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The Northwood Howler

Where do we draw the line for comedians to embellish the truth?

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Sophia Ho
HEADLINE OR PUNCHLINE?: Hasan Minhaj’s comedy can cross the boundaries of journalistic integrity.

When we share stories or funny anecdotes, it’s hard to fight the urge to tweak minor details in order to make the story more compelling. Changing up the time frame to make it more enticing or altering minor events to elicit a certain reaction from your audience doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, right? Altering the truth is part of the comedic process, but where exactly do we draw the line between truth and fiction in comedy?

Hasan Minhaj, a stand-up comedian known for “The Daily Show,” “Patriot Act” and “The King’s Jester” has recently become the face of comedic controversy. On Sept. 15, The New Yorker published an exposé on Minhaj’s work, accusing him of exaggerating his work on racism, Islamophobia and threats to his family, noting that many of the details that make his specials so emotionally enticing are fabricated. Minaj responded to the piece in the most “Hasan” way possible as a former YouTuber: a 21-minute video deep dive into his own scandal.

“I made artistic choices to express myself and drive home larger issues affecting me and my community,” Minhaj said in his response video.

Comedy is a form of entertainment, not news reporting, and therefore shouldn’t be required to adhere to the same standards of truth we hold in reporting. However, there is a stark difference between emotional comedy and political comedy, both of which should hold some substance of truth. Comedy on pertinent social and political issues, such as racism, should adhere to a higher bar of truth.

Hasan has notably changed the timeline of his prom rejection in “Homecoming King” to take place all on the same night, and has also altered details in a story about his family’s fear after his “Patriot Act” episode on Saudi Arabia, which includes a made-up anthrax scare involving his daughter. Hasan argues that what’s most important in these stories are his “emotional truths,” where the feelings conveyed hold higher importance than actual fact of what happened

Because Minhaj has become known for his political commentary through the “Daily Show” and “Patriot Act,” it becomes difficult for his audience to differentiate between his factual political reporting versus his fabricated stories that hold political relevance. So while it’s common for comedians to exaggerate the truth in order to achieve their intended response, Minhaj’s audience expects political comedy to hold more than a “seed” of truth

We shouldn’t be expecting unfiltered truth from comedy, especially stand-up. Minhaj only faced this problem because his audience expects more than just “seeds of truth” due to his past in political reporting. His work isn’t explicitly presented as fiction, and this misled his audience, pushing the boundaries between truth and falsehood.

When comedy is more political and attempts to address issues such as racism and Islamophobia, the bar for the entertainment material holding journalistic truth is much higher. Comedic material of this sort seeks to not only provide amusement but also highlight issues of injustice. In this case, the truth shouldn’t be stretched to the lengths Minhaj took it even though it elicited the wanted emotional reaction.

Therefore, fiction in comedy shouldn’t be the default. Stories presented as personal should be just that, personal, not someone else’s story or an extremely exaggerated story with a sprinkle of truth thrown in. Again, comedians aren’t news reporters and therefore shouldn’t be your source of truth, but their stand-up shouldn’t be completely fabricated either.

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About the Contributors
Rhea Gupta, Viewpoint Editor
Rhea Gupta is the Viewpoint Editor of The Howler with an extreme obsession with coffee, not for the caffeine but for the taste. If she isn't spending her time taking a nap for over 2 hours, you can find her chefing it up in the kitchen (with the select few meals she can make), dedicating her time to OC SASA or eating vanilla sponge cake (which she definitely did not make herself).
Sophia Ho, Graphic Artist
Sophia Ho is a Senior graphic artist with a tendency to slay. As soon as she goes home, she draws silly guys and watches 3-hour video essays on Youtube. You can mention her name at First Class Pizza for 50% off your meal!

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