‘The New Yorker’ Accuses Hasan Minhaj of Making Up Disturbing Stories for Comedy

‘The emotional truth is first,’ Minhaj says. ‘The factual truth is secondary’
‘The New Yorker’ Accuses Hasan Minhaj of Making Up Disturbing Stories for Comedy

No one expects comedians to be journalists. When Wanda Sykes or Patton Oswalt or Taylor Tomlinson unspool a funny anecdote, we not only accept a certain amount of comic embellishment, we demand it. That’s what comics do! But are the expectations different when a comic like Hasan Minhaj describes frightening experiences he’s had as a Muslim American? The New Yorker sat down with Minhaj to figure that out. 

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How might Minhaj’s comedy be different? Here’s an example. In his 2022 Netflix special The King’s Jester, he tells a story about Brother Eric, a white FBI informant who infiltrated his family’s Sacramento mosque while Minhaj was still in high school. Minhaj claimed he was onto Brother Eric from the start. When Brother Eric was asking his friends about jihad, Minhaj joked that he was going for his pilot’s license. It wasn’t long before the police arrived and threw Minhaj up against a car. Some years later, Minhaj and his father saw a news report about Craig Montielh, a man who became an FBI informant and infiltrated Muslim communities in California. “Well, well, well, Papa, look who it is,” Minhaj says he told his father. “It’s our good friend Brother Eric.”  

Minhaj punctuated the story in King’s Jester with video projected on a large screen behind him, footage from an Al Jazeera report about Montielh to prove that his teen-age intuition had been correct. It underscored Minhaj’s larger points about how difficult it was to be a Muslim in the days of the war on terror.

The problem: This story, like others in the special, never happened. The New Yorker talked to Monteilh, who only worked in southern California, not in Sacramento, during years that don’t match up with Minhaj’s claims. “I have no idea why he would do that,” Monteilh said.

The New Yorker also debunks other startling Minhaj stories like the comedian receiving a letter containing a mysterious powder that led to an emergency hospital visit for his young daughter. Again, never happened.

Minhaj acknowledged to The New Yorker that the facts around these stories were slippery (his daughter was never exposed to powder; there was no hospital visit) but justified the bits anyway. “Every story in my style is built around a seed of truth,” he said. “My comedy Arnold Palmer is seventy percent emotional truth—this happened—and then thirty percent hyperbole, exaggeration, fiction.”

The Brother Eric story? Minhaj admits he made it up based on a hard foul he received during a game of pickup basketball as a teen. Minhaj and friends played pickup games against men whom the boys suspected were officers and one pushed Minhaj to the ground. Sure, Minhaj says, the Brother Eric and white powder stories were mostly phony but based on “emotional truth” in support of a broader point. “The punch line,” he argues, “is worth the fictionalized premise.”

Is all of this fair game in the name of comedy that delivers a bigger message? A writer for The Daily Show isn’t sure. “If he’s lying about real people and real events, that’s a problem. So much of the appeal of those stories is ‘This really happened.’”

The New Yorker expose is full of additional examples and repeated justifications from Minhaj. But there are no apologies. “The emotional truth is first,” he says. “The factual truth is secondary.”

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