“Sometimes truth and sometimes total BS.” That’s how Whoopi Goldberg defined standup comedy last week. “That’s what we do, we tell stories and we embellish them.” That’s one way of putting it. Goldberg was speaking in defence of her fellow standup Hasan Minhaj, a campaigning satirist who is among the frontrunners to succeed Trevor Noah as host of The Daily Show.
Minhaj was the subject of a New Yorker exposé that revealed several routines in his acclaimed Netflix specials Homecoming King and The King’s Jester – routines that detail his personal experience of racism and persecution – were based on lies.
The story has made waves in the US, where Minhaj is, as the journalist Nitish Pahwa wrote, “one of the few powerful Indians in American culture”. He now stands accused of lying on stage about several incidents in his personal life: his brush with an FBI informer after 9/11, the prom date who rejected him for racist reasons, and the white powder sent to him in the post, hospitalising his daughter, after he criticised the Saudi government on his TV show. These incidents did not happen, he now admits – or in Minhaj’s own words: “The emotional truth is first. The factual truth is secondary.”
Most people would agree with that as a principle applicable to standup comedy – albeit that some might swap out “emotional truth” for “jokes”. There is no widespread expectation that standup comedy be truthful. Minhaj again, on the defensive: “You wouldn’t go to a haunted house and say, ‘Why are these people lying to me?’ The point is the ride. Standup is the same.” It’s broadly accepted that standups embellish, exaggerate and conflate – if not downright make things up – in their pursuit of big laughs. When Lee Evans told us that he played water polo and the horse drowned, no one rang the RSPCA.
There are still plenty of uncomplicated jokers and clowns like Lee Evans around, and comedians can still, usually, plead innocence by arguing, “It wasn’t me who said that, it was my onstage persona.” But comedy has evolved, and keeps evolving, in directions that “it’s only a joke” can’t quite cover. Lots of standup nowadays addresses trauma; comedians make shows about sickness and mental health, suicide and bereavement. These shows must still be funny, but they draw their charge from the understanding that the performer is telling the truth.
Take one of the most iconic standup shows of the past decade, Tig Notaro: Live. What would the reaction be were it revealed that Notaro had not, in fact, received a cancer diagnosis four days prior to performing it? Would Richard Gadd have deserved his Edinburgh comedy award in 2016 had the experience he recounted of sexual assault been untrue?
Over the same period, comedy has also invaded the territory of news and current affairs, particularly in the US. The Daily Show isn’t just comedy; a poll when Jon Stewart quit as host in 2015 found that, at a time of diminishing faith in politicians and the media, 12% of Americans used it as their primary news source. Like The Daily Show, Minhaj’s television show Patriot Act set out to (in Netflix’s words) “explore the cultural and political landscape with depth and sincerity”. Like Minhaj’s standup, it rooted that exploration, and that sincerity, in its star’s personal experience. In one episode, he brought his parents on to the show to discuss their experience of immigration to the US. (There are no allegations that anything on Patriot Act was made up.)
These new truth-telling roles for comedy, and the blurring of our real and fake selves in the age of social media, have in turn opened up new possibilities for comics who enjoy playing fact off fiction. Some of today’s most electrifying standups (Bo Burnham, Kate Berlant, Leo Reich) constantly walk the tightrope between authenticity and artifice. Which is exciting – as long as it’s what we have signed up for. Every comic cultivates their own relationship, their unique unspoken contract with the audience, in which the terms of the true-or-false debate are negotiated and agreed.
In Minhaj’s case, his audiences had signed up to be told the truth, and he’s being disingenuous – and reductive about the art form – to suggest otherwise. His routines about anthrax attacks and Islamophobic policing weren’t offered up just for laughs. They told a tale of American prejudice and oppression, one that centred the comic himself and demanded – as Minhaj delivered his sober conclusions straight to camera – to be believed.
Its exposure as (using Goldberg’s phrase) “total BS” is troubling in ways that transcend comedy. By grounding his stories of bigotry and victimhood in a lie, Minhaj – “the boy who cried racist wolf”, as one headline had it – gives fuel to those who would say all such stories are exaggerated, or false. Way beyond what the Minhaj affair says about comedy’s relationship with truth, that outcome would be no laughing matter.
Brian Logan is the Guardian’s comedy critic and the artistic director of Camden People’s theatre