Comedy With No Sense of Humor

Hasan Minhaj attends the "Death, Let Me Do My Show" opening night at Lucille Lortel Theatre on September 14, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by John Nacion/Getty Images)

So, wait—you’re telling me that a rabbi, a priest, and a pastor didn’t actually walk into a bar? 

Hasan Minhaj, a comedian and social commentator, has come under criticism because many of his moving and outrageous stories turn out to be made-up. Made-up stories are not a problem for Hasan Minhaj the comedian, but they are a problem for Hasan Minhaj the social commentator. Minhaj has made trouble for himself, but the genre in which he works is hardly his creation and was always begging for trouble: He has, at worst, only amplified the errors and distortions of such figures as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, what Jim Treacher called the “clown nose off, clown nose on” routine: Offer red-meat commentary with unearned authority, and then protest, “I’m just a comedian!” when your mistakes, misunderstandings, and ignorance are pointed out. As my friend Charles C.W. Cooke points out, Donald Trump’s admirers employ a similar frame-shifting defense of their man: When he says something outrageously stupid or offensive, it’s “He’s a fighter!” but when he retreats, as he always does, into political cowardice, it’s “He knows how to win! We can’t afford your purity tests!” Minhaj’s version of that act is: “Listen to this story that proves what a racist society this is!” “Uh, that didn’t happen.” “I’m a comedian! I’m an artist, damn you!”

Figures such as Hasan Minhaj have a problem, a kind of Catch-22: They want to be rich and famous—which is fine, though if you ask me you can keep the fame and just give the money—but the easiest way to become rich and famous in the United States is to denounce it as the sort of society that would never confer its splendid privileges and advantages on someone like them. Like who? Hasan comes from a prosperous immigrant family in Davis, California. He talks about growing up as a “speck of brown in a sea of white,” but that isn’t Davis, where one out of four residents is of Asian background and one out of eight is of Latino background. Davis was about one-third non-white 20 years ago, too. Even without their son’s success in show business, the Minhaj family would be just fine: Mom was a doctor, and Dad was an organic chemist for the state with a good salary and a six-figure pension waiting for him. 

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