American standup comedian Hasan Minhaj was considered the leading candidate to replace Trevor Noah as host of The Daily Show this year. Then The New Yorker published an article detailing how Minhaj overexaggerated or fabricated parts of his standup comedy act.
“To anyone who felt betrayed or hurt by my standup, I am sorry. I made artistic choices to express myself and drive home larger issues affecting me and my community. And I feel horrible that I let people down,” Minhaj said in an apology video published last week.
“The reason I feel horrible is because I’m not a psycho. But this New Yorker article definitely makes me look like one. It was so needlessly misleading, not just about my standup, but also me as a person,” said Minhaj.
The spat has led to a debate about bending the truth in comedy. While some say that Minhaj’s approach to standup is kosher, others say it compromises his integrity and makes him unfit to take over as host of The Daily Show, the satirical news and current affairs program.
In the video, Minhaj went on to share evidence he said would provide further context to the New Yorker story, including a recording of his interview with the reporter who wrote the story.
Some of the stories in his standup specials were about his experiences with racism and discrimination as an Indian Muslim man in America.
Minhaj acknowledged in the article that some of those stories were untrue, but he said they were all based on “emotional truths.”
Exaggerating for a punchline vs. emotional response
According to Roy Wood Jr., a former correspondent for The Daily Show who left the program early last month, comedians doctor their material all the time.
“That part I don’t think we’ll ever get around,” he said in a conversation on CBC’s Commotion. “But there are very few comedians that doctor things for the sake of emotion.”
25:00Hasan Minhaj fights for his reputation, with Roy Wood Jr. and Ali Hassan
During his 2022 standup special The King’s Jester, Minhaj tells a story about opening a letter filled with white powder — which he believed was anthrax — in his apartment.
As he explains in the special, the powder accidentally spills on his infant daughter’s shoulder. He and his wife spend an unbearable night in the emergency room, wondering if she’d make it out.
This was during a period where Minhaj says he received death threats after Netflix pulled an episode of his show, Patriot Act, from streaming in Saudi Arabia, allegedly at the request of the country’s government.
Minhaj later said that he did get an envelope filled with white powder, but the substance never fell on his daughter and that he quickly realized it wasn’t anthrax.
Comedians generally don’t let truth stand in the way of a good story, said Ali Hassan, host of CBC Radio’s Laugh Out Loud, during the same conversation on Commotion.
“This happened then, but it would be funnier if it happened and this other thing [happened],” he said, describing how someone might conflate two stories to amp up the laughs.
What Minhaj did was different, Hassan explained, because he altered the story to coax an emotional response from the audience, not to make them laugh.
“It’s one thing to give you my laughter, but to give you like, my heart, my emotion, you know, my heart goes out to you. I feel it’s different. And I feel like certainly I see where people feel wronged by that,” Hassan said. “I’m on the side of the people. And I’m never on the side of the people!
WATCH | Minhaj responds to The New Yorker’s story:
Distinction between standup, Daily Show host role
Wood Jr. says that while he doesn’t think this will impact Minhaj’s overall career in comedy or performance, him hosting The Daily Show is likely out of the question now.
There’s a distinction between the role Minhaj plays as a standup comedian and the role he would play as Daily Show host, Wood Jr. said. In the latter role, the audience has an expectation that the host is speaking from a place of fact-based authority.
“I think the lesson that Hassan learned, or that I hope he learns from all of this, is that when you’re pedalling in the truth, it creates a different relationship with the consumer,” said Wood Jr., adding it’s something that has to be handled delicately and with a level of respect that regular standup comedians don’t have to worry about.
“The question becomes, can I trust you [in] the chair? And I think that’s why people were upset.”