On his new Netflix special The King’s Jester, political comedian Hasan Minhaj recounts chapters of his life—and global history—with moments of heart and humor, but delivers it in such a grandiose and obvious way that he cheapens the story at hand.
Minhaj kicks off his latest hour of stand-up discussing his and his wife’s struggles to conceive (spoiler alert: they have two kids now), and his family remains an important emotional lynchpin throughout. From there, the former Daily Show correspondent explores an early encounter with an undercover federal agent, how he ended up starting Patriot Act on Netflix, and his various run-ins with the Saudi royal family. In speaking truth to power (and on his self-professed quest for “clout”), Minhaj was targeted by death threats and his family was endangered. Thankfully, all’s well that ends well—he and his family are still here, and he’s got another Netflix special.
Minhaj’s animated style is no surprise to viewers of Patriot Act; he shares serious moments in an overly sincere whisper and delivers punchlines with an over-the-top yell. He doesn’t seem to have much faith in his audience (despite saying he does) since he makes every bit as blatant as possible. You can see it in his comedic rhythm, as he beats us over the head with sentimental beats and barely lets them breathe before breaking the spell with one liners.
The directing by Prashanth Venkataramanujam just adds to the effect. In fairness to Venkataramanujam, his direction is more dynamic than that of your average comedy special; rarely do you get an overhead shot of a comedian flat on their back on stage. However, he tends to simply emphasize whatever Minhaj is doing, which adds to the dull more-is-more approach used in the special. In a bit about the muscly undercover federal agent who infiltrated Minhaj’s mosque, for example, Venkataramanujam shoots the comedian from below as Minhaj impersonates the roided-out narc, adding to the impression that this guy is huge and intimidating. There’s no room for subtlety here, or belief in Minhaj’s physical comedy speaking for itself.
The special would also be a good bit shorter without all the visual aids—which, with a few exceptions, are not necessary. And sure, Minhaj describes himself as a “PowerPoint comedian” at one point, and that’s his schtick. But most of his video clips or accompanying photos just give the impression that Minhaj either doesn’t have enough faith in himself behind the mic, or in the audience getting the point, or both.
Format aside, Minhaj discusses frightening and vulnerable subjects throughout The King’s Jester. As previously mentioned, these moments rarely have time to sink in before Minhaj eases the tension with a joke. This is a stand-up routine, so of course he’s going to have to relieve the tension, but we’ve seen in recent years how serious topics can be explored meaningfully in stand-up in ways that give them the proper gravitas—and eventually get back to the comedy at hand. Minhaj follows the same beats every time, though, with the same overly earnest delivery flattening the impact of these otherwise very moving anecdotes.
In theory, The King’s Jester could be a compelling comedy special. In reality, it falls short thanks to Minhaj’s exaggerated and repetitive delivery.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.