Tuesday, January 9, 2024
Year : 1, Issue : 19
by Syeda Ahmed
Depending on the framework it wasn’t really a scandal at all. An up-and-coming comedian embellishing his stories: raising the stakes to win a few more laughs is hardly groundbreaking news. Yet when that comedian is Hasan Minhaj, who’s known to blur the lines between his comedy and political messaging, the public seems to take the difference between fact and fiction very seriously.
From his early days as a correspondent on The Daily Show to the host of his own Netflix Specials like Homecoming King Minhaj used his comedy to shine light on personal experiences of racism and Islamophobia he’d experienced growing up as an Indian-American Muslim post 9/11. His wild success and witty political commentary made him a favorite for the new host of The Daily Show following Trevor Noah’s retirement until a New Yorker article fact-checked the integrity of those stories ruined his chances. As it turns out, America has a soft spot for skinny guys with funny names until they’re accused of lying, even when it’s inherent to the nature of their job.
The 10 minute long article by Claire Malone deep dived into the discrepancies between the narratives of racism that underlie the humor of Minhaj’s shows and what “actually’ happened. After sitting down with Minhaj and getting him to admit on record to embellishing some of his stories to reveal the greater “emotional truths,” Malone wrote an expose style article about how his made up racism actually undermines the very real experiences of Islamophobia people go through. In a 20 minute youtube video responding to the accusations leveled against him, Minhaj accuses the New Yorker of leaving out essential context in their discussions and stands by his “emotional truths,” not in defense of lying but because his sets were meant to speak to universal experiences that Muslims and South Asians go through.
Despite the explanation video, including audio and email receipts that made it very clear that The New Yorker cherry picked, and at times completely misrepresented the snippets that made it into the article, a lot of folks had already made up their mind about him. Most people know better than to expect the complete and utter truth from comedians, but Malone’s article suggested that Minhaj was emotionally manipulative for creating sets with social justice undertones when they weren’t the complete truth.
The fallacy of this framework is that Minhaj presented real evidence that these were based on true stories. Maybe they were both in the wrong for their lack of transparency and selective narratives, but the truth is emotional truths are a lot less problematic than Claire Malone would like us to think. As a prolific reader of realistic fiction, a genre that often uses universal experiences of social struggle as a backdrop for a gut-wrenching story, I can tell you that emotional truths are a literary device. And as the daughter of storytellers who double as Desi parents with a flair for the dramatic, I can tell you that emotional truths allow us to better understand and resonate with the stories that would otherwise go untold.
Comics get to say all the things that might otherwise be too provocative for polite society. Taking part in a stand up comedy show means entering into a social agreement that permits the comedian to take creative liberties with parts of their stories in exchange for a few chuckles and eye-opening perspectives. Comedians like Hasan Minhaj using their storytelling skills to advance diverse and necessary perspectives should not have to go on trial.
Even if Minhaj was deserving of some of the heat he received, the shoddy framework of Malone’s New Yorker article was at best petty, and at worst counterproductive. She argued that Minhaj’s comedy downplays the urgency of real racism, when in reality her smear campaign against Minhaj probably delegitimizes South Asian and Muslim voices more than he ever did.
Although Minhaj has recovered from the setback, with the New York Times even going as far as to suggest that this scandal was the best thing to happen to his career after the success of his most recent special “Off with His Head,” it seems that he’s permanently out of the running for host of the Daily Show. The scandal that wasn’t really a scandal has still done its damage because we’ve missed the opportunity to see an Indian American Muslim final in the driver’s seat of such an influential industry. The real punchline of this joke is another Muslim American being a casualty of America’s so-called “investigative journalism”.
Author is a student at the Bronx High School of Science.