Can Hasan Minhaj Win Back His Audience’s Trust?

Comedian Hasan Minhaj’s greatest infraction as a storyteller isn’t one he committed against his audience by telling a few fibs. That’s if it even counts as an infraction at all.

Nuance is required to process revelations in The New Yorker about Minhaj fabricating details in both his Homecoming King and King’s Jester Netflix specials to amplify the wow factor of some of his stories.

To be fair, most comedians are going to cut their personal revelations with filler and hyperbole to better fit their stories into certain narrative boxes and themes. Some will also play around with an audience’s assumption of who and how they are. Exaggerated personas and statements are a tool. I don’t think Sam Kinnison was always yelling in the ’90s or that Bo Burnham spent the pandemic alone and hermitesque, do you?

Doing what Minhaj did: making up a story about his daughter having to be rushed to the hospital because he and his wife thought the child had been exposed to anthrax at a time of heightened concern over death threats against him? That’s exaggeration on steroids, but is all fair in the name of art and storytelling if the goal is to land on the emotional truth of that moment (to borrow some of Minhaj’s phrasing from his interview in the New Yorker piece)? I’m not sure, but also, was that the only goal?

There’s a sad irony in that the moral of his latest special (The King’s Jester) was that Minhaj wanted to put family above clout chasing. He expressed that when we spoke at the time.

“Candidly, when my marriage was going through those really tough spots, it was a realization that I came to and that my wife and I talked about, and it was like, “What really matters here?” And I care so much more about Beena [his wife] than I do Deadline articles.”

We know now that some of those “tough spots” weren’t quite as they were presented (such as the anthrax scare), but I believe the overall sentiment. I also still love the special, again, because I am going to believe the overall theme. The thing is, it would be easy to not, and that’s because of this unforced error.

Hasan Minhaj is a truly great visual and comedic storyteller, and not just because some of his signature stories have been rooted in these fantastical things where he’s right there at the turn of history or in the crosshairs. The personal moments in King’s Jester about trying to have a kid and dealing with the polluting effects of fame are masterful, human, hilarious, and thought-provoking. But were they enough?

You could open a whole other wing of this article examining whether it’s a lack of confidence in the material, in himself, or in the marketplace that led Minhaj to think he needed to inflate his stories or himself to make this special truly pop and aid his career goals. That’s okay, by the way. Everyone’s supposed to act humble and #blessed when good things happen in their career and they get what they want, like it’s all accidental, but it takes planning, ambition, and choices. Minhaj just made some questionable ones, though I suppose that’s a matter of perspective.

It’s easy to sit here and say the same impact would have been felt if, when talking about death threats, he did so without the twist involving his daughter. Ditto the danger felt with his meeting with the Saudis at the Embassy. Does the story work if that happens a month after the news dropped about the murder of reporter Jamal Khashoggi instead of the day of? Yes, but would either of these stories have blown up like they did without those details? That’s not justification, it’s understanding the motive. The point, however, is that in choosing to amp up or conjure stories, Minhaj was still clout-chasing… in the special about how he didn’t see as much value in clout-chasing.

Listen, Hasan Minhaj is going to be fine. More than. His profile always seems to be rising. Cancellation is a mostly made-up term that describes what happens when a sex pest has to play sold-out clubs instead of sold-out arenas for a few months. This doesn’t come close to comparing. Minhaj will get work, maybe not Daily Show work (he’s been rumored to be the favorite to replace Trevor Noah as perma-host after a tremendous guest host stint), but work.

Maybe his next special will be all about this moment, a double down on his response in The New Yorker, his hubris, his ambition, and what he learned from it all. Comedy fans and critics (myself included) clamor for that kind of personal storytelling and vulnerability (as evidenced by the response to Minhaj’s previous specials from critics, myself included), so in a way this almost feels like call and action. We’re always begging for more interesting, uniquely personal, and revelatory comedy, and now we’ll get exactly that.

Hasan Minhaj: The Storyteller

Hasan Minhaj: Trust Me

Hasan Minhaj: To Tell The Truth

Again, not justification. There are earned consequences here. No matter what Minhaj says and how powerfully and effectively he says it, it’s all going to hit just a bit differently with a vapor barrier of doubt lingering over everything, making us question if he’s being real with us or not for a long while. And that’s the thing that sucks the most about this.

Of all Hasan Minhaj’s skills as a comedian, it’s his ability to connect with an audience that has always been the most supernatural. Great storytellers don’t necessarily need great stories, they’re great storytellers because they can read the back of a cereal box in a compelling way. But none of it matters if they can’t get an audience to connect with them because people don’t trust them.

One final question with all of the above in mind: if someone gets praise/awards/attention for something that they later get in trouble for, but the consequences pale in contrast to the rewards, is it all worth it? I guess it all depends on what you were chasing: the clout or the connection.

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