Hasan Minhaj and the New Yorker: Who decided comedy needed fact-checking?


Comedy legend Richard Pryor had a regular bit where he talked about his father’s death. “I’d like to die the way my father died. My father died f**king,” he’d say. “My father was 57. The woman was 18. My father came and went at the same time.” For years, according to Pryor, the woman couldn’t get anyone to have sex with her. Then one day she apologized to Pryor for killing his dad, to which Pryor said there was no need to apologize. His father had died having sex: “That’s called recycling.” 

Pryor’s joke is infamous. Yet guess what? No one, to my knowledge, ever tried to fact-check it. No one fretted over whether the woman had really been 18, whether, in fact, she didn’t have sex for years after that, whether Pryor’s father had actually died during sex and whether, as Pryor suggests, the woman got pregnant. And you know why nobody checked all that? Because doing that would have been stupid. It would have missed the point of the joke, misunderstood the difference between literal and figurative communication and missed the power of comedy to make us think.

This story helps put in context New Yorker reporter Clare Malone’s recent fact-checking mission with Hasan Minhaj. Her article, which seems designed to suggest that Minhaj is not fit to become the next host of “The Daily Show,” points to moments in Minhaj’s stand-up routines where he appears to have stretched the truth for greater comedic impact.

According to Malone, Minhaj wasn’t literally accurate four times: 1) He suggested he had personally encountered an FBI informant, Craig Monteilh, who had infiltrated Muslim communities to spy on them in Southern California. Monteilh was indeed an FBI informant within the Muslim community, but Minhaj never met him. 2) Minhaj exaggerated a story about a threatening letter sent to his house. He did get a threatening letter containing white powder, but it wasn’t toxic and did not lead to his daughter going to the hospital. 3) He adjusted the timeline of a meeting at the Saudi embassy so it overlapped with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, when the two events were at least a month apart. 4) He told a story about being rejected by a white girl in high school whom he wanted to take to the prom. In his version, the rejection took place on the night of the prom in a highly humiliating fashion, when in fact it happened a few days earlier.

The big reveal in fact-checking Minhaj’s stand-up isn’t that on at least four occasions he said something happened to him in a way it hadn’t. It’s more that that’s all there were. Why is this even news? Comedy nearly always includes exaggeration, embellishment and hyperbole.

Beyond that, each of these “gotcha” stories is largely true. The only shifts involve putting Minhaj in a more central position in the story, or exaggerating his experience of threat and humiliation.

The big reveal in fact-checking Hasan Minhaj isn’t that on at least four occasions he said something happened to him in a way it hadn’t. It’s more that that’s all there were. Why is this even news?

But Malone didn’t want to write that story, for whatever reason. “After many weeks of trying,” she writes, “I had been unable to confirm some of the stories that he had told onstage.” She fails to tell why she felt compelled to fact-check Minhaj’s stand-up routine in the first place. If she spent weeks researching and could only come up with these four instances, why didn’t she write an article piece entitled, “I tried to fact-shame a comedian and all I came up with was a few minor examples”?

What lies behind Malone’s need to determine whether or not a comedian was telling the truth? And what does it tell us, not just about her, but also about the New Yorker, which published this supposed exposé? Even more, what does it tell us about the pathetic state of media, which seems obsessed with uncovering manufactured scandals rather than effectively informing the public? To put it bluntly, rather than use her time and energy to do the job of a journalist, Malone seems unhappy that Minhaj isn’t as good at her job as she should be.

Consider that Malone wrote a recent article about Elon Musk where the big takeaway was that Musk is petty — not that he is a liar, an undisputed fact that, without question, has far more dangerous potential effects than any fictional stories Minhaj could possibly tell.

There’s a classic George Carlin bit that goes into detail about the people he sees at the mall. He rants about how stupid some Americans are and explains that he has “evidence to support his claim.” He jokes about commercial culture and Americans who thrive on “shopping and eating.” It’s brilliant. But no one who hears it is likely to ask whether Carlin really went to a shopping mall to gather “evidence.”

To quote Mark Twain: “Never let truth get in the way of a good story.”

It goes without saying that comedy isn’t the same thing as factual reporting, but it’s important to recognize that not all genres of comedy embellish and exaggerate in the same way. Minhaj performs in two main types of comedy: satirical news and persona-driven stand-up. As Malone admits, she did not find an instance of Minhaj stretching the truth on his satirical news show on Netflix, “The Patriot Act.” Satirical news, like that seen on “The Daily Show,” offers reporting mixed with commentary and depends on factual accuracy to hit its satirical targets. Since 9/11, as my research has shown, satirical news has increasingly become a source of accurate information. In fact, viewers of news satire are some of the most accurately informed people in the nation.

The “fibs” Malone finds in Minhaj’s comedy were not part of a show designed to inform the public. They were found in stand-up routines, in other words in persona-driven comedy based in the creation of a character. Even when a comedian’s stand-up persona appears similar to the real-life person telling the jokes, it should still be understood as a character, perhaps especially when the comedy is connected to a representative of a marginalized community. In such cases, it is common for a comedian to concoct a character who stands in for a host of issues that people in that community face.

Even when a comedian’s stand-up persona appears similar to the real-life person, it should still be understood as a character, especially when the comedy is connected to a representative of a marginalized community.

This allows us to think about the two ways Minhaj exaggerates: He either does it to make a point, namely that Muslims in America must deal with Islamophobia that is often emotionally painful and occasionally violent, or to show that being a political satirist who uncovers truth can be risky. There is nothing in these larger points that isn’t true when considered in light of the broader communities Minhaj represents, even if he sometimes tells stories that didn’t happen to him.

Here’s another question that is much bigger than the four “gotcha” moments in Malone’s article: Why did a white female journalist feel compelled to fact-check one of the few widely-known male Muslim comedians in this country? Malone explains her quest as stemming from the fact that Minhaj “leans heavily on his own experience as an Asian American and Muslim American, telling harrowing stories of law-enforcement entrapment and personal threats.”

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One of Minhaj’s bits, Malone says, “underscores the threat that being Muslim in the United States carried during the early days of the war on terror.”

That’s true, but here are facts our fact-checker doesn’t mention: Islamophobia has been steadily rising since 9/11. Zahra Jamal of Rice University, explains that “62 percent of Muslims report feeling religion-based hostility and 65 percent felt disrespected by others.” Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, argues that Donald Trump’s presidency effectively normalized anti-Muslim bigotry.

And the news media itself has been a major contributor to negative perceptions of Muslims. One study analyzing 25 years of data from 1996 to 2021 found that 80 percent of all stories about Muslims in U.S. media were negative.

Minhaj belongs a small cohort of nationally visible Muslim American comedians, and is without question best-known Muslim working in satire in the United States, which is why he is reportedly on the short list as Trevor Noah’s potential replacement on “The Daily Show.” 

We could also questions the sources Malone uses to support her claims. She doesn’t cite a single comedy expert to discuss the complexities of comedic communication or the challenges of being a Muslim American comedian. To the extent that she cites experts at all, they are other comedians, who are notoriously ill-equipped to explain the social ramifications of their work. Recall that Jon Stewart repeatedly said his satire had no public function and was just entertainment, at a time when public opinion polls suggested he was the most trusted journalist in the nation.

That’s how we get Minhaj coming up with the admittedly lame term “emotional truth” to explain that the stories he tells are true even if they did not happen to him. It’s a phrase almost as useless as Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts.”

But Malone uses an even more puzzling source, interviewing Craig Monteilh, the FBI informant, about whether he recalls ever meeting Minhaj. She reports that when Monteilh was told that Minhaj had invented an encounter with him, Monteilh said, “I have no idea why he would do that.”

Well, I have no idea why Malone would print that. She went to a person with a known history of spying “on Muslims for the FBI without having any reason to believe that these people were committing crimes” and asked him to tell her the truth about Minhaj. This guy had a career that was literally based in lying and entrapping Muslims. Yet somehow he’s a credible source?

What bothers Malone most, it seems, is that Minhaj is a Muslim comedian who “has become an avatar for the power of representation in entertainment.” As she puts it, comedians like Minhaj have “become the oddball public intellectuals of our time, and, in informing the public, they assume a certain status as moral arbiters. When fibs are told to prove a social point rather than to elicit an easy laugh, does their moral weight change?”

Malone is right that satirists have become public intellectuals, that they play an important role in informing the public, and that they have become moral arbiters. They have assumed that role, in large part, because politicians and the media have done an increasingly terrible job at those things. Better yet, they make their points about society while making us laugh.

Minhaj doesn’t tell crude sex jokes or rely on ethnic or racial stereotypes. Instead, he tells jokes that help us understand social injustices and rethink the status quo. So I look forward to his next stand-up special, where I hope he’ll tell a story about how a white journalist tried to ruin his career while advancing hers. He won’t have to embellish anything, but he may have to work hard to make it funny.

Read more

from Sophia A. McClennen on media and comedy

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