Tripping up the King's Jester: How is Hasan Minhaj still in the running to host "The Daily Show"?

Debates over a comic's license to lie don't account for the importance of trust in the topical satire business

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published September 23, 2023 2:00PM (EDT)

Hasan Minhaj guest hosts "The Daily Show" (Comedy Central)
Hasan Minhaj guest hosts "The Daily Show" (Comedy Central)

In 2018, Seth Meyers' wife Alexi Ashe gave birth to their second child in the lobby of their apartment building. This wildly unexpected, blessed event received broad coverage at the time because Meyers spent around 11 minutes of the next day's broadcast of "Late Night with Seth Meyers" recapping the craziness. The following year he expanded the story with additional details and descriptions into an hourlong stand-up special called "Lobby Baby."

Meyers' stagecraft differs from his work on "Late Night," where he distills the absurdity of our leaders into digestible analysis in "A Closer Look" and other segments. Meyers is in many ways an all-purpose broadcast late-night host, but one who echoes the frustrations and fears born of a relentlessly grim news cycle by cracking mordant jokes.

What if, a year or two after "Lobby Baby" dropped,  Meyers confessed to making up the whole thing because he needed material, and the circumstances of his son's birth were "not very interesting or compelling"? Would we buy anything else he presents as truth after that? How would that impact our trust in his co-workers' veracity? After all, if Meyers made that up, why should doubters believe any of the stories his colleague Amber Ruffin shared about her experiences with police brutality and racism?

Hopefully you've figured out these scenarios are not about Meyers or Ruffin but fellow comedian Hasan Minhaj. A recent New Yorker story made the former "Patriot Act" host a headliner in debates over whether comics are obligated to deal in pure fact in their routines, because he admitted that some of his best bits — large swaths of them, in fact — are created out of whole cloth.

Many performers and fans come down on the side of fabulism in service of a good joke, pointing out legendary routines in which some of the funniest bits are obviously implausible. But this sidesteps a related discussion, which is that not all comedy styles are equal or subject to the same rules. There are sets that follow the structure and rules of classic joke writing, with setups and callbacks. There are meandering odysseys captained by storytellers with a wicked sense of humor. There are absurdist flights reshaping reality into improbable caricature.

Then there are graduates from the school of what used to be called fake news before a certain orange POTUS took all the fun out of the concept. But even that bolstered the purity of purpose behind the satire plied by Jon Stewart during his era on "The Daily Show" or the version John Oliver serves on "Last Week Tonight" (that Stewart cribs for "The Problem with Jon Stewart") or that Minhaj presented through six seasons of his Netflix show "Patriot Act."

Over the later years of Stewart's reign and through most of Trevor Noah's, "The Daily Show" was a release valve for liberals' existential anxiety. Regardless of how ridiculous its correspondents could and can be, their conclusions are derived from a legitimate place. And the production draws a clean line between what's real and what isn't. Supposedly live stand-ups are shaggily delivered in front of green screens steps away from the host in the same studio. Nobody is pretending to be anyone that they aren't.

Regardless of the spoofy Photoshop images inserted within segments or blatantly boneheaded questions lobbed at interview subjects, there is an unspoken contract with the audience guaranteeing that the news and information inspiring the comedy is genuine.

Sometimes you really can make this stuff up.

That distinction sets the offense in Minhaj's stand-up inventions apart from the fictional indulgences of workaday stand-up. Frankly engaging with real-world events and phenomena is what he's known for. Inserting fantasies about himself into notorious headline-making stories and passing them off as fact in the name of shoring up what he considers to be "emotional truths" diminishes that brand.

After the New Yorker story made the rounds, Comedy Central confirmed to Rolling Stone that Minhaj remains in the running to succeed Noah as the next host of "The Daily Show." Which is stunning, considering what the report uncovers.

Clare Malone's article cites specific claims from his 2022 Netflix special "The King's Jester," including an elaborate bit in which Minhaj, a practicing Muslim and the son of Indian immigrants, supposedly hoodwinked an undercover F.B.I. informant he called Brother Eric who infiltrated his faith community. He bookends this with news footage of a verified F.B.I. informant who spied on mosques named Craig Monteilh, whom Minhaj claims is Brother Eric. When Minhaj workshopped this bit, he probably wasn't counting on Monteilh telling a reporter that he never met him and wasn't even working with the F.B.I. at the time Minhaj alleges their run-ins took place.

Elsewhere in the special a dramatic denouement to observations about his addiction to Internet fame has him opening a mailed envelope containing white powder, some of which spills on his daughter. A frantic trip to the hospital ensued . . . in his mind. A representative for Minhaj told Salon that an envelope was sent to his apartment that contained white powder. None of the rest happened.

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Other embellishments are easier to sniff out than Brother Eric's intentions, like the threatening tweets Minhaj projects on a screen behind him that he purports to have received while he was hosting "Patriot Act." (He admits to Malone that they aren't real.)  There was not a chair symbolically left empty for an imprisoned Saudi activist honored at the 2019 Time 100 gala, in which he says Jared Kushner thoughtlessly sat before Minhaj shaded him in public. These exaggerations are easily to fact check because they involve witnesses, some of whom were part of Minhaj's Netflix show.

That's the least of a comic's problems when they tell funny lies involving real people. The ramifications were worse for Minhaj's childhood friend who starred in his prom rejection story that inspired the title of his Peabody Award-winning 2017 special "Homecoming King," who was harassed online and doxed because he didn't do enough to disguise her identity as he cast her as the villain in his rejection story.

My husband and I attended a live version of "The King's Jester" in late 2021, when Minhaj was still refining it. Those stories and others he admitted to pulling from thin air commingled with news footage and citations of published coverage in a way that made them indistinguishable fact, making his connections to those people and events sound incredible. Now we know they were, and not in a way that compliments Minhaj's comedic talent. But that night, the audience, which was mostly comprised of brown folks, didn't seem to suspect a thing.

The tale of his child's endangerment blanketed the room in silence. His recollection of his wife's anger at his clout chasing was relatable. We applauded his teen version for exposing Brother Eric, who called the cops on him after adolescent Hasan joked about wanting a pilot's license. And we clapped not because the stories were discernibly preposterous, but because they approximated experiences anyone who's been othered have had. You could even call it emotionally . . . authentic.  

Sometimes you really can make this stuff up. But some of the people seduced by those fibs may not appreciate having been duped.

"The Daily Show" under Jon Stewart transformed from a flimsy spoof of network news into a truth-teller in a time colored by 9/11's aftershock in the media, giving rise to an era of false equivalency born of mainstream news organizations placed on the defensive by a surging conservative media ecosystem.

For a time its tongue-in-cheek slogan was, "When news breaks, we fix it." But the producers weren't entirely joking. Stewart and his all-star correspondents were fog cutters in an era of informational murk. Polling backs up the extent of their influence, like the Pew Research Center's 2007 report in which the host tied with NBC's  Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw, CBS' Dan Rather of CBS and CNN's Anderson Cooper for most admired journalist among TV news viewers.

Stewart responded to that and other data-driven findings concerning the show's trustworthiness as a news source by constantly reminding people that neither he nor his colleagues are journalists. Oliver seconded that in a 2016 NPR interview where he admits, "We are a comedy show so everything we do is in pursuit of comedy. . . . [W]hen people say: "This is journalism," it almost makes me feel like: Am I a terrible comedian?"

Some of the people seduced by those fibs may not appreciate having been duped.

Heavens no.  But Oliver infuses his reports with a level of journalistic rigor rivaling longform news reports, only with a focus on topics most organizations aren't covering. Minhaj applied a similar stringency to "Patriot Act," but at a cost. Malone's article cites claims by three female employees claiming they were subjected to gender discrimination, sex-based harassment, and retaliation. They threatened to sue Netflix and the production company behind "Patriot Act," but the matter settled out of court.

Treating employees poorly behind the scenes isn't enough of a reason for a network to refrain from hiring a comic. That doesn't mean such behavior is excusable; this is merely an informed observation about how this industry works. Read the recent report on Jimmy Fallon, who isn't in any danger of being ousted from his "Tonight Show" perch.

There's also cold business logic in keeping Minhaj in the "Daily Show" mix, in that he has a history with the show and hosting experience beyond it. Minhaj worked with Stewart, who hired him in 2014, and remained on the team under Noah until 2018. He knows its production cadence and could transition into the job seamlessly.

Then again, Roy Wood Jr. and Desi Lydic are right there too — and neither has this baggage.

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But if "The Daily Show" wants to remain a destination for thought leaders and presidential candidates who want to be interviewed by a respected truth broker, choosing Minhaj now would be foolish. 

Although he refused to concede to Malone that fabricating parts of his stand-up acts might undermine his ability to speak truth to power – with jokes – as the host of "Daily Show," it's not difficult to imagine right-wing critics pointing to that story every time he punctures one of their treasured shibboleths.

These days it doesn't take much to get the public to doubt the indisputable. Just counter those assertions with a screengrab of a few choice paragraphs from that piece under the heading of "This you?"

Processing Minhaj's lapses brought Stephen Glass' name swimming to the surface of my thoughts. Their sins aren't equal, mind you – Minhaj appended a few ego-burnishing inventions to widely known true stories. Glass' fraud was vastly more extensive. Also, as Oliver and Stewart would insist, Minhaj isn't a journalist. Neither was Glass, as it turns out. He simply enjoyed playing one as a staff writer for The New Republic in the mid-'90s.

What happened to him after his scandal exploded in the media is informative. He graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University Law Center and passed the bar exam in New York and California, but each state's committee of bar examiners refused to certify him due to his many published distortions.

Minhaj's misrepresentations don't compare to the scale of Glass' deceptions; he will definitely get work after this, including more televised specials. I wouldn't be surprised to see him turn up on "Late Night" to make light of this chapter with Meyers once it's farther away in his rearview mirror. If "The Daily Show" producers value the integrity of their venerable fake news gem, that's as close as Minhaj should get to a hosting chair until he can make it through his next acts without bluffing.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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