Hasan Minhaj has responded to the September New Yorker article about his “emotional truth” in comedy. He does a really good job laying out the three biggest “charges” in the article, that he made up incidents involving racism, racial profiling, and personal threats against his family. He has audio and email receipts that show his interviews and interactions with The New Yorker’s Clare Malone, and how his responses to her questions about his act were reduced to make him look like a “psycho”. He is most successful at showing how this “hit piece” came together—and we have to call it a hit piece, because it effectively cost him the hosting gig on The Daily Show.
This has been a hot topic among comedians since the article was published. Of the comics I’ve talked to about this over the last month, pretty much everyone feels Hasan got did dirty, but also…he left himself open to it by over-exaggerating in his act. One New York-based comic who regularly performs in the same clubs as Hasan, put it like this in an email: When I exaggerate, it’s to make something funnier than it really was in the moment for the benefit of the audience. Somehow when Hasan exaggerates, he’s the hero. It’s never about them, it’s always about him.
“Hero” came up a lot. Anthony Jeselnik put it similarly on his podcast, saying, “If you change a joke to make it funnier, great. […] If you change the joke to make yourself like a hero […] it’s a problem.” (Fully acknowledging that Anthony Jeselnik is a handsome white guy whose entire stage persona is built on the idea that handsome white guys can get away with anything.) This was the common sentiment among the comedians I spoke to, all of whom are gigging comics, making similar judgment calls about when and how to turn up the dial on a joke to get a better audience response. There was a consistent feeling that Hasan was doing too much, his exaggerations going too far. We’ll circle back to this.
Going back to the idea of hyperbole in comedy, where Hasan still isn’t quite explaining his process is that what he’s doing isn’t hyperbole. He’s inventing scenarios. He does clarify in his video response what is and isn’t true, such as his prom date bailing on him because her family didn’t want pictures with a “brown boy” being seen by their family. He clarifies that this incident did occur, just that it happened a few days before prom, and he changed it to happening the moment he arrived for said photos so that it landed as a bigger gut punch with the audience.
Much of his explanation comes down to exaggerating in order to elicit specific emotional responses from the audience, which isn’t inherently a bad thing. Comedians calculate the exact words and rhythms of those words to get the biggest response, either the biggest laugh or the gasp of revelation when their act takes a turn for the serious, such in the work of Hannah Gadsby. But it’s not the exaggerations that bother me, it’s the fabrications.
In The King’s Jester, Hasan tells a story about an informant infiltrating his mosque and harassing Hasan and his friends. The punchline involves Hasan showing a real news clip of a real FBI informant, Craig Monteilh. It makes it seem like Craig Monteilh was the “Brother Eric” infiltrating his mosque. But Monteilh was in prison during the time Hasan is talking about and didn’t start informing until 2006. In his comments to Clare Malone, Hasan says, “It doesn’t matter if his name was Eric, Craig, or Adam.” If it doesn’t matter what his name was, then why make it seem like Craig Monteilh was the guy infiltrating your mosque?
That’s the hitch for me. I don’t doubt for one second Hasan Minhaj faced racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and harassment as a Muslim living in post-9/11 America. And I believe him when he says someone infiltrated his mosque and harassed him and his friends. I just don’t get why, then, include the news clip Craig Monteilh? He’s not an idiot, he knows the audience will interpret that as Brother Eric = Craig Monteilh. But again, if the informant’s name doesn’t matter, why involve Craig Monteilh at all? The joke still works that Hasan’s dad didn’t recognize the guy as an informant without the news clip. He can still get his point across without the news clip and the misconception it breeds.
Another comedian brought up the issue of personas. We’ve seen how comic personas can bite a person on the ass when their real life deviates from the stories told on stage, such as John Mulaney, comic wife guy, getting divorced and immediately having a kid with someone else. People got mad at Mulaney because this was contrary to how he presented himself on stage, to the extent that his latest special is basically about blowing up his persona. What this comic had to say about Hasan’s situation is that Hasan was juggling “too many personas”. There’s Hasan, the guy people know from clubs and working around the New York comedy scene. There’s Hasan the stand-up, and there’s Hasan the host. This comic blamed the problem on not enough separation between Hasan the stand-up and Hasan the host, that his jobs on The Daily Show and hosting Patriot Act transferred undue gravitas to his stand-up act.
Hasan himself acknowledges the difference between political comedy and stand-up comedy and seems to delineate his work on Patriot Act from his stand-up…without acknowledging how much his stage act resembles his show. This was my initial reaction—if Hasan presented these stories more clearly as “characters” no one would care about exaggeration or even fabrication because it would be clear the story is taking place in a fictional context. But his specials look so much like episodes of Patriot Act it’s hard to tell the personas of the person apart. We trusted Hasan to deliver facts on Patriot Act, then he’s using the same methodology for his stand-up, why would we doubt it?
Except people did doubt it. Other comedians, the people gigging with him around New York, working material at clubs like the Comedy Cellar, they had doubts. Every single person I talked to was consistent in thinking another comic in the running for The Daily Show alerted Clare Malone and/or The New Yorker to Hasan’s discrepancies. Everyone agrees it IS a hit piece, designed to turf him out of the race to host The Daily Show (which it did). But everyone also agrees there was already a lot of side-eye floating his way, that people knew he was bullsh-tting a little too hard, and that the door was already propped open for someone to come in and start asking questions.
The irony is that Hasan Minhaj IS a good comedian. He’s a great writer and performer. His anthrax scare story could be just as real, upsetting, and funny without the “powder touched my baby, and we went to the hospital” bit. He says he made that up to divert attention from his wife, because audiences thought she came across as “nagging” in the original story. I don’t believe Hasan Minhaj couldn’t find another way to tell the story without his wife being misconstrued that way. And if he was going for an “emotional truth” about the pressure, stress, and real harassment he endured after an episode of Patriot Act about Saudia Arabia was pulled from air, the real examples he gives in his videos are just as scary, could be spun for the same “emotional truth”…there’s just no trip to the hospital. Tagging your baby’s stroller to prevent kidnapping is terrifying! That could have been the bit! And it was 100% real!
Hasan lost The Daily Show gig, and I’m not sure his apology cum explanation is enough to get him back in the running for that. Because now people are going to wonder what he says is true, and what isn’t, because again, his stage and host personas weren’t separated enough for people to know when it was okay for him to exaggerate, even fabricate, and when he was sticking to facts, and there is some assumption The Daily Show host is telling the truth from that chair. Hasan seems to understand this, he just didn’t draw that line firmly enough between his “political comedy” and his “stand-up comedy” (and also not acknowledging his stand-up IS political comedy). But he can come back, and I look forward to it. I expect, like John Mulaney, the post-persona blowup special will be the best of his career to date.