Screen Test

Rising Asian-American comics Hasan Minhaj and Jo Koy find their voice on Netflix

Two rising comedians are mining their Asian-American backgrounds for excellent insights and laughs

Netflix is driving an unprecedented boom in televised stand-up comedy, commissioning dozens of hour-long specials by some of the biggest names in the business and announcing plans to air at least one new special every week this year.

For lovers of stand-up, it is like all your Christmases have come at once - especially if you grew up in pre-Internet Singapore and discovered American comics via furtively circulated pirated videotapes or know them mostly through YouTube.

The last eight months have seen new Netflix specials by in-demand comedians such as Louis C.K., Amy Schumer, Dave Chappelle, Dana Carvey and Sarah Silverman, with recorded performances by a lured-out-of-semi-retirement Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Ellen DeGeneres still to come.

C.K.'s 2017, Schumer's The Leather Special, Chappelle's The Age Of Spin, Carvey's Straight White Male, 60 and Silverman's A Speck Of Dust are all assured and polished, with flashes of the distinct brilliance that defined each.

Yet for fans familiar with their previous work, it is clear these hours of comedy - which were recorded before live audiences - do not capture any of the above at their best.

It seems almost churlish to complain, given the sheer bounty of stand-up the streaming service provides - but if you were trying to convince a friend unfamiliar with C.K.'s work that he is the funniest working comic in America today, you would tell him to hold off watching his Netflix show and Google clips of his older ones instead.


Hasan Minhaj (left) in Homecoming King and Jo Koy (right) in Live From Seattle. PHOTOS: NETFLIX

The reverse is true, however, of lesser-known performers such as Hasan Minhaj and Jo Koy - two Asian-American comics who skilfully mine their third-culture-kid backgrounds for laughs and the occasional insight.

Sommeliers will tell you the most unfamiliar thing on a wine list often gives the best value for money - everyone orders the recognisable stuff, so that typically gets the biggest mark-up.

Minhaj's Homecoming King and Koy's Live From Seattle both offer an excellent return on expectations - partly because most people have none and partly because you get the sense of two rising stars doing some of their sharpest work to date.

  • VIEW IT / HASAN MINHAJ: HOMECOMING KING

  • Netflix

    4/5 stars

    JO KOY: LIVE FROM SEATTLE

    Netflix

    3.5/5 stars

Both deploy intensely personal stories that weave the specificity of their ethnic heritage into universal themes such as the generation gap and sibling rivalry.

The centrepiece for Minhaj is a truly astonishing and bittersweet tale about his prom that is alone worth the price of admission.

The 31-year-old The Daily Show correspondent - who went viral hosting the recent White House Correspondents' Dinner (a job no one wanted, so of course it fell to an immigrant, he joked) - grew up the son of Indian immigrants in a mostly-white California town.

There he was the only brown kid at his school and teachers could not pronounce his name.

Anyone who grew up in a culture radically different from their parents' can instantly relate to his observations about growing up with Asian immigrant parents.

For instance, when a white child gets slapped, they literally make a whole TV show about it (2015's drama The Slap). But immigrant kids are used to this, he says. Slapping "elevates your game - that's how we become cardiologists and spelling-bee champs".

But he offers up more than glib stereotypes. Even as he laments his father's distant style of parenting, he understands the aspirations that underpin it.

He also launches an impassioned plea for Muslim Americans, who are expected to constantly "announce their patriotism" even though families like his received death threats and had their property vandalised after the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks.

When their car windows are smashed, he is outraged, but his father wordlessly sweeps up the glass before telling him they have to put up with it because "these things happen, that's the price we pay for being here".

Minhaj vehemently disagrees, but then wonders if his father might be right - is bigotry the "American dream tax"? The conclusion he reaches is sensitive, thoughtful and timely in a way the standard Trump-bashing stand-up misses.

Koy, 45, does not go quite as deep, but is no less funny, albeit in a more physical, scatological way.

"I'm half-white and half-Filipino. Which means my dad was in the military," he cheekily begins.

After a divorce, his mother raised him and his siblings alone because she was "tough - maybe a little too tough, sometimes it was borderline illegal".

He finds a rich vein of comedy recounting his upbringing at the hands of this frugal, no-nonsense mum, who disapproved of his desire to become a comedian instead of "a nurse or a mailman" - the default careers every Filipino mother chooses for her kids, he says.

Yet she still let him live at home till he was 28, long after his self-sufficient sisters left the nest, and Koy's final assessment of her is not unlike Minhaj's with his dad: that they were, ultimately, loving parents.

It is not necessarily the most edgy line for a comic to take, but these are two performances that will please any crowd.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2017, with the headline 'Comic takes on ethnicity'. Print Edition | Subscribe