Should Hasan Minhaj Still Be a Contender to Host ‘The Daily Show’?

Minhaj will need to reckon with his embellished storytelling if he gets the gig…but I don’t think he alone is to blame for his penchant for pretense.

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Should Hasan Minhaj Still Be a Contender to Host ‘The Daily Show’?
Photo:Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival (Getty Images)

On Friday, the New Yorker published a long read on comedian Hasan Minhaj’s tendency to exaggerate, extrapolate, and sometimes outright lie in his standup specials. Minhaj, who discussed his creative process with writer Clare Malone, explained that his “comedy Arnold Palmer is 70% emotional truth—this happened—and then 30% hyperbole, exaggeration, fiction.”

As it stands right now, Minhaj reportedly is on the shortlist to be the next host of The Daily Show, a program he worked on as a senior correspondent from 2014 to 2018, under both Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah. We have yet to learn if the revelations from the New Yorker piece will affect his standing. And while Minhaj will clearly need to reckon with his embellished storytelling in order to take the slot, I don’t think he alone is to blame for his penchant for pretense.

In his standup specials, Minhaj intertwined experiences of other Muslim Americans in the aftermath of September 11th into stories that he’s passed as his own. Mostly, this has been to the effect of communicating the uniquely challenging cultural and social environment Muslim Americans were made to navigate. But his hyperbole, in the pursuit of deeper resonation, hasn’t been victimless, either. In the linchpin story of his 2017 comedy special, Homecoming King, which won a Peabody Award, he recalled the white parents of his white prom date not wanting her to take photos with an Indian Muslim boy. The prom date in question refuted this account to the New Yorker, saying that she’d already kindly turned Minhaj down days before. But Minhaj’s version of the story and his usage of photos of her and her now-husband in a few of his shows (their faces were blurred) led to her and her parents getting harassed and doxxed by his fans.

Minhaj’s explanation is that comedic scenarios like these hit at “emotional truths” and that “the punchline is worth the fictionalized premise.” While I generally agree that standup comedy doesn’t need to uphold journalistic standards, I believe that axiom holds less true for comedy that veers sharply into infotainment. Such was the question the piece posed at large: How much accuracy should we expect from performers whose work straddles entertainment and news?

Minhaj has insisted that while these embellished truths form his standup specials, his Netflix show Patriot Act, which ran from 2018 to 2020 and won an Emmy and (another) Peabody award, went through rigorous fact-checking. Patriot Act was similarly formatted to a lot of news/comedy-style shows like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight: deep dives into political and cultural issues, backed up by research. Minhaj’s public persona as a Muslim, person of color, and millennial has been constructed by the anecdotes he’s told through his comedy specials, and while he can relate to them, they are not all actually his lived experiences. And that public perception of him granted him the authority to host Patriot Act—and win an award for infotainment—and be a front runner for The Daily Show. As the blurb on the Peabody site reads: “Minhaj brings a welcome voice to the overly white male middle-aged hosts of political entertainment television—as a Muslim, a person of color, and a millennial. Indeed, it is precisely these identity markers from which he speaks that gives him power and authority to address issues such as Islam, affirmative action, and our technology-saturated lives.” While Minhaj might be able to separate the partly fictionalized personal history he’s crafted in his standup from the one that informs his hosting duties, audiences and institutions alike are far less likely to differentiate the two.

As I read the New Yorker piece and watched the natural lifecycle of backlash play out on Twitter, I felt a need for accountability. And not just accountability in terms of truthfulness from Minhaj about where he’ll draw the line between fact and fiction, but from the white, liberal, and affluent audiences who were hungry for stories like the exaggerated ones he shared. In a post-Obama, Trumpian era, these types of folks (many of whom I am related to!!) became obsessed with bearing witness to tragic tales of racism, sexism, and bigotry as a way to distinguish themselves as “one of the good ones.” I imagine Minhaj may have felt incentivized—as subconscious as it might have been—to embellish his standup or conflate his experiences with other ethnic minorities so that it made a bigger impact on these white liberal types, who have historically made up a huge percentage of the fan base of The Daily Show, where Minhaj got his start. Or, perhaps there was no animus on his part, but those stories were what would quickly help him rise in popularity above the “white-male middle aged hosts” like the Peabody Awards described. It feels irresponsible to assess a fish’s health without considering the aquarium he swims around in.

The New Yorker also detailed allegedly poor working environment at the Patriot Act, revealing that three women staffers on the show threatened legal action against Netflix and the show’s production company “alleging gender discrimination, sex-based harassment, and retaliation.” Ultimately, they settled outside of court. It does not seem as if formal complaints were made about the show’s factual credibility. Additionally, in 2020, some women of color staffers tweeted about the “mental anguish” they said they experienced working on the show. In my opinion, these allegations and reports are more damning than his comedic embellishments.

From the accounts I’ve read in the news and through social media, Muslim Americans were acutely aware of the “emotional truths” of living in a post-9/11 America. While there certainly is value in having those truths reflected back at them, I doubt they needed Minhaj’s exaggeration to recognize them. I imagine many white folks, like myself, did, though. Now, I feel some convenient compartmentalizing is at play as I witness white folks who are now shocked by Minhaj’s narrative fabrications fail to acknowledge how their own desire to have their white guilt appeased might be fueling those exact fabrications.

I’m not convinced that Minhaj’s “comedy Arnold Palmer” alone should prevent him from getting the Daily Show gig, but it’s certainly something that cannot go overlooked should he be tapped to make comedic commentary about the news. In the meantime, liberal white audiences would benefit from reflecting on their participation in an entertainment ecosystem that rewards heightened stories of ethnic minorities’ pain.

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