Lying in comedy isn't always wrong, but Hasan Minhaj crossed a line

Digging into his last two specials, Malone reveals Minhaj as a comic who leans on fictions to make real-world arguments, putting himself closer to the center of news stories to make him seem more brave or wronged or in danger.
Last Updated : 21 September 2023, 00:11 IST

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When I first heard that The New Yorker had published an exposé on the veracity of the stand-up comedy of Hasan Minhaj, I rolled my eyes.

We’re fact-checking jokes now? Come on. Comedy is an art, not an op-ed. And honesty has always struck me as the most overrated virtue in comedy. But Clare Malone’s reporting in the piece is scrupulous and fair, if a little prosecutorial in its focus. It presents more questions than answers and should inspire some rethinking of the muddy relationship between comedy and truth.

Digging into his last two specials, Malone reveals Minhaj as a comic who leans on fictions to make real-world arguments, putting himself closer to the center of news stories to make him seem more brave or wronged or in danger.

To take one example, Minhaj says in “The King’s Jester” (2022) that after the government passed the Patriot Act in the wake of Sept. 11, an undercover FBI informant named Brother Eric had infiltrated his childhood mosque and had dinner at his house. Minhaj recalls how he sniffed him out and, in a prank, asked about getting a pilot’s license, which led to a police officer throwing him against a car.

The New Yorker found that there was such a man working in counterterrorism but that Minhaj never met him. Minhaj defended his fabrications as fibs in service to “emotional truth.” For someone in the running to be the next host of “The Daily Show,” that term sounds a little too much like Kellyanne Conway’s euphemism “alternative facts.”

Amid plenty of critics online, Whoopi Goldberg was one of the few major figures who spoke up for Minhaj, saying on “The View” that embellishing in the name of a larger truth is what comics do. But here is where some more context would be helpful.

Stand-up comedy was never expected to be factually accurate. Rodney Dangerfield, to be clear, got respect. In the setups for early jokes, Richard Pryor lied about having a Puerto Rican mother and living in a Jewish tenement. An old-school observational comic like Jerry Seinfeld has said all his comedy is made up, even his opinions.

But in the past few decades, with the rise of “The Daily Show,” which has blurred lines between comedy and the news, as well as the proliferation of confessional solo shows that depend on dramatic revelations that dovetail nicely with jokes, the form has evolved and so have audiences’ assumptions. And they vary wildly depending on the artist.

In Sebastian Maniscalco’s last special, “Is It Me?,” he told a story poking fun at a kid in his child’s class who identifies as a lion. Asked by The Daily Beast, he said that this wasn’t true, but that he used it because it puts “a mirror on society” — another kind of emotional truth. Minhaj’s inventions were part of the same tradition, one that deserves new scrutiny.

It’s also important to point out that many current comics think seriously about their fictions, setting their own code. “I am quite strict about telling the truth,” Daniel Kitson once told me. “I am interested in engaging emotionally and I don’t want to be duplicitous.”

In an interview with Taylor Tomlinson this year, she told me she cut a joke about being single after she started dating someone because even that minor white lie made her uncomfortable. Many other comics, including Kate Berlant, build unreliability into their acts. Others lie so overtly that it sets expectations. What’s tricky is that there is no one industry standard.

The reality is that some comics have more leeway toying with the truth than others. All artists teach their audience how to view them, by the way they tell jokes, their style, the level of absurdity. What makes Minhaj such a troubling example is that his style, onstage and often off in interviews, suggested we should believe him.

Minhaj is known for using visual aids the way a journalist would. He mixes clips of television news and photos from his life with a general tone of sincerity. The nature of his deceptions was peculiar. He didn’t invent stuff to make himself funnier. He did it to raise the stakes in the easiest, most self-regarding way possible.

Lying in comedy isn’t necessarily wrong. But how you lie matters. Minhaj has told a story about his prom date reneging on the day of the dance because her parents didn’t want her seen in photos with a “brown boy.” He now admits to some untruths in this story, but not all, and left her perspective out. (The woman has said she and her family faced online threats for years.) This genre of fiction is a shortcut to sympathy, an unearned tug at the heartstrings. It’s not a capital crime, but it’s an unnecessary and risky one.

Lies involving real people should add a new sense of obligation. The problem with only considering the standard of emotional truth is that it can blind you to the impact on the actual world outside your emotions. You could say that the emotional truth behind the Patriot Act was that the terrorism of Sept. 11 required extreme tactics to feel safe, but that doesn’t make the legislation right. The truth is usually more complex than the way you feel about it.

Watching “The King’s Jester” now hits differently. In some ways, it’s more interesting than the first time I saw it, when it seemed mawkish. Some jokes, like his desperation for social media clout, seem like clues. And others come across as the work of a guilty conscience, like the moment when Minhaj faces the audience and says: “Everything here is built on trust.”

This is the truth. Every comic has an unspoken pact with the audience. The one Seinfeld has is different from Minhaj’s, and part of the reason has nothing to do with their intentions. Whether or not critics like me think authenticity is important, it does matter to the audience. So does honesty. And comics understand that. It’s no accident that many of the political comedians working today, especially on television, employ researchers from traditional news sources. Getting facts right matters, especially when the comedy is about grave social issues.

That’s not just because a comic’s credibility can take a hit. When stories told about racism, religious profiling or transgender identity are exposed as inventions, that can lead to doubt about the experiences of real people.

When the storyteller Mike Daisey, making an argument about factory conditions in China, said he visited a sweatshop even though he hadn’t, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party used the resulting scandal to try to discredit all reporting by Western media. This kind of argument has only become more common. Look at Russell Brand’s defense against accusations of rape and grooming: He tried to discredit his accusers by saying you can’t trust the mainstream media.

One of the most notable aspects of the Minhaj story is the lack of nuance in his response, the complete confidence he projects. It’s striking that he seemingly has no concerns about possibly deceiving some of his audience. His special is about his wife challenging him to take responsibility for how his words can negatively affect his family. One wonders if there will be any more introspection.

In the summer, Minhaj interviewed former President Barack Obama and began by bringing up his annual best-of lists, skeptically asking if he really consumes all of those books, albums and movies. When Obama said he did, Minhaj pushed back: “No, you didn’t.”

Later on his podcast “Working It Out,” Mike Birbiglia asked Minhaj how he could be so bold with the ex-president. Minhaj said his question for Obama was “innocuous.” That seems like naïveté masquerading as savvy.

If Obama admitted to lying about even something that inconsequential, it would be a global story. We live in a world where people have long peddled conspiracies about him and would jump on any deception as evidence of some broader scandal. There’s a temptation to respond to the onslaught of lies by thinking that the only way to fight back is to lie some more. But that has it wrong. To quote Minhaj, everything is built on trust.

That trust operates differently for politicians and journalists than for artists, but it matters for us all. Treat it carelessly and the price can be steep.

Published 21 September 2023, 00:11 IST

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