Not many people know this, but during the Capitol riots, Hasan Minhaj saved Nancy Pelosi’s life. He grabbed the then-Speaker under one arm and dashed through the House Chamber like a running back while dodging hordes of pepper-spraying insurrectionists. Then, afterwards, he barged into the Oval Office and sat down in a chair reserved for Jared Kushner.
You should have seen the look on Donald Trump’s face when Minhaj started sprinkling white powder all over the Resolute Desk…
OK, obviously I’m embellishing for comedic effect. But at least I’m being faithful to the emotional truth — which is that Minhaj, the 38-year-old Muslim Indian American comedian who’s said to be on the short-list as the future permanent host of “The Daily Show,” is suddenly dealing with a huge credibility problem.
Maybe you saw The New Yorker expose that stirred up all the trouble. In what seemed on the surface to be an oddly random piece of investigative journalism, writer Clare Malone spent an inordinate amount of time and energy picking apart Minhaj’s highly autobiographical, politically tinged comedy to determine what portion of it was based on truth and which parts were made up. What she found was that many of the supposedly fact-based jokes he performed during his shows — on Netflix specials like “The King’s Jester” and “Homecoming King,” as well as his short-lived comedy series “Patriot Act” — were filled with what might generously be described as biographical inexactitudes. Or less generously, big fat fibs.
For instance, his story about how during his “Patriot Act” stint he received an envelope full of suspicious white powder which accidentally got spilled on his young daughter resulting in her being rushed to the hospital — that didn’t actually happen, at least not the way he says it did in his act. While he claims in the New Yorker story that he was indeed once sent an envelope containing a powdery substance, Minhaj admitted to Malone that nothing spilled on his daughter and she was never sent to the hospital.
Likewise, his bit about how he attended the Time 100 Gala (which was true) and saw Kushner plopping himself into a seat that was supposed to be kept ceremonially empty in honor of an imprisoned Saudi activist (not true). And also the gag in his standup routine about how he dated a white girl in high school (true) who dumped him on prom night to go out with a white boy (not entirely true: She broke up with him two days before the prom, eventually ended up marrying an Indian, and spent years getting doxed and harassed because Minhaj only barely disguised her identify during his act).
In the New Yorker story, Minhaj brushed off these partial fabrications, defending himself by claiming that all comedians bend the facts to make their material funny (duh) and that he was more focused on sharing the “emotional truth” of his life experience than on keeping his details straight.
In many ways, it’s a solid defense. After all, Jerry Seinfeld played a stand-up comic named Jerry on a TV show called “Seinfeld” and nobody launched a “Spotlight”-like investigation into whether he actually lived in a dingy one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. Nobody cared whether he actually had a wild-haired neighbor named Kramer or a best friend named Elaine who was the world’s worst dancer. All that mattered was that the show was funny.
But whether he’s performing standup on a Netflix special or riffing on news headlines on “Patriot Act,” Minhaj practices a more nuanced and sometimes more dangerous genre of comedy. Like Jon Stewart and John Oliver, he’s as much a political commentator as he is a funnyman. More to the point, a good amount of his autobiographical standup material deals with race, particularly the soft bigotry he encountered growing up in suburban Davis, California. And if you’re going to build a comedy career around racism, you really shouldn’t need to make anything up. After all, there’s no shortage of real material.
Fabricating stories about bigotry can only get you into trouble. If you get caught — say, by a New Yorker writer who apparently has plenty of free time on her hands — it gives white supremacists ammunition to deny the (undeniable) existence of actual racism. And it further marginalizes people of color who have to daily deal with genuine, real-life acts of racism.
Suddenly, you become the comic who cried racism, the Jussie Smollett of stand-up.
That’s not a good look for anybody, particularly the potential future host of “The Daily Show.”