “It’s hard to trust you guys when you send us so many mixed messages. You tell us the prison industrial complex is the problem, and then air five straight hours of ‘Lock Up.’ You can’t be mad at corporations profiting off of minorities in prison, when you’re a corporation profiting off of minorities in prison,” he said.
“Please tell Rachel Maddow to please chill about Trump’s tax returns,” Minhaj continued. “There isn’t going to be a line that says ‘Bribes from Russia’… I want to root you guys but you’re turning into conspiracy theorists every night.”
“By the end of the year, you’ll all have tin foil hats and jars of urine by your desks.”
Finally, Minhaj hit CNN. Rather than ideological bent or tone, he went after that network’s style of news coverage, particularly the way it packs talking heads onscreen whenever breaking news is under discussion. “I’m not going to call you fake news, but everything isn’t breaking news… Nine boxes on the screen? I’m trying to watch the news, not pick a player in “Street Fighter.’
Another highlight: “Every time I watch CNN, it feels like you’re assigning me homework. ‘Is Trump a Russian spy?Tweet us at @AC360.’ No, you tell me. I’m watching the news. But it feels like I’m watching CNN watch the news. Just take an hour. Figure out what you want to say, then go on the air.”
It went on thus for several more minutes, with Minhaj continuing to twist the screws, despite getting almost no laughs from the crowd, something he acknowledged more than once during his speech. This included a joke about how the press is being treated like a racial minority, before reminding the crowd that “you guys are super white.”
But the killing blow came at the end, when Minhaj revealed the surprising fact that he was specifically asked by the White House Correspondents’ Association not to insult Donald Trump:
“I was asked to not roast the president and the administration in their absentia, and I completely understand that. We are in a very strange situation where there’s a very combative relationship between the press and the president, but now that you guys are minorities, just for this moment, you might understand the position I was in and it’s the same position a lot of minority kids feel in this country. It’s ‘do I come up here and just try to fit in and not ruffle any feathers’ or ‘do I say how I really feel?’ Because this event is about celebrating the First Amendment and free speech. Free speech is the foundation of an open and liberal democracy. From college campuses to the White House. Only in america can a first generation Indian-American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president. The orange man behind the Muslim ban.”
And that’s the brilliance of Minhaj’s performance. Whatever the merits of the WHCD’s request not to insult the president, for the audience at home (at least myself) it was galling that the organization throwing a party ostensibly intended to celebrate its role promoting the First Amendment tried to avoid ruffling powerful feathers. But what made the moment work so well wasn’t that Minhaj called them out for what could be described as mild hypocrisy, it was that he was nice about it, and instead used it as a teachable moment.
“The president didn’t show up because Donald Trump doesn’t care about free speech. The man who tweets everything that enters his head refuses to acknoweldge the amendment that allows him to do it. Think about it. It’s almost, what is it, 11? It’s 11 p.m. right now. In four hours, Donald Trump will be tweeting about how bad Nikki Minaj bombed at this dinner and he will be doing it completely sober. And that’s his right. And I’m proud that all of us are here tonight to defend that right, even if the man in the White House never would.”
It’s one thing to tell the truth to power. But telling the truth to people who think of themselves as telling truth to power is something else entirely. That Minhaj did it graciously and hilariously was a hard trick to pull off. It’s not as cathartic as Colbert’s 2006 speech was, but it felt just as urgent. He’ll never be invited back, but he probably won “The Daily Show” quite a few returned viewers.