Hasan Minhaj’s popularity has largely stemmed from his ability to tell jarring truths about being Muslim-American in humorous tones. Heartbreaking realities are much more palatable, especially for non-brown audiences, when told flippantly. It has been well documented throughout history that comedy is a form of social commentary. However, it is clear that some of the Minhaj’s tales that spark chuckles are often only ostensibly true.
Hasan Minhaj told his stories with so much sincerity that it was hard to see them as anything but cold, hard facts. From his famous anecdote about being too brown for a white girl’s parents to let him escort her to prom to his sorrowful telling off the “American Dream Tax,” where immigrants endure discrimination as a price for opportunity, Minhaj is clearly looking for more than just laughs and his audience’s reactions clearly demonstrate this. There are moments in the Netflix Special Homecoming King where the audience goes silent, as Minhaj paints the scene of painful moments in his life.
The perception of Hasan Minhaj’s comedy as autobiographical makes it much harder to look past The New Yorker journalist Clare Malone’s recent piece detailing how Minhaj fabricates his stories.
While comedians are often allowed to subvert the ethical standard of lying for the sake of their art, Hasan Minhaj is much more than just a comedian. Like many comedians, Hasan Minhaj strategically plays the fool or the drunkard in his specials. But more than that, Minhaj exploits his identity to play the victim. Malone discusses how Minhaj drives home “emotional truths” not based on factual events. Minhaj justifies his lies as grounded in an emotional truth: the story may not be true, but the heartbreak behind it rings true.
I’m personally inclined to support this stance. How Minhaj chooses to convey his heartbreak is irrelevant to me: how it makes me feel and think is my primary concern. While ethically questionable, Minhaj’s deliveries force his audiences to think about race and other uncomfortable issues.
However, Minhaj sometimes goes too far, not considering the repercussions of his lies. In Homecoming King, Hasan Minhaj tells the story of a white woman he was supposed to accompany to senior prom. He says that here bigoted parents crush his dreams, saying it would be more appropriate if her photos were with a white man. When asked about the story, the woman said that she simply rejected Minhaj, something he himself acknowledged in The New Yorker. I don’t believe the stories carry the same emotional truth in these two instances. A story of masculinity and entitlement was purported to be one of racism and bigotry. In embellishing the truth, Minhaj is putting someone else’s reputation at stake for the sake of a bit. The woman and her family faced online threats because Minhaj did not properly conceal her identity.
Homecoming King and King’s Jester, the two works that could be considered Minhaj’s magnum opus, tell harrowing details of racism and bigotry in the United States. The emotion these spark within audiences is real, and the reflection they cause is absolutely necessary. Minhaj is allowed to fabricate his stories to a certain extent, and his specials can still be enjoyed and learned from. However, in deciding what fabrications to add, he needs to be more cautious about who his lies may impact and the damage they can do outside of educating audiences about racism.
Lying in comedy is not wrong and often allows for more versatile art. Jokes don’t need to be fact-checked. However, “lies involving real people should add a new sense of obligation,” says Jason Zinoman, a New York Times comedy critic. Turning stories about real people into lies could make more than just the storyteller come off as a clown. While I certainly think Hasan Minhaj is allowed to stretch the truth, he needs to tread with caution. Certainly, Minhaj shouldn’t be upfront about his stories being fairy tales; their emotional impact would cease.
Minhaj certainly tells emotional truths, and he should continue to operate on that policy. If it makes his bits more entertaining, I hope Minhaj continues not to feel restricted by ethical obligations about lying. Comedians play the fool, and if Minhaj is exaggerating for this effect, I’m all for it. I loved Hasan Minhaj because he highlighted emotional realities with humorous routines, not because he’s lived a stylized life. But he cannot untruthfully make other characters clowns: they’re real people with real reputations, who might not have fame and money to protect them. However, right now, he’s only considering his emotions as the basis for emotional truth and shielding himself from the emotions of others.
It’s childish to assume that we’re alone in this world. Lying may be part of the art of comedy, but reckless insensitivity is not. It is, in fact, the very hatred Hasan Minhaj advocates against. In his comedy, Minhaj can play the victim, but he can’t make others play the villain.
Neil Mahto is a freshman from Albuquerque, N.M., majoring in Neuroscience and English.