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Lying in Comedy Isn’t Always Wrong, but Hasan Minhaj Crossed a Line

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 Hasan 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 F.B.I. 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 this year, Taylor Tomlinson 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, like 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 Hasan 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.

GUY ADAMS: Why was self-confessed narcissist Russell Brand ever lauded by the Left? How the liberal media feted the comedian as a political messiah – and set him on his path to …

A very special guest shambled his way into the Guardian newspaper’s morning editorial conference and took a seat next to editor Alan Rusbridger on a striking yellow designer sofa.

As fawning journalists fluttered their eyelashes and giggled into cups of Fairtrade coffee, the Hollywood star, who was wearing a grubby white vest, a scarf covered in crosses and a purple beanie hat, shared a range of largely Left-leaning views on the big stories of the day.

It was Russell Brand, recently divorced from U.S. pop star Katy Perry. After five years in Los Angeles, the comedian, actor and bestselling author was back in the UK, hoping to launch a new career in the current affairs business.

The August 2013 meeting kicked off a series of high-profile and doubtless lucrative collaborations between Brand and various pillars of Britain’s liberal media establishment. Eventually, it would also set him on the path to becoming a conspiracy-peddling crank. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

In mid-September that year, Rusbridger persuaded Brand to write a 2,300-word article for the Guardian (the first of several columns) offering ‘his side of the story’ after being ejected from a GQ awards party for cracking a risqué joke about sponsor Hugo Boss’s historical links to the Nazis.

The August 2013 meeting kicked off a series of high-profile and doubtless lucrative collaborations between Brand and various pillars of Britain’s liberal media establishment

A very special guest, Brand, shambled his way into the Guardian newspaper‘s morning editorial conference and took a seat next to editor Alan Rusbridger on a striking yellow designer sofa

The following month, Brand edited that other bible of socialism, the New Statesman. His edition featured contributions from such celebrity chums as actor Alec Baldwin, Oasis singer-songwriter Noel Gallagher and Left-wing Canadian writer Naomi Klein, along with an essay by Brand himself, who wittered on about ‘revolution’ for 4,500 words and joked that he wanted to rename the weekly periodical ‘Nude Statesman’. To publicise the initiative, Brand was promptly invited on to Newsnight by the show’s new boss Ian Katz, a chum of Rusbridger who’d just moved to the BBC after years in the Guardian’s deputy editor’s chair.

‘What gives you the right to edit a political magazine when you don’t even vote?’ asked veteran host Jeremy Paxman.

‘I was politely asked by an attractive woman,’ said Brand.

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