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Was a Scandal the Best Thing to Happen to Hasan Minhaj?

Finishing a story about a girl cheating on him in 11th grade, Hasan Minhaj turned to the audience at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan during the first of two shows on Friday night and said, “Don’t fact-check me.”

The crowd came alive at this nod to the recent New Yorker article by Clare Malone exposing several of his onstage stories as fabrications. “I had to go head-to-head with one of the most dangerous organizations in the world,” he said, adding that he didn’t mean the U.S. military or the Israeli Defense Forces. “I am talking about a white woman with a keyboard.”

Then he mocked the article as “water is wet” obvious before describing it as a sign of success. “I’ve made it: I got a real old scandal,” he said, adding, “A dorky scandal.” With regret in his voice, Minhaj said he didn’t molest a child or sleep with a porn star: “I got caught embellishing for dramatic effect.”

Typical crisis management dictates you should move on, not fixate. But in our attention economy, where the most popular Netflix specials of the past year featured Chris Rock talking about the Slap and John Mulaney joking about going to rehab, comedians are wise to consider Rahm Emanuel’s famous political advice: Never let a good crisis go to waste. Minhaj split the difference. He did not linger on the story but dedicated a solid chunk of jokes to it that got one of the biggest responses of the night. There were moments when I even thought this scandal might be the best thing that ever happened to him.

For such a polished, assured comedian, getting your image scuffed up a bit can add a little more tension to your comedy. David Sedaris faced a similar media firestorm and very few even remember it. In his new act, Minhaj mocked how politicians treat him as a spokesman for his people. (“They think I’m the brown whisperer,” he said.) The more nuanced critiques of his deceptions focused on the context of his work, firmly in “The Daily Show” tradition of blurring lines between silly comedy and grave journalism. The New Yorker article took some of that weight off him, shifting expectations.

It’s notable that he released a 21-minute video defending himself and criticizing the New Yorker piece as misleading. (For a smart analysis that gets into the weeds on the issues, read Nadira Goffe from Slate.) Instead of downplaying the dust-up as he did onstage, he argued in the video that the New Yorker writer made him sound like “a psycho,” and he even expressed a few notes of contrition, promising to be “more thoughtful” about blending fiction and nonfiction. In a way, he did this at the Beacon, drawing attention to his lies, teaching his audience how to read him.

Reactions to this article varied wildly. My least favorite was the popular genre of commenters who emerge after every scandal to pile on by saying, “I never liked their work anyway.” It manages the feat of trivializing moral and artistic issues.

Yet the Minhaj controversy quietly opened a useful, long overdue discussion about truth in comedy that leverages nonfiction. More art than ever leans on the trust and authenticity of journalism, so it’s good for performers to think about the peculiar bargain they have struck with their audience and how to navigate it. There is an endless number of funny ways to tip off a crowd to your level of honesty.

While I thought some of Minhaj’s fabrications were unnecessary and wrongheaded, I never thought he was a “psycho.” What I saw was a comic responding to the incentives of a culture that not only prefers its politics wrapped inside a personal emotional story, but also gives clout to dramatic displays of victimhood.

We live in a time when seemingly everyone, no matter how rich, famous or successful, is angling to play the victim. Elon Musk invites sympathy by telling us that a company refusing to advertise on his site is equivalent to blackmail. When even Taylor Swift says she was canceled in the Time magazine article announcing her as Person of the Year, you know that the ability to repackage yourself as the underdog is limitless.

As it happens, this provides an opening for jokes. In Leo Reich’s cleverly self-aware new special, “Literally Who Cares?” (Max), the young comic spoofs this tendency. He begins by saying his show is sponsored by his dad, who runs an incredible small business you might have heard of named Deutsche Bank. By the end, he insists he’s oppressed. “I read something recently that even if you haven’t been oppressed, you can feel like you have and it triggers the same endorphins.”

The comic artist currently tackling this theme best is the filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli, whose feature “Sick of Myself” introduced audiences to a character who intentionally takes pills to make herself physically ill, to gain attention and fame. Borgli’s new movie, “Dream Scenario,” is about a beta male professor played by Nicolas Cage accused by a colleague of “searching for the insult.” In an outlandish twist, he starts showing up in people’s dreams doing violent things, and fragile students freak out in a parody of delicate sensitivities. The professor sees himself as the real victim and is then tempted by the embrace of Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson and, of course, the French. In other words, this movie is riffing on the most popular victim narrative of our moment: Cancel culture.

Thankfully, Minhaj doesn’t go there, but he gets close. At one point in his show, he said the real divide in the country was not between rich and poor, Democratic or Republican, but between “the insane” and “the insufferable.”

The insane include the people who stormed the capitol. He calls them nuts, before adding: “but fun.” Then he grew more animated describing the insufferable by their “NPR tote-bag energy” and “hall monitor” tendencies. It was a head fake to The New Yorker article before a pivot to self-deprecation, poking fun at the time he corrected Ellen DeGeneres on her show for mispronouncing his name.

“What was I expecting?” he asked. “She’s a billionaire who’s best friends with Oprah. She’s not a Sufi poet.”

Minhaj is telling us that he was a member of the insufferable. A reformed one, perhaps? It repositions him less as a righteous political comic than a more self-questioning, personal comic, a move he had already begun to make; this scandal may have accelerated the shift.

His show concluded with a long bit about therapy and family, in which, deploying one of his characteristic dramatic pauses, followed by whispery voice close to the microphone, he confessed his real kink: Acceptance.

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