Comedy’s Truthiness Problem
In October 2005, Stephen Colbert invented a new word: truthiness.
In a short monologue for The Colbert Report, a satirical show where the comedian played a caricature of a conservative blowhard cable news anchor, he took issue with an approach to news that relied on facts and credible sources. “I don’t trust books,” Colbert said. “They’re all fact, no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today.” Truthiness emanated from feeling rather than hard evidence, affirming beliefs backed by strong emotions.
This was during the George W. Bush administration, in the post-9/11 era, so inevitably Colbert brought up the war in Iraq. “Maybe there are a few missing pieces to the rationale for war. But doesn’t taking Saddam out feel like the right thing? Right here,” he said, pointing to his belly, “right here in the gut. Because that’s where the truth comes from—the gut.” In closing, Colbert promised to maintain a posture of truthiness as he conveyed the news to his viewers. “Anyone can read the news to you,” he said, deadpan. “I promise to feel the news at you.”
Truthiness entered the popular lexicon. Today, multiple dictionaries include the word. The general concept, sometimes but not always attached to the word, has become a prominent and recurring criticism of right-wing politics and journalism. Broadly speaking, the argument was that the Republican Party and the American right consistently ignored fact-based rigor when such rigor would prove inconvenient. As political discussion migrated to social media, the critique followed, with Democrats increasingly prone to warning about misinformation and disinformation online.
Colbert transitioned to a new role as a conventional late-night talk-show host, playing himself rather than a comic caricature. But he continued to emphasize that the right wing was prone to exaggerations, telling omissions, conspiracy theories, and outright falsehoods. In early 2022, he released a fictional Spotify playlist for vaccine misinformation, in response to what he said were harmful inaccuracies spread on the service by popular podcaster Joe Rogan. A gag ad for the playlist that aired on his late night show pronounced: “We hit shuffle on your understanding of basic facts.” Lol.
One wonders what Colbert feels, in his gut, about Hasan Minhaj.
Like Colbert, Minhaj is a comedian by trade—he has two Netflix specials to his credit. And like Colbert, Minhaj often wields his comedy to political ends. Minhaj is Indian-American, and his stand-up specials tell personal stories of racism and mistreatment. He frequently criticizes former President Donald Trump and the post-9/11 domestic security apparatus.
From 2018 through 2020, Minhaj hosted Patriot Act, a left-leaning news-and-comedy Netflix series. Patriot Act was reminiscent of The Daily Show, Comedy Central’s longrunning pseudo-newscast, which from 1997 through 2005 featured Colbert as a “correspondent.” After Daily Show host Trevor Noah announced in late 2022 he was leaving the show, Minhaj was widely reported as a top contender for the slot.
The Daily Show is a comedy program, with jokes and snark and play-acted absurdities. But it is also a current affairs program designed to inform its viewers. During the peak of its cultural influence—in the mid-’00s, when it was hosted by Jon Stewart—pundits occasionally grumbled that too many young people were getting their news from Stewart.
The show faded in relevance after Stewart left, but it spawned several imitators, including HBO’s Last Week Tonight, hosted by John Oliver (another Daily Show alum), and even another Jon Stewart series, The Problem with Jon Stewart, on the Apple TV streaming service (recently canceled). Liberal comics weren’t just mocking the news. They were delivering it and explaining it, with clarity and moral forcefulness.
Minhaj seemed to fit into this tradition. So it was notable that when Clare Malone profiled him fo
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