Toronto-area comedians unbothered by Hasan Minhaj’s stand-up act embellishments

For his comedy specials, Minhaj created stories based on true events from his life

Comedian Hasan Minhaj looks directly at the camera, head leaning on his propped-up hand
A 2023 New Yorker profile on comedian Hasan Minhaj sparked a conversation about truth in comedy. (Hasan Minhaj/Facebook) 

Hasan Minhaj is performing in Toronto this week, and despite his recent controversies involving fictional stories based on true events, two local comedians say they have no problem with him.

Paul Schmidt, a Toronto-based TV producer and stand-up comedian, spoke about Minhaj’s controversies and believes Minhaj is justified in his choices.

“A friend of mine described comedy as lying for laughs,” he said.

Minhaj is well-known for his Netflix specials like Homecoming King, The King’s Jester, and Patriot Act. His work includes stories about his life as an Indian-American Muslim, and social critiques on world events.

Comedian Paul Schmidt performs in front of a grey wall
Local comedian Paul Schmidt says storytelling and embellishment in comedy is expected. (Courtesy Paul Schmidt)

Last September, The New Yorker published a profile on Minhaj which claimed he embellished and told fictional stories in Homecoming King and The King’s Jester, on serious topics like racism and terrorism.

The story sparked debate about the roles of truth and fiction in comedy, with many opposed to, and others understanding of, Minhaj’s storytelling decisions.

To Schmidt, who has been doing stand-up since 2019 and performs at comedy clubs around the GTA, comedy is “a creative art.“

“If you’re up there telling stories, they’re stories. It doesn’t matter if they’re true or embellished or not,” he said.

Which of Minhaj’s stories were in question?

In The King’s Jester, Minhaj talks about meeting a white bodybuilder who asks to convert to Islam at Minhaj’s mosque. They later find out he was an FBI agent.

In Homecoming King, Minhaj, tells a story of seeing a white boy place a corsage on the girl he was planning to bring to prom. He then learned that the girl’s family did not want to have photos of her at prom with a brown boy.

In the third example mentioned in the New Yorker, Minhaj talks about opening a fan letter containing a mysterious white powder, which then falls on his baby daughter beside him. Fearing it was Anthrax, he rushed his daughter to the hospital.

According to Minhaj’s response video to the New Yorker piece, these stories are fictional but based on truths that have happened to him and his community.

“I did have altercations with undercover law enforcement growing up, and that experience formed the basis of this story, but it didn’t go down exactly like this,” Minhaj said in his video, defending his story about being racially profiled by an undercover FBI agent.

Comedian Tim Burniy says comics will often fabricate stories for the sake of a punchline, and also help audiences think about social issues. (Courtesy Tim Burniy)

‘That’s what comedians do’

Oshawa, Ont. graphic artist and stand-up comedian, Tim Burniy said if comedians lie for a punchline that’s funny and makes people laugh, “that’s what comedians do.”

Burniy also spoke about the value of performing stand-up comedy for social advocacy.

“I think good comedians do that. I think that’s what makes George Carlin the greatest comedian of all time.”

“He even admitted he was conforming to what he thought he had to do to be a comedian. Then he evolved into the opposite, where he wanted to make a stand against different social [issues] going on at the time which was the Vietnam War.”

“A lot of people loved it, and a lot of people hated him for making those jokes.”

The psychology of lying

Dr. Kang Lee is a University of Toronto professor and psychologist specializing in the science of deception.

Lee believes that when it comes to stand-up comedy, embellishing is not a problem, because people should not expect to hear the truth from them.

Lee said that when given information, one should ask, “What’s the purpose of the communication? Is the communication to inform you, or is the communication to entertain you?”

He discussed the philosophies behind lying, when people lie, and when people may want to hear a lie.

“As a child, we like to believe Santa Claus is real. We like to receive gifts from him. Once we find out that he’s not real, the consequences of that action are quite devastating to a child.”

Many people go to stand-up comedy shows expecting to hear made-up stories. In other scenarios like watching the news, people expect to hear factual information.

“You come to my class, let’s say, I don’t have to declare every single class, ‘Today, my communication purpose is to tell the truth.’ Because you come to my classroom, you expect me to deliver the truth. But you come to a comedy club, you don’t go there to hear the news.”

“Sometimes, we humans have difficulty to make distinctions between the truth and untruth, because there are many shades of truth out there in the world.”

Hasan Minhaj will be performing his stand-up comedy special, Off With His Head, at Meridian Hall in Toronto on Feb. 23 and 24.

About this article

Posted: Feb 22 2024 10:00 pm
Filed under: Arts & Life Entertainment News

About the Author

Christian Zdravko
The Big Chris here. I love music, shows, movies, video games, and learning about the world around me.