The Truthiness of Hasan Minhaj
Live long enough, and see yourself become the thing you parodied
In case you missed it, the New Yorker revealed that Hasan Minhaj, creator of the Netflix-series “The Patriot Act” and former correspondent/possible new host of “The Daily Show”, has exaggerated and fabricated stories in his standup comedy.
I, like other commentators, first heard this and thought: so what? Comedians make shit up all the time. Everyone knows comedy premises are often exaggerations and even straight-up fabrications. Consider this Dimitri Martin bit about his friend Billy:
The last time we were together, we were doing a roofing job on the top of a 40 story building. And while we were up there, Billy started getting depressed and he started talking crazy. And he went up onto the ledge and said he was gonna jump. It was too late. I couldn’t stop him. He jumped off the building.
Right after he jumped, I looked down and noticed that Trampoline Emporium was having a sidewalk sale that day. He landed on one of the trampolines and bounced back up. And just as he got to the level of where I was standing, he said, “You know, I think a lot of your joke premises are very contrived and hard to believe.” And that hurt a little bit.
The audience loves it the whole way through. There’s no gasp when Dimitri acknowledges what the audience knew all along: it’s all made-up. It’s all for fun.
So my initial reaction to Minhaj’s exaggerating and fabricating stories was a big shrug. Comedians more or less have a license to lie.
Consider the story of Brother Eric, which Minhaj tells in his Netflix special “The King’s Jester”. As described in the New Yorker article:
[Minhaj] relays a story about an F.B.I. informant who infiltrated his family’s Sacramento-area mosque, in 2002, when Minhaj was a junior in high school. As Minhaj tells it, Brother Eric, a muscle-bound white man who said he was a convert to Islam, gained the trust of the mosque community. He went to dinner at Minhaj’s house, and even offered to teach weight training to the community’s teen-age boys. But Minhaj had Brother Eric pegged from the beginning. Eventually, Brother Eric tried to entice the boys into talking about jihad. Minhaj decided to mess with Brother Eric, telling him that he wanted to get his pilot’s license. Soon, the police were on the scene, slamming Minhaj against the hood of a car.
As a kicker, Minhaj shows a news report about a mosque-infiltrating former FBI informant, Craig Monteilh. When Monteilh’s face came on the news, Minhaj said, he pointed it out to his dad: “It’s our good friend Brother Eric!”
The thing is, none of this happened.
There was no Brother Eric, no undercover FBI agent at Minhaj’s mosque, and no police officers slamming Minhaj against the hood of a car.
Bafflingly, the only real element is Craig Monteilh. He is a real person and real, mosque-infiltrating FBI informant. But he did not infiltrate Minhaj’s mosque, never knew Minhaj, and in fact was in jail at the time of the story. Yet Minhaj names him (and shows his face) on Netflix as though he were responsible for an entrapment scheme that never happened.
Watching the clip now, parts are still funny — Minhaj’s delivery is good! — but others are painful in their sanctimony. When his tone grows solemn as he describes being slammed against the car and watching “his friends from the mosque lined up on the curb”, which never happened, it feels… gross. Minhaj argues he’s shedding light on the oppression others experience, but it feels like he’s just co-opting it for his own gain.
Also, showing Monteilh’s name and face gives the story verisimilitude. It shifts it from “over-the-top comedy bit” to “fact-check me, bro.” Worst of all, in doing so, he’s exposing a real person to judgement for events that only exist in the mind of Hasan Minhaj.
Despite all this, I feel a tiny bit bad for Minhaj. Generally, we give standup comedians the license to lie; Minhaj believed that license had no limits. Many of us might have even agreed that were no limits — hence everyone’s initial reaction of “so what?” Unfortunately for Minhaj, there are limits. We’re just discovering them as we go.
Before Hasan Minhaj, before “Patriot Act”, before anyone had heard of John Oliver or Obama or Twitter, there was “The Daily Show”.
As a teenager in the early 2000s, “The Daily Show” was the source of political news. Sure, I’d glance at NYT headlines, but really, it was all about Jon Stewart. I’d go to my friend’s house everyday after school and, lazing in front of the TV, we’d tune in when “The Daily Show’s” infectious opening guitar riff kicked off. Recalling it now, I feel downright cozy.
We’d watch Stewart lambast the Bush administration, pussyfooting Democratic leaders, and, of course, cable news.
Stewart skewered cable news shows for offering emotion-based yelling matches under the guise of ‘political discourse’. Parodying them, “The Daily Show” had a debate segment called “Even Stevphens” featuring future stars Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert — that’s how stacked the show was — that began with Colbert asking “what’s the weather like up your own ass?”
This cable news-directed ire, a long-running undercurrent of “The Daily Show”, flooded forth when Stewart made a guest appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire”.
“Crossfire” was a half-hour debate show that featured Paul Begala, Tucker Carlson, and two guests, all of whom would yell partisan talking points over each other before returning to their respective cocoons. (Stewart once sarcastically referred to the show as “a nuanced public analysis show that is named after the stray bullets that hit innocent bystanders in a gang fight.”)
In Stewart’s appearance on “Crossfire” he didn’t pull any punches. He told Begala and Carlson that “this is theater”, “you’re hurting America”, and “you have a responsibility to the public discourse and you’ve failed miserably”. He also called Carlson a “dick” on air, which probably runs somewhat counter to the desire for better public discourse.
Stewart’s critique was the same as it always been: this is combat masquerading as discourse, entertainment masquerading as news.
The criticism landed. Within a year, CNN cancelled “Crossfire” and cut ties with Tucker Carlson. As reported by the NYT, new CNN President Jonathan Klein “specifically cited the criticism that the comedian Jon Stewart leveled at ‘Crossfire’ when he was a guest on the program during the presidential campaign.” Klein wanted more thought-provoking journalism, rather than the “head-butting debate shows” that were in vogue. Stewart had won.
Still, some commentators complained there was inconsistency, even hypocrisy, afoot.
Stewart criticized the big cable news shows for selling entertainment as news. But, in wrapping up the news in nice comedy packaging, wasn’t “The Daily Show” also kind of doing that? Weren’t they also lobbing soft-ball questions at friendly guests, while taking potshots at their opponents? Maybe they weren’t yelling at each other, but were they really a good model of journalism?
Carlson argued similar points to Stewart during his appearance on “Crossfire.” Stewart responded with his favorite defense: “You’re on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making prank phone calls.”
Even as a teenager, even loving Stewart and hating Carlson, this line felt like a copout.
Stewart was on Comedy Central, yes. And yes, his lead-in show was called “Crank Yankers”, which hinted that “The Daily Show” wasn’t exactly PBS Frontline.
But let’s be real: a huge swath of America at the time, especially teenagers and 20-somethings, got their news from “The Daily Show”. In 2009, Jon Stewart was voted America’s most trusted newscaster. (Also, I’ve never heard of anyone, ever, who watched Crank Yankers, and I half-believe that it existed only so that Stewart could use that line to dismiss criticism.) “The Daily Show” was news, even if they wanted to be news-flavored comedy.
Periodically, journalists expressed muted frustration with Stewart’s refusal to admit that the Daily Show was journalism. When Stewart retired, Bloomberg writer Will Leitch called the I’m-just-a-comedian schtick “disingenuous.” Most recently, Don Lemon was caught on a hot mic saying of Stewart, “He gets a lot of leeway with the comedian thing, though.”
Even for Stewart himself, the news vs. comedy thing caused cognitive dissonance. When NPR’s Terry Gross interviewed him, he claimed that “The Daily Show” wasn’t journalism and then tried to rationalize why, despite this, they have fact-checking:
We don't fact-check [and] look at context because of any journalistic criteria that has to be met; we do that because jokes don't work when they're lies. We fact-check so when we tell a joke, it hits you at sort of a gut level — not because we have a journalistic integrity, [but because] hopefully we have a comedic integrity that we don't want to violate.”
This justification is convoluted. Most stand-up comedians don’t fact-check their routines. Why would “The Daily Show” need to do so for comedic integrity? They needed to fact-check for journalistic, not comedic, purposes.
I suspect Stewart knew this even as he pleaded the Crank Yankers defense. Fact-checkers were necessary, but it’s unlikely they made the show funnier. Facts, messy and complicated and unsatisfying as they are, often can’t hit us at a gut level.
Over the years, “The Daily Show” and its spin-off, “The Colbert Report”, became cultural icons. By my count, they won 30 Emmys and were nominated for approximately 53 million more. They also launched dozens of careers (including Stephen Colbert into the CBS Late Show host) and a slew of similar news-based-comedy shows like “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver, “Full Frontal” with Samantha Bee, and “Patriot Act” with Hasan Minhaj.
As these shows grew in popularity and number, some comedians whispered their annoyances, most famously for “clapter”. As described by Tina Fey:
My friend, SNL writer Seth Meyers, coined the term clapter, which is when you do a political joke and people go, "Woo-hoo." It means they sort of approve but didn't really like it that much. You hear a lot of that on [whispers] The Daily Show.
Comedians hate clapter because it’s a cheap way to get the audience on your side. As Donald Glover complained in a Vulture interview :
There’s a lot of clapter going on. A lot of n***** be like … [Glover started clapping exaggeratedly] ‘So true, yes, so, so true.’ But what you did isn’t funny; they’re just clapping and laughing to be on the right side of history.
When the audience responds with clapter, the comedian hasn’t told a genuinely funny joke. They’ve only said something the audience agrees with or knows it should agree with, vocally.
Moreover, clapter can trap comedians in a cycle of audience capture. With clapter, the audience rewards comedians for the underlying message, rather than good jokes. The comedian responds to these rewards by saying more of what the audience wants to hear, and the audience expands and self-selects to match the message. Brick by brick, the audience and comedian build themselves an echo chamber.
In the New Yorker piece, Minhaj hints at the pressure to meet his audience’s expectations. He says his “day-to-day life is not very interesting or compelling [but his] comedy storytelling certainly has to be.” In his mind, the audience need stories that hit them in the gut, even if that means eschewing reality.
Ironically, this is the same force that shaped the disparaged cable news shows. “Crossfire’s” showrunners didn’t have talking heads yell at each other because they hated thoughtful discourse. They did it because the audience responded to it.
In recent years, cable news has become less “cage match” and more “echo chamber”. Audiences want to hear narratives that match their worldview, both in cable news and comedy. Contrary to Stewart’s claims, the truth doesn’t hit us in the gut; what feels like the truth does.
In the first episode of “The Colbert Report”, Colbert famously coined the term truthiness to parody Bush-era politicians’ and pundits’ preference for feelings over facts. Watching the monologue now, though, it’s shocking how well it translates as a critique of Hasan Minhaj.
In the New Yorker article, Minhaj defends his routines by saying, “My comedy Arnold Palmer is seventy per cent emotional truth—this happened—and then thirty per cent hyperbole, exaggeration, fiction.” He goes on:
I think [the audience] are coming for the emotional roller-coaster ride. To the people that are, like, ‘Yo, that is way too crazy to happen,’ I don’t care because yes, fuck yes—that’s the point.
According to the article, he claims “the ‘emotional truth’ of the story he told onstage was resonant and justified the fabrication of details.”
Compare this to Colbert’s truthiness monologue:
I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books; they’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me that the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I want to say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books — they’re all fact, no heart.
And that’s exactly what pulling our country apart today. Cause face it folks, we are a divided nation — not between Democrats and Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms, no. We are divided by those who think with their head and those who know with their heart. [The supporting graphics read: “Head bad, heart good.”]
The New Yorker article concludes with Minhaj saying, "The emotional truth is first. The factual truth is secondary.”
That’s where the truth comes from: the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your stomach than in your head? Look it up. Now someone’s gonna say, “I did look that up, and it’s wrong.” Well, mister, that’s cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, trying looking it up in your gut.
Colbert, of course, is playing a satirical character. Minhaj, in contrast, is saying it honestly.
There’s a bizarre full-circle-ness to this. One former Daily Show correspondent and political comedian parodied a viewpoint that, decades later, another former-Daily Show correspondent and political comedian seriously espoused. Colbert concludes his segment with, “Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.” Almost twenty years later, Hasan Minhaj did just that.
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538 fans may recognize Malone as the former MVP of the 538 Politics Podcast — always nice to see her succeeding.