Comedian Hasan Minhaj, senior correspondent for The Daily Show, shares a personal story with legendary producer Norman Lear, recorded live at this summer’s New York premiere of Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (2016), directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. The documentary is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD from PBS Distribution.
Hasan Minhaj: This is going to be a very nerd-out moment, but I would be remiss if I don't do this. Okay, this is how I know God is real, okay?
So my family is from a small town in India called Aligarh, population 990,000. That’s a small town in India. And my father immigrated from Aligarh to the United States in 1982, and we moved to this small town called Davis, California. And my dad, you know, when you, as a son of immigrants, when you come and you roll the dice on this thing called the American Dream, the last thing you want your son to do is go tell jokes to people late at night in bars. And I decided to be a stand-up comedian at age 18, and this is the impact that Norman Lear had in my life, indirectly, without me ever seeing any of his work growing up.
My dad did not want me to become a comedian, and I decided to become one, and I was doing it for years and years and years. And I got into this big fight with him, I was about 24 years old - 25 years old - my LSAT score was about to expire — and I had a great LSAT score. And my dad was like, “You better apply to law school right now!” And I’m driving in the car to a gig where I’m not getting paid, and he’s like, “You’re going to law school!” I said, “Dad, I’m not!” And he said, “Hasan, you’re not Tom Cruise!” That means success to my dad, there’s Tom Cruise, Barack Obama, and I guess there’s nothing else.
And I’m bawling. I’m crying, right. “No, but this is what I want to do.” Three years ago I do this documentary series through Caty Borum Chattoo called Stand Up Planet, it’s about stand-up comedy around the planet. It’s basically Anthony Bourdain and stand-up comedy. We learn about comedians in India and South Africa and the Middle East, satirists that are really pushing the boundaries of satire.
Norman and Carl Reiner were the advisers on the project. I got to bring stand-up comedians from around the world to come and meet him. And he sat there, he’s just like the way he is right now, in the film, and he sat with us young Padawans. Jewish Yoda sat with us and was telling us about comedy.
The night of the L.A. premiere, the night of the L.A. premiere, I invite my dad, my dad and my mom to come. They hadn’t really seen any of my stuff, right. And we had reached out to Norman’s office, “Norman will you be there please, you’re the only one thats really understood this project.” And he had to go to a Matt Damon premiere that night and I’m like “Goddamnit, Matt Damon!” But, the credits are rolling to our film – just like tonight – and I look in the back of the audience, and there’s Norman in the white bucket hat. And the audience is filled with all these comedians, right ‘cause the movie is all about stand-up comedy. I was like, “Ladies and gentlemen, Norman Lear!” I know you remember this, all the comedians in the audience, they stood! They were just like, “Norman!”
He comes to the front of the audience, he sits down, right. I’m freaking out. Yeah, I’m doing what I’m doing right now, I’m freaking out. And I’m trying to ask him all these questions: “Oh how did you push the boundaries with the Maude and – Oh I heard that you got notes, and then when Archie came down and they implied sex, and I heard you – “Stick it to them, CBS!” And he goes, “Hasan, stop, wait, wait, stop. Um, why aren’t you– where’s your family? Focus on what’s important. Where’s your family?” I go, “Oh, yeah, my dad’s right there.” And you turned and you said this to my dad, you go, “Mr. Minhaj, your son has been working really, really hard on this film, and I think you shouldn’t let him be a lawyer. You should let him be a comedian. You should let him change the world.”
I don’t know how you knew, but you said it, and it hit him. And that was in 2013, and [chokes up]. October 3, 2014, I got hired as the last correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, 'cause my dad said, “I’ll support you.” And that was because of you. And I don’t know how to thank you enough, because there’s this really– I’ve gotten into this argument with my dad all the time.
When 9/11 happened, we were all sitting down at dinner, and I heard a thud outside. Me and my dad, we run out and all of our windows had been shattered. And we go, he goes, “Hasan, get the broom.” We go and get the broom, and I look at my dad and he’s not mad. And I’m like, “Why aren’t you mad? They just destroyed all of our stuff.” And he goes, “Hasan, this is the price we pay for being here.” And there’s times that my dad would have these Archie Bunker moments, you know, where he would just say these things. And I refer to the show to tell him, “Hey, Norman is the one who taught us to have the audacity, as a minority, to work twice as hard, to have to ask for twice as much, not work twice as hard, to ask for half as much.” I just want to say thank you so much for giving that inspiration to me, and for so many people. I can’t thank you enough.
Norman Lear: Now, truth to tell. I sat here all the time before you said this and said, “How do I know this guy?” Oh my God, here’s what I want to – I can I've got to – Give me a couple of more minutes, I got to tell you – I've got to tell a story. I got to tell this story. I mean, when you say this I remember so well sitting around outside at that table, and what I got from you – I didn't remember who the hell you were – as you’re telling this story. But I remember very well once you remind me.
I made a film, a lot of years ago in Iowa, Greenfield, Iowa, it was called Cold Turkey. I’m a twenty – and we had a great summer, 100 or so of us from Los Angeles in this little town in Iowa and had a great summer. On the 25th anniversary of the making of that film in Iowa, the city called me asked if I could come in would I bring a couple of members of the cast. They wanted to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the filming of Cold Turkey in Greenfield, Iowa, we went.
In the film, in a montage where people are misbehaving ‘cause they promised to give up smoking at midnight the previous night. They're looking for their first cig– the first morning, haven't got a cigarette and pledged not to– anyway. They're misbehaving. I did a montage in the film, in one, but somebody kicking a dog, somebody screaming at them. And in one shot maybe a second and a half in the film a little girl is crossing the street on her way to school. She's got big glasses she's carrying books and a mother monitor who was a smoker, a traffic monitor, is screaming at her, screaming at her! Very funny little moment a second and a half. On the 25th anniversary, the woman is there. She's now 31, and– and she's got these big glasses to show me that she is. And she says “Mr. Lear that was the most – I can't tell you how important it was for me. I can't tell you.” And we hugged and it was the sweetest moment.
Twenty years go by, I’m out selling my book, two summers ago, and, and I get a call from Greenfield. They know I'm traveling, selling my book. They would like to have a dinner for me. They want to name a marquee – a theater after me. And could I come? Of course I'm peddling the book why – and I go to, I go to Greenfield. And there's a big dinner they have a – they name a theater after me the governor introduces me, 400 people at dinner, it's just a great evening. But the hallmark moment was that little girl is now 51 and she gets to me and she's wearing the glasses to show me she’s – And she says “Mr. Lear,” she says, “On the 25th anniversary of the film, I told you what it meant for me to be that little girl in your montage.” And I said, “Yes.” She said, “You were very nice and, you were sweet. But – but you didn't get it, and you're going to get it now.” I couldn't imagine what on earth she was – She said, “I read your book,” – I didn't have to wait to read it to come here, I read the book – She said, “When you were 10 years old your father was in jail, you were in Woodmont, Connecticut with your family in one cottage that an uncle owned that they all could afford to be in because somebody owned it. And you were alone. Your mother and your sister you didn't know where they were and nobody understood what you were going through that summer alone with your dad in person. But you had a blue and gray sweatshirt, that you used to put on in the late afternoon and in the early evening and in that gray and blue sweatshirt you felt stronger and taller and older and wiser and better as a – and you would walk to Sloppy Joe’s,” – a place called Sloppy Joe’s in Savin Rock – “and among those strangers, you would feel better than you did at home with your family in your blue and gray sweater– sweatshirt.” She said, “You were my blue and gray sweatshirt.” I wept. She wept. We hug.
But, what you’re saying to me caused me to think of that because each of us – I mean I might have had 2000 decisions to make, directing a film in a strange place, that day. And all I said was “Her,” you know, and look what it meant to her. So I think what the message I get from that is each of us, in the course of our days in the course of our lives, are responsible again and again and again for moments like that. And if you appreciate the size, the scope of the Creator's enterprise here, this being a plan in among a billion, in the universe of which they say that could be a billion. Can you get your fingers close enough to measure the distance between any bit of pleasure that any of us deliver to the next person in the course of our days? You can't. It all– we all matter that way.
Hasan Minhaj: Thank you so much, Mr. Norman Lear.