Brooke Gladstone: In September, The New Yorker published an article by Clare Malone titled "Hasan Minhaj’s Emotional Truths," fact-checking moments from the comedian’s stand-up specials. For instance, Minhaj has an extended bit about being rejected on prom night on his date's doorstep.
Hasan Minhaj: Mrs. Reed opens the door. She has this look of concern on her face, and she's like, "Oh my God, honey, did Bethany not tell you? Sweetie, we love you, we think you're great, and we love that you come over and study, but tonight is one of those nights where-- we have a lot of family back home in Nebraska, and we're going to be taking a lot of photos tonight, so we don't think it'd be a good fit."
Brooke Gladstone: The New Yorker found that the doorstep moment itself never happened, and Minhaj owned up to it in a 21-minute response video with qualifications posted on YouTube several weeks ago.
Hasan Minhaj: Bethany's mom did really say that. It was just a few days before prom, and I created the doorstep scene to drop the audience into the feeling of that moment.
Brooke Gladstone: In another routine, Minhaj describes receiving an envelope filled with white powder in the mail after critical Patriot Act segments on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalism. He says the powder fell onto his daughter's stroller.
Hasan Minhaj: And it falls on my daughter's shoulder, her neck, her cheeks, and she's staring at me. We rushed down to NYU, and the moment they see the baby, they just rip the clothes off her and they take her away.
Brooke Gladstone: The New Yorker found no record of this emergency room visit. Minhaj admits that it didn't happen, though he says he did open an envelope full of white powder while with his daughter and the threats to his family's safety were genuine.
Hasan Minhaj: This is all terrifying, so why embellish? Why even say you took your daughter to the hospital? The night of the anthrax, Beena and I, we got into a huge argument, and she kept asking, "Hasan, what if this powder fell on our daughter?" I created the hospital scene to put the audience in that same shock and fear that me and Beena felt playing out that night.
Brooke Gladstone: The New Yorker has stood behind its story even after Minhaj called it misleading. The scandal, which has been covered by almost every major news outlet, brings into question what audiences expect from comedians, especially ones who do Jon Stewart-like political commentary.
Hasan Minhaj: I thought I had two different expectations built into my work; my work as a storytelling comedian and my work as a political comedian where facts always come first. That is why the fact-checking on Patriot Act was extremely rigorous, but in my work as a storytelling comedian, I assumed that the lines between truth and fiction were allowed to be a bit more blurry.
Brooke Gladstone: Jesse David Fox is a senior editor at Vulture, host of Good One: A Podcast About Jokes, and the author of Comedy Book: How Comedy Conquered Culture and the Magic That Makes It Work. Welcome to the show, Jesse.
Jesse David Fox: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
Brooke Gladstone: It's pretty commonplace for comedians to exaggerate or twist the truth for the sake of a more entertaining story in their standup performances. What do you think The New Yorker article and the reactions to it tell us about the perceptions of truth in comedy in 2023?
Jesse David Fox: The tension of the story is that a comedian would exaggerate and that might be a newsworthy bit of information. That implies that there is a large segment of the general audience who consumes comedy, who does not think of a comedian as a person with the artistic license to make things up. I think there is a tendency to think of comedians as just talking up there. Even while comedy has gotten more and more ambitious in its structure, there still is a tendency to not really investigate the nature of how they're talking.
Brooke Gladstone: As you yourself wrote, no one is going to question whether what Mike Birbiglia says about his life is true, but when you are centering yourself in a story about racial discrimination, pain that you experienced, and then you exaggerate it, you embroider it, to make the prejudice seem even more egregious, isn't that precisely the occasion when the contract with the comedy audience shifts and genuine naked honesty is called for?
Jesse David Fox: Hasan in his defense is arguing that what he's conveying to the audience is correct, but insomuch as an artist is trying to communicate their truth to people, if them knowing the factual truth would completely delegitimize the story, then I do think there's something to think about. I think it's also impacted by the fact that Hasan is a comedian whose other job is being in the political space, and this show is not an apolitical work. It is a political work with a point it is making.
Brooke Gladstone: We're hearing a story that's horrible, made more horrible so that we can feel more horrible about it. I don't know.
Jesse David Fox: It feels weird, at minimum.
Brooke Gladstone: It feels weird.
Jesse David Fox: We never really as a society determine the ethics of art, but our stomach can feel like, oh, this is not what we agreed to. I think broken contract is correct.
Brooke Gladstone: In your book, you track audiences' evolving expectations of truth and authenticity and comedy. You mark the sick comedians of the mid-20th century as turning points in the role of truth in comedy. Mort Sahl used to take newspapers up onto the stage, and obviously, there were plenty of moments in Lenny Bruce's monologues that weren't funny. Talk to me about the sick comedians and how they engendered the goodwill in regard to their audiences.
Jesse David Fox: They were reacting to the comedy of the 1940s and early 1950s that was still rooted in very traditional joke writing structure and club comedians performing sometimes stock material and not coming from a personal perspective. In the late 1950s, with the rise of what would become called the sick comedians; Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, all had certain versions of this is a personal expression and that is a tremendous evolution, probably the largest evolution in the history of comedy, and from personal expression, you assume they're a truthful expression.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's talk, just say, 10, 20 years after the sick comedians about Richard Pryor and George Carlin, who became experts at performing their authentic personas while highlighting social inequities.
Jesse David Fox: Richard Pryor is, to me, the avatar in a lot of different definitions of when we think of in terms of truth and comedy because he's both being really frank about race relations in America in a way that comedians weren't doing in the same way.
Richard Pryor: Police got a chokehold they use out here though, man. They choke [bleep] to death. That mean you be dead when they're through. Did you know that? Wait a minute, [bleep] going "Yes, we knew," white folks "No, I had no idea." [laughter]
Jesse David Fox: Then there is this truth of how he investigated himself in a way that really had never been seen. That level of vulnerability really pushed the art form forward by being so vulnerable, by being so truthful seemingly in his discussion or his personal life. That then gives you a certain credibility when you're talking about politics or race.
Brooke Gladstone: Talk about vulnerability. You wrote about Tig Notaro going on stage just after the death of her mother and her own cancer diagnosis.
Tig Notaro: I have cancer. How are you? Hi, how are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer. How are you? Ah, it's a good time. Diagnosed with cancer. [sighs] It feels good.
Brooke Gladstone: Then you talked about Margaret Cho's struggles on her TV show to try to conform to how TV execs expected her to look, or Maria Bamford doing material about mental health in the 2000s.
Maria Bamford: I went into a psychiatric facility, which if you haven't been, don't feel bad if you go, and they're uniformly awful. You're not at the wrong one. [laughter] They're all bad. They're all bad. It's as if an art director came in and said, "Okay, I want to break five more chairs, and then we need--"
Brooke Gladstone: These women, you wrote, confront the popular idea of what it means to be fearless on stage. Fearless is often used to describe comics unafraid of hurting people, when it should apply to comedians afraid of being hurt by people and persisting anyway.
Jesse David Fox: What all those comedians did is genuinely risk ramifications. If you just come down from a high and go, "Here's my truth, it's unquestioned. This is the truth," it's not actually vulnerable. You're not actually going to get to something universal, but if you leave yourself open to the audience, you're going to be able to find something deeper.
Actually, sort of being a pervert and maybe having a string of sexual misconduct has a long history of not actually affecting one's career, where, physical illness, a history of mental illness, does have a long history of affecting people's careers, especially in a place like Hollywood that is looking for reasons not to work with people.
That is the difference, which is not just saying, "This is the truth, it's unquestioned." It's basically being like truth is a sometimes-abstract idea that we're going to find together.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's talk about Louis C.K. You wrote that he had a breakthrough after his first kid was born that transformed his, up to that point, not very impressive career. You write that in the story of comedy’s march to be taken more seriously, C.K was, for nearly a decade, its avatar, and at the center of the celebration was truth that the Los Angeles Review of Books called him television's most honest man.
Louis C.K: It's really sad about men that we can't have a beautiful thought about a woman that isn't followed by a disgusting thought about that same woman. We're not capable of it. We can't do one without the other.
Jesse David Fox: Louis C.K was taken extremely seriously in a way comedians really hadn't been before, and there's a lot of reasons for it, but a lot of it was this idea of how honest he was on stage.
Brooke Gladstone: That sometimes he thought his daughter was a real a-hole.
Jesse David Fox: Yes, stuff like that, or describing what it's like to clean the diaper of his newborn daughter and confronting that expectation. I do think talking about parenting on stage, that was new, but he then used the goodwill of that to then apply it to a lot of work that was not as emotionally vulnerable, which was much more using the feeling of truth to heighten the stakes of jokes and then using that truth to then-- or to get away with material that if you look back on, was not actually sophisticated in his taking on language or race, but actually quite reductive.
Brooke Gladstone: I think you need to give an example. It's a little abstract.
Jesse David Fox: Sure. One is a joke about how he prefers to say the N-word. Actually, say the word, not say the phrase the N-word. He has a joke about the C-word and how that word is okay, and he has a joke about the S-slur and about how that word is okay. In those jokes, he fashions them as progressive, and all of those were attempts to use the goodwill he had earned from earlier specials to get away with stuff that I think really is not as truthful as he is fashioning himself to be.
Brooke Gladstone: Then in 2017, The New York Times published a story revealing five accusations of sexual misconduct against him. What does his story reveal about the expectations of truth in comedy?
Jesse David Fox: For a lot of younger people, I think it poisoned the well of projecting yourself as authentic when you have full control of how you're being presented. I think for a lot of young people, there's a certain amount of distress to people that are fashioning themselves as truth tellers. I think more than anything about being truthful, it's much more about control and controlling the narrative and controlling the perception.
You can say, yes, he was being honest, but more so, he was trying to manipulate the perception of that honesty in a way where he was still in power and he was still in control and he was not being vulnerable to people calling into question his ethics or his behavior.
Brooke Gladstone: You've marked the appearance of a new era of a comedian. Folks like John Early and Kate Berlant respond to this performed authenticity, reacting you say, against the phoniness of going on stage and acting like what you're saying is authentic.
Kate Berlant: The thing about us is--
John Early: I'm just going to stop you right there because--
Kate Berlant: What's up? What's up?
John Early: Oh my God. [laughs] Kate, this is huge. This is huge.
Kate Berlant: No. No. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I have chills. I have chills. I have chills.
John Early: Oh my God, yes.
Kate Berlant: So few people experience this.
John Early: Thank you, I know. If I could go back in time to when we first met, and if I could tell those two people, Kate, "Look how far you're going to come."
Kate Berlant: Don't go there because I'll go here.
John Early: Okay, but Kate, I do--
Brooke Gladstone: They satirize the idea that it's even possible to be truthful on stage. Is this the way to avoid being called inauthentic to lean into the absurdity of the performance?
Jesse David Fox: Yes, I think so. It's a reaction against a lot of the previous definition of what authenticity looks like. It's saying that if you're going on stage and you're performing no matter what, it is more authentic to acknowledge you're performing than it is to pretend you are just telling people about your life. Kate's background, I believe she has a master's in performance studies, is rooted in people like Judith Butler. Judith Butler is a queer and feminist academic. A lot of what we think of as the idea of the performance of gender comes from their work.
They have a book called Gender Trouble. The quote I quote from Gender Trouble is, "Laughter emerges in the realization that all along the original was derived," meaning that you laugh when you realize we think we're being an authentic person when really, we are performing what we think an authentic person looks like. That then gets heightened on stage when you actually are performing.
Brooke Gladstone: Minhaj is often vulnerable on stage, sharing stories about race in America and the discrimination he experienced. The narrative around his success is about what he reveals about the American immigrant experience and racism in the country. He has admitted that he's not great at physical comedy or writing jokes. What he's great at is sincerity.
Jesse David Fox: Yes, and I've talked to him about it. What he can do that may be better than any other comedian ever is look directly into a camera and say something earnest, I think is maybe a better word, without irony, truly just directly being like, "This is something that happened. This is important." That can be quite impactful and can cause people to have a very strong relationship to him because he's talking directly to you. A lot of comedians aren't doing that, especially not on tape, because it's embarrassing almost to be seen as that sincere.
Brooke Gladstone: Do you think that's his vulnerability?
Jesse David Fox: I think it's artistically vulnerable. I do think it is something that he knows comedians would make fun of. I think there is less vulnerability in the nature of how he tells his story.
Brooke Gladstone: It's because he really isn't like Margaret Cho or the women that we talked about earlier, laying things on the line that could hurt them. This earnest righteous discussion is in fact his brand.
Jesse David Fox: Yes, I think that's fair. I think that criticism of his work existed before The New Yorker story. That's why when The New Yorker story came out, for a lot of people, they felt very vindicated because they were like, "Oh, I always thought there was something wrong with his work"
Brooke Gladstone: It's been reported that The New Yorker piece may have cost Minhaj The Daily Show host job, but outside of that, do you think it might mark a new turn in the notion of truth in comedy?
Jesse David Fox: It will force the comedians who are in the political sphere, whose personal work might not be the same thing, to really have to scrutinize their standup and see if it adheres to the same standards as their shows at higher fact-checkers and stuff like that. It might make the comedian have to do a little bit more work in really conveying that it's true, but what I hope is, somewhere, it allows audiences to be where I am, where I don't go into a comedy show worried one way or the other about the factual accuracy of the story and just allow myself to experience it emotionally.
Brooke Gladstone: Without Minhaj as host, The Daily Show continues with a rotating slew of guest hosts, Conan O'Brien, retired shows like Patriot Act and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Desus & Mero, and Ziwe have been canceled by their networks. It feels like a moment of change for the Stewart brand of political comedy, but what do you think is next? What's it feel like? What platform is it on?
Jesse David Fox: I think platform is the right word. The legacy of The Daily Show of people turning to comedic individuals that they trust to provide them information and/or process information in the news and politics is alive and well. If you look at podcasts, TikTok, or Instagram, there are just people doing this.
Essentially, as our life gets increasingly complicated and we get further removed from each other, comedians are adept at affirming humanity, comedians are adept at relieving tensions, comedians are adept at making the world seem like it makes sense. Not necessarily fixing problems, but just making it seem like it's manageable.
If you find someone funny, you trust them. Studies show this. It's part of the nature of what we laugh at. It's so rooted in our trusting of other people. It's why we laugh most with our loved ones. That's the thing about the Hasan story that I think is so interesting is after he released the video, you then basically saw a split where who people trusted is who they decided was correct in that story. They both seemingly released examples of manipulation.
The New Yorker story was about how Hasan manipulated the truth. Then Hasan released the video about how The New Yorker manipulated the truth, and then people just picked a side. That is the media story of this. Where everyone landed is not based on any actual information, it's just based on who they trust.
Brooke Gladstone: Thank you very much, Jesse.
Jesse David Fox: Thank you.
Brooke Gladstone: Jesse David Fox is the author of Comedy Book: How Comedy Conquered Culture and the Magic That Makes It Work. Thanks for listening to the midweek podcast. Tune into the big show on Friday to hear all about how The New York Times went from fading newspaper to tech titan. In the meantime, consider leaving OTM a review on Apple Podcasts or your app of choice. It helps more people find this.
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