I remember first hearing about the comedy special Homecoming King after a friend woke me up from a nap between classes.
“You gotta watch this guy Hasan. He’s The Daily Show guy. His new special is like, in-part stand-up comedy, in-part social commentary, in-part motivational speech? I’ve never seen anything like it before,” I remember my friend excitedly telling me.
My fellow brown bestie was right. Hasan Minhaj’s 2017 Netflix special was groundbreaking for a 15-year-old Desi kid from the Chicago suburbs. He told a story about getting rejected from prom by a white girl because of his race. Considering my nerdy math and science boarding school composed of majority Asian kids who were low on the social ladder at their previous high schools, the comedy special hit especially hard. A lot of us had that one white kid who gave us self-confidence issues to last a lifetime. And this guy was talking publicly about it? And sharing stories about growing up Desi? Minhaj had guts.
In his latest 2022 special, The King’s Jester, Minhaj continued to fuse comedy and social commentary, and his stories got even more intense. He told a story about getting fake anthrax sent to his house and hospitalizing his daughter. He spoke about FBI informants infiltrating his mosque. They were heartwrenching, and again I was inspired. He proudly told his stories and empowered us to do the same.
But as it turns out, he embellished many of those stories, according to The New Yorker.
The exposé was met with resounding feelings of betrayal. Perhaps a little fabrication would be fine if his specials were just comedy, but his art has always been much more than just comedy. Minhaj’s punchlines were for shocks and gasps, not just laughs. And exaggerating a sob story, rather than a joke, does not land the same. We’re in a dizzying post-truth era where comedy and news blur together and audiences are crying out for reliable narrators. And with that in mind, The Daily Show recently took Minhaj out of the running to be the next host.
This makes Minhaj, at most, bad at reading the room. But I’m not angry at him. And I’m not going to throw away his legacy.
I’ve found myself in several conversations recently with Desi and non-Desi people alike who sigh and shrug their shoulders when they see a picture of Minhaj. They utter “I guess he’s canceled now.” I think that is far from fair.
Instead, I turn my attention to the age-old media institutions that repeatedly shine an extra bright spotlight on celebrities of color with little regard to their pressure for perfection, their role in their communities, or the (lack thereof) safety nets when they fall from grace. And I ask audiences to interrogate how quickly they throw him away without question. I point a finger at a white supremacist culture that erases the narratives of millions because of an imperfection of one. I blame those individuals who are using this cultural moment as an excuse to validate their own racism and tell Muslim-Americans their stories are untrue. I turn to powerful white newsrooms who require airtight alibis for accusations of racism, even if they are on a stage, not a courtroom.
I have not seen The New Yorker’s Clare Malone deep dive into the credibility of any other comedian, but she chose to fact check the one Muslim, Desi-American to make it to the B-List (generously). On Thursday, Minhaj released a video to The Hollywood Reporter, offering a paper trail documenting the ways Minhaj says Malone cherry-picked truths and framed his stories. And while journalism school teaches us to relentlessly chase the truth, we need to question which community’s controversies we are deciding to shine a spotlight on, what effect they will have and how our bias feeds our framing.
When I say Minhaj’s exaggerations are disappointing, I say exaggerations, not lies. He did get fake anthrax sent to his house, but it did not touch his daughter. He was rejected from prom because of his race, but the white woman involved said the timeline was wrong.
Let me paint a picture: I had a white boy best friend in middle school who told a girl he would never date me because I am Indian. (That may or may not have given me insecurities to deal with in therapy). Now, if a reporter from The New Yorker knocked on his suburban home and asked him if that happened, I cannot guarantee he would happily corroborate my experiences. And a white woman chasing down that character in Minhaj’s past is a sordid path to take.
I urge all journalists who report outside of their communities to uncover the “why” of their questioning. And not all paths of journalistic investigation are righteous, just because they are truth seeking.
Minhaj’s exaggerations hurt so much because we put him on a moral pedestal. For non-Desi people, he was one of the few places to hear candid stories of Desi pain. And for Desi people, he was one of the few on such a public stage. So, he had to be perfect.
But that pressure is unfair for generations to come. Let Minhaj be an empowering opportunity to question the ways we let media control our narratives, and where we place our blame. Let him be a chance to grapple with nuanced disappointment: How do we hold our celebrities accountable, in a world where we do not have the power to hold white celebrities to the same standards, without piling onto discrimination?
Maybe The Daily Show has entered an era where it requires a comedian who is also a quasi-journalist at the helm. Minhaj has already lost America’s trust, but don’t let his career end there. If it weren’t for him, I’m not sure I would have had the guts to apply to journalism school and wear my stories on my sleeve. And that’s a legacy that I won’t let be erased.
Heena Srivastava is a podcast producer for WBEZ.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story editorialized the coverage of Minhaj and has been edited for clarity and fairness.