tv What the Hasan Minhaj Controversy Says About the Trouble With Storytelling
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.
Rarely have public scandals been as confused or confusing as the one that caused comedian and former Patriot Act host Hasan Minhaj to lose the Daily Show anchor job. It all started with a New Yorker story — an unexpected exposé from writer Clare Malone on Minhaj’s loose relationship with the truth. In a controversial piece from September, Malone presented evidence that Minhaj had embellished details in his standup, specifically details related to his experience of anti-Muslim discrimination in America after 9/11.
Malone’s article raised questions about the role of truth in comedy, and comedy in journalism, but the main takeaway for most seemed to be about Minhaj. There was a sense that these fabrications made him an unreliable narrator as well as an opportunist — someone who faked incidents of racism for the purpose of advancing his career. One writer subsequently described what Minhaj had done as “oppression fantasy” that “delegitimizes real stuff via elite capture.”
Minhaj admitted to Malone on the record that, yes, he did such embellishing, but the stories he told still contained “emotional truth.” Still, the subsequent backlash was enough to reportedly remove Minhaj as the frontrunner to succeed Trevor Noah on The Daily Show. The job would have been a coup for Minhaj, who first came to prominence as a Daily Show correspondent before creating two standup specials centered around his experience as an Indian Muslim American. He also co-created and hosted the subsequent Netflix comedy news series, Patriot Act, which would have put him in a good position to step into Noah’s role.
In the aftermath, Minhaj released a statement in which he chose to defend his fabrications instead of denying them. A 20-minute video posted to YouTube a month after the article came out went further, with Minhaj himself asking, “Is Hasan Minhaj just a con artist who uses fake racism and Islamophobia to advance his career?” He went on to make a case that instead, he was making “artistic choices to drive home larger issues affecting me and my community.” He called Malone’s framing “needlessly misleading,” and reiterated that most of the things she cited as embellished lies actually happened to him and his family. The exaggerations, however, are head-turning; one of the stories involves Minaj opening a letter with white powder which spilled onto his young child, who was then rushed to the hospital. Minhaj says he did receive a letter filled with white powder, but this is the only part of the story that’s true.
Slate has done a thorough rundown of all the specific instances and allegations Malone made as well as Minhaj’s responses to each, and for the most part, it shows us just how complicated “the truth” can be, both in comedy and journalism. To pick just one other example: In her article, Malone implies that Minhaj completely made up the show-framing story of his 2017 Netflix special, Homecoming King, in which he claimed a female friend from high school dumped him on prom night due to her parents’ racism. In his rebuttal video, Minhaj insists that the acceptance and subsequent rejection really happened, and the woman’s parents did make the racist statements to him that he relates in the comedy special — it just happened a few days before prom. He condensed the events to “drop the audience into the feeling of that moment,” Minhaj states. He then goes on to produce evidence backing up his claims that this woman was aware that racism was a factor in their not going to prom together, evidence which further indicates that Malone explicitly chose not to include these facts in her article, instead writing that Minhaj and his former friend “had long carried different understandings of her rejection.”
And this is how it goes for most of the incidents Malone mentions. Again, Minhaj admits to all of them; he just explains them differently, and with added context.
So now the question we’re left with is two-fold: Is Minhaj’s explanation enough to get him off the hook — or should he have ever been on the hook to begin with? The answers seem to lie in our understanding of storytelling, and in the expectations we have of specific comedic genres. What is it, after all, that we expect from comedy, from journalism, from comedic journalism, and from journalism about comedy?
Minhaj argues storytelling has always included embellishment. Does that matter?
One of the reasons this whole controversy might feel strange is that there seems to be a basic imbalance in terms of actions and consequences. At the time of publication, Minhaj was a reported frontrunner for the Daily Show job, yes — but he was mainly a standup comedian whose last show was canceled back in 2020. Now, it seems that job is off the table, thanks to an extended feature in one of America’s most venerated magazines. In her piece, Malone insists that the costs of Minhaj’s fabrication are high, not for him, but for the Muslim American and Indian American communities he represents. But, if you believe Minhaj’s defense, amplifying a relatively minor disagreement about details in storytelling by giving it an earthshaking mic drop in the New Yorker inflates the seriousness of Minhaj’s actions while yielding a potentially unfair outcome for Minhaj himself.
Malone catalogs Minhaj’s sins as falling into “the slipperiness of memoir.” But there’s a major difference between a fabricated memoir and Minhaj’s standup work. The most scandalous falsified memoirs are often either entirely fabricated or hinge on a fabricated premise, linking their authors to a false or overly idealized version of themselves, from James Frey’s nonexistent drug rampages to Margaret B. Jones’s entirely fake impoverished childhood or Misha Defonseca’s completely made-up Jewish Holocaust survivor identity (with a bonus claim that she was adopted and raised by wolves).
And not just memoirists: Again and again, long-con hoaxsters have fabricated the core of their identities, from fake Saudi prince Anthony Gignac or fake cancer survivor turned fake British guy Nicholas Alahverdian to fake 9/11 survivor Tania Head or fake Indigenous hero Buffy Sainte-Marie. The New Yorker even ascribed a mythical quality to such fakers in 2018, noting they were “shady, audacious” characters who “exist on a spectrum from folk hero to disgrace.” In all of these examples, the audacity of the lie is the core of the grift.
But Minhaj isn’t a fake. He isn’t lying about his core identity; he is who he says he is. And he freely admitted to Malone that he embellished aspects of the anecdotes she accused him of faking. When he fabricates some details of a story, it isn’t to completely con the public about who he is and what he’s experienced, but rather to enhance the audience’s understanding — as he put it to Malone, “to ‘make it feel the way it felt.’”
Minhaj is also, it has to be noted, a comedian — the central point of that art form being to make people laugh, not to inform them, with elision and overstatement being common tricks of the trade. Press any standup on if their last joke truly “happened on the way over here,” as so often claimed, and you’re likely to get a resounding no. As Minhaj further explained to Vanity Fair, “I use the tools of stand-up comedy — hyperbole, changing names and locations, and compressing timelines to tell entertaining stories. That’s inherent to the art form. You wouldn’t go to a haunted house and say, ‘Why are these people lying to me?’ — the point is the ride. Stand-up is the same.”
Minhaj isn’t alone here. The embellished personal anecdote is a mainstay, nay, the ancient hallowed core, of not just the comic but the storyteller — from the campfire-sitter’s ghost story to the fisherman’s “one that got away.” Malone glosses over one comedian’s observation that “most comics’ acts wouldn’t pass a rigorous fact-check.” Even comedians who roundly criticized Minhaj after reading Malone’s piece frequently inserted caveats. “We all exaggerate and edit stories for the stage,” said comic Jeremy McLellan in a post on X that then went on to call Minhaj “psychotic” based on Malone’s framing. That post has since been deleted.
Among the artists coming to Minhaj’s defense was Whoopi Goldberg, who spoke at length on The View about the fallibility of trying to hold a comic’s feet to the fire over the truth: “If you’re going to hold a comic to the point where you’re going to check up on stories, you have to understand, a lot of it is not the exact thing that happened because why would we tell exactly what happened? It’s not that interesting,” she said. “There’s information that we will give you as comics that will have grains of truth, but don’t take it to the bank. That’s our job, a seed of truth: sometimes truth and sometimes total BS.”
Malone even says as much in her New Yorker piece, observing that “the nature of storytelling, let alone comedic storytelling, is inventive.” Still, she argues, “the stakes appear to change when entertainers fabricate anecdotes about current events and issues of social injustice.”
The facts may point one way. The “emotional truth” points another.
It must be noted that there is a place where jokes are, to some degree and on a still fairly ad hoc basis, held to a higher standard of fact: in comedic news programming. This is, of course, a format that The Daily Show made into an institution, with correspondents and acolytes spinning off similar shows, from The Colbert Report to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver to Patriot Act itself. A comedic news anchor walks a delicate line; they must have the ability to play with facts while never actually obscuring reality. It’s a position entirely reliant on having the trust of the audience. Nothing is funny if you’re busy questioning what’s real. This is exactly the job Minhaj was after; the one it seems he won’t get.
Malone may not have intended her piece to do more than poke holes in Minhaj’s storytelling, but its cultural impact was to make people see Minhaj, at least initially, as an opportunistic manipulator of the truth. “Nobody’s mad at him for making stuff up,” Jay Caspian Kang stated as part of a larger response to Malone’s piece. “It’s the way he did it and the benefit it gave him and how it all feels self serving in the worst way (and not funny).” Malone’s article reports that various sources she’d spoken to, all anonymous, “bristled at Minhaj’s moralizing posture.” The idea that Minhaj “tonally presents himself as a person who was always taking down the despots and dictators of the world and always speaking truth to power” is “grating,” according to one anonymous source.
Patriot Act didn’t depend on Minhaj’s experiences for its moral arbitration, but upon journalism. Like all other comedy news shows, it’s mainly depersonalized, written by a team of writers, not just Minhaj, and clearly dependent upon fact-based reporting. Malone suggests that this production format isn’t infallible. “In one instance,” she reports, “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.” Both Minhaj and Patriot Act co-creator Prashanth Venkataramanujam defended the show’s research and writing process, but taken with the other threads Malone brings in, the implication becomes one of dismissiveness: Minhaj appears to handwave facts and get impatient with writers and researchers who try to pin him down to them. She never gives specific examples of this actually resulting in an error or misinformation appearing on the show.
For what it’s worth, it sounds like what Minhaj and Venkataramanujam describe here is simply the writers wishing to be unimpeded by editing. Typically part of the purpose of having editors and fact-checkers is so that the journalists and writers, in this case Minhaj, can do their best work without having their creative flow stifled in the moment by the necessarily more structured process of editing. The process is more fungible than the end result.
As for the creative output that Patriot Act yielded, despite the disputes that may have happened on set, Malone finds no fault with it. However, by highlighting critiques of Minhaj’s overall tone and posture, Malone seems to invite readers to believe that there’s something inherently smarmy about Minhaj’s use of Islamophobia as a talking point, even when those talking points, as aired on Patriot Act, are entirely factual.
Minhaj is Muslim, and anti-Muslim discrimination and his experience of it are real. Adopting a moralizing posture over your own life and identity, even when you fudge some of the details for the sake of drama, is arguably something most of us do. And when one is backed by reputable journalism, as on Patriot Act (or, presumably, The Daily Show) the moral posture should speak for itself regardless of who voices it. Witness the New Yorker itself in 2019: A report on Minhaj’s Patriot Act episode on journalist Jamal Khashoggi ends with the assertion “the truth is on Minhaj’s side.”
So where does all this leave us?
If a touch of glibness sneaks in while trying to work through this morass, that’s because there appears to be glibness on all sides: Malone appears to be glibly dismissive of Minhaj’s intentions and his deliberate choice to go for drama rather than accuracy in his art. Minhaj appears to be glibly dismissive of the criticism that glossing details and distorting timelines undermines his authority as a comedy news host as well as what he’s trying to say about identity and lived experience.
Both of them appear to be glibly dismissive of the other’s framing of what he did. Malone, in her further response to Minhaj’s video, ignores the main accusation he levels at her in it — that she chose to leave out much of the context he provided in order to further her narrative. She instead asserts that nothing Minhaj said really contradicts her version of things, which is both technically true and a reduction of a lot of complicated back-and-forth.
Minhaj complains in his rebuttal video that Malone seems more concerned with the people on the other side of his storytelling — for instance, an undercover FBI agent who surveilled Muslim communities — than with his own intent and the Muslims whose experiences he seeks to represent. According to him, Malone also doesn’t seem to care if the stakes are higher for those people than they are for Minhaj himself.
We might argue that Minhaj is rich, successful, privileged, and powerful — he doesn’t need coddling. Sure. But the simplest response to all of this might be that he still deserves to be met in good faith. The reason the New Yorker piece rubbed people the wrong way isn’t that the reporting was technically in error, but that like the comedy it was critiquing, it relied on a certain framing of facts to make its larger point. In the end, that framework felt to many readers like an exercise in bad faith.
And that, ultimately, underscores why Minhaj is right on an important point: The “emotional truth” of a situation does matter even when the facts don’t entirely align with it.