When Hasan Minhaj agreed to a New Yorker profile, he was surely thinking of the publicity—not imagining the shitstorm that would follow when the magazine’s fact-checkers uncovered that key bits in the comedian’s supposed “truths” were decidedly untrue.
Indeed, Minhaj has learned that not all publicity is good publicity. In a profile published Sept. 15, the magazine did not dance around the fact that Minhaj took these stories in question—particularly one about an anthrax scare and his interactions with an FBI informant—from his Netflix specials and used them in subsequent interviews, despite them being false, as ways to talk about how comedy has to be daring and truthful. The headline of the piece, “Hasan Minhaj’s ‘Emotional Truths’” laid it all bare, saying that the publication had found no evidence to support stories Minhaj told about being followed by an FBI informant as a teenager in California and his daughter being exposed to a mysterious white powder from a letter he received shortly after he criticized the leaders of Saudi Arabia and India on his now canceled Netflix show.
In the piece, writer Clare Malone says Minhaj’s encounters with the FBI informant couldn’t have happened, because the man in question was in jail at the time he claimed to have known him and that he never operated in the Sacramento suburbs, where the comedian grew up. Malone goes on to say that the story about his daughter and alleged anthrax does not pass muster. She says the New Yorker could not obtain verification from New York-area hospitals or among workers at his former residence to support the story.
When caught by the New Yorker’s notorious fact-checkers, Minhaj brushes it off by saying the stories he told contained “emotional truth” and that in this case, “the punchline is worth the fictionalized premise.”
He doubled down in an interview with Rolling Stone, by invoking “a haunted house” and saying that he had experienced situations that vaguely aligned with the stories he told in his specials and to the press. But Minhaj’s careful play on words leaves out some very harsh facts about the lies that he told.
For one, these were not mere exaggerations and hyperbole comedians are known for.
This was not like Joan Rivers saying she only does housework every six months or Wayne Brady acting like a thug around Dave Chapelle, bits where the audience is clearly in on the embellishment.
No, what Minhaj did amounted to the co-optation and appropriation of very real fears and experiences that Muslims in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe have been subject to since the so-called War on Terror was launched more than 20 years ago. If Minhaj simply wanted to talk about the well-documented surveillance of mosques in the United States and United Kingdom, he could have easily done so without implying he himself was a victim. Likewise, if he wanted to address the dangers journalists from countries like India and Saudi Arabia face for exposing their autocratic and illiberal leaders he didn’t need to concoct a tall tale involving his wife and daughter.
Journalist for The Intercept Murtaza Hussain took particular offense to this part, saying on Twitter that, “It's not OK to make up instances of threat over journalism. There are a lot of people really harmed or killed as journalists, mostly non-Westerners who are not famous and seldom talk about it, and it’s a disservice to them.”
Have no view on comedy ethics but its not OK to make up instances of threat over journalism. There are a lot of people really harmed or killed as journalists, mostly non-Westerners who are not famous and seldom talk about it, and its a disservice to them. https://t.co/ai3nAAm5An pic.twitter.com/AiHTJNaSDa— Murtaza Hussain (@MazMHussain) September 15, 2023
Unlike comedians who simply amplify their rather ordinary stories for laughs, Minhaj lied about politically charged scenarios in hopes of evoking pathos. By placing himself and his family at the center of these issues, Minhaj received not only sympathy, but also praise for exploring the “darker sides” of fame and for having “increased the peaks and valleys between sarcasm and sincerity” in comedy.
Simply put, he was given praise he did not earn, for an experience that was not his own.
Instead, he had appropriated the very real experiences and fears of countless other Muslims while continuing to claim that to him, “Great comedy is the art of confession.”
He had appropriated the very real experiences and fears of countless other Muslims while continuing to claim that to him, “Great comedy is the art of confession.”
However, what Minhaj ended up doing was taking credit, praise and sympathy for experiences that were never his, while claiming that he is like a court jester whose role is to “to show the king the truth,” because “comedy is about vulnerability.”
The fact that he lied is made all the more upsetting when one takes into account how sincere and emotional Minhaj seems when telling these stories in his specials, where he takes careful pauses and seems to become visibly choked up. But the acting wasn’t just relegated to his well-orchestrated specials. Minhaj suddenly turns stoic when asked about these same stories by professional journalists who take them for face value.
Defenders of Minhaj will say all comedians exaggerate and that comedy is not journalism or politics, meaning a comedian can take artistic license in order to gain a laugh. And the producers of The Daily Show seem to agree, as he is still in the running to replace Trevor Noah, who has referred to Minhaj as a “powerful voice for Muslims and immigrants.”
For me, though, that argument may work when Ricky Velez jokes about drug dealers who swim up to you in the beaches of the Dominican Republic, but what Minhaj did was much more serious. It was emotional manipulation, not “emotional truth.”
Published on September 18, 2023
Words by Ali M. Latifi
Ali M Latifi was born in Kabul and raised in California. He has been reporting from Afghanistan, Turkey and Greece since 2011. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, TIME and VICE News.