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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, April 19, 2024

Why do a comedian’s lies feel like a betrayal?

The New Yorker exposé revealing dishonesties in some of Hasan Minhaj’s comedy skits poses the question of comedians’ responsibility to truth and journalistic integrity.


Hasan Minhaj is pictured performing in 2016.

Last week, reporter Clare Malone published a New Yorker article that exposed the lies that litter comedian Hasan Minhaj’s popular Netflix specials. At first glance, this appears to be a nonissue. Why should we expect truth from comedians? In fact, comedy idol Jerry Seinfeld has said that all his jokes are made up. Comedians are not journalists, activists or educators. And yet, Minhaj has fashioned himself as all three.

On his Netflix show, “Patriot Act” (201820), Minhaj was a revelation — a Muslim Indian-American man taking on the establishment and speaking truth to power. With a mix of comedy and journalism, he tackled issues such as immigration, the NRA and Saudi Arabia over 40 powerful episodes. In his Netflix stand-up specials, he tells more personal stories, peppering lighthearted jokes between deeply emotional punchlines about his purported experiences, often involving racism or Islamophobia. He maintains some of the styling of “Patriot Act,” using news clips and photos to support his words, creating an aura of journalistic integrity.

In his first special, “Homecoming King” (2017), Minhaj describes asking a white friend to prom, only to find out that she is going with someone else when her mom turns him away at the door and says that, on a night when they’ll be taking photos, he won’t “be a good fit.” This poignant story of experiencing casual racism from people you thought you could trust speaks to the experiences of many Black and brown Americans. Yet the story is a lie. As Minhaj has admitted, the woman he is talking about actually turned him down days before the dance because she only saw him as a friend. She and her family have since faced online threats due to Minhaj’s failure to thoroughly conceal her identity.

This anecdote is only the tip of the iceberg. Malone combed through both his specials, finding that story after story was built on lies. He never met the FBI informant, Craig Monteilh, who he claims ate at his house in his second special, “The King’s Jester” (2022). Monteilh, to whom Minhaj says he owes nothing because he informed on the Muslim community, is one of the only FBI informants who has publicly spoken against the FBI’s program. Another story that didn’t happen? The emotional turning point of “The King’s Jester” occurs when Minhaj is eagerly opening a piece of fan mail and white powder falls onto his young daughter, which elicits a gasp followed by dead silence from the audience. He has spoken about this incident in interviews, yet never admits that it did not happen. Even the tweets he projects behind him, as evidence of the threats he received on social media, were heightened.

In his conversation with Malone, Minhaj acknowledged, but never apologized for, his untruths. He highlighted the importance of telling the “emotional truth” and explained that he was using stories that are “grounded in truth” in service of a meaningful argument. However, rewatching “The King’s Jester” with the new context of Minhaj’s falsehoods paints a new picture of this man who has become a paragon of Indian and Muslim-American representation. In it, Minhaj humorously emphasizes his obsession with clout, quoting his wife sarcastically saying, “I love how you only care about these issues when there’s a camera on you,” and repeating a bit where he says “Likes, comments, retweets!” like a man possessed. Toward the end, he more seriously considers the importance of trust between a comedian and an audience, saying, “Everything here tonight is built on trust. You trust me, I trust you” and “You can tell the difference between satire and sincerity. You know when I’m joking, you know when I’m being serious.” At first watch, I believed that. Now, I know that the moments he plays as sincere are deceitful. Meanwhile, the funny comments about his craving for Instagram likes seem to be the more honest truth. Minhaj isn’t really interested in taking down the man. Instead, he has used his community’s painful experiences and eagerness for representation to gain the clout he so desires.

Malone’s article also mentions allegations of gender-based discrimination made against the production company of “Patriot Act” by three female employees, all women of color. Other employees claim he was frustrated by the fact-checking process interfering with creativity, despite the clear importance of fact in a show tackling such contentious issues, and that he sidelined the contributions of female researchers. Though Minhaj has stated that everything in “Patriot Act” was rigorously fact-checked, these allegations, if true, reveal Minhaj’s dedication to his own vision over bringing the truth to light or directly supporting those he claims to represent.

Ultimately, Minhaj both implicitly and explicitly told his audience they could trust him, as he repeatedly lied, including in ways that implicated real people. He told stories of experiences many brown Americans have had as if he’d experienced them too, painting himself as a fellow victim of discrimination, and building a bond with a whole community that has now been revealed to have a foundation of sand. Even at his most truthful on “Patriot Act,” he failed to support women of color, despite painting himself as a champion for the brown community. Though comedy doesn’t always require truth, Minhaj persuaded us that he was more than the jester he’s turned out to be. That’s why the truth feels like a betrayal.