Politics

Comedy’s Truthiness Problem

In October 2005, Stephen Colbert invented a new word: truthiness.

In a short monologue for The Colbert Report, a satirical show where the comedian played a caricature of a conservative blowhard cable news anchor, he took issue with an approach to news that relied on facts and credible sources. “I don’t trust books,” Colbert said. “They’re all fact, no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today.” Truthiness emanated from feeling rather than hard evidence, affirming beliefs backed by strong emotions.

This was during the George W. Bush administration, in the post-9/11 era, so inevitably Colbert brought up the war in Iraq. “Maybe there are a few missing pieces to the rationale for war. But doesn’t taking Saddam out feel like the right thing? Right here,” he said, pointing to his belly, “right here in the gut. Because that’s where the truth comes from—the gut.” In closing, Colbert promised to maintain a posture of truthiness as he conveyed the news to his viewers. “Anyone can read the news to you,” he said, deadpan. “I promise to feel the news at you.”

Truthiness entered the popular lexicon. Today, multiple dictionaries include the word. The general concept, sometimes but not always attached to the word, has become a prominent and recurring criticism of right-wing politics and journalism. Broadly speaking, the argument was that the Republican Party and the American right consistently ignored fact-based rigor when such rigor would prove inconvenient. As political discussion migrated to social media, the critique followed, with Democrats increasingly prone to warning about misinformation and disinformation online.

Colbert transitioned to a new role as a conventional late-night talk-show host, playing himself rather than a comic caricature. But he continued to emphasize that the right wing was prone to exaggerations, telling omissions, conspiracy theories, and outright falsehoods. In early 2022, he released a fictional Spotify playlist for vaccine misinformation, in response to what he said were harmful inaccuracies spread on the service by popular podcaster Joe Rogan. A gag ad for the playlist that aired on his late night show pronounced: “We hit shuffle on your understanding of basic facts.” Lol.

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One wonders what Colbert feels, in his gut, about Hasan Minhaj.

Like Colbert, Minhaj is a comedian by trade—he has two Netflix specials to his credit. And like Colbert, Minhaj often wields his comedy to political ends. Minhaj is Indian-American, and his stand-up specials tell personal stories of racism and mistreatment. He frequently criticizes former President Donald Trump and the post-9/11 domestic security apparatus.

From 2018 through 2020, Minhaj hosted Patriot Act, a left-leaning news-and-comedy Netflix series. Patriot Act was reminiscent of The Daily Show, Comedy Central’s longrunning pseudo-newscast, which from 1997 through 2005 featured Colbert as a “correspondent.” After Daily Show host Trevor Noah announced in late 2022 he was leaving the show, Minhaj was widely reported as a top contender for the slot.

The Daily Show is a comedy program, with jokes and snark and play-acted absurdities. But it is also a current affairs program designed to inform its viewers. During the peak of its cultural influence—in the mid-’00s, when it was hosted by Jon Stewart—pundits occasionally grumbled that too many young people were getting their news from Stewart.

The show faded in relevance after Stewart left, but it spawned several imitators, including HBO’s Last Week Tonight, hosted by John Oliver (another Daily Show alum), and even another Jon Stewart series, The Problem with Jon Stewart, on the Apple TV+ streaming service (recently canceled). Liberal comics weren’t just mocking the news. They were delivering it and explaining it, with clarity and moral forcefulness.

Minhaj seemed to fit into this tradition. So it was notable that when Clare Malone profiled him for The New Yorker in September, she reported that she could not verify multiple stories that Minhaj had told during his stand-up specials. Invariably, these were personal stories designed to make a political point, generally about state or personal mistreatment of people like Minhaj.

One story from the Netflix specials revolves around a man who became close with Minhaj, his family, and their mosque in 2002. The man, dubbed “Brother Eric,” was white; he claimed to be a Muslim convert. After insinuating himself into their lives, Minhaj said, Brother Eric tried to coax some of the young men at the mosque into talking about jihad.

Minhaj recounts believing that Eric was a law enforcement informant; as a sort of gag, Minhaj says he told Brother Eric that he hoped to get a pilot’s license. This resulted in a visit from the police, as Minhaj told it, who knocked his head into the hood of a police car. Years later, Minhaj says his family watched a news account in which a man resembling Brother Eric was revealed to be an FBI informant. The young Minhaj, it seems, had seen through the ruse.

Almost none of this is true. There was a man resembling Brother Eric who acted as an FBI informant. But as Malone reported, he was in prison in 2002 and didn’t begin working with the feds until 2006. He did no work in the area Minhaj’s story was said to have taken place.

In other words, the time, the place, and specifics of Minhaj’s personal experience—his eyewitness account, leading to a supposed violent encounter with police—were totally fabricated.

In another anecdote from the special, Minhaj recalls receiving an envelope of white powder at his home. In Minhaj’s telling, the suspicious white powder came into contact with his young daughter, who was rushed to the hospital.

But Malone found no police account that matched this event. In an interview with Minhaj, the comedian “admitted that his daughter had never been exposed to a white powder, and that she hadn’t been hospitalized.” Instead, he’d received a powder in the mail and joked to his wife it might have been anthrax.

Minhaj, confronted with reported evidence that many of his stories have been false or heavily exaggerated, defended his work. “Every story in my style is built around a seed of truth,” he told Malone. “My comedy Arnold Palmer is seventy percent emotional truth—this happened—and then thirty percent hyperbole, exaggeration, fiction.”

Emotional truth. Put another way, Minhaj’s argument was that his stories didn’t need to be actually true because they felt true. Minhaj was defending truthiness as good and righteous, so long as it was in service of the proper sort of political narrative. He wasn’t just reporting the news to you; he was feeling the news at you.

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Malone’s profile chronicled other purported gaps in Minhaj’s stories. In one anecdote, Minhaj recounts being rejected by a prom date. She was white, he was not, and although she initially accepted his invitation, Minhaj says that at the moment he arrived at her home to pick her up, she backed out in humiliating fashion: There was another boy at her door placing a corsage. In the special, Minhaj says the reason she backed out was because her parents didn’t want her taking photos with a person of color.

After Malone interviewed the woman from the story, whose name has not been made public, she reported a different version of the events. She told Malone the rejection happened, but not on prom night; it occurred days prior. “Minhaj acknowledged that this was correct,” Malone wrote, “but he said that the two of them had long carried different understandings of her rejection.” In the following sentence, she quotes him saying that as a “brown kid” in California, he’d been conditioned to “just take it.”

“The ’emotional truth’ of the story he told onstage was resonant and justified the fabrication of details,” Malone wrote. According to the reporter, the woman also said she’d been invited to a performance of a stand-up routine in which Minhaj told the prom night story. “She had initially interpreted the invitation as an attempt to rekindle an old friendship, but she now believes the move was meant to humiliate her.”

Weeks after Malone’s story appeared, the comedian released a video response. The video runs a little more than 20 minutes, and in it Minhaj claims Malone excised important portions of his quotes and distorted their meaning.

In it, Minhaj argues that the New Yorker story was “needlessly misleading.” The largest portion of his response is focused on the prom night story. He shows emails between himself and the woman in the story appearing to show that she requested an invite to his performance. He also takes issue with Malone’s use of the “different understandings of her rejection” quote, arguing that Malone’s presentation lacked context and that it implied he had made up the racial motivation for the rejection. He delivers a fuller version of the quote that more clearly makes his point: that the woman didn’t understand how much he’d been hurt by the incident.

The video then addresses the Brother Eric and anthrax stories. In both cases, he admits the stories didn’t happen the way he told them onstage. Although he says he had interactions with undercover law enforcement, “it didn’t go down exactly like this, so I understand why people are upset.”

Introducing the anthrax story, he recounts some details from the comedy special, then says, “This, as you know, is not how it went down.” He apologized for embellishing the stories, but he defends his embellishments as necessary to spotlight some larger truth. Over the course of the video, he argues that his falsehoods (though he does not use that word) were necessary to make his stories clearer, more accessible, more relatable to his audience.

Was there a bit of truthiness in The New Yorker‘s exposé? Or was Minhaj’s defense itself an exercise in obfuscation?

Slate review of Minhaj’s defense concluded that “almost everything the New Yorker article alleges appears to line up with Minhaj’s version of the facts, except for some of the details of the prom date story.” After Minhaj posted his video, Malone tweeted: “Hasan Minhaj confirms in this video that he selectively presents information and embellishes to make a point: exactly what we reported.” The New Yorker stood by the story.

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One might argue that comedy specials do not have a journalistic responsibility to hew to the truth. Minhaj has indicated that he draws a line between his stand-up work and his more journalistic output on Patriot Act.

Certainly, Minhaj is far from the first comedian to exaggerate, embellish, or outright lie for laughs. Indeed, there is a long and noble tradition of lying for laughter. If a silly story makes you guffaw in amusement, there is no need for it to be true.

But Minhaj’s stand-up fabrications weren’t just jokes. In some cases they weren’t even jokes at all, and weren’t presented as tall tales: They were presented as clear-eyed truths about American prejudice. In that New Yorker story, Minhaj explicitly defended the use of falsehoods to make a point more powerful. “The punch line,” he told Malone, “is worth the fictionalized premise.” In his defense video, he says he “made artistic choices to express myself and drive home larger issues affecting me and my community.”

Moreover, although Patriot Act had a research department with fact checkers, Minhaj reportedly found them frustrating. “In one instance,” Malone wrote, “Minhaj grew frustrated that fact-checking was stymying the creative flow during a final rewrite, and a pair of female researchers were asked to leave the writers’ room.”

Minhaj’s work on Patriot Act was what made him a potential successor to Stewart and Noah on The Daily Show. But in late October, online news outlet Puck reported that although Minhaj had nearly closed a deal to take the reins at The Daily Show, he would not be getting the gig.

When Stewart left The Daily Show in 2015, he used his final monologue to issue a warning about the world of news and commentary. “Bullshit is everywhere,” he said. “There is very little in life that has not been, in some ways, infused with bullshit.” While some minor exaggeration was innocuous and even necessary to function socially, he said, viewers needed to be on the lookout for “the more pernicious bullshit. Your premeditated, institutional bullshit, designed to obscure and distract. Designed by who? The bullshitocracy.”

He had some good news, though. “Bullshitters have gotten pretty lazy,” Stewart said. “And their work is easily detected.”

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