Hasan Minhaj: Giving comedy the college try

Hasan Minhaj

At just 23 years old, Hasan Minhaj is clearly ahead of the comedy curve. Only two years removed from graduating UC-Davis — where he founded the stand-up/sketch comedy group Gridiron Gang — Hasan is starting to make a name for himself on the national stage. Last year, he won the Wild 94.9 “Best Comic Standing” contest, giving him the chance to open for such headliners as Katt Williams, Gabriel Iglesias, and Pablo Francisco.

He’s built a relationship with NBC, as a finalist on the network’s Stand-up for Diversity, and currently, as a comedian on NBC’s National College Tour, which is bringing the San Francisco native to 37 schools across the country the end of Oct. 21 (Check out his schedule here) Not bad for someone who has only been doing stand-up for four-and-a-half years.

Hasan recently spoke with Punchline Magazine about college gigs, social networking, and more.

Only a few years into stand-up, what are some of the strangest places you’ve performed?
There’s this place in San Francisco called the Brainwash. It’s both a laundromat and an open mic. It’s run by Tony Sparks, a great host; he’s like the godfather of San Francisco comedy. Any comic who has come out of San Francisco has performed there. It’s still a great venue to work out material, but I’ve definitely bombed the worst there.

You used to work for the social networking site Ning.
I did. When I graduated from college, I needed a part-time job and I worked for a site called Ning. It was a pretty interesting experience. I felt kind of like I was living a double-life. I would write material about the things that frustrated me at work. It was a small start-up company, but the boss was a billionaire. My whole doppelganger life was revealed when a gossip blog did a story on me, how in my act I had a joke about kidnapping my boss, and what I’d do with his money. So that made things a little awkward at work. Incidentally, my relationship with NBC started building after that, and I moved to Los Angeles. So it was a nice way to leave my job.

How did this current NBC college tour come about?
A few years ago, I did NBC’s Stand Up For Diversity, where they went from city to city looking for diverse talent for the network. And I auditioned for them; I was only about 20 years old at the time, but they really liked my stuff. So I got a call from them last year asking me to audition in Baltimore. It worked out, and I ended up auditioning in front of network executives in L.A. They set up all the tour dates.

Check out more interview and videos after the jump.

Will you be performing with other comics?
Some of them, I’ll be going with other comics, like Rob Stapleton and Erin Jackson. But the majority of them will be just me for an hour, which will be a great experience. I’m excited to see the entire country. My friend was asking me, ‘What’s so special about this tour?’ A few years ago, Jay-Z had this thing called the Hangar Tour, where in around 24 hours, he performed in seven cities across the country. It’s kind of like that, where I’ll get to go all across the States within a six-week time period.

Is this your first real chance to do an hour set?
I’ve gotten to headline various rooms for one night, like the Purple Onion, or different places around town doing an hour for one night. But yeah, this is the first time I can hone a full hour each night.

How does performing in colleges differ from regular comedy club?
Before they set up these dates, they sent me on a test-run this Spring. So I did nine or 10 schools just to get my feet wet. And one of the biggest differences I’ve noticed is unlike at a standard comedy club there’s often not a host to bring you up. They’ll just have a student say, ‘OK, here he is.’ And depending on what type of venue they have, you’ll be performing in anything from a study lounge to an auditorium. When I performed in Illinois; there were students lined up to get season tickets, and I had to perform outdoors in front of the line of season-ticket holders. So some of them were really great, but others were just standing in the cafeteria.

I remember Chris Rock once talking about knowing your audience and he said, ‘If you ever go to Michigan, at some point, you have to say Ohio State sucks.’ So have you been researching the different schools?
Yeah. A lot of other comics have told me, ‘Definitely do your research.’ For instance, one of the first schools I’m doing is UNC-Wilmington, so it’s in my best interest to not talk about how great the [UNC-Chapel Hill] Tar Heels are. One thing I did in my test-run is I just picked up the school newspaper and saw what was going on at the school.

Also I found that if you just talk to the students, they’ll be really candid about what’s going on. Like at the University of Iowa, I read there was some sort of sports scandal, so I just asked one of the students, ‘What’s going on with that?’ and they said, ‘There’s a big scandal with the football players,’ and just broke it down. So you can see what’s going on in their little bubble and use it on stage.

I think one of the coolest things about the college tour is that I’m so close to their age. So it’s not like I’m talking down to them. I’m the same age, we have the same concerns and interests with pop culture. And I think the coolest part about it, is that unlike Los Angeles, at these schools, you might be the only entertainment option for that week at the school. So they’re really amped and ready to see you. I think especially with stuff like Facebook and Twitter, they’ll send it to their friends. Whereas, in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or those big cities, you have to be a huge name to draw people to the clubs.

You just alluded to it, but what are your thoughts on the increasing role of social networking in comedy?
I think the increased technology — Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff — is arguably the best thing that’s happened to the entertainment industry as a whole, and especially in comedy. Because what it does is it democratizes the industry. It gives every comic an opportunity to create their own fanbase without using the traditional mediums of having to get past a particular gate-holder. For instance, someone like Bo Burnham can be given a tremendous number of opportunities because he has built his own following, and the industry has no choice but to recognize that.

Obviously there’s a caveat with that, that a lot of people who have found success on the Internet, it’s come from an organic place, meaning it’s stuff they really believe in. They’re not just putting out crap for the sake of it. But I think this college tour, it’s the best thing for me at this time, because it’s a crowd that can re-post, re-Tweet, and really spread my stuff, if they like it.

You recently performed at the Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival How did that experience hit you?
Yeah, it was great. One of the coolest things about it, as my first festival, it was really like comedy summer camp— especially for me, being around a lot of the guys who I look up to in comedy. There were only 15-20 comics, and it’s all held in the same place, the Wheeler Opera House. You get to see every show, interact with every comic who’s a part of the show. For three days, we all hung out, played basketball and stuff. It was a lot of fun.

You’ve also done some short film stuff, winning a major student film contest and you also have a web series. Is acting something you’re interested in or are you more focused on stand-up?
I’ve gotten to work with some really funny people by doing the web stuff. The digital media is part of what I’ll be doing. It’s a little twist in my show on tour. I’ll be doing forty-five minutes to an hour of stand-up, then I’ll show various shorts from a web series I’ve been a part of.

So I’d definitely love to do stand-up and more comedic acting. I shot a full eight episodes of this web series called Roomies, and also, I’ll get a chance to debut other projects before I put them on the Internet, to see how they’re perceived by the students. Then once it’s on the Internet, it’s basically a test-screening, and a lot of times, you can pitch it as a pilot.

Are you going to pitch the web series as a pilot after the tour?
Well, first I’m going to take the tour material and record a CD, which will be my first album. I’m also working on a pilot for a new web series for Atom.com.

For more info on Hasan, check out his official site at hasanminhaj.com.

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