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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Matthew Cantor

‘I’m not a psycho’: Hasan Minhaj responds to New Yorker claims he told false stories

A South Asian man wearing a tuxedo gestures while speaking at mic, with a multicolored bouquet blurry in the foreground.
Hasan Minhaj at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2017. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

A month after the comedian Hasan Minhaj was accused of misleading audiences with his personal stories, the Daily Show alum has responded with an in-depth video. His argument: there’s a difference between his political TV comedy and the personal stories he tells in his standup.

A New Yorker article suggested that Minhaj, who is Muslim, had gone too far in exaggerating his own experiences with racism, Islamophobia and political backlash, including claims about an FBI informant at his childhood mosque and the hospitalization of his daughter in an anthrax scare. The story may have undermined his chance to be the next Daily Show host.

In a 20-minute video provided to the Hollywood Reporter, Minhaj, seated at a desk with graphics appearing behind him, says: “In political comedy, facts come first. In comedic storytelling, emotions come first.”

The video opens with a disclaimer: “With everything that’s happening in the world, I’m aware even talking about this now feels so trivial. But being accused of faking racism is not trivial.”

He says he understands if fans are asking: “Is Hasan Minhaj just a con artist who uses fake racism and Islamophobia to advance his career? Because after reading that article, I would also think that.” He continues: “To anyone who felt betrayed or hurt by my standup, I am sorry. I made artistic choices to express myself and drive home larger issues affecting me and my community, and I feel horrible that I let people down.

“And the reason I feel horrible is because I’m not a psycho,” he adds. “But this New Yorker article definitely made me look like one.” He says the article was “needlessly misleading, not just about my standup, but also about me as a person. The truth is, racism, FBI surveillance and the threats to my family happened.”

He continues: “So I’m gonna do the most Hasan Minhaj thing ever: I’m gonna do a deep dive on my own scandal, with graphics, because there is so much evidence I gave the New Yorker that they ignored that I want to show you.”

The video, which includes clips from his interview with the magazine, focuses on three claims the article disputed, beginning with a story Minhaj tells about his high school prom in his Netflix special Homecoming King. In the special, he says he arrived to pick up his white prom date only to find another boy at the house, and that her parents didn’t want their daughter in pictures with a brown boy.

According to the New Yorker, the girl, given the pseudonym “Bethany”, had actually turned Minhaj down days earlier. Still, in the video, Minhaj says Bethany’s mother genuinely made the comment about pictures with a brown boy, and he criticizes what he calls the magazine’s misleading language, using audio of the interview to argue that it twisted his words.

The article also asserts that the woman says Minhaj dismissed her concerns when she received online threats over the special. Minhaj shows emails showing a warm relationship, including her thanking him “for always protecting me and my family”.

Minhaj goes on to discuss the claim in his special The King’s Jester that an FBI informant infiltrated his mosque, which led to Minhaj getting slammed against a police car. The New Yorker notes that the informant in question was in prison at the time of Minhaj’s story.

In the video, Minhaj says that he did encounter undercover law enforcement as a child, that his mosque has indeed been infiltrated, and that stories like these were common across the US after 9/11. “I wanted to re-create that feeling that only Muslims felt for a broad audience,” he says.

Finally, he addresses the white-powder story, saying that although the story of his daughter being hospitalized did not occur as he claimed, fake anthrax was sent to his home and put his daughter at risk amid a scare about the Saudi government’s response to his work. “I created the hospital scene to put the audience in that same shock and fear that me and [my wife] Beena felt,” he said.

In a statement to the Hollywood Reporter, the New Yorker said: “Hasan Minhaj confirms in this video that he selectively presents information and embellishes to make a point: exactly what we reported. Our piece, which includes Minhaj’s perspective at length, was carefully reported and fact-checked. It is based on interviews with more than 20 people … We stand by our story.”

Some comedians have come to Minhaj’s defense, pointing out the blurry lines between fact and fiction on stage. “That’s what we do. We tell stories, and we embellish them,” Whoopi Goldberg said on The View a few days after the article was published. Speaking to the New Yorker, a former writer on Minhaj’s TV show Patriot Act said: “Every standup you see who’s telling any joke, there is an element of truth, but then the thing that provokes laughter is dishonest.”

Others have criticized Minhaj’s approach. “If he’s lying about real people and real events, that’s a problem,” a former Daily Show writer told the magazine. “So much of the appeal of those stories is: ‘This really happened.’”

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