From Vir Das to Hasan Minhaj, are comics the new journalists, with a funny bone?

A revamp of the Fourth Estate, which makes us laugh while holding our politicians accountable, is taking shape


Hasan Minhaj (2nd right) of Comedy Central at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington on 29 April, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters.
Hasan Minhaj (2nd right) of Comedy Central at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington on 29 April, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters.

Remember when journalists used to speak truth to power? Remember when you could criticize a political leader and not be abused and threatened? Remember when politicians took any media or critique of themselves seriously?

No? Neither do I.

Till now. A new bastion of integrity and journalism may just have been born. A revamp of the Fourth Estate, if you will. Which makes us laugh while holding our politicians accountable.

This weekend I saw two very brown, slim Indian men—who are not journalists—do the unthinkable. They stood up on a public platform—not behind an anonymous Twitter handle—and spoke truth to power. While making you laugh repeatedly, in the bargain. Hasan Minhaj, senior correspondent with The Daily Show, hosted the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner, which the President of the free world, Donald Trump, decided to skip. A day or two before that, Indian comic Vir Das’s show, Abroad Understanding, was aired on Netflix India.

And suddenly you realized that as long as there were comics with spines, brains and a sense of humour, you didn’t really need journalists anymore. Yes, we need them to file news reports, but when it came to questioning the powers that be, they didn’t need to be our last resort.

Minhaj is a first-generation Indian-American Muslim. He is the son of Indian immigrants from Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. His antecedents and skin tone obviously played a large part in him being chosen to host the WHCA dinner. He is everything Trump has said his wall will keep out. The WHCA’s dinner is attended not just by the US president, but also by members of the media fraternity. Who are all roasted along with the president. The president makes a speech as well, and gets rid of all the angst at the media. The last president who skipped the dinner was Ronald Reagan.

That Trump is thin-skinned is known. He hates the media. Other than Fox News. But Minhaj’s speech at the WHCA was worth listening to, not just because his presence there as a Muslim immigrant makes a point. It was because of what he said. And how he called out the media, one by one. No one was spared. Fox’s fawning, CNN’s hyper-ventilating, CNBC’s hysteria over Trump’s tax returns and Huffington Post being a pretender of journalism. I have never seen Wolf Blitzer look less pleased. Comments were made about Trump’s dodgy and decidedly racist policies and Fox’s kow-towing to him. And everyone listened, because Minhaj is a man who does not dine with politicians every day or is married into the family of one or has any direct (and I’m guessing indirect as well) connections to the very people he was critiquing.

And all his criticism and commentary was peppered with humour. Nothing is more off-putting than a banal and uber-serious takedown of men and women who are begging to be mocked.

Vir Das’ show, Abroad Understanding, is a combination of his show in New Delhi and his show in New York. Where he talks about life, marriage, breakups—and Modi and Trump. He doesn’t comment on the media. But he does call out the state of affairs in India and in the US and comments on the similarities between Trump and Modi. And their decidedly thin skin.

There’s another young comic, Kumal Kamra, whose videos of his performance critiquing the state of Mumbai’s potholed roads, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s inadequacies, our politicians’ seeming paranoia about students from Jawaharlal Nehru University have been floating around Youtube. It’s very funny. And very brave in the current environment of India. Aisi Taisi Democracy has done it for the last few years as well. Commenting and critiquing the political dispensation and the country we live in, with a generous dash of humour.

It’s what we know as free speech, which is literally a foreign concept in India. Because we, and our politicians and even our media, are so darned sensitive. Which is why it’s such a welcome experience to hear someone stick their necks out and call it what it is. Without caring whether they’ll have a first information report slapped on them by some easily offended soul or the other, or trolled mercilessly on social media. The other reason each of these comedians is worth listening to, including Minhaj in the US, is because there are so many degrees of separation between them and the very people they are critiquing and holding up a mirror to.

Vir Das, Hasan Minhaj, Kunal Kamra, the Aisi Taisi Democracy trio and most other comics are the new, and uncompromised, Fourth Estate. Who can talk without fear or favour, and who don’t give a damn if you get upset by what they say. And they do so while making you laugh out loud. I’d say, take the time out, watch Minhaj’s speech at WHCA (cry a little into your coffee if you’re part of the media), and then watch Das’ show on Netflix. And start attending comedy shows (and I don’t mean The Kapil Sharma Show) for your political commentary.

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