Does Comedy Have to be Based on Truth?

Hasan Minhaj is a serial liar. Does it matter?

The New Yorker‘s Clare Malone has a bizarre expose titled “Hasan Minhaj’s Emotional Truths.‘” It deals with an identity-based comedian essentially presenting a false version of his victimhood, ostensibly to shed light on larger truths.

In Minhaj’s approach to comedy, he leans heavily on his own experience as an Asian American and Muslim American, telling harrowing stories of law-enforcement entrapment and personal threats. For many of his fans, he has become an avatar for the power of representation in entertainment. But, after many weeks of trying, I had been unable to confirm some of the stories that he had told onstage. When we met on a recent afternoon, at a comedy club in the West Village, Minhaj acknowledged, for the first time, that many of the anecdotes he related in his Netflix specials were untrue. Still, he said that he stood by his work. “Every story in my style is built around a seed of truth,” he said. “My comedy Arnold Palmer is seventy per cent emotional truth—this happened—and then thirty per cent hyperbole, exaggeration, fiction.”

So, on the surface, this isn’t inherently problematic. Ron White freely admits, “Quite frankly, some of the stories are very, very true. But some are complete figments of my imagination.” But exaggerating one’s penchant for drunken debauchery and general smartassery strikes me as a different than pretending to be a victim when it’s not true. And Minhaj often does it in a way that directly harms real people.

In Minhaj’s 2022 Netflix standup special, “The King’s Jester”—a biographical reflection on fame, vainglory, and Minhaj’s obsession with social-media clout—he relays a story about an F.B.I. informant who infiltrated his family’s Sacramento-area mosque, in 2002, when Minhaj was a junior in high school. As Minhaj tells it, Brother Eric, a muscle-bound white man who said he was a convert to Islam, gained the trust of the mosque community. He went to dinner at Minhaj’s house, and even offered to teach weight training to the community’s teen-age boys. But Minhaj had Brother Eric pegged from the beginning. Eventually, Brother Eric tried to entice the boys into talking about jihad. Minhaj decided to mess with Brother Eric, telling him that he wanted to get his pilot’s license. Soon, the police were on the scene, slamming Minhaj against the hood of a car. Years later, while watching the news with his father, Minhaj saw a story about Craig Monteilh, who assumed the cover of a personal trainer when he became an F.B.I. informant in Muslim communities in Southern California. “Well, well, well, Papa, look who it is,” Minhaj recalls telling his father. “It’s our good friend Brother Eric.”

Onstage, a large screen behind Minhaj flashes news footage from an Al Jazeera English report on Monteilh. Minhaj’s teen-age hunch, it seems, was proved right. The moment is played for laughs, but the story underscores the threat that being Muslim in the United States carried during the early days of the war on terror. Minhaj segues to the case of Hamid Hayat, a young man from another Sacramento-area town who spent much of his adult life in prison based on a confession his attorneys say was coerced. “He just got out of prison this past June,” Minhaj says, his tone turning defiant. “Man, he’s my age—he’s thirty-six. I think about Hamid all the time.”

Later in the special, Minhaj speaks about the fallout from “Patriot Act” segments on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism. The big screen displays threatening tweets that were sent to Minhaj. Most disturbing, he tells the story of a letter sent to his home which was filled with white powder. The contents accidentally spilled onto his young daughter. The child was rushed to the hospital. It turned out not to be anthrax, but it’s a sobering reminder that Minhaj’s comedic actions have real-world consequences. Later that night, his wife, in a fury, told him that she was pregnant with their second child. “ ‘You get to say whatever you want onstage, and we have to live with the consequences,’ ” Minhaj recalls her saying. “ ‘I don’t give a shit that Time magazine thinks you’re an “influencer.” If you ever put my kids in danger again, I will leave you in a second.’ ”

Does it matter that neither of those things really happened to Minhaj?

Hell yes, it does. Again, exaggeration for comedic effect is a staple of stand-up. But this isn’t that.

Prior to my meeting with Minhaj, Monteilh, a.k.a. “Brother Eric,” had told me that Minhaj’s story is a fabrication. “I have no idea why he would do that,” Monteilh said. Monteilh was in prison in 2002, and didn’t begin to work for the F.B.I. on counterterrorism measures until 2006. Details of his undercover actions were catalogued in a legal case that has made its way to the Supreme Court. Monteilh said that he’d worked only in Southern California, not the Sacramento area.

The New York Police Department, which investigates incidents of possible Bacillus anthracis, has no record of an incident like the one Minhaj describes, nor do area hospitals. Front-desk and mailroom employees at Minhaj’s former residence don’t remember such an incident, nor do “Patriot Act” employees involved with the show’s security or Minhaj’s security guard from the time.

During our conversation, Minhaj admitted that his daughter had never been exposed to a white powder, and that she hadn’t been hospitalized. He had opened up a letter delivered to his apartment, he said, and it had contained some sort of powder. Minhaj said that he had made a joke to his wife, saying, “Holy shit. What if this was anthrax?” He said that he’d never told anyone on the show about this letter, despite the fact that there were concerns for his security at the time and that Netflix had hired protection for Minhaj. The Brother Eric story, Minhaj said, was based on a hard foul he received during a game of pickup basketball in his youth. Minhaj and other teen-age Muslims played pickup games with middle-aged men whom the boys suspected were officers. One made a show of pushing Minhaj to the ground. Minhaj insisted that, though both stories were made up, they were based on “emotional truth.” The broader points he was trying to make justified concocting stories in which to deliver them. “The punch line is worth the fictionalized premise,” he said.

Back when Stephen Colbert was playing the role of a bombastic conservative talk show host, he coined the term “truthiness” to poke fun of those who privileged what their gut told them over actual facts. Minhaj seems to be taking pride in doing so.

People don’t necessarily go into standup shows expecting airtight truths. They expect laughs, perhaps some trenchant observation. On John Heilemann’s podcast earlier this year, Minhaj described his work as “the dynamic range that theatre and storytelling and comedy allow you to explore.” Does that mean audiences should expect his words onstage to stringently hew to the facts on the ground? The slipperiness of memoir finds a new dimension when it’s played for laughs in front of a crowd.

Again, I think this is the wrong framing of the question. Standup isn’t documentary. But Minhaj is making up events involving real-life people.

Minhaj has discussed the white-powder incident in interviews, without taking the opportunity to clarify that the events he describes onstage, including his daughter’s hospitalization, didn’t happen as told. “I remember in that moment going, oh shit, sometimes the envelope pushes back,” he told the Daily Beast, in 2022. I asked him if he felt that he had manipulated his audience. “No, I don’t think I’m manipulating,” he told me. “I think they are coming for the emotional roller-coaster ride.” He went on, “To the people that are, like, ‘Yo, that is way too crazy to happen,’ I don’t care because yes, fuck yes—that’s the point.” But was his invention of a traumatic experience with his child or with law-enforcement entrapment distasteful, given the moral heft of those things, and the fact that other people have actually experienced them? “It’s grounded in truth,” Minhaj said.

“But it didn’t happen to you,” I replied.

“I think what I’m ultimately trying to do is highlight all of those stories,” he said. “Building to what I think is a pointed argument,” as opposed to a “pointless riff” of jokes.

Minhaj has elided or concocted other details in his stories, often to place himself more squarely at the center of the action. “I haven’t talked about this publicly,” Minhaj says in “The King’s Jester,” about his attempt to interview Mohammed bin Salman in 2018. The Saudi crown prince was doing a U.S. public-relations blitz, meeting with Michael Bloomberg and Oprah, among others, and Minhaj set up a meeting at the Saudi Embassy in D.C. to discuss the prospect of a sit-down with him. Minhaj’s wife, he says, disapproved of his attempts to antagonize the Saudis, so he hid the visit from her. (A theme of the special is her resistance to his despot-baiting comedy stylings.) On Heilemann’s podcast, Minhaj said that his comedy “put my marriage through a lot, and ‘The King’s Jester’ is an exploration of how far I’m willing to take a joke.”

During the special, Minhaj describes the meeting at the Saudi Embassy as vaguely hostile. The Saudis said that they didn’t want to be ridiculed by a comedian and that they’d be watching him. Minhaj took a train back to New York, where, upon arrival, he recalls, “everybody at the office is texting me—‘Are you O.K.?’ ‘Are you all right?’ ‘Are you watching the news?’ ” According to Minhaj, news had just broken about the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. “Thank God you didn’t meet with the Saudis,” his wife told him.

Minhaj admits to feeling guilty about not being more forthright with his wife—but he also loved the attention that “Patriot Act” received when it aired a well-timed episode soon after the murder. He was invited to the Time 100 Gala, where he says that he watched Jared Kushner enter the room and boorishly sit in a seat that had been ceremonially kept empty for an imprisoned Saudi activist. Minhaj admonished Donald Trump’s son-in-law for his inaction on human rights. Minhaj’s fame rose, threats proliferated, and eventually we hear about the anthrax episode.

But, according to a producer with knowledge of Minhaj’s schedule, Minhaj’s meeting at the Saudi Embassy happened at least a month before Khashoggi’s murder, something an e-mail confirms. Minhaj said that he’d conflated the time lines as a storytelling device, to “make it feel the way it felt.” His “day-to-day life is not very interesting or compelling,” Minhaj said. “My comedy storytelling certainly has to be.” And, although Minhaj did very publicly criticize Kushner at the Time 100 Gala for the Trump Administration’s feeble response to Saudi human-rights violations, there was no ceremonial seat set aside for an activist, let alone one that Kushner sat in. Minhaj said that this was another fabrication that served to drive home the “emotional truth” of the moment.

But what the hell is true, even emotionally, about any of this? Whatever he might have felt about Kushner and Khashoggi, the two had nothing to do with one another. If his emotions told him otherwise, he’s in need of professional help.

There’s a palpable discomfort among comedians when they are asked to comment on another person’s art—a sort of code of omertà. But a number of writers and performers who spoke with me bristled at Minhaj’s moralizing posture. “He tonally presents himself as a person who was always taking down the despots and dictators of the world and always speaking truth to power,” one former “Patriot Act” employee said. “That’s grating.” A comedy writer who has worked for “The Daily Show” said that most comics’ acts wouldn’t pass a rigorous fact-check, but, if a show is built on sharing something personal that’s not necessarily laugh-out-loud funny, the invention of important details could make an audience feel justifiably cheated. “If he’s lying about real people and real events, that’s a problem,” the writer said. “So much of the appeal of those stories is ‘This really happened.’ ”

Quite so. Turning back to Ron White, his most famous bit kludges together several real-life events, with some exaggeration thrown in for comedic effect. But the audience surely knows that it’s a bit. And the key elements are actually true.

Minhaj’s projects blur the lines between entertainment and opinion journalism. Jon Stewart, who popularized the mainstream format of comedic news, has always insisted that he is not a journalist, but it was impossible to deny that his “Daily Show” served up opinionated takes that informed the series’ predominantly younger audience. John Oliver has also denied that he’s a journalist, though each episode of his HBO show dives into a topic of public import—A.I., solitary confinement, tech monopolies. It’s not not opinion journalism. Comedians might not be comfortable calling themselves anything but comedians, but a number of them, Minhaj included, have inserted themselves pointedly into political conversation. They’ve 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?

It does. Stewart was masterful at the craft, as are Colbert and Oliver. Even as one who voted for Bush and supported the Iraq War, I felt their critiques were usually on point and intellectually honest. But there were definitely bits by other players on The Daily Show that simply mischaracterized conservative positions for cheap laughs and they diminished the show.

Ismael Loutfi, a comedian who worked in the “Patriot Act” writers’ room, defended Minhaj, particularly when it came to the F.B.I.-informant story. Loutfi, who grew up Muslim in Florida, mentioned stories he’d heard about Tampa-area mosques being infiltrated after 9/11. “Maybe it’s just three or four facts he combined into one,” Loutfi said. “Every standup you see who’s telling any joke, there is an element of truth, but then the thing that provokes laughter is dishonest. I can see how you would find it sort of disreputable, but at the same time I don’t think that that’s a story I’ve heard anyone talk about.”

In fact, the president of the mosque that Minhaj attended while growing up remembered an incident in the post-9/11 era of a man coming to the mosque one Friday and acting suspiciously enough that the imam called a lawyer at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who, in turn, called the F.B.I. The man never appeared at the mosque again, but it’s easy to see how an incident like that would make an impression on Minhaj. When it came to the story about anthrax, Loutfi said that it had struck him as extraordinary when he’d watched “The King’s Jester,” but that it got at sincere feelings that Minhaj had experienced during “Patriot Act” ’s run. “There definitely was real fear that was palpable,” Loutfi said. Minhaj received death threats online, and, according to his security guard, a former N.Y.P.D. officer, a letter was sent to Netflix threatening Minhaj, but it didn’t contain any powder. Minhaj also acknowledged to me that the threatening tweets displayed on the large screen during “The King’s Jester” were not authentic but, rather, heightened for comedic effect.

This is simply disgraceful. The audience has no reason to think that these are mere bits being played for comedic effect. Minhaj is deliberately setting himself up as a victim and hero in the act, based largely on lies.

According to former “Patriot Act” employees, members of the research department felt that Minhaj could be dismissive of the fact-checking process. “[Minhaj] just assembled people around him to make him appear different and much smarter and more thoughtful,” a female researcher said. “But those people—the smart people and hardworking people—were treated poorly for bringing the perspective that he is celebrated for.” Like other comedy news shows, “Patriot Act” hired journalists to write briefing memos—based on reporting and research—that were meant to serve as the factual basis for twenty-five-minute episodes on topics such as Amazon, protests in Sudan, and corruption in cricket. In one instance, 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. They sat in the hall for more than an hour, listening to the meeting continue without them, and later had to scramble to insert factual revisions. Later in the show’s run, researchers were no longer invited into the writers’ room for rewrites—only the male head of the research department was allowed in. Women researchers said that they felt shunted to the side.Venkataramanujam said that the decision was meant to streamline the show’s process and was not designed to exclude individual researchers. He also said that researchers being sent out of rewrites was standard practice and that the researchers chose to stay in the hall. “Fact-checking at Patriot Act was extremely rigorous,” Minhaj said in a written statement. “A team of news producers fact-checked every line of every draft of every script at least 8-10 times before I ever said anything on camera.”

I don’t believe him.

Minhaj often talks about his immigrant upbringing and the social alienation that sometimes came with being a racial minority in his home town. The central story of his first Netflix special, “Homecoming King,” which was released in 2017, is about his crush on a friend, a white girl with whom he shared a stolen kiss and who accepted his invitation to prom but later reneged in a humiliating fashion; Minhaj showed up on her doorstep the night of the dance, only to see another boy putting a corsage on her wrist. Onstage, Minhaj says that his friend’s parents didn’t want their daughter to take pictures with a brown boy, because they were concerned about what their relatives might think. “I’d eaten off their plates,” Minhaj says. “I’d kissed their daughter. I didn’t know that people could be bigoted even as they were smiling at you.”

But the woman disputed certain facts. She told me that she’d turned down Minhaj, who was then a close friend, in person, days before the dance. Minhaj acknowledged that this was correct, but he said that the two of them had long carried different understandings of her rejection. As a “brown kid in Davis, California,” he said, he’d been conditioned to put his head down and “just take it, and I did.” The “emotional truth” of the story he told onstage was resonant and justified the fabrication of details. “There are so many other kids who have had a similar sort of doorstep experience,” he said.

The woman also said that she and her family had faced online threats and doxing for years because Minhaj had insufficiently disguised her identity, including the fact that she was engaged to an Indian American man. A source with knowledge of the production said that, during the show’s Off Broadway run, Minhaj had used a real picture of the woman and her partner, with their faces blurred, projected behind him as he told the story.

The woman said that Minhaj had invited her and her husband to an Off Broadway performance. 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. Later, she said, when she confronted Minhaj about the online threats brought on by the Netflix special—“I spent years trying to get threads taken down,” she told me—Minhaj shrugged off her concerns. Minhaj said that he didn’t recall that interaction, and pointed to the fact that he had been in touch with her prior to the airing of the special, recommending she scrub social-media posts that might indicate her relationship to him. Minhaj also noted that the tone of their texts and e-mails was always friendly.

This is simply shameful.

What is the truth in this instance? “Homecoming King” offers a broader observation about the often insidious nature of racism in American suburbs. 

This is really fucking lazy framing. There’s racism in the American suburbs. So, maybe rely on actual incidents of said racism rather than humiliating someone much less powerful who wasn’t in fact racist?

But what duty does the storyteller have to the real person who is on the other side of his tale, whether it be a high-school crush or a felon turned F.B.I. informant? (Minhaj said that he owed nothing to Monteilh, based on his behavior toward the Muslim community.)

But, again, to the extent Monteilh deserved to be called out for his behavior, maybe call him out for his actual behavior rather than making up lies about him?

The nature of storytelling, let alone comedic storytelling, is inventive; its primary aim is to make an impression, to amuse or to engage. But the stakes appear to change when entertainers fabricate anecdotes about current events and issues of social injustice. In 2015, the comedian Steve Rannazzisi, who appeared on all seven seasons of FX’s “The League,” admitted that he had lied about evacuating from the Twin Towers on the morning of 9/11, narrowly escaping death when the second plane hit. In interviews, he had used the story to explain his motivation for abandoning a corporate job in Manhattan to pursue an entertainment career in Hollywood, a trajectory that would have seemed remarkable enough without any embellishment. The writer and monologuist Mike Daisey faced blowback for making up details in his story for “This American Life” about Apple’s Foxconn plant in China, but his point about poor working conditions was an important one to make. In a blog post titled “Some Thoughts After the Storm,” Daisey wrote, “When I said onstage that I had personally experienced things I in fact did not, I failed to honor the contract I’d established with my audiences over many years and many shows.”

There are different levels of lies, to be sure, but these all seem rather problematic, no?

Exaggerating Foxconn’s worker abuses for comedic effect might well be justifiable under the “emotional truth” defense. But “This American Life” isn’t a comedy show but a documentary podcast. It’s supposed to be scrupulously honest.

When Minhaj appeared on the comedian Marc Maron’s podcast, in 2021, the two had a conversation about how comedians portray themselves and their emotional lives onstage. The comedian, Minhaj said, must guide the audience to a particular emotional takeaway: “Bring it home, what is the point?” Maron seemed to raise the idea that, in “Homecoming King,” Minhaj had constructed an onstage emotional history that wasn’t entirely honest. “Your show was tight, it was effective, it had a message, the punch line at the end was very clever. It was good, the story was good—you lucked out with these life things and you organize them,” he said. “I’m not criticizing that. I’m just saying that there is a big difference between what you put out in the world and who you are personally.” He went on, “When you talk about your father or that woman that jilted you in high school or whatever, you’re going to have to weigh the repercussions. Either you respect them or you don’t. And then you have to balance that out. At what point is this disrespectful, and at what point do I not give a shit anymore?”

It all depends on whether you’re a decent human being, I suppose.

Minhaj seems unconflicted about his choices. “You have got to take the shots you are given in life, even if they’re built on a lie,” Minhaj says during a bit in “The King’s Jester.” When we spoke, I asked, were he to get “The Daily Show” hosting job, if his fabrications could put him in a compromised position when commenting on someone such as George Santos. Minhaj brushed the question off. “I think, when George Santos says he’s on the volleyball team, it’s a pointless story,” he responded. Minhaj’s “fiction” was always in service to a bigger point, putting him in a different moral category than Santos. He appeared unwilling to engage with the idea that his position in the comedic landscape is unique, or that the host of a comedy news show might be held to more stringent standards of accuracy across his body of work. When it came to his stage shows, he told me, “the emotional truth is first. The factual truth is secondary.” 

But where’s the “emotional truth” in any of these fabrications? Surely, if Minhaj is somehow a victim, he could find real cases to illustrate that point. No, he’s simply a fraud.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Entertainment, Humor, Popular Culture, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Modulo Myself says:

    Every one of his stories sounds like something you would get in a dumb YA novel where a special teen has all of these media-worthy things happen to them. There’s a huge difference between making things up and passing them off as true and being a hysterical narcissist. The real crime is the appetite audiences have for this type of story (passed off as comedy or performance art or whatever).

  2. I heard Minhaj interviewed a few years ago and he certainly made it sound like the events in “Homecoming King” were real. To know that they are not undercuts the whole thing for me. If, to pick another example, Mike Birbiglia ended up having made up his sleep disorder, “Sleepwalk with Me” would lose a great deal of appeal. There is a brand of comedy that purports to have a core truth to it. Yes, we know it is exaggerated for effect, but the events in question are supposed to be real.

    And there is also comedy that purports to be real social commentary.

    Minhaj claims to be both and if he is freely making up very key elements of his life (e.g., the anthrax thing) then, again, it utterly undercuts his act.

    Plus, as was noted in one of the quotes in the piece, Minhaj clearly sees himself as a Very Important Voice in the arena of anti-racism and especially anti-Muslim bigotry. If his stories aren’t true, he is just giving ammo to people who assert that there really is no racism and bigotry in the US. He, therefore, undercuts his own alleged goals.

    If he wanted to write fictionalized accounts of his own “emotional truths,” he should have written a novel or a play or a movie.

    Although along those lines, and in the stand-up adjacent world, part of the appeal of “The Big Sick” is that the core story of Emily Gordon’s illness and her relationship with Kumail Nanjiani was based in reality. If it ended up that all of that was utter fiction, it would still be a good story, it would detract from the emotional heft of the tale.

  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    Is the difference between Ron White and Hasan Minhaj that one merely “exaggerates” while the other deceives, or that one is affirming mainstream culture while the other attacks it? I see a similar phenomenon with how Trump can tell a entirely fabricated story and gets a pass because he supposedly just “exaggerates” for theatrical purposes, but if Biden misremembers a statistical fact in an otherwise valid statement, he’s suddenly the biggest liar in politics.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: To me, the key difference is that White presents himself purely as an entertainer whereas Minhaj presents himself as a Teller of Important Truths who happens to be funny. White’s audience is there to laugh their asses off. Minhaj’s is there to participate in virtue signaling, with comedy as a cudgel against wrong-thinkers rather than entertainment.

  5. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’d suggest that White is there just as much to participate in virtue signaling. He’s just signaling a different set of virtues.

    Don’t forget White’s biggest claim to fame is “The Blue Collar Comedy Tour”, wherein four millionaires who grew up in upper middle class suburban white collar families went around presenting themselves as poor rural southern laborers made good.

  6. Andy says:

    Fabulism and narcissism are a helluva drug.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Let’s not pretend comedians don’t know exactly what they’re doing, and how to signal the audience how seriously to take a story. No one ever for minute thought Rodney Dangerfield’s doctor was named Vinnie Boombatz. Everyone knew (to use @Steven L. Taylor: apt example that Mike Birbiglia really did have a sleepwalking syndrome. Because Dangerfield and Birbiglia are both professionals who know how to signal an audience.

    Jim Jeffries has a routine about taking a quadraplegic friend to a whorehouse – he sends clear signals that this is a true story, granting some exaggerations and dialog changes. If Jim is lying, he’s a piece of shit who has betrayed his audience, made fools of his audience. That’s what Hassan Minaj did. He made fools of his audience and that is not ever going to be a good idea. He’s finished in comedy.

    You must not ever, ever disrespect your audience. I have a hard time convincing some writers of this, especially in the kidlit space. You, the author, are not a teacher or a spiritual guide or a wise older sibling or a parent or anything to your audience but a dancing monkey. Have some humility. Even if your audience is a ten year-old, that kid pays your rent, not the other way around. When I’d do school visits I’d run into teachers who seemed to be under the impression that I was an extension of them. Hah. No, I work for the kids and you, Mrs. Whatever, are just another brick in the wall.

  8. @James Joyner: @Stormy Dragon: FWIW, while I am aware of the “Blue Collar Comedy Tour” I cannot conjure Ron White’s oeuvre, but I do know Foxworthy’s work as well as Larry the Cable Guy’s.

    Now, I think SD makes a point: there is some virtue-signaling associated with all these guys insofar as they affirm a specific fictionalized version of the white working class. But I do think James is correct: the levels are very different for Minhaj, who clearly wants to be a Speaker of Truth in a way that Jeff Foxworthy does not, and never has, aspired to.

    I mean, it really doesn’t affect my views (such as they are) of Larry the Cable Guy’s act to find out that he is not, in fact, a cable guy and, moreover, that his stage accent is not his real accent. He is playing a character (as did the late Paul Reubens). Minhaj is not playing a character. Rather he is presenting himself as a comedic conduit of Truth. As such, it matters if his truth is, in fact, fabricated.

  9. @Michael Reynolds:

    No one ever for minute thought Rodney Dangerfield’s doctor was named Vinnie Boombatz

    I am shattered to finally be learning this.

  10. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    part of the appeal of “The Big Sick” is that the core story of Emily Gordon’s illness and her relationship with Kumail Nanjiani was based in reality

    Exactly. The fact that it is a fictionalized account of a real life situation is given away by the name changes. And while, according to interviews, the core story is true there have been significant changes to plot – several real life people made into one character, time between some events shortened, etc. Nanjani and Gordon are absolutely upfront about those changes and that is why they wrote the movie as fiction rather than biography.

  11. MarkedMan says:

    Minhaj has experienced prejudice and had people who had power over him treated him poorly. That’s his life experience. His character, however, is shown in how he reacts to that. He now has a certain amount of power, and he uses it to tell lies to benefit himself at the expense of real people.

    In a just world no one should be subjected to prejudice and abuse. But being wronged doesn’t automagically make you a noble person. Being wronged isn’t a pass for shitting on people you think deserve it or simply resent. It simply shows that the only difference between you and and your abuser is which one is holding the stick at the moment.

  12. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I’ve seen a few Jeff Foxworthy bits on YouTube and I don’t think he is making any “false claims” as to authenticity the way Minhaj is. Comedians play characters, sometimes for their whole career. There is no dishonesty in Paul Reubens playing Peewee Herman. I’d actually be surprised if Emo Phillips and Steven Wright were the oddball characters they appear as. George Burns played a relaxed cigar smoking guy who was just telling stories but we know that in fact up until the end of his life he spent hours after every show obsessing audience reaction to every single line. To equate comedians being comedians with what Minaj is doing just seems absurd.

  13. Andy says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Don’t forget White’s biggest claim to fame is “The Blue Collar Comedy Tour”, wherein four millionaires who grew up in upper middle class suburban white collar families went around presenting themselves as poor rural southern laborers made good.

    The difference is Minhaj is making shit up about actual people and actual events, and making claims about discrete events that aren’t true that he only admits to when pressed.

    I don’t think people would have a problem with his racism-as-comedy schtick if it were an actual schtick or based on his actual real-life experience and not some bullshit about finding “emotional truth” that relies on blatant dishonesty. He’s just the stand-up comedy version of Jessie Smollett.

  14. Stormy Dragon says:


    My goal here is not defend Minhaj, who certainly seems problematic, but rather more a concern that the focus on him is driven less by actual concern about authenticity in comedic storytelling and rather by opposition to the message he’s advocating. Essentially a comedic analogue of the “perfect victim” problem.

  15. CSK says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I think that the focus is on Minhaj appropriating other people’s victimization and passing it off as his own.

  16. @MarkedMan:

    To equate comedians being comedians with what Minaj is doing just seems absurd.

    I am confused. Do you think I am doing that?

    I am perhaps misreading your comment?

  17. DrDaveT says:

    Minhaj said that he owed nothing to Monteilh, based on his behavior toward the Muslim community.

    The idea that the fact of someone’s bad behavior (or your perception of it) relieves you of any responsibility to be truthful in your statements about them is the slipperiest of slopes. Don’t go there. (I’m pretty sure Mr. Minhaj would very much object to having that logic applied to his own statements and actions…)

  18. Modulo Myself says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I think it’s more than earnest liberal comedians with Netflix specials are not supposed to make racism into a genre story which anybody can use. Fed-up blue collar dude is a genre story, a supposedly harmless one. So is a guy with a wife. But normal white America being racist is not supposed to be the same as those idiots up in Washington or marriage.

  19. Andy says:


    I think that the focus is on Minhaj appropriating other people’s victimization and passing it off as his own.

    Bingo. And doing so in a way that lies about real people, resulting in online threats and doxing against a girl and her family.

  20. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: No, I was reinforcing what you said. It was someone else’s comment I found was absurdly trying to equate making up stories bout real people that cause them harm with the absolutely normal act of comedians assuming a comic persona.

  21. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: @Steven L. Taylor: White’s act is really very different from the others on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. Foxworthy was already a big star and, yes, he grew up upper middle class in Atlanta and wildly plays up the redneck bit—although I gather he has family that are more rural. Bill Engvall’s father was a doctor in the Navy and later in Texas. Dan “Larry the Cable Guy” Whitney grew up on a farm, but in the Midwest, not the South.

    Like Engvall and Whitney, being anointed by Foxworthy made White’s career. But the gist of his character is genuine: he’s a Texan, enlisted in the Navy, got into minor troubles with the law because we was a drunkard and minor league drug addict, and became filthy stinking rich as a result of Foxworthy launching his career into orbit. He’s far and away my favorite of the four and I’ve watched all his Netflix specials. (Like Engvall, he’s recently retired.) There’s not a whole lot of “people from the South are better than bicoastal elites” quality to his act. He openly brags about partying with Dr. Phil and has apparently become a regular on Joe Rogan’s show of late.

  22. Modulo Myself says:


    In this case, he could have told what apparently was the truth–he was rejected by this girl and he believed the rejection due to racism. That would still be bad for the person he was telling it about. He decided to exaggerate the story in a way that seems obviously unbelievable and cruel to me. What he made was a series of details, not the story itself.

  23. MarkedMan says:

    @Modulo Myself: Exactly. What you do when you get power reveals your character. The fact that he used it to tell lies about a woman who chose not to go to a dance with him when they were teenagers says a lot about him.

  24. Modulo Myself says:


    People have been conditioned to believe they need stories with hooks. Being rejected in a muddled way by a kid who grew up in a racist world and then carrying that hurt because you grew up (on the bad end) in the same world does not have a hook. I think this is more about the audience and the guy being obsessed with making it in showbiz.

    Likewise, I’m sure every Muslim kid America after 9/11 was thinking the FBI was behind every person who crossed their paths. That was not a good time to be Muslim, even as white Americans were busy congratulating themselves about how tolerant they were. He just took a fantasy he probably had about what he would really do in that situation and made it reality.

  25. @MarkedMan: Gotcha. Thanks for the clarification.