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Hasan Minhaj’s and Busy Philipps’s Radically Different New Late-Night Shows

The ‘Daily Show’ alumnus and actress both entered the crowded talk-show field this week with mixed results, and while they face long odds, their early wobbliness might be a prerequisite for success

Getty Images/Netflix/E!/Ringer illustration

“Now, affirmative action as we know it is about to die,” declares Hasan Minhaj in the opening seconds of his new Netflix show Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj, and a few audience members laugh nervously, presumably because they assume they’re supposed to.

The average viewer likely brings quite a few assumptions to Patriot Act, given that the svelte, buoyant Minhaj is (a) a Daily Show alumnus and (b) breakout stand-up comedian who has (c) parlayed his cheerfully barbed performance at the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner into (d) a groundbreaking new politics-as-entertainment talk show. Will he be an Eviscerator, channelling the jovial rage of HBO’s beloved and Emmy-anointed Last Week Tonight With John Oliver? Will he further deconstruct the moribund late-night form with vicious, surrealist wit, like Netflix’s well-received but quickly canceled 2018 effort The Break With Michelle Wolf? And can Patriot Act avoid all those clichés and transcend an increasingly overstuffed talk-show field when its pilot episode is a 23-minute deep dive into ... affirmative action?

Two quietly radical (and radically different) talk shows debuted Sunday night, with a pair of quick Patriot Act installments joined by the first episode of the E! network’s new half-hour gabfest Busy Tonight, hosted by actress, best-selling memoirist, and Instagram Stories innovator Busy Philipps. Both shows have their familiar routines, and their charismatic disruptions. Minhaj’s diamond-shaped set is free of all physical distractions—no desk, no cohost, no guests—which accentuates the giant screens behind him constantly lighting up with charts and graphs and social-media screenshots and other multimedia goofs. (“It looks like Michael Bay directed a PowerPoint presentation,” he jokes.) Philipps luxuriates on a comfy couch with a mixed drink amid a tchotchke-heavy soundstage that her inaugural guest, Mindy Kaling, likens to either a Friends apartment or an early Real World house.

Patriot Act is a dense but jokey current-events data dump, chasing the zeitgeist of the New York Times podcast The Daily every bit as much as it emulates the righteous, left-leaning indignation of Stephen Colbert or Samantha Bee. Busy Tonight is a very, very, very loose hang, a ramshackle and celebrity-driven charm offensive reminiscent of Bravo’s blockbuster Watch What Happens: Live, except it’s not live and not a whole hell of a lot happens. You have watched dozens of versions of both of these shows before. That is the draw, and also the challenge, and also, if they can last long enough, the opportunity.

The Patriot Act pilot thoroughly breaks down the ongoing Supreme Court case Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, castigating the Asian American plaintiffs, who are bankrolled by conservative legal activist Edward Blum and who indeed may very well kill affirmative action as we know it. “It sounds shitty, but it’s not illegal,” Minhaj says, summarizing Blum’s cynical tactics. “It’s like going to a Macklemore concert.” The groans, presumably, help the medicine go down.

As a Muslim and an Indian American, Minhaj is, to put it mildly, a rarity in the talk-show universe, or for that matter the stand-up universe. His 2017 Netflix special Homecoming King was a moving whiplash cocktail of comedy and teenage drama: What starts out as a standard school-dance horror story quickly blooms into a fraught examination of friendly-smile bigotry, code switching, Facebook stalking, and forgiveness. A few days before Patriot Act debuted, an extended clip of Queer Eye’s Tan France attempting to give Minhaj a fashion makeover went viral. It was combative but also profoundly heartwarming. Minhaj rags on nearly every outfit he tries on, but France is unfazed, and hell-bent on getting his young Netflix pal to acknowledge the momentousness of this occasion: “Look at what you do for a living. Like, you’re representing brown people. You don’t need to try to be cool. You are cool.”

Patriot Act’s second episode, devoted to Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, blends the cool with the cerebral with an overload of pop-culture slapstick. Trick Daddy’s Cribs episode comes up; Minhaj offers a through explanation of lotas, a.k.a. “the manual transmissions of bidets.” He knows what you’re thinking: “You thought you were just coming to see this woke Ted Talk. Little did you know you were also gonna get booty-health tips.”

He’s dropped the “woke Ted Talk” line before; it’s his way of saying it before you think it. Minhaj works overtime on Patriot Act to wrap hard news in soft punch lines, but his self-awareness helps, a little. He describes the Saudi government’s explanation for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as “the most unbelievable cover story since Blake Shelton won Sexiest Man Alive.” Mecca and Medina are “basically the Muslim Infinity Stones of holiness.” Bin Salman’s recent sycophantic U.S. press tour is summarized thus: “The last foreigner America got this excited about was the Italian peach in Call Me by Your Name.” As he bounces aerobically around the empty stage, you get the feeling he’s trying to sell you a progressive mind-set the same way Tim Cook tries to sell you an Apple Watch. Minhaj’s jokes, of course, are much better, but they are also, uh, louder.

At times this all gets to feeling like an earnest lecture and a brash rap battle colliding in midair. “The conflict in Yemen is extremely complex,” Minhaj acknowledges. “But here are the Cliff Notes in under 40 seconds.” He gives it a shot. He nails it. The audience whoops loudly. The viewer gets uncomfortable, and so, briefly, does he. “Now, don’t clap,” he says. “That is a global atrocity. It is the worst of everything happening in one place, and people keep wondering, ‘Will this ever end?’ So it’s basically the Golden Globes.”

You groan, but you learn something. There is much to love here, and to work with; Patriot Act is a weekly affair with a 32-episode order, guaranteeing Minhaj the long runway Michelle Wolf deserved. You will root for him, hard, especially in those moments when he manages to be cool without trying to be cool. His perspective, shamefully unique in this context, is his not-so-secret weapon. Minhaj’s conclusion in the affirmative-action episode—“That’s why I think this lawsuit against Harvard is bullshit”—is far less striking than his revelation that he scored a 1310 on his SATs. “Now I know there’s white people here, they’re like, 1310! That’s pretty good!” he jokes. “And every Indian and Asian person is like, 1310. You are a moron.” He’s a B- Eviscerator but potentially an A+ Self-Mocker. And bridging daunting divides like that is his specialty.

Busy Tonight, which airs Sunday through Wednesday nights on E!, is tough sledding unless you’re a superfan of Philipps, social-media geniuses, or the adorable baby-deer stumbles of new talk shows. Then again, nobody has this dark art mastered in Week 1: Early Conan was wobbly for years, and early Fallon was worse than you either remember or imagine. Furthermore, Philipps, a veteran of Freaks and Geeks (and Cougar Town!), knows a little something about adorably weaponizing awkwardness.

Nobody on this show quite knows what to do with his or her body yet, from your host to her cameramen to her trio of writers, propped up in comfy chairs in the front row of the audience and looking none too comfortable. (Though Shantira Jackson, who is charged with making Philipps more “relatable,” does get off some good lines: “Thumbs-up if it’s relatable. Thumbs-down if it’s white-lady nonsense.”) Among the onstage tchotchkes is a landline phone to which, we are told, only Oprah Winfrey has the number; Philipps is very eager for that phone to ring. She is, above all, wildly aspirational. Scoff all you want, but please revisit this line from her 2017 New Yorker profile:

Philipps recently got a deal for an essay collection—an editor at Touchstone was a fan of her Instagram Stories—which, Philipps told me via text, she hopes will put her on the side of Mindy Kaling and Tina Fey in the class divide of women and comedy, as opposed to the reality-star class that includes Tori Spelling and Jenny McCarthy.

... and then consider that her book, October’s This Will Only Hurt a Little, is a best-seller, and Mindy Kaling was the first guest on her new talk show, which is executive-produced by Tina Fey. Philipps is both loopy and wise, underprepared and overpoweringly confident. “This is so exciting!” she declared on night one. “I kind of, like, can’t even. But we sort of—we have to.”

Her first episode featured glasses of sangria with Mindy Kaling, and was not exactly revelatory.

“Mindy, I have to ask you a question, I don’t even know if this was prepped for you,” Philipps trilled. “When is your fashion line coming out? You have to be doing one.” (Kaling does not have a fashion line, but if she did, she says, it would be called “Spinster.”) Round 2, on Monday night, featured margaritas with Vanessa Hudgens. (They talked Coachella, SoulCycle, Jennifer Lopez’s aura, and the empowering concept of “saying yes to things.”) Busy Tonight is designed to be reactive to current events, from the viral Justin Bieber burrito hoax to the Japanese princess who gave up royalty to marry a commoner. (This gives Philipps a chance to explain Japanese imperial law, which she regards as “very patriarchal and annoying to me.”) For the last segment of every show she changes into her nightgown (named “Mr. Nightgown”), puts both glasses in the sink, and sings a little song.

The Busy Tonight premiere included a bit where various talk-show luminaries—Colbert, Bee, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, Andy Cohen, and Andy Richter—wished Philipps well, which she framed, bizarrely, as her peacekeeping attempt to avoid reigniting “the late-night wars,” a concept she then had to explain to her many viewers too young to remember them. “For those of you that don’t know, the late-night wars were when the hosts of late-night shows were fighting with each other in the ’90s for top ratings,” Philipps said. “It was really intense. They all wanted one show, and now, you know, everyone gets a show. Even me.” It’s getting awfully crowded in the talk-show realm, and the odds—as Michelle Wolf, or Joel McHale, or even Chelsea Handler will tell you—aren’t great. But early wobbliness might be a necessary component of greatness.