New York Magazine
The Moral of the Story
When stand-up feels like a PowerPoint presentation.
INSIDE HASAN MINHAJ, there are two wolves. One is a person Minhaj regularly describes in his new Netflix special, The King’s Jester: a loose cannon, a man who cannot control his wildest impulses. He’s daring. He stands up to power. He makes unwise, chaotic decisions that cause uproar in his family. That guy, that wolf, is the subject of Minhaj’s stories about himself. He appears largely in retrospect, a character reconstructed through the comedian’s memories of his own actions and occasionally through video or photographic evidence. But the other guy, the second version of Minhaj, is the one we actually see onstage. And that guy is a bit of a wet blanket.
In The King’s Jester, Minhaj is every bit as rapid-fire and arms-flailing and slightly manic as he always has been as a correspondent on The Daily Show and in his Netflix series, Patriot Act. But the broader impression he communicates is one of slickness and overrehearsal, the per-
formative upbeat energy of a motivational speaker or a guy trying to get you in on his multilevel-marketing company. He’s a tryhard, that second wolf. He’s got every line down pat—along with every gesture, every facial movement, and every vocal cadence. Stand-up, especially when it reaches the point of being filmed for a special, is often controlled within an inch of its life; there’s no blaming Minhaj for being well prepared. It’s just that his high-school-forensics-winner mode is so at odds with that other wolf, the impulsive one, the jackass who can’t keep his mouth shut.
The King’s Jester is partially hindered by its organizing conceit. It’s an autobiographical retelling of Minhaj’s rise to celebrity: He and his wife want to have a baby but struggle with infertility; finally, his wife gets pregnant. During roughly the same period, Minhaj is transitioning out of his role on The Daily Show and moving into Patriot Act. All this provides him with opportunities to lean into a side of himself that is both successful and selfdestructive. He tells stories about inserting himself into as many politically and culturally controversial topics as he can think of, about angering the Saudi crown prince and going to the Saudi Embassy in D.C. in an attempt to conduct a comedic interview. He doesn’t care enough about how his actions may harm his immediate family. He describes his insatiable hunger for social-media reactions, his delight when he sees he’s trending on Twitter, the precise accounting of how many Instagram likes he can rack up for a post he thinks is especially daring.
It’s absolutely possible to tell an autobiographical story without relying on simplistic, lesson-based conclusions (see, for instance, Ali Siddiq’s fantastic YouTube special, The Domino Effect). But Minhaj’s salesmanlike persona and his particular narrative style have a message-based flavor. The King’s Jester is, as Minhaj says at one point, a form of “PowerPoint comedy.” Images appear throughout to accompany his material, and this is often very fun— especially when he’s telling a story about accepting an award, seeing Jared Kushner walk into the room, and deciding to stop in the middle of his speech to needle him. Still, the combination of the presentation style and Minhaj’s performance makes you wonder if he’s about to click open a slide with a list of “Key Takeaways” or “Action Items” or even a big “So What Can We Learn?” At one point, he tells a story about receiving an envelope of white powder in the mail—some of which spilled on his baby—and says that his “stupid-ass jokes almost cost me my baby’s life.” He stares out at the crowd, mega-earnest. It feels as if someone might pass around a pamphlet on how to make good life choices.
It would be a relief if they did. It would be a way for Minhaj to laugh at his own performance, to acknowledge how overdetermined it can feel. At its core, The King’s Jester is a special about Minhaj coming to terms with himself and trying to balance his dedication to comedic ruthlessness with his need to protect his family from blowback. (Even that framing is a little obnoxious; it conjures the image of Minhaj at a job interview, explaining that his biggest weakness is that his comedy is sometimes too brave.) He should not have gone into the Saudi Embassy! He was cruelly ignoring his wife’s feelings! He put his own ego over the safety of his daughter!
At every turn, though, the unpredictable potential is quashed by his confident control. There was never any real danger. See, here he is on this weirdly modern stage telling us about his past with high-key selfcongratulatory retrospection.
Some storytelling moments in The King’s Jester stand out. After coming home in full knowledge that he has ignored his wife’s wishes not to go to the embassy, Minhaj starts washing the dishes in order to atone for his actions without admitting to them. “The harder I scrub these dishes,” he tells himself, “the less bad my lie is!” It was bad, and he knows it was bad, but because it’s bad on such a small, mundane scale, he doesn’t feel he has to twist it back toward a positive lesson: His wife comes on to him, and he accepts the gesture even though, as he says, it’s “built on a lie.” It’s just a little human moment of being petty and ashamed, and it rings with transparent emotion. He reflects on that act without trying to excuse it, and the story is so much stronger for it.
The assumption that Minhaj makes throughout this special is correct. His life has been full of compelling events, and they do add up to a striking account of a culturally notable experience from the past decade in American life. Taking a crack at Kushner at a fancy, extremely public awards venue is a good story. Going after a heartless venture-capital company on your acclaimed Netflix show because one particularly dickish employee was an asshole to your kid? Good story! The material of The King’s Jester makes it noteworthy. That fact remains true, though you do wish Minhaj could stop trying to convince you of it. ■