In the comedian James Acaster’s four-part Netflix special Repertoire — one of the most masterful stand-up specials I have seen — the easily flabbergasted British comic talks about how he isn’t a comic after all, but instead an undercover policeman attempting to infiltrate the drugs-and-rebellion world of stand-up comedy. In order to keep up the pretence of being a comedian, he had to keep booking and performing more gigs, and therefore, for all intents and purposes, become a comedian. It’s an outrageous conceit, and while Acaster stays consistent to this absurdist premise over the course of his performance, never once do we believe a word.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is a joke. There is no suspension of disbelief required, for the audience understands exaggeration and metaphor and comedic license. A joke is not meant to be taken on face value (or long-face value, if you’re a horse) and nobody has ever mistaken the story of an Irishman and a Catholic walking into a bar for reportage. Literality really is not the point.
Why, then, are we up in arms about Hasan Minhaj for making up stories about being strongarmed up by a policeman and about anthrax falling on his infant daughter? Last week New Yorker journalist Clare Malone ran an article that showed how Minhaj — in his Netflix specials Homecoming King (2017) and The King’s Jester (2022) — had made up most of the most touching stories. Minhaj stands by this fictitious approach, arguing that his exaggerations come from an “emotional truth.” “The punch line,” Minhaj told Malone, “is worth the fictionalized premise.”
This is not entirely inaccurate. It is true that comedians routinely exaggerate for effect and conflate stories together, to line their gloves with lead in order to land the heftiest punchlines. It is also true, for instance, that no serious journalist ever investigated whether Dave Chappelle actually met OJ Simpson four times, even though the specificity of those encounters is structurally integral to Chappelle’s superb special The Age Of Spin (Netflix). He’s literally using juice to tell a story.
Minhaj, however, is a different kind of comedian. A Muslim-American performer who primarily rose to fame as a correspondent on The Daily Show, he went on to host the White House Correspondent’s Dinner and, alongside his award-winning Netflix specials, started his own truth-telling show Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj (Netflix) where he stood inside a hyperactive powerpoint presentation to point fingers and hurl statistics at the wealthy and the wicked. One episode titled ‘Saudi Arabia’ that was strongly critical of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman was removed from Netflix in that country, while in other episodes he critiqued world leaders like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and even India’s Narendra Modi.
It is therefore disconcerting — and fundamentally disappointing — that Minhaj, in his specials that speak mostly about his own identity (they are classified by Netflix under the tag “Personal Storytelling”), has been lying to us. Truth has been an integral part of his crusading brand of comedy. He has consistently leaned on his Muslim American identity in order to make large and important statements about race and racism, and knowing that the big things didn’t really happen to him unfortunately take away from the valid points he has made.
In The King’s Jester, Minhaj speaks of an envelope with white powder mailed to his home. He says this accidentally spilled on his daughter and she was rushed to the hospital, where the doctor told him it wasn’t anthrax, but this was enough to panic his wife who told him never to “put my kids in danger again.” It’s a sobering and alarming story, but in real life Minhaj now says he had simply joked to his wife about the possibility of a letter containing anthrax. This feels not merely manipulative, but fraudulent.
The main reason this feels like a betrayal is because Minhaj doesn’t really tell jokes. His performances belong to the kind of confessional stand-up comedy exemplified most iconically by Hannah Gadsby with her 2018 special Nannette (Netflix), where the Australian comedian demonstrated that stand-up comedy does not even have to be comedic so long as it stands up powerfully enough. Nanette, like Homecoming King, won a Peabody Award, an award that was first considered the radio industry’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, given out for stories of exceptional public interest. We have long considered Minhaj journalistic, even though he may now shy from that label.
Comedians have been called the modern-day philosophers, and while they may be far from that, it is their insights — however bite-sized — that are finding ubiquity by being shared relentlessly across the internet. At a time when the news media appears increasingly pliant to the powers that be, and therefore unwilling to name names, comedians seem more willing to get their hands dirty. Is it any wonder that some of us are beginning to look to them for answers?
To me, the most telling nugget about the Minhaj fabrications is that even the tweets and social media messages threatening him, shown behind him on screen, are fake, exaggerated for effect. Back in the day, my reviews burned up the messageboards below, and spawned “I hate Raja Sen” groups on Orkut. As anybody who has been flamed by faceless masses would agree, the nastiness and toxicity of trolls does not need to be “exaggerated for effect.” This means that even Minhaj’s self-righteousness, however well-intentioned, is performative. Here is a privileged artist pretending to have been shunned. We’re angry not just because these things didn’t happen to Minhaj, but because many of them have happened to us. We’re angry because the joke is on the believer.
South African comedian Trevor Noah is touring in India this week, and the former host of The Daily Show has some great stuff on Netflix. Afraid Of The Dark (2017), Son Of Patricia (2018) and I Wish You Would (2022) are all insightful and sharp, with the third one demonstrating just how much Trevor loves Indian food.