Hasan Minhaj and 'emotional truths': What Singapore, Malaysia comics say

Singapore comics Sharul Channa, Jacky Ng and Malaysian comedian Dr Jason Leong shared their views on Minhaj's admission he had embellished facts in his specials.

Malaysian comic Dr Jason Leong (far left) and Singapore comics Sharul Channa (second from left) and Jacky Ng felt that American comedian Hasan Minhaj didn’t do anything wrong in embellishing his stories for his stand-up special. (Photo: Instagram/drjasonleong, Instagram/thesharulchanna, Instagram/jackyngcomedy, Getty Images)
Malaysian comic Dr Jason Leong (far left) and Singapore comics Sharul Channa (second from left) and Jacky Ng felt that American comedian Hasan Minhaj didn’t do anything wrong in embellishing his stories for his stand-up special. (Photo: Instagram/drjasonleong, Instagram/thesharulchanna, Instagram/jackyngcomedy, Getty Images)

It wasn’t just the F1 Grand Prix that had people talking over the weekend.

If you’re fans of American comedian Hasan Minhaj, or generally consume entertainment news, you might have read an article in The New Yorker where he admitted to embellishing the stories of discrimination, racism and threats he faced in his Netflix stand-up specials.

In these specials, he spoke of plans to attend prom with a white girl whom he ate with and studied with, only to find that her family preferred her to go with another white man. To add insult to injury, Minhaj said he only found out when he arrived at her house that evening to escort her to prom.

Another story he shared included a life-threatening scare where his daughter came into contact with white powder that was thought to be anthrax. He had said that she was rushed to the hospital, and fortunately, the powder was harmless, but said this scare came about as a result of his work.

In the interview with The New Yorker, Minhaj confessed that the rejection with the girl didn’t happen exactly as he said it did on his comedy special. And, his daughter wasn’t exposed to white powder, though, he did receive a letter containing some sort of powder.

Minhaj stood by his work and told the magazine that his stories were based on “emotional truths” and “the punch line is worth the fictionalised premise”. When asked if the stories were distasteful due to its “moral heft”, Minhaj had replied, “It’s grounded in truth.”

'Don't come to a comedy expecting 100 per cent facts'

Speaking to Yahoo Southeast Asia, three comics - Sharul Channa, Jacky Ng and Dr Jason Leong - defended Minhaj and felt that he didn’t do anything wrong.

Malaysian comic Leong, 38, said he believed Minhaj’s stories as “that's the expected transaction when you go to be entertained by an artiste” but felt “indifferent and unsurprised” by his admission.

“Hasan Minhaj has always been one of my favourite acts. Homecoming King should be mandatory viewing for all students of the comedy game,” Leong added.

Both Sharul and Ng, who recently opened for comedian Ronny Chieng during his sold-out show in Singapore, agreed that comedians embellish stories and pointed out that audiences shouldn’t be coming to a stand-up showing expecting “100 per cent facts”.

Said 36-year-old Sharul, “I am surprised that people believed what people say on stage to be 100 per cent true and personal. Are these the same people who believe that every video sent by an uncle on WhatsApp is 100 per cent accurate? Because it sounds like it.”

Ng, 29, shared that he has yet to read the article as it’s behind a paywall, but has seen tweets talking about this incident.

He remains “indifferent” to the controversy but admitted that fans and viewers have a right to feel upset or cheated about Minhaj’s admission.

He added, “But, if they are coming to a comedy show expecting 100 per cent facts, then they've made a poor decision, and the only person who has upset or cheated them is themselves.”

Echoing Minhaj’s sentiments about his stories being grounded in truth, Ng explained, “Even if Hasan made up stories to discuss moral issues, I think we can all agree these are issues that are real. It's not like, there's no racism in this world, but he's claiming there is and making up a story to prove the point.”

That same view was shared by Leong, who called what Minhaj did as taking “artistic license”.

He said, “A joke can only be funny if there is truth within it. Audiences won't laugh at something that is inherently false. In Hasan's stories, while we may debate on the factual accuracies of the details of the joke, the seed of them, the core of it, is truth.

“Hasan may not have been dumped by a girl in such a dramatic fashion as he told it, but surely we can all agree that kids of a particular skin colour get discriminated in some way or other, even at a young pubescent age?”

Meanwhile, Sharul felt that audiences should “grow up” and “not be naive”.

“Some of our experiences are the experiences of those people around us - our family members, our friends or something we experience as bystanders,” she said.

Should Minhaj be held to a higher standard?

But, as someone who uses ‘personal’ stories to talk about discrimination and social injustices, should people expect more from Minhaj?

Sharul, who pointed out that comedians “people-watch and experience life and are a mouthpiece for society”, disagreed, adding that people should not "feel cheated" by the revelation.

She said, “You go watch a magic show. Do you get upset from the fact that the magician pulled a rabbit from thin air, very well knowing that the rabbit was a hidden animal in one of the magician’s pocket, and didn’t just appear?"

Meanwhile, Ng said it was “as fair to expect more from him, as it is fair for a comedian to expect their audience to still remember he is a comedian first and he is presenting these stories as such”.

"It’s not like he presented these stories as evidence on a news programme, or a similarly formal setting," Ng added.

As for Leong, he found it “hilarious” that much resources have been spent “investigating his [Minhaj's] comedy and the veracity of his anecdotes”.

He shared, “If the guillotine falls on Hasan, are we one step forward in solving political and social injustices? Give me a break. He is a comic. Full stop. Now can we go back to burning up the planet, pricing young people out of ever owning homes, and serving our lizard overlords?”

Stand-up scene won’t be affected

Despite the flurry of online reactions to the explosive story, Minhaj still seems to be fairly unscathed. In fact, Rolling Stone reported that Minhaj remains “one of three” candidates to replace Trevor Noah on The Daily Show.

When asked if this controversy might impact the stand-up scene or the relationship between comic and audience, all three comics were confident that it wouldn’t.

Leong said that comedians are “always easy targets” but that the industry and its fans are “always bigger and more resilient than any one individual comic”.

“I think every comedian has its audience. We are not accountable to make people believe that our stories are true. Our job is to make people laugh and people pay money for entertainment. People will show up for laughter,” said Sharul.

Raeesah Khan incident a “terrible comparison”

As for those who may have likened the situation to former Workers' Party member Raeesah Khan lying to Parliament, both Sharul and Ng rubbished that notion.

Calling it a “terrible comparison”, Sharul explained, “Anyone in public service has the power to make change for its people. The power that people have given them. Real power. Real accountability. Lying in parliament is an offence…

“Comedians are like the courtyard jesters… Our jokes are not policies that affect the well-being of our country. Our job is to bring awareness about society and its truths - in a funny manner.”

Ng added, “I don't think we should be holding comedians to the same standards of political office holders and we definitely shouldn't take words spoken on a Netflix comedy special to hold the same weight as words spoken in our nation's parliament.”

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