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Comedy With No Sense of Humor
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Comedy With No Sense of Humor

Underdog stories are a reliable path to wealth and fame—and all too easy to make up.

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. 

But underdog stories are gold, and so everybody wants one, even if it has to be made up: Lena Dunham is the daughter of a rich, prominent, connected New York City family, and she spiced up her memoirs with a made-up story about being raped by a College Republican named “Barry” at Oberlin; her publisher was later obliged to amend her book and pay the legal fees of the man she had slandered. Jussie Smollett had his fake hate crime. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pretended to come from a hardscrabble blue-collar background when she actually came from a comfortable middle-class background—not without its challenges, to be sure, but not exactly On the Waterfront, either. One could make a long list. But they always give up the game: Trevor Noah has made a good living from American racism, because when he got big enough in South Africa to seek his fortune abroad, he did not go to a neighboring country in Africa, and he didn’t go to Switzerland or Germany, in spite of having Swiss and German background on his father’s side. He came to the United States, where the racism is so awful that it made him a millionaire many times over. 

That’s how you do it. 

Hasan Minhaj made up a story about the family of his white prom date bringing in a white boy for the pictures, so as not to immortalize the shame of their daughter going to prom with the handsome son of a well-to-do Indian immigrant family. The story was made-up, of course, but the girl was real, and she and her family have been harassed for years by people who think Minhaj’s fiction is fact. The story isn’t the truth, Minhaj says, but it is the “emotional truth.” Similarly, when Rep. Ocasio-Cortez was called out for getting all sorts of facts wrong in her account of federal spending, she complained that too many people were interested in being “precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” But the actual facts of the case matter—or should matter—to our moral understanding of the case. That is one of the things facts are for. 

These people could just write novels to capture that “emotional truth.” But writing novels doesn’t pay as well as what Minhaj does. These are seriously rich people: Trevor Noah buys and sells $28 million Bel-Air mansions like a kid trading baseball cards. Minhaj lives up in Greenwich, Connecticut, with the hedge-fund bosses. 

It isn’t enough to have all the best of everything that money can buy—these people also have to have the things that money cannot buy, such as the warm glow that comes from having overcome terrible adversity—even if they didn’t overcome terrible adversity, or much adversity at all save that “adversity” that lands like the gentlest of February snow upon the shoulders of the American middle classes. Even if they are the happy children of prosperous families in the richest, freest, most dynamic society the world has ever seen. Even if they have to lie to get it. 

When it comes to servicing the bankroll, I’m basically Don Corleone: I don’t judge a man for how he makes his money, but I know a dirty business when I see one. I don’t mind their getting rich, but the sanctimony is contemptible. 

This happens in politics, too, at the national level rather than the personal level. Where would Donald Trump, J.D. Vance, or Joe Biden be without pretending that things are worse in this country than they are, that we are always in some kind of national crisis, that things are always worse than they have ever been (until the right party has been in the White House for four years, at which point things are somehow better than they have ever been). People have always been unhappy in prospering societies: When there is peace and plenty, mediocrities have more time to think about their mediocrity and fewer excuses for it, and everybody has more time to think about the absurdity of human life and the finality of death. As Eric Hoffer argued in The True Believer, boredom is one the most powerful of all revolutionary forces. The life lived on purely material terms is meaningless, and its meaninglessness is revealed, perversely, by material prospering. That makes for bad politics, whether they end up being revolutionary or nihilistic. As T.S. Eliot wrote: “If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.” Genteel hedonism is an inherently unstable social condition. Our schools and theaters are not being shot up by revolutionary masterminds or by desperate Guatemalan illegals tired after the long walk from Quiché but by the well-fed sexless dorks of the middle classes. We Americans have the world laid out before us like demigods but cannot, in too many cases, find in it anything worth living for. But nobody wants to hear how good we have it—tell people how bad they have it, though, and they’ll empty their pockets to hear more. 

The pattern holds true in politics, in entertainment, in journalism, in many other endeavors. Surely all this says something interesting and weird about the United States of America, Anno Domini 2023: We have it so good that the best way to get ahead is to pretend that we have it bad. 

But back to Hasan Minhaj for a second: There is a tension, maybe even a trade-off, between artistic excellence and what we generally—and wrongly—call “relevance.” As the literary critic Harold Bloom observed, aesthetic values “transcend societal and political concerns, since such concerns increasingly are better served by bad art than by good.” If your aim is art that does aesthetic work, then what you want is art per se. If you want art that does social or political work, then what you want is bad art: propaganda, didacticism, clumsily schematic allegory, etc. And the real problem with Minhaj isn’t that he is an irresponsible purveyor of fiction, but that he is a propagandist, and the fiction in which he deals is tedious, as predictable as the misunderstanding at the heart of a Three’s Company rerun.

In our time, aesthetic questions have been almost entirely subordinated to moral and political ones, and the notion of “representation” has narrowed our ideas about who can be cast in certain roles, who can write about certain subjects, etc. Things weren’t always so nicely cut. The golden age of Hollywood has been described as “a Jewish owned business selling Catholic theology to Protestant America.” (The line is variously attributed; it may have originated with Gore Vidal.) You could make a whole multicultural Benneton ad out of the actors who have played Jesus—George Fisher, Max von Sydow, Willem Dafoe, Jim Caviezel, Jonathan Roumie, Vijayachander, John Legend, Will Ferrell, Juan Pablo Di Pace—but don’t go looking for a lot of Galilean Jews in their number. Low scores for “representation,” I suppose, but the world would be poorer without Civilization, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Passion of the Christ, The Chosen, Karunamavudu, Jesus Christ Superstar, etc. I suppose Jesus probably did not look very much like a modern Israeli Jew—but He wasn’t a 6-foot-4 Swede, either

(On a related note, I’ll put in a good word for Alanis Morrissette as God in Dogma, a much more genuinely Christian movie than I think was generally understood at the time. I hope somebody will rescue it from its current Weinstein-entangled purgatory. As Kevin Smith noted, “My movie about angels is owned by the devil himself.”)

Minhaj’s value proposition, if you want to call it that, is based on representation, too. Except that it turns out to be misrepresentation. That wouldn’t be a problem for a simple comedian, but if you want to present your work as something more than comedy, then you are going to be judged by more than comedic standards. 

Sen. Lee Gets His Troll On

Sen. Mike Lee, or whichever callow 22-year-old runs his [sewer-like social-media platform formerly known as] Twitter account, wrote something stupid. “Wrote” isn’t quite right, since Sen. Lee has joined the ranks of Americans who have devolved into communicating by means of pictographs rather than English, but you know what I mean. There was a picture of a U.S. flag labeled “This is our flag” and a picture of a Ukrainian flag labeled “This one isn’t.” (One of those captions needs a “one,” or else the other needs the “one” removed; if you cannot write well when you have only seven words to wrangle, then maybe social media really is the place for you.) It is worth writing when Sen. Lee writes something stupid, because Sen. Lee is not stupid, so there must be something else at work. Of course, we already know what that is: A very energetic, vocal, and (in small increments) generous section of the right admires Vladimir Putin, wishes that business in Washington were done more the way it is in Moscow, and resents the way decent people have rallied to the cause of Ukraine. Resenting decent people is what Republicans do these days, theirs being an indecent party. Republican politicians feel the need to flatter these spiritual Muscovites from time to time. I had thought better of Sen. Lee, but it seems I was wrong to have.

There is a famous story about George Schulz you’ve probably heard me repeat before. But, if you will bear with me: When he was secretary of state in the Reagan administration, Schulz used to meet with newly appointed ambassadors before they were dispatched to their posts. He’d spin his desktop globe and say, “Show me where your country is.” Invariably, the diplomats would point to Morocco or Japan or Brazil or wherever it was they were going, and Schulz would say “No,” and take the ambassador’s hand and put his finger on the United States. “This is your country.” You get the point: Ambassadors are there to represent U.S. interests abroad, not to represent the interests of their station countries to the United States. 

Sen. Lee is right about which flag is the American flag. But he left a flag out, the relevant one in this discussion. It is red, white, and blue, though not in that order, and it replaced one that was red with a hammer and sickle on it. 

I have spent a little time in Ukraine, observing the Ukrainians fighting their war. I admire the Ukrainians and wish them well. But the American interest in Ukraine is the American interest. If Sen. Lee cannot see that, then he should not be in the office he holds; if he does see that, then he should not be acting like a sticky-fingered Twitter troll in the hopes that Tucker Carlson will say something nice about him. Humility befits a senator; self-abasement does not. 

Vladimir Putin has given the United States and our European allies a once-in-a-generation opportunity. He miscalculated badly in invading Ukraine, grossly overestimating the power of his own military and underestimating the resilience of the resistance it would encounter. Putin has shown the world who Russia’s real peers are—third-rate psychosis states such as North Korea, whose risible boss clown Putin recently begged for ordnance. Putin’s Russia is, and has been, a real problem for the United States and for the European Union, and a problem for other U.S. allies around the world. Putin’s Russia is a problem that makes other problems around the world worse than they have to be, from Iran to Sudan. The Ukrainians are willing to fight the Russians and capable of doing so, as they have shown on a daily basis since the first days of the Russian invasion. 

The Ukrainians have all sorts of problems, including a corruption problem that makes supplying their forces more complicated than it needs to be. You don’t have to do very much work to learn that Ukraine has a corruption problem—the Ukrainians themselves, including members of the government, will be the first to tell you that. But the main problem the Ukrainians have—other than Russian shells falling on their schools, churches, and hospitals—is that their economy is about one-eleventh the size of Russia’s. When the Russians launch a barrage on Kyiv, the Ukrainians end up spending $100 million to stop $12 million or $15 million worth of rockets. Money alone will not ensure the defeat of Russian forces—a defeat that would redound magnificently to the advantage of the United States and our allies—but it makes an enormous difference. We are the richest country in the world—problems that can be addressed by throwing money at them are precisely the kind of problems we want to have. Russia’s economy may be 11 times larger than Ukraine’s, but ours is 13 times larger than Russia’s. 

Looked at from the most amoral and Machiavellian point of view, a Ukrainian victory is of no great consequence to the United States—but a Russian defeat is very, very valuable to the United States. Foreign policy is no place for sentimentality. And it is the people who piss on Ukraine for its longstanding governance problems—or who, like J.D. Vance, abuse Volodymyr Zelensky for looking like a man at war even as the senator himself gets on his knees for a draft-dodging coward in the person of Donald Trump—who are the pie-in-the-sky moralists who cannot or simply will not take a cold-eyed look at what U.S. interests really are. Putin’s miscalculation is the gift of a lifetime for the United States, one that we are for reasons of fear and short-sightedness failing to make the most of. Some people—and some countries—need to be kicked when they are down, and the opportunity doesn’t come along all that often. 

Sen. Lee knows the U.S. flag when he sees it. If he knows U.S. interests when he sees them, then he should grow up and act like it. The world has enough Twitter trolls already. 

Economics for English Majors

If you want to really appreciate precisely how petty Sen. Lee’s trolling is, have a look at the numbers. The relevant one is: $75 billion. That’s how much the United States has spent on Ukraine aid, military and humanitarian, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which takes a broader view of spending on the war (for example, including aid to other allies for needs such as refugee resettlement) puts the number at something more like $113 billion earlier this year

Let’s round up—waaaaay up. Let’s call it $200 billion. And, now, let’s throw in another $100  billion for good measure. So, call it $300 billion. Do you know what that is in the context of the federal budget? That’s Social Security spending for 90 days. Call it June, July, and August, roughly. It’s about 130 days of U.S. public-school spending. Not nothing, but not bad for a war against a headline enemy that somebody else is willing to fight. The problem with the U.S. effort to aid Ukraine in its fight against Russia isn’t that it has been too expensive but that it has been too meek. We could, and should, be far more aggressive with sanctions and with the provision of matériel.

It is always worth putting things in context—millions and billions and trillions all run together for many people.

Maintaining a place in the world such as the one the United States has is expensive. But the problem in this case isn’t that fighting Putin costs too much. The problem is that too many on the right would prefer to imitate Putin than fight him. 

In Other Econ Observations … 

In economics, “marginal utility” is the added benefit you get from one more unit of x—one more bottle of wine, one more share of Amazon stock, one more riverboat cruise, etc. Marginal utility is a highly subjective thing, dependent on a particular person’s situation, desires, priorities, etc. A bucket of diamonds is worth more than a bucket of water if you are standing by a fresh spring, but a bucket of water is worth more than a bucket of diamonds if you are dying of thirst in the desert. The same dynamic applies to money, too: I’ll go out of my way—pretty far out of my way!—for $10,000, but Elon Musk won’t. When you see guys in Vegas losing $100,000 a hand at the high-stakes tables, it seems insane—until you understand that, at a certain level, losing $100,000 doesn’t feel much different from a regular guy’s losing $50, and that it doesn’t have any more effect on his economic situation and may even have less. 

Everybody runs those numbers differently.

I thought about that when I read that Rupert Murdoch is retiring at the age of 92. What possesses a man as wealthy as Murdoch to keep working in his 90s? I suppose he enjoyed the position of influence and power he held, grubby and disreputable as some aspects of it ended up being. Something got him into the office every day.

I think it is highly unlikely that I would ever build anything like Murdoch’s empire, mostly because I would never be able to motivate myself to make the second billion dollars. I don’t think I’d bother to make the second hundred million dollars, really. I like working—I really do, and I don’t think I’ll really retire, ever, unless I have to. But I also like spending time with my family, and I think I’d be perfectly happy to spend the rest of my life writing novels and maybe a column once or twice a week, collecting pictures, commissioning musical compositions, teaching my offspring how to shoot and read Shakespeare, etc. It is often the case that people who have a great talent for making money do not have much talent for living well, and people with a talent for living well often have no talent at all for making money. Happy the man who has both.

But, hey, my estimate of marginal utility need not be yours. Rupert Murdoch has done extraordinary things, some of them wonderful: New York City without the New York Post would be a drabber, sadder place. But working–and working hard–into your 90s, in Murdoch’s business? That’s some Captain Ahab stuff, right there. 

Words About Words

What will they call the era in British history defined by the rule of King Charles III? Nothing, of course: Charles isn’t going to be an era-defining monarch. But, if he were, there would be a challenge. 

Caroline has been taken by the era coincident with the reign of Charles I (1625-49). Charles II got Carolean, though the Caroleans were soldiers of Sweden’s King Charles XII (1697-1718). The style of the Carolean period in England is more often described as Restoration. The Restoration ended the Interregnum, which began with the execution of Charles I. The Interregnum is the period during which England lived under a kind of military dictatorship that tried to ban Christmas. Monarchy never looked so good by comparison. 

Deposed and executed: Charles is not the happiest name for English kings. I wonder what his mother was thinking.

Charles’ mother—the mother of Charles III—was the longest-reigning British monarch, but Elizabethan still belongs to Elizabeth I. (I heard a story once about a phony historical document signed “Elizabeth I,” which would have made her a very, very prescient queen.) Victorian is used outside of the United Kingdom in a way other monarchical era names are not. 

England has had many Kings Henry, but Henrician describes the era of Henry VIII, though we usually talk about the Tudor era. Shakespeare’s history cycle including Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V are sometimes called the Henrician plays, but more often the Henriad. I liked David Michôd’s condensation of these in his film The King. The first Henry was a Norman, and his grandson, Henry II, was a Plantagenet, and he came to power after a period known as the Anarchy, which wasn’t nearly as cool as it sounds. 

The Hanovers get the Georgian era and its splendid subdivision, the Regency. (Not to be confused with the related style of decorating it inspired known as Hollywood Regency.) The Jacobean era belongs to that confusingly enumerated King James VI of Scotland, who is also James I of England. Jacobus is the church Latin form of James. James I is the one who commissioned the Bible translation, partly because he was irritated that the Geneva Bible employed the word tyrant  where James would have preferred king, using tyrant about 400 times. There are no tyrants in the King James Bible—the word does not appear in it.

The time of Mary I isn’t very often described as the Marian period, though historians do write about Marian persecutions

My suggestion for the adjective describing the time of Charles III: Charlatan

Elsewhere

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In Closing

Donald Trump has described his abortion-policy agenda: “Both sides are going to like me.” That really is his priority, isn’t it? One of the reasons the abortion debate is so painful is that it implicates basic values on both sides—the pro-life side believes it to be a question of the defense of human life at its most innocent and defenseless, the pro-choice side sees it as a question of women’s physical autonomy, implicating her sexual, economic, and political self-determination. People of good will come down on that issue in different—and incompatible—ways. But if you look at that tangle and think, “What’s really important in how I address this issue is that, in the end, people like me”—what is there to say about someone like that?  

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Kevin D. Williamson

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.