Hasan Minhaj says his stand-up stories are embellished but rooted in 'emotional truth.' Because that's comedy

Hasan Minhaj performs at the 13th annu
Hasan Minhaj says he uses "the tools of standup comedy to tell entertaining stories." (Greg Allen / Invision / Associated Press)

Hasan Minhaj isn't shy about stretching the truth to nail a joke.

Comedian and former “Patriot Act” host Minhaj told the New Yorker that the stories he tells in stand-up comedy are embellished but rooted in “emotional truth.”

“I use the tools of standup comedy — hyperbole, changing names and locations, and compressing timelines to tell entertaining stories. That’s inherent to the art form,” he said in a statement to The Times, responding to the article. “You wouldn’t go to a haunted house and say, ‘Why are these people lying to me?’ The point is the ride. Stand-up is the same.”

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In Minhaj’s 2022 Netflix special, “The King’s Jester,” he told a story about being handed "fan mail" by his building's doorman. He opened one of the letters, he said, and "all this white powder falls into the stroller" he was pushing, and onto his daughter's shoulder, neck and cheeks.

In the special, he said, he panicked that the powder was anthrax, told his wife what had happened, and they raced to the emergency room. Hours later, a nurse arrived with his daughter — and an investigator who told him he was very lucky, because the powder was nothing. But the man wanted to know, who exactly had Minhaj been antagonizing?

Cue the laughter, because Minhaj's answer was, "Everybody."

Later, back at their house, his anecdote continued, his wife accused him of putting clout above their kids — yes, kids plural — she was informing him that she was pregnant (and allowing a callback to an earlier joke about their doctor).

“You get to say whatever you want onstage, and we have to live with the consequences. ... I don’t give a s— that Time magazine thinks you’re an ‘influencer.’ If you ever put my kids in danger again, I will leave you in a second," Minhaj quoted his wife as saying.

He represented the situation as a reckoning, then continued the bit, saying, "I don't want to be the Tupac of comedy. ... I'm trying to live to see these retweets. If anything, I want to be the Puffy of comedy. I want to live — while more talented people die around me." Punch line delivered.

Minhaj told the New Yorker that, yes, a letter with white powder had been sent to his house in real life, and at the time he joked to his wife, “Holy s—. What if this was anthrax?” But he had embellished that his daughter came in contact with the powder, and said she wasn’t actually rushed to a hospital.

“Every story in my style is built around a seed of truth,” Minhaj said. “My comedy Arnold Palmer is 70% emotional truth — this happened — and then 30% hyperbole, exaggeration, fiction.”

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Stephen Rosenfield, founding director and teacher at American Comedy Institute and author of "Mastering Stand-Up," detailed the art of transforming stories into comedy gold for Writer’s Digest.

“Funny stories that comedians perform in clubs are called anecdotal stand-up. These stories can be based on real-life experiences or they can be made up," Rosenfield wrote.

“When regular storytellers tell a story, there may or may not be laughs along the way. Their story can succeed on the merits of its drama and suspense, with or without laughter,” he continued. “But any form of stand-up that a club comedian employs — including anecdotal stand-up — comes with the challenge and necessity of serving up frequent laughs. Hey, that’s why people go to comedy clubs — to laugh.”

In another anecdote Minhaj used for laughs in “The King’s Jester,” he told the story of an FBI informant who infiltrated his family’s mosque.

Brother Eric was a white man who claimed to be a convert to Islam, and Minhaj said Brother Eric attempted to coax the men at the mosque to talk about jihad. He joked that after telling Brother Eric he was pursuing his pilot’s license, the cops showed up and slammed him onto the hood of his car.

Minhaj also admitted that he took creative license with the factual components of the Brother Eric anecdote.

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Both stories were based in “emotional truth,” the comedian told the New Yorker, adding that the punch line was worth the fictionalized premise.

The Brother Eric story came from a personal experience from Minhaj’s youth. Minhaj and other teenage Muslims played games of pickup basketball with middle-aged men “whom the boys suspected were officers. One made a show of pushing Minhaj to the ground.”

Minhaj reiterated that his stand-up sets are “grounded in truth,” but the New Yorker pressed the comedian on his embellishments, asking him if he felt that he had manipulated his audience.

“No, I don’t think I’m manipulating,” he said. “I think they are coming for the emotional roller-coaster ride. To the people that are, like, ‘Yo, that is way too crazy to happen,’ I don’t care because yes, f— yes, that’s the point.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.