Comedy can serve as an intellectual platform for processing life as well as having a good laugh. Hasan Minhaj, who I experienced August 2021 in New Haven, Connecticut, is one of my favorite comedians because he is a master of modern comedy. His relatable content and youthful take on the Indian American experience hit hard with many audiences, including me.
In Minhaj’s 2022 Netflix standup special, “The King’s Jester,” he tells a story about an FBI informant who infiltrated his family’s Sacramento-area mosque in 2002 while he attended high school. He describes Brother Eric, a white man who was trying to convert to Islam, gaining the trust of the mosque’s community. Minhaj says he decided to mess with Brother Eric, telling the man he wanted to get his pilot’s license. This leads to a dramatic retelling of how a young Minhaj was slammed into the hood of a cop car for being a supposed terrorist.
Years later while watching the news with his father, Minhaj recounts seeing a story about Craig Montelih, who assumed the cover of a personal trainer when he became an FBI informant in Southern California Muslim communities. Minhaj shows clips of news footage from a news report on Montelih, and segues to Hamid Hayat, who spent much of his adult life in prison due to a coerced confession.
Minhaj speaks about the fallout of the “Patriot Act” and displays threatening tweets sent to him. Most disturbingly, he relates a story about a letter filled with white powder that spilled on his young daughter. It turned out not to be anthrax, but still seemed a sobering reminder that Minhaj’s comedy has real-world consequences.
However, it was recently revealed that these jarring events were heavily, if not entirely, fabricated. Montelih, AKA Brother Eric, told a reporter for The New Yorker that Minhaj’s entire story was false. Montelih never even worked in Sacramento. In an interview for The New Yorker Minhaj admitted that his “daughter has never been exposed to a white powder, and that she hadn’t been hospitalized.” He had opened a letter that contained some sort of white powder, but never told anyone outside of his wife. Minhaj claims both these stories are based on “emotional truth”–that the ends justify the falsified means. “The punchline is worth the fictionalized premise,” he said.
The issue with this is how Minhaj treads dangerously into memoir territory, making heavy political statements that, when actually true, undermine his point. He claimed that he only used emotional truth in his comedy specials and not in “Patriot Act”. The question poses, ‘is he manipulating his audience?’. He doesn’t think so: “I think they are coming for the emotional roller-coaster ride.”
Yet these traumatic encounters he invented could be considered distasteful, since other people have actually experienced them. Though Minhaj may say his stories are grounded in truth, they didn’t actually happen to him. The key is that Minhaj’s work blurs distinctions between entertainment and opinion journalism. Embellishment for laughs is common; for example, Jerry Seinfeld said that most of his standup and opinions are completely made up, but no one expects serious commentary from comedians of his ilk.
Minhaj is making serious points about social justice issues, not just trying to get laughs, which separates him from a lot of the comedians he is trying to take refuge with. He has built credibility as someone who delivers news, as done through “Patriot Act” according to some of his staff had some dubious fact-checking rituals. Minhaj claimed that his act on the Netflix specials is character-based and that it differs from when he is delivering news, but he doesn’t distinguish well between the two personas. His tone is solemn and hushed as if to say “You have to believe me, these experiences happened to me and therefore, these points are valid.”
When Minhaj talks about weighty topics such as racial injustice or hate crimes, it feels like deception for him to cherry-pick the truth. One concern is the undermining of movements for justice. His invention makes it harder for people to believe and take seriously those who have genuinely experienced certain hardships.
One of his arguments is that when making a larger point, emotional truth is more important than the actual truth. Is he being held to an unfair standard? No one is criticizing white comedians for this, but his content is different and has to be taken more seriously, which is the core of the problem. While Minhaj may think his serial embellishments are the only way to air stories and build a platform, a flawed system doesn’t redeem a person who exploits it.