On September 15, The New Yorker reported on how Indian-American comedian and political commentator Hasan Minhaj faked stories of racism and lied about his daughter being hospitalized. The article criticized Minhaj and exposed the embellishments he included in his Netflix specials, which caused disappointment among many of his fans and followers.
While fictionalizing is regular in comedy, I believe that Minhaj’s lies warp public perspectives of and show a lack of respect toward his relationship with the public.
Allegations and response
In Minhaj’s most recent Netflix special, The King’s Jester, he tells a story from less than a year after the September 11 attacks, when Muslim and brown Americans became the targets of extreme racism. He met a white man named Brother Eric, who claimed to be a personal trainer and wanted to convert to Islam at Minhaj’s mosque. Eventually, Minhaj learned that the man was an undercover FBI agent looking for opportunities to entrap Muslims.
Later, Minhaj tells a story from what happened after he criticized the Saudi Arabian government in his Netflix series Patriot Act. He received a letter containing mysterious white powder, which fell on his baby daughter. He and his wife had to rush her to the hospital, in fear of the powder being anthrax.
In Minhaj’s 2017 comedy special Homecoming King, he recalls when he asked out a white girl, whom he identified with the pseudonym Bethany Reed, to prom. On the day of prom, Minhaj saw Reed with a white guy at her doorstep because her parents did not want relatives to see pictures of her at prom with a brown guy.
The New Yorker argued that none of these events really happened. As a challenge to the article’s accusations of his lying, Minhaj released a video with an apology and explanation to the allegations. He claimed he dramatized the rejection to “drop the audience into the feeling of that moment.” The Brother Eric story was made up, but apparently a representation of real police altercations he and other Muslim Americans have experienced. The anthrax story was embellished, but a representation of the real fear that Minhaj and his family faced at the time because of his tensions with the Saudi Arabian population.
Great expectations and misinformation
Comedians have no obligation to tell the truth — but Minhaj is also a prominent political commentator. With Patriot Act, people come to Minhaj for news and facts on societal issues, world leaders, and other important information. Given this, I believe he has a responsibility as a truth teller. If Minhaj waltzes between fact and fiction, I question how anyone can trust anything he says on camera. Will his next stand-up special begin with a fictitious disclaimer?
In his video response, Minhaj stated that he saw a distinction between the expectations built on his work as a storytelling comedian and his work as a political comedian. For the former, he said he assumed that the “lines between truth and fiction were allowed to be a bit more blurry.” While I agree with him, I believe he must exercise caution because the personal is also political and he can easily cross the line that he set by taking his fictional anecdotes too far from the truth.
A few months prior to the accusations, The Daily Show was considering Minhaj to become the new host. After The New Yorker article was released, they had second thoughts — and I believe this was to be expected. Although it’s satirical, The Daily Show is a news show that discusses real events, and putting Minhaj at the forefront of the show would risk its credibility.
It is especially risky that Minhaj has fabricated stories of racism, because I believe this threatens the trust between him and his audience and undermines his other stories. For example, in Homecoming King, Minhaj recalls a time as a teenager after 9/11. Random people called his house, uttering racist slurs and death threats. Later, he and his dad went outside to see their Toyota Camry’s windows smashed in. When reaching for his bag in the car, Minhaj allegedly cut his arm on the broken glass.
But here’s the thing: we may never learn about the validity of this story. If we know he made up stories like the ones The New Yorker mentioned, I feel like I have no basis to believe this one, or any of his stories at all. To me, Minhaj is the boy who cried wolf.
Minhaj isn’t the only one
The New York Times held comedian Steve Rannazzisi to the same standard in an article back in 2009. In an interview, Rannazzisi told his story about how he used to work at the World Trade Center before entering the world of comedy. After 9/11, he had an epiphany and decided to pursue his dreams as an entertainer. He also talked about experiencing flashbacks after the traumatic experience.
However, there was no evidence of him working in the World Trade Center. Buffalo Wild Wings, an American casual dining restaurant and sports bar franchise who had aired a commercial of him, cut ties with him and stopped airing the advertisement when word of his lie got out.
Rannazzisi’s 9/11 tale was a sob story to rally the public by his side, and I believe Minhaj did the same thing. Both tried to claim narratives they thought would suit them. These actions are dishonest and exploitative. In my view, fictionalized comedy is only acceptable when done for the right reason: for laughs.
I believe that Hasan Minhaj is a great comedian and political commentator. I enjoy his work. His stand-up makes me laugh, and I learn a lot from Patriot Act. In fact, comedy is a great way to dissect important topics, as it helps promote the discussion of world issues and encourages social change. In my opinion, Minhaj is a great example of a man who capitalized on the American Dream, and made it to the top — with the help of deception.
I say it is okay to embellish in comedy — comedians regularly exaggerate and fictionalize. It is often part of the joke, and we love jokes. When it is used to manipulate us, however, it is wrong.
Minhaj brought clarity to the situation by making the response video, and the world now better understands his intentions. From now on, however, I think it’s crucial that he and other celebrity comedians are cautious about what they perform, and how it affects our world.
Christian Zdravko is a third-year student at UTSC studying journalism, anthropology, and creative writing.