Well, comedy nerds, the time has come to debate the merits of verisimilitude in standup comedy. Should standups only tell the truth about the mundanity of life, or are they permitted to, in Emerill’s parlance, kick it up a notch with some good, old-fashioned exaggeration? What if there are fabrications in the set-up? What about tags? Act outs? Are those also subject to fact-checking? Of course, the only answer to this question is a question: “Is the joke funny?” Nevertheless, the discourse is hungry and it shall feed.
On The View, Whoopi Goldberg came out in favor of exaggeration, responding to criticisms against Hasan Minhaj, who recently admitted to fabricating material, by reminding her audience “That’s our job.”
“That’s what we do, tell stories, and we embellish them,” she told her audience. Looking a little confused by the whole argument, Goldberg didn’t wade into the specifics of the claims made in The New Yorker’s profile of Minhaj, but she did recall the time a reporter asked about her degree from NYU, which she doesn’t have. Goldberg remembered that one of her characters, Fontaine, had the degree, and the reporter had mistook her joke for truth.
“If you’re going to hold a comic to the point where you’re going to check up on stories, you have to understand, a lot of it is not the exact thing that happened because why would we tell exactly what happened? It ain’t that interesting,” she continued. “There’s information that we will give you as comics that will have grains of truth but don’t take it to the bank. That’s our job, a seed of truth. Sometimes truth and sometimes total BS.”
Over the weekend, Minhaj admitted to the New Yorker that he exaggerated events for comedy, including a joke about worrying his daughter ingested anthrax. She’s fine, but he did receive white powder in the mail and worried it was anthrax. In another instance, he joked about his prom date rejecting him the night of the dance because of his race. However, the woman said she broke up with him days before their date and denied that she did so because of he is Muslim (Minhaj disagrees with her version of events). Furthermore, she accused the comedian of failing to protect her identity in the joke, effectively doxing her, leading to years of online harassment. Elsewhere in the piece, The New Yorker reports that three women accused his show, Patriot Act, of “gender discrimination, sex-based harassment, and retaliation,” which seems lost in the conversations surrounding exaggerating real-life events for comedy.
Minhaj, who was a frontrunner for The Daily Show until this recent controversy took over headlines, says he is within his rights to invent jokes, premises, and situations for comedy. “All my standup stories are based on events that happened to me. Yes, I was rejected from going to 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,” he said in a statement to Variety. “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.”