Stand-Up Comedy and Emotional Resonance

I recently read an article in The New Yorker magazine [LINK] about how the stand-up comedian Hasan Minhaj significantly exaggerated or conflated stories in his recent big stand-up comedy routines. In particular, these stories were about instances of racism or Islamophobia, including being the victim of police brutality, being part of a mosque that was infiltrated by an FBI agent, and being sent a mysterious powder that led to his child's hospitalization, that either didn't happen at all or were significantly exaggerated. As someone who has liked his work in the past and who could identify to some degree with his stand-up comedy material based on experiences as the child of immigrants from India, I found these allegations quite troubling, yet I also found myself struggling to articulate exactly why I found these allegations to be so troubling. This post is my attempt, in the current zeitgeist (as this is a very new story and new details could soon arise that would make this post irrelevant or incorrect), to make sense of these things. Follow the jump to see more.

My views of Hasan Minhaj's work before this article

I think it would be most fair for me to be clear about my own views of his work before I saw this article; there is always a chance that these views could be colored in hindsight by what I have thought since seeing this article, but I will do my best to keep those thoughts separate from what I remember. The first thing I saw by Hasan Minhaj was a funny video on Google Video (implying how long ago it was) about the "first Indian basketball player" named Ali Minhaj (though I didn't know the actor's name at that time, and it took me an embarrassingly long time even after I became more exposed to Hasan Minhaj's work nearly a decade later to realize that the Ali Minhaj video was produced by & starred Hasan Minhaj). About a decade later, I started to formally see him in The Daily Show, which was at that time hosted by Jon Stewart. I continued to see his work on The Daily Show when hosting duties transferred to Trevor Noah and then when Hasan Minhaj got his own show Patriot Act (not to be confused with, though inspired by, the name of the sprawling surveillance bill in the US that arose after 9/11). I also saw bits of his stand-up comedy on YouTube between 2015-2020, though I never saw any of his full stand-up comedy specials in person or through any streaming service; the only thing that came close was seeing a short stand-up comedy special that he performed for 20 minutes at Princeton University in 2017, which was followed by about 30 minutes of questions for & answers by him.

Hasan Minhaj was neither the first Indian-American stand-up comedian nor the first Indian-American correspondent on The Daily Show that I saw. However, on The Daily Show, I appreciated his youthful energy, and the writing of short bits for him seemed to work well with his style. In the bits of his stand-up comedy as well as the episodes of the show Patriot Act that I saw later, I felt like his energy & pathos were sometimes too much to handle, but I felt like the writing for both his stand-up comedy and the show Patriot Act did a good job of harnessing that energy toward solid jokes that also make emotionally heavy points as sociopolitical commentary; plus, I did feel when watching Patriot Act that I learned many things from that show that I wouldn't have come across elsewhere. That said, when he guest-hosted The Daily Show more recently (after Trevor Noah left the hosting job), I felt like his high levels of energy & pathos were too much for that show, so I actually hoped that he wouldn't be chosen as the permanent host. Additionally, although many friends of mine who are also Indian-American really liked his work for validating their experiences as children of Indian immigrants, I didn't find that I could relate as much; this could be from a combination of bigger differences in culture, language, and religion (as Hasan Minhaj's parents are from North India, speak Hindi, and are Muslim, whereas my parents & the parents of these specific friends are none of those, which made me feel more puzzled that these friends could claim to relate so much to Hasan Minhaj's stand-up comedy material just because he is also a child of Indian immigrants), my own parents being much more relaxed in ways that Hasan Minhaj's parents weren't (which could be a difference from the aforementioned friends' experiences), and me not feeling the need for such validation of my upbringing (which also could be a difference from the aforementioned friends' experiences). In any case, I was happy for his success, and in fact, just before the COVID19 pandemic led to widespread lockdowns in the US in 2020 March (which itself was a few months before the show Patriot Act was canceled), I got a ticket to attend a taping of the show Patriot Act (though the aforementioned lockdowns led to that taping being canceled).

War stories and emotional resonance

When I saw in the article Hasan Minhaj's excuse that the "emotional truth" comes first and is wrapped around a kernel of factual events, I remembered the book The Things They Carried, which is a series of short stories by Tim O'Brien about his experiences as an American soldier in Vietnam between 1969-1970; this book was required reading for me & my classmates in English class in 11th grade (high school). Some of these stories are mostly factual. Others of these stories are clearly grossly exaggerated with respect to the facts but convey the feelings of the real people who experienced that war. The remaining stories mixed factual events & gross exaggerations of them in a way that is deliberately hard to figure out. Furthermore, the author (Tim O'Brien) of that book at various points tries to guide readers to understand that some stories might not be factual but may convey deeper emotional truths, which the author distinguishes as "story truths" versus "happening truths". If I'm willing to praise that book and let factual inaccuracies in some war stories slide, I feel compelled to examine why I'm much more critical of Hasan Minhaj's ostensibly similar storytelling.

First, in the aforementioned book, the author is as honest as possible (given the limitations of the author's own memory) in showing which stories turn out to be exaggerated/conflated and how these blurry lines can be used as a literary device. Essentially, the author is trying to be as honest about these things as Penn Jillette is about how magic tricks are demonstrations of practiced skill in tricking people's senses & attention as opposed to manifestations of magic in a supernatural sense. By contrast, Hasan Minhaj is deliberately dishonest by withholding such information and presenting the stories that he does while knowing that the truth is very different.

Second, when war veterans tell stories in which some facts turn out to have been conflated or exaggerated, I would like to think that I & most other people who listen to such stories would probably forgive such errors knowing the severe mental trauma that those war veterans may have experienced which may affect the formation & retention of old & new memories, especially if these stories, when retold in ways that more stringently comport with actual events, still convey similar "emotional truths" even if at a lesser intensity than the conflated or exaggerated stories would have conveyed. I'd also like to think that if such war veterans' stories' "emotional truths" turn out to have been built on completely fabricated claims, especially in cases like stolen valor, then those war veterans would also be held accountable like civilians would. By contrast, while I don't deny that the spread of Islamophobia & the cloud of suspicion of Muslims would have led to an elevated background level of mental stress for Hasan Minhaj & many other American Muslims after 9/11, in the specific case of Hasan Minhaj as an individual, it is clear that the exaggerations & conflations of his stories were deliberately done to emotionally manipulate audiences and weren't instinctive responses to extreme mental trauma. Moreover, he could have told more factual stories that could have been equally funny & far more thoughtful in the sense of self-reflection, like wondering aloud what his paranoia about receiving a mysterious powder in the mail says about his own state of mind instead of falsely claiming that the powder supposedly spilled on his child who then supposedly had to be hospitalized, or admitting to having fears as a teenager about someone infiltrating his mosque & brutalizing him instead of falsely claiming that to have happened, so the fact that he instead constructed these exaggerated/constructed stories with himself at the center of it as the hero or victim, especially in conjunction with how he treated the woman whom he accused of bigotry when they were high school classmates & she rejected his request that they go to the high school prom together, shows his own narcissism to a really toxic degree.

Stand-up comedians making stuff up

Having examined why his exaggerations seem worse than those present in many war stories by veterans, it is worth turning to his claim in the article that all stand-up comedians exaggerate or conflate stories for comedic effect. This is technically true, but it isn't enough to convince me that what he did is really in line with what other stand-up comedians do, so I should examine & articulate why I feel that way.

First, most popular stand-up comedians may conflate or exaggerate stories, but they do so for low-stakes stories and just for the purpose of getting people to laugh. By contrast, Hasan Minhaj's work (in stand-up comedy, on The Daily Show, and on Patriot Act) has come with a heavy dose of pathos, particularly inciting feelings of outrage or sympathetic grievance. In particular, the most emotionally heavy stories that he made up had punchlines of pathos, not comedic punchlines, that were made up, and those stories (as mentioned in the previous sections of this post) were much higher-stakes; these lies about his own particular experiences have led people not merely to laugh but to form opinions about serious issues that affect politics in the US. In that sense, his dishonesty is much more like that of a politician than a stand-up comedian (even if he would never admit that).

Second, perhaps because (not merely in spite of the fact that) most stand-up comedians' conflated or exaggerated stories are low-stakes, it is easier for the "emotional truths" to remain, though perhaps at a lesser intensity, if those exaggerated or conflated stories were replaced by stories that hew closer to factual events. By contrast, Hasan Minhaj's most emotionally intense stories that are conflated or exaggerated critically depend on audience members believing that those stories are factual for those stories to carry any emotional weight at all.

My views of Hasan Minhaj's work since this article

I don't think I can enjoy Hasan Minhaj's stand-up comedy or similar shows anymore (though I probably wouldn't mind watching a scripted show that he may produce or direct if it doesn't star him). This is similar to how I stopped enjoying John Mulaney's stand-up comedy presenting himself as someone with boring or ordinary but relatable interests & relationships after learning of his severe drug addiction and its effects on his marriage & on his other relationships and how I stopped enjoying Pete Holmes's ruminations on spirituality once I learned that those thoughts only arose from his experiences with psychedelic drugs (given that it is possible only for very few people in the US to take such drugs safely without adversely affecting others and to risk being caught possessing those drugs by police officers). Additionally, I get the sense that people who have reacted to this article by hiding behind Hasan Minhaj's excuse that his exaggerations are in line with what other stand-up comedians do or, even worse, by claiming (after the fact) that they supposedly always knew that he was exaggerating are either extremely cynical or, more likely, feel hurt but don't want to admit that as such an admission could lead to them being mocked as being gullible for believing his stories to be factual. I'm not afraid to admit that I expected these heavy stories to be at least mostly factual and that I'm disappointed to see that his act was actually a house of cards.

Problems with this article

Even after writing all of these criticisms of Hasan Minhaj, there are two ways in which I must criticize the article. First, the disputes between comedy writers & fact-checkers on the show Patriot Act seem typical of other comedy talk shows, especially those like The Daily Show which are driven by US news. I think the author of the article just went fishing for more controversy and, upon finding something, blew it out of proportion & out of context. (To be clear, this criticism does not extend to the author's discussion of allegations of sexual harassment & other aspects of marginalization of women who worked at the show Patriot Act.) Second, I don't like the fact that people with right-wing political beliefs in the US & India are using this article in bad faith to convince people of good faith that racism & Islamophobia are supposedly fake. I & others who are troubled by what Hasan Minhaj has done have thought that he is contributing to the problem in this very way, by giving carte blanche to people with right-wing political beliefs acting in bad faith to use these examples to make bigotry seem like an imagined problem, but that doesn't absolve those people with right-wing political beliefs from being held accountable for acting in bad faith in that way.