The Inventions of Hasan Minhaj
Why would a standup comedian lie?
According to a recent New Yorker profile, Hasan Minhaj, a talented standup comedian, has exaggerated and invented some autobiographical details about the racism he has faced in his life, especially as one of the few brown kids in a very white high school.
Of course, in that profile, Minhaj defended his comedic approach:
“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.”
Plenty of journalists are now vilifying Minhaj for his emotional truths (which can be more accurately described as emotional untruths and half-truths) but I think those same critics are pretending to be disappointed and angry. I think they’re exaggerating and inventing shit, too.
And what are we to do when a journalist shares their emotional truths?
In any case, I think there’s a simple explanation for Minhaj’s inventions. He’s a Progressive Democrat performer who wants to please his Progressive Democrat audience. And that audience wants to hear hilarious and triumphant tales of a brown guy mocking and defeating the racism that apparently informs every part of American life. I have no doubt that Minhaj has encountered more than a few racist white folks but what political credibility might he lose among angry leftists if he also told hilarious stories about his positive interactions with white people?
How might Minhaj be punished if his comedic take on racism was more complicated, contradictory, self-effacing, and challenging to his progressive audience? Or, conversely, how might conservatives misquote and misinterpret a more nuanced comedic approach in order to minimize the amount of racism that does exist in American life?
As noted in The New Yorker:
“The central story of [Minhaj’s] 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 kissed their daughter. I didn’t know that people could be bigoted even as they were smiling at you.’”
In light of Minhaj’s definition of truth, it’s not surprising that white girl has serious disagreement with his account of their high school friendship. She asserts that she turned down Minhaj’s prom invitation in the days before the dance. In an Off-Broadway production of his show, Minhaj used a blown-up photo of that white woman and her husband, an Indian-American. Their faces were blurred, yes, but she’d attended the show on Minhaj’s invitation.
Who’s telling the truth? Minhaj or the white woman? I think it’s likely the case that Minhaj knew his invented and exaggerated version of that story was funnier and more leftist-friendly than the basic truth: He loved a white girl who didn’t love him back.
In my memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, there’s a chapter where I write about the way that white kids in a very conservative farm town high school unanimously elected me, the lifetime liberal Indian boy still living on the reservation, as freshman class president only a year after I first started commuting there.
But did I also face racism in that little town? Yes.
Did I also love a white girl who didn’t love me back? Yes.
Did I also love two white girls who did indeed love me back? Yes.
Is all of that heartbreak an ordinary part of any person’s life? Yes.
After my memoir was published, I read a few social media posts where other Native Americans chastised me for writing positively about the white people—the white conservatives—in my adopted home town.
After reading my memoir, one of those Native critics wrote, “Well, we know what kind of Indian Sherman is,” implying that only a traitorous Indian would ever befriend white farm town kids.
Isn’t it crazy that kindness can be seen as the enemy?
So, yes, I think there’s another reason why Minhaj tells his emotional truths. I think there’s another reason why his inventions and exaggerations neatly fit within a Progressive Democrat box.
Hasan Minhaj doesn’t want to be a villain.
But I think he’s now learned that it’s far more dangerous to play the role of artist as hero.