The problem with 'emotional truth'
When artistic license goes too far
When is it ethical for artists to lie in the name of "emotional truth"? The other week, a New Yorker profile of American comic Hasan Minhaj – who won an Emmy and a Peabody for his 2018 Netflix show Patriot Act – made headlines because of certain revelations around his method. As New Yorker writer Clare Malone describes: “he leans heavily on his own experience as an Asian American and Muslim American, telling harrowing stories of law-enforcement entrapment and personal threats.” And yet, “after many weeks of trying, I had been unable to confirm some of the stories that he had told onstage”, and so when they met, writes Malone, “Minhaj acknowledged, for the first time, that many of the anecdotes he related in his Netflix specials were untrue.”
Instead, Minhaj described his stories being built around “a seed of truth”, specifically, “emotional truth”, and the rest is “hyperbole, exaggeration, fiction.” For instance, in his 2022 Netflix special, King’s Jester, Minhaj talks about some of the fallout from making political comedy, and some of the threats he has received. The special contains a story about a letter being sent to his home “filled with white powder” which spilled onto his daughter, who was then rushed to hospital, with Minhaj fearing it might be the potentially lethal poison anthrax. However, Minhaj tells Malone the story was made up, rationalising that: “The punchline is worth the fictionalized premise.” What makes things more complicated is that Minhaj has talked about the incident in interviews, without clarifying that it wasn’t true.
But does this matter?
On the one hand, I see comedy as an art form that needs to provide entertainment first and foremost. If a stand-up comic needs to embellish a personal truth to make a joke funnier or a story more interesting, and therefore my audience experience better, then I don't mind. I have paid to be entertained.
In fact, I have never sat in a comedy show and assumed that a comic’s personal anecdotes are grounded in accuracy, or even happened at all; I would be surprised if anyone believed that. Real life is either boring or quite depressing – neither of which is that conducive to comedy without a little artistic license. But with the right touch, mundanity can be turned into hilarious relatability, while finding the lightness in tragedy can be a restorative, uplifting communal experience.
It has always been my understanding that these emotions happen in post-production – we have to intervene, turn something grey into something bright. Whoopi Goldberg weighed in to defend Minhaj, saying: ““That’s what we do. We tell stories, and we embellish them.”
What’s more, artists have often used the ‘unreliable narrator’ as an important artistic construct. Sometimes comedians are often playing different characters. In Kate Berlant’s comedy, which I wrote about here last week, she imagines different versions of herself, to make a point about identity and the ego. Guessing who is the “real” Kate is all part of the fun.
“Artistic license” is a term I hear all the time in the creative industries, not just comedy. Columnists and feature writers who trade in the personal often use that term to justify embellishments that will make their stories funnier, snappier, more emotional. This retouching usually (or rather hopefully) only applies to amusing details that relate solely to the author: exaggerating about how you embarrassed yourself on a drunken night out, a ludicrous misunderstanding with a stranger or a silly fight with your partner (who, surely, will have signed it off) feels harmless. In fact, I’m sure most of our friends do it all the time, and we humour them.
But of course there is a line. When it comes to journalists, the issue is that it’s unusual for even the most personal essayist not to stray from themselves. Columnists often write about politics, society and the state of the world. They interview real people, write about real happenings, real problems.
If a writer is known to exaggerate, or outright lie, about their personal life, how do we know they don’t embellish more important things? When does changing a word or two for dramatic effect completely change the meaning of a quote that impacts the way someone might interpret real societal issues?
Often, I am suspicious of columnists who quote ‘people in their community’ , ‘someone they met’ or ‘friends’. I cynically believe that sometimes they are simply imagining what so and so might have said, to back up a point or provide a bit of colour. But of course, as I have learned through so many interviews myself, what you think someone might say, or hope they might say, is rarely what they do say, which can be narratively inconvenient.
And, more complicated still, how do you judge the limits of the personal? Surely any information you choose to make public to an audience has the potential to influence someone else? At what point does the personal become political, as it did with much of Minhaj’s comedy?
Here is a good example. In one of his skits, Minhaj jokes about how his prom date changed her mind last minute because her parents didn’t want her to be seen in photographs with “a brown boy” – Minhaj turned up on her doorstep only to see her getting ready to go to prom with another date. According to the New Yorker profile, the woman and her family “had faced online threats and doxing for years because Minhaj had insufficiently disguised her identity”. She also disputed some of his facts – she had cancelled on Minhaj days before prom.
The issue with Minhaj fabricating his stories is that he sold them to the audience as vehicles for political and cultural commentary. He would sometimes mix in clips from the news and photographs from his life as visual props. As Brian Logan writes in the Guardian, “They told a tale of American prejudice and oppression, one that centred the comic himself and demanded – as Minhaj delivered his sober conclusions straight to camera – to be believed.”
This debate has also made me think about the buzz-term “my truth” which perhaps became popular after Meghan Markle started to used it a couple of years ago. Now I see everyone from musicians to journalists using it in everything from press releases to headlines. To me the words have always seemed a strange combination: the possessive before “truth” suggests it is a personal truth, a version of the truth, and perhaps therefore not the whole truth. An emotional truth, as Minhaj would say, or perhaps, in the words of Kellyanne Conway, “an alternative fact”.
Part of me thinks it will be difficult for Minhaj to come back from this. If I were to see him live, or watch his next special, I would be constantly weighing up whether what he was saying was true, which would get in the way of the comedy. Even if, subconsciously, you assume what comedians are saying is exaggerated, you tend to suspend disbelief during their act. So much of an audience’s reaction to comedy rests on good will; cynicism can somewhat ruin a punchline.
But then again, no doubt many of Minhaj’s fans probably won’t have even read his New Yorker profile, and the majority of those turning up to his gigs will be none the wiser. As I am reminded on a weekly basis working in the media, so many of these so-called scandals have only really taken place in our own alternate reality of the internet.
This week in links
I’ve been reading a New Yorker interview with Jeremy O Harris, often described as the enfant terrible of American theatre, because of his controversial play Slave Play, about three interracial couples undergoing "Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy". His similarly risqué play Daddy also made a splash at the Almeida last year, and co-write brilliant stripper heist thriller Zola. Every interview he gives is fascinating, and he must be the only theatre director to model for Gucci. Read it here.
Also, I have (belatedly) read John Niven’s infamous book Kill Your Friends, a satire of a music industry soaked in money and excess, told through the eyes of Steven, an A&R executive riddled with sexual and violent fantasies that are so shocking you sometimes can’t believe this book didn’t provoke complete outrage when it was published, even back way in 2008. What’s even more bonkers is that some of Steven’s character traits are supposedly loosely inspired by a top music exec – who I actually interviewed a couple of years ago. Can any music biz types reply to this email with secret intel?
And this long-read on the behind-the-scenes of Channel 4’s disastrous and “feral” reality TV show Eden, which saw people try to build a self-sufficient community in the remote Scottish highlands, is fascinating and grim. Some contestants suffering PTSD after the show stopped filming, because of moments like these: “The vet, Rob, was emotionally ravaged by all the animal slaughtering – much of which he had to do himself – so escaped over the fence and walked for nine miles.”
I’ve been interviewing Emma Gannon for my podcast about how she wrote her best-selling book The Success Myth, before being diagnosed with chronic burnout and having to take four months off work. We talked about the dangers of careerism, how she earned more money by working less, and the joys of being child-free by choice. Listen here.