Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Comedians may exaggerate for a punchline. When is that not OK?


It turns out that a lot of the stories that former "Daily Show" correspondent and "Patriot Act" host, Hasan Minhaj, has told in his stand-up comedy acts - stories from his lived experience as an Asian American and a Muslim - never actually happened, at least not to him. He told The New Yorker those stories are the emotional truth, not the actual truth. So the one about Minhaj getting roughed up by police after speaking with an FBI informant...


HASAN MINHAJ: They dragged me outside. They slammed my head against the hood of the car. Boom.

FADEL: ...Or the story about an anthrax scare involving his daughter...


MINHAJ: I rip it open. I flip it over, and all this white powder falls into the stroller.

FADEL: ...They didn't happen to Minhaj. Now, a lot of comedians exaggerate or make things up for a punchline. So I asked Hershal Pandya, the comedy reporter for Vulture, why this is different.

HERSHAL PANDYA: A lot of it comes down to the type of comedy Hasan wants to do. He's not trying to just get laughs. He's trying to make points, often about social justice issues. And he does so using this credibility he built as a guy who stands on stage and reports news. And he doesn't distinguish particularly well between that persona and his stand-up persona. And he speaks in these hushed tones as if to say, like, you have to believe me, these experiences happened to me and therefore, these points are valid. And then, you know, when he talks about racial injustice he faced or hate crimes or being persecuted by oppressive governments, that feels like a deception because those are the types of things you don't want to play fast and loose with details of, right? It makes it harder for people who have genuinely experienced these things to make these claims and be believed.

FADEL: One of his arguments was that the emotional truth is more important than the truth, that to make that larger point, he concocted these stories. Why didn't he just invent a character? Why did he put himself at the center?

PANDYA: So I think that's part of just what people do in stand-up, right? Make themselves the main character of a story that maybe did not necessarily happen to them. And at the same time, I think it's also been what the Hollywood establishment looks for people of marginalized backgrounds to do. They like to compress marginalized groups' experiences into their trauma or into the difficult experiences they face. Those are the projects that are more likely to get greenlit.

And in a way, like, maybe Hasan is justified. Maybe there's a small percentage of him that thought the only way for me to talk about the persecution Muslims faced after 9/11 and FBI agents infiltrating mosques is to pretend that it - this happened to me personally. And maybe it's the only way he could have a platform to tell that story. But at the same time, I think just because the system is bad, it doesn't necessarily absolve the person who is complicit in exploiting it. 'Cause I imagine if an incident like that happened to me, there's maybe a chance that I'd be grateful to see someone who looked like me talking about it. But I can also see a reality where I was mad that someone was leeching stolen valor off an experience that I went through.

FADEL: Is there any merit, though, to the idea that maybe he's being held at an unfair standard? Would a white comedian have had a full New Yorker story about him for the same actions?

PANDYA: It could be that no one is doing this to white comedians. But also, it really speaks to, like, where comedy is in our culture right now and how it's looked to as more important since "The Daily Show," right?

FADEL: But what's different about this case that has caught the nation's attention?

PANDYA: I think the reason that he is being scrutinized is less necessarily to do with his race or his identity and more to do with the types of things he speaks about. The things he speaks about are the types of things that necessitate fact checking. This is a fairly new thing in history for anyone to do this to comedy at all. So in this instance, it does seem like there's a validity to double-checking that the things he says are true.

FADEL: Hershal Pandya is a comedy reporter at Vulture. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PANDYA: Yeah, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADI OASIS SONG, "GET IT GOT IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.