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Hasan Minhaj’s “Emotional Truths”

The comedian Hasan Minhaj came of age as a practicing Muslim in an Indian family in post-9/11 America. His Netflix series, “Patriot Act”—a comedy news show in the mold of “The Daily Show” and “Last Week Tonight”—was named for the defining law of that era. The series won an Emmy and a Peabody Award during its two-year run. His stage work as a standup comic has led to two Netflix comedy specials, which have drawn plaudits for Minhaj’s blend of autobiographical storytelling and social-justice commentary. He recently conducted a lengthy sit-down interview with Barack Obama and is a leading candidate to succeed Trevor Noah as the next host of “The Daily Show.” In 2019, Minhaj was selected as one of Time magazine’s most influential people. In an accompanying article, Noah wrote, “We’ve needed Hasan’s voice since Donald Trump came down that golden escalator and turned immigrants and Muslims into his targets.” Minhaj’s “whip-smart commentary, charisma and sincerity,” he went on, was “a consistent reminder that Hasan is America. And America is Hasan.”

In Minhaj’s approach to comedy, he leans heavily on his own experience as an Asian American and Muslim American, telling harrowing stories of law-enforcement entrapment and personal threats. For many of his fans, he has become an avatar for the power of representation in entertainment. But, after many weeks of trying, I had been unable to confirm some of the stories that he had told onstage. When we met on a recent afternoon, at a comedy club in the West Village, Minhaj acknowledged, for the first time, that many of the anecdotes he related in his Netflix specials were untrue. Still, he said that he stood by his work. “Every story in my style is built around a seed of truth,” he said. “My comedy Arnold Palmer is seventy per cent emotional truth—this happened—and then thirty per cent hyperbole, exaggeration, fiction.”

In Minhaj’s 2022 Netflix standup special, “The King’s Jester”—a biographical reflection on fame, vainglory, and Minhaj’s obsession with social-media clout—he relays a story about an F.B.I. informant who infiltrated his family’s Sacramento-area mosque, in 2002, when Minhaj was a junior in high school. As Minhaj tells it, Brother Eric, a muscle-bound white man who said he was a convert to Islam, gained the trust of the mosque community. He went to dinner at Minhaj’s house, and even offered to teach weight training to the community’s teen-age boys. But Minhaj had Brother Eric pegged from the beginning. Eventually, Brother Eric tried to entice the boys into talking about jihad. Minhaj decided to mess with Brother Eric, telling him that he wanted to get his pilot’s license. Soon, the police were on the scene, slamming Minhaj against the hood of a car. Years later, while watching the news with his father, Minhaj saw a story about Craig Monteilh, who assumed the cover of a personal trainer when he became an F.B.I. informant in Muslim communities in Southern California. “Well, well, well, Papa, look who it is,” Minhaj recalls telling his father. “It’s our good friend Brother Eric.”

Onstage, a large screen behind Minhaj flashes news footage from an Al Jazeera English report on Monteilh. Minhaj’s teen-age hunch, it seems, was proved right. The moment is played for laughs, but the story underscores the threat that being Muslim in the United States carried during the early days of the war on terror. Minhaj segues to the case of Hamid Hayat, a young man from another Sacramento-area town who spent much of his adult life in prison based on a confession his attorneys say was coerced. “He just got out of prison this past June,” Minhaj says, his tone turning defiant. “Man, he’s my age—he’s thirty-six. I think about Hamid all the time.”

Later in the special, Minhaj speaks about the fallout from “Patriot Act” segments on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism. The big screen displays threatening tweets that were sent to Minhaj. Most disturbing, he tells the story of a letter sent to his home which was filled with white powder. The contents accidentally spilled onto his young daughter. The child was rushed to the hospital. It turned out not to be anthrax, but it’s a sobering reminder that Minhaj’s comedic actions have real-world consequences. Later that night, his wife, in a fury, told him that she was pregnant with their second child. “ ‘You get to say whatever you want onstage, and we have to live with the consequences,’ ” Minhaj recalls her saying. “ ‘I don’t give a shit that Time magazine thinks you’re an “influencer.” If you ever put my kids in danger again, I will leave you in a second.’ ”

Does it matter that neither of those things really happened to Minhaj?

Prior to my meeting with Minhaj, Monteilh, a.k.a. “Brother Eric,” had told me that Minhaj’s story is a fabrication. “I have no idea why he would do that,” Monteilh said. Monteilh was in prison in 2002, and didn’t begin to work for the F.B.I. on counterterrorism measures until 2006. Details of his undercover actions were catalogued in a legal case that has made its way to the Supreme Court. Monteilh said that he’d worked only in Southern California, not the Sacramento area.

The New York Police Department, which investigates incidents of possible Bacillus anthracis, has no record of an incident like the one Minhaj describes, nor do area hospitals. Front-desk and mailroom employees at Minhaj’s former residence don’t remember such an incident, nor do “Patriot Act” employees involved with the show’s security or Minhaj’s security guard from the time.

During our conversation, Minhaj admitted that his daughter had never been exposed to a white powder, and that she hadn’t been hospitalized. He had opened up a letter delivered to his apartment, he said, and it had contained some sort of powder. Minhaj said that he had made a joke to his wife, saying, “Holy shit. What if this was anthrax?” He said that he’d never told anyone on the show about this letter, despite the fact that there were concerns for his security at the time and that Netflix had hired protection for Minhaj. The Brother Eric story, Minhaj said, was based on a hard foul he received during a game of pickup basketball in his youth. Minhaj and other teen-age Muslims played pickup games with middle-aged men whom the boys suspected were officers. One made a show of pushing Minhaj to the ground. Minhaj insisted that, though both stories were made up, they were based on “emotional truth.” The broader points he was trying to make justified concocting stories in which to deliver them. “The punch line is worth the fictionalized premise,” he said.

People don’t necessarily go into standup shows expecting airtight truths. They expect laughs, perhaps some trenchant observation. On John Heilemann’s podcast earlier this year, Minhaj described his work as “the dynamic range that theatre and storytelling and comedy allow you to explore.” Does that mean audiences should expect his words onstage to stringently hew to the facts on the ground? The slipperiness of memoir finds a new dimension when it’s played for laughs in front of a crowd.

During our meeting, Minhaj drew a hard line between his hosting duties on “Patriot Act” and his stage work. In his Netflix specials, he said, he was allowed to create characters and events in service of storytelling, to sharpen his social points. The “emotional truth,” he told me, repeatedly, was more important. But in “Patriot Act,” his comedic license took a back seat to the information being conveyed. {snip}

Minhaj has discussed the white-powder incident in interviews, without taking the opportunity to clarify that the events he describes onstage, including his daughter’s hospitalization, didn’t happen as told. “I remember in that moment going, oh shit, sometimes the envelope pushes back,” he told the Daily Beast, in 2022. I asked him if he felt that he had manipulated his audience. “No, I don’t think I’m manipulating,” he told me. “I think they are coming for the emotional roller-coaster ride.” He went on, “To the people that are, like, ‘Yo, that is way too crazy to happen,’ I don’t care because yes, fuck yes—that’s the point.” But was his invention of a traumatic experience with his child or with law-enforcement entrapment distasteful, given the moral heft of those things, and the fact that other people have actually experienced them? “It’s grounded in truth,” Minhaj said.

“But it didn’t happen to you,” I replied.

“I think what I’m ultimately trying to do is highlight all of those stories,” he said. “Building to what I think is a pointed argument,” as opposed to a “pointless riff” of jokes.


Minhaj often talks about his immigrant upbringing and the social alienation that sometimes came with being a racial minority in his home town. The central story of his first Netflix special, “Homecoming King,” which was released in 2017, is about his crush on a friend, a white girl with whom he shared a stolen kiss and who accepted his invitation to prom but later reneged in a humiliating fashion; Minhaj showed up on her doorstep the night of the dance, only to see another boy putting a corsage on her wrist. Onstage, Minhaj says that his friend’s parents didn’t want their daughter to take pictures with a brown boy, because they were concerned about what their relatives might think. “I’d eaten off their plates,” Minhaj says. “I’d kissed their daughter. I didn’t know that people could be bigoted even as they were smiling at you.”

But the woman disputed certain facts. She told me that she’d turned down Minhaj, who was then a close friend, in person, days before the dance. Minhaj acknowledged that this was correct, but he said that the two of them had long carried different understandings of her rejection. As a “brown kid in Davis, California,” he said, he’d been conditioned to put his head down and “just take it, and I did.” The “emotional truth” of the story he told onstage was resonant and justified the fabrication of details. “There are so many other kids who have had a similar sort of doorstep experience,” he said.

The woman also said that she and her family had faced online threats and doxing for years because Minhaj had insufficiently disguised her identity, including the fact that she was engaged to an Indian American man. A source with knowledge of the production said that, during the show’s Off Broadway run, Minhaj had used a real picture of the woman and her partner, with their faces blurred, projected behind him as he told the story.

The woman said that Minhaj had invited her and her husband to an Off Broadway performance. She had initially interpreted the invitation as an attempt to rekindle an old friendship, but she now believes the move was meant to humiliate her. {snip}


Minhaj seems unconflicted about his choices. “You have got to take the shots you are given in life, even if they’re built on a lie,” Minhaj says during a bit in “The King’s Jester.” When we spoke, I asked, were he to get “The Daily Show” hosting job, if his fabrications could put him in a compromised position when commenting on someone such as George Santos. Minhaj brushed the question off. “I think, when George Santos says he’s on the volleyball team, it’s a pointless story,” he responded. Minhaj’s “fiction” was always in service to a bigger point, putting him in a different moral category than Santos. He appeared unwilling to engage with the idea that his position in the comedic landscape is unique, or that the host of a comedy news show might be held to more stringent standards of accuracy across his body of work. When it came to his stage shows, he told me, “the emotional truth is first. The factual truth is secondary.”