When you see a stand-up comedian, it’s a given that everything you’re hearing may not be literally true. These are stories that have been tweaked and embellished for laughs after being told hundreds of times to all sorts of audiences. If you found out John Mulaney never actually encountered a man who professed “I am homeless, I am gay, I have AIDS, I’m new in town” (in that order), it would still be an effective bit of comedy writing. But wouldn’t you be a little disappointed?
It’s an even trickier case with Hasan Minhaj, who admits in a new New Yorker piece that he fabricated details of some of the stories he tells in his specials “Homecoming King” and “The King’s Jester.” These fabrications weren’t purely for laughs, but were specifically relevant to his experience as a non-white Muslim growing up in America. The character “Brother Eric,” a supposed FBI informant who infiltrated his family’s mosque, was completely made up, despite the fact that Minhaj named a real-life FBI informant as the culprit in “The King’s Jester.” Similarly, he made up the story of having to take his child to the hospital after she was exposed to a white powder they feared was anthrax from a threatening letter he’d received.
“Every story in my style is built around a seed of truth. My comedy Arnold Palmer is seventy per cent emotional truth—this happened—and then thirty per cent hyperbole, exaggeration, fiction,” Minhaj told The New Yorker. In his view, “The punch line is worth the fictionalized premise.” Yet there’s not necessarily a punch line to “My daughter was exposed to a substance that could have been anthrax.” In this case, the exaggeration doesn’t make the story funnier, just more upsetting.
The New Yorker explores other discrepancies in Minhaj’s stories that range in severity (e.g., his high school crush from “Homecoming King” rejected him days before the dance, not on the night of), and touches upon the accusations of gender discrimination behind the scenes of his show The Patriot Act. As a top candidate to host the next incarnation of The Daily Show, Minhaj may be held to a higher standard of truth than your average stand-up comic. He insists that all of his more journalistic endeavors on The Patriot Act were rigorously fact-checked and that his penchant for exaggeration is purely part of his stand-up persona. Will that delineation matter, though, if he loses the trust of his audience? You can decide for yourself by reading the full New Yorker piece here.