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Are stand-up comedians expected to tell accurate stories?

Of the many successful comedians of South Asian origin in the West, Hassan Minhaj has always been my favourite.

Partly, this is because he is much funnier than the rest. Partly, it’s because he is proud of his Indian origins.

 

And partly it is because he tells the stories that need to be told: of a South Asian Muslim man in the United States (though he is married to a Gujarati Hindu) who copes, as cheerfully as possible, with various kinds of prejudices and discrimination.

 

   Over the last few days however, Minhaj has been caught up in a controversy that seeks to challenge the basis of his comedy. And though his troubles have delighted racists and Muslim-haters, they emerge from an article in a liberal publication and the criticism it makes of Minhaj’s commitment to accuracy.

 

   A large part of Minhaj’s stand-up routine consists of stories about his time in America. One story is about a white girl he went out with when he was young. In the story, he is dumped just before a Prom because the girl’s father does not want his daughter photographed with a brown man. Another relates to an envelope of white powder sent to his home. This could have been anthrax or worse and leads to an altercation between Minhaj and his wife, who feels his edgy comedy is putting their family at risk. And this is followed by preventive (for reasons of caution) hospitalization of his young daughter.

 

   A third story involves a white man who turns up at the Minhaj family’s local mosque. Much later, Minhaj sees the man on TV and discovers that he was government agent sent to infiltrate the mosque and check on possible jehadi tendencies within the congregation.

 

   There is a problem with all of these stories. According to an article in the well-respected New Yorker magazine, none of them is true--- at least not in the way that he tells them.

 

   Yes, Minhaj did have a white girlfriend that he broke up with (or who dumped him) but the sequences of events he described is false. In particular, the connection between her father not wanting him to be photographed with her at the prom and his colour do not necessarily hold up: the timing is wrong. Yes, he may have received an envelope of white powder but the story he tells about its consequences is manufactured: the fight with his wife about the dangers of the edgy nature of his comedy the hospitalization of his daughter etc.

 

   As for the white agent who infiltrated his mosque, that could not have happened the way Minhaj describes it. At the time Minhaj says that the agent turned up at the masjid, the man in question was actually in jail.

 

   So, is Minhaj lying?

 

   Or is he merely embellishing the stories and exaggerating what happened?

 

   And in any case, is a stand-up comedian expected only to tell accurate stories during his routine? After all he is not a journalist reporting on the state of the world.

 

   Judging by the New Yorker article, Minhaj is not particularly worried by the charge that the facts don’t always support his version of events. He appears to claim some form of creative license, suggesting that he is not a reporter but a comic; he is under no obligation to faithfully report events as they actually occurred.

 

 "If he is mainly re-arranging the truth, then is what he is doing so different from what the authors of so-called fact-based shows and biopics are always doing?"

   Minhaj is not backing down from that position. After the New Yorker story set off a storm, Minhaj released a statement to Vanity Fair magazine.

 

   He told Vanity Fair: “All my stand-up stories are based on events that happened to me. Yes, I was rejected from going to the prom because of my race. Yes, a letter with powder was sent to my apartment that almost harmed my daughter. Yes, I had an interaction with Law enforcement during the war on terror.”

 

   In effect, what he says is this: he is within his rights to take inspiration from events in his life and to then spin stories around them, though the stories he then tells may not be true. As he told Vanity Fair: “I use the tools of stand-up comedy-hyperbole, changing names and locations and compressing timelines to tell entertaining stories. That is integral to the art form.”

 

   It is a defence that many forms of fictionalised- real life works use. For instance, one of the criticisms of the Netflix show The Crown has been that while it takes inspiration from real life characters and events, it makes up much of the stories. An episode in the last season showed the young Mohammed Fayed selling soft drinks in Egypt while the Duke of Windsor turned up there. This never happened. The Duke of Windsor did not visit Egypt during Fayed’s soda-selling days. But Peter Morgan, who wrote The Crown, used the story to provide a certain circularity because, later in the episode, Fayed buys the Duke of Windsor’s house.

 

   Or take, Frost/Nixon, another of Morgan’s hit ventures. In the play (and the movie that followed) David Frost is portrayed as a lightweight presenter who gets the chance to interview a disgraced Richard Nixon and finally traps him about Watergate in their last interview. In fact, Frost had already interviewed several Prime Ministers and Presidents before he did the Nixon interview and the so-called trapping actually happened halfway through the several days of interviews. Morgan changed the background of the Frost character and the timeline for dramatic effect.

 

   As for Hindi cinema, the controversies surrounding The Kashmir Files or the unintentionally hilarious The Accidental Prime Minister and their adherence to facts are still fresh in our memory.

 

   So yes, at one level, this furore is about Minhaj. Is he just making up stories about his life? Or is he, as he says in his defence, taking little sparks from his own experience and fanning them into full-fledged comedic conflagrations?

 

   And if he is mainly re-arranging the truth, then is what he is doing so different from what the authors of so-called fact-based shows and biopics are always doing?

 

   It is an important set of questions because some of the traditional divisions have now broken down. In the old days, you had fact and you had fiction. But there is now a new genre that massages facts to make for good fiction. We have already accepted that in the interests of entertainment, it is okay for movies, TV shows and plays to do this.

 

   Should we also accept that stand-up comedians have the same right? After all, they are not claiming to be journalists or historians. They are also in the entertainment business.

 

   I have no answers to these questions. But I think they need to be asked more and more as the dividing lines between fact and fiction fade and the creative rewriting of history is justified in the name of entertainment.

 

   There have been uproars about such shows as The Crown abroad and controversies here about a new school of Indian cinematic fiction that pretends to be fact-based.

 

   But we still have no conclusions, let alone guidelines about how far ‘entertainment’ can go in the invention of ‘facts.’

 

   Perhaps we need to sort all that out first. And then, we can decide whether to crucify Hassan Minhaj or not.

 


 

CommentsComments

  • saikat das 27 Sep 2023

    I feel if story tellers are picking up a real life subject accuracy is important. Its like reading a biography. people are drawn to such stories for the inherent uniqueness of the personalities involved. if this can be altered in the name of creative liberty, there is no limit to it.

Posted On: 19 Sep 2023 01:30 PM
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