Explore what makes you unique


Comedians are artists and storytellers. Some are rebels and iconoclasts. But their methods of ideation and execution are not always so different from those of an engineer or an entrepreneur.

Hasan Minhaj, the former Daily Show correspondent and host of Netflix’s Patriot Act, was the closing keynote of the Horizon 2021 Summit and shared the iterative process of his comedy number. Replace “joke” with “pitch” and “punchline” with “ad deck,” and his career path closely resembles that of a startup founder.

Whenever an idea pops up, Minhaj stores his thoughts in his smartphone notepad app – what he calls ‘Captain’s Diary for a Madman’, containing the most random array of ‘things you need to buy’. on Amazon, traumas from your childhood, and then just random ideas for a business. These thoughts are so personal, Minhaj says, that “I’d rather have nude photos of me leaked than people seeing my notepad app.” (His interviewer, San Francisco 49ers chief strategy officer Moon Javaid, says he’s doing the same, what a colleague calls “crazy dreams.”)

Other times, Minhaj will write freely in a spiral notebook, from which he will transfer that “rough brain vomit” into a Google Doc, the sterile, utilitarian tool used throughout corporate America. (“There’s something about a Google doc that just doesn’t look fancy,” he says.) He’ll take that material on stage, edit it, and transfer it into a second doc, a “slightly more chiseled”. Again, Minhaj will execute it, refine it, and then create a textual script – the “Old Testament, that is, the Ten Commandments carved in stone”.

The fourth part, he says, is to have fun and be ready to improvise when lightning strikes. “I think it’s really important not only in terms of performance but also in the business world,” he says. “Once I have this v3 on stage, I open the door a bit. So I let God into the room. So it’s just jazz. . . . That’s where preparation meets Magic.

Minhaj says he managed to get his parents on board with his acting career by applying the same hustle and bustle as a medical student or an engineer. (Minhaj, by the way, earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from UC-Davis, though he credited the Daily Show with giving his “Undergraduate degree in comedy.”) He is currently undertaking this process for his next project, his latest one-man show, “The King’s Jester.”

Through his public life, he seeks to defend the diversity of people and ideas in the media. Although he was born in California, his parents emigrated from India, and Minhaj says the Southeast Asian population has been financially, but not culturally, relevant. “My goal is to take our story from the margins to the mainstream,” he says.

As a Bay Area native, particularly born in the mid-1980s, Minhaj grew up cheering for the 49ers and he appreciated the individuality of its stars. He bought a Deion Sanders jersey because “Primetime was different from the rest”. He had a Steve Young poster because he was the quarterback who showed the sheer will to win by any means necessary. And he enjoyed watching security Merton Hanks who, due to his particularly long neck, did a chicken dance in celebration. “Lean on what makes you unique and special,” says Minhaj.

This is another principle, relevant for both actors and professionals. The same goes for the need for authenticity and self-mockery. Acknowledging one’s own flaws is the “ultimate sign, ironically, of confidence”. Not taking yourself too seriously on stage or in the boardroom can breed likability.

“Comedy is the public art of confession,” Minhaj says. “They make the audience laugh at the jester’s pain. In exchange for this, they too can forgive themselves some of the pain of the mistakes they have made. It is actually an act of love and empathy.

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