There’s a point of time in Hasan Minhaj’s The King’s Jester (now streaming on Netflix) where he candidly admits he’s a "PowerPoint Comedian". In another moment, he refers to his immaculately crafted stage set-up, as a "LED Skate Park" – to a roar of laughter from the audience. But these moments of self-deprecation are carefully crafted, immaculately timed to match the overall ‘Minhaj Experience’ (storytelling, visuals, lighting cues, et al) and one may wonder if they are at all sincere, or just story beats delivered by a Jester at the top of his game.
After Homecoming King and Patriot Act, Minhaj is indeed at the top of his game in The King's Jester. While it may occasionally feel like the references to PowerPoint, skate parks and Twitter scrolls strip away the raw and the real that underlines a lot of top-notch stand-up specials, the elevation of stand-up (in general) to a well-crafted and experiential performance art in Minhaj's latest is worth the trade-off.
After the breakaway success of his previous two Netflix outings, Minhaj focuses on delivering his ‘story so far’ – from fatherhood and fertility, to the influence and power of free speech. As far as confessional comedy goes the Netflix's stand-up-verse has its share of hits and misses. Hannah Gatsby’s Nanette or even Daniel Sloss’s live shows are at the excellent end of the spectrum while Vir Das’s Abroad Understanding is on the opposite. As a pure confessional, The King’s Jester would perhaps fall somewhere in the middle. It is neither as powerful, raw and real as Nanette, or Sloss’s Dark/Jigsaw; but it is significantly smarter than Das’s misguided attempts of showcasing his family’s financial 'downfall'.
At the start of the special, Minhaj focuses on his wife Beena and him trying to have their first child, which eventually segues into the first joke for the public he ever cracked as a teenager (he was trying to impress a girl while being held down by the police. Why? Because it was the age of the Patriot Act in America) and then moves on to Minhaj's tryst with the Saudis on Patriot Act (the comedian's Netflix show; not the American law). All through, Minhaj peppers his stories with commentary on race, power, identity and speaking truth to power.
Minhaj delivers all this with the energy of a Christian TV evangelist. He invites you to witness his sins, laugh at his megalomania, empathise with his guilt, and find solace in his eventual redemption as a family man. All the while, Minhaj the comedian is testing his audience, like when he asks if they understand the difference between “sarcasm and sincerity.” As an observer, it is a tricky question. Can something so well-rehearsed be truly sincere? When Minhaj is talking about his megalomania as an influencer, is he being sarcastic? Or does he truly believe in his power to influence world politics? Is he portraying his wife Beena as the nagging limitation to his ambitions? Or is he using the standard South-Asian wife trope to let the audience know that he truly believes a man’s (or woman’s) excesses needs a voice of familial reason (and love) as counterbalance?
A lot of it is open to interpretation – as any performance should be – and coupled with nearly all the set-ups and punchlines landing, The King's Jester is hilarious. This is Minhaj at his finest – his triumphant return from the unceremonious ending of Patriot Act, and a worthy successor to a stand-up sub-genre he started perfecting in The Homecoming King.
It is a must watch. Come in for the laughs, stay for experience, and then leave with a friendly reminder of the hilariously entitled NRI Uncle who heckled Minhaj at the ‘Howdy Modi’ rally and then wanted a selfie.
From the way Hasan Minhaj is accelerating his ‘PowerPoint Comedy’ to experiential comedy, one should not be surprised if the next special is delivered in augmented reality/virtual reality (AR?V), complete with Metaverse audiences paying in whatever cryptocurrency is in favour at that time. If even at that point in time Minhaj is able to tread the line between sarcasm and sincerity as effectively as he does in the current special, it may be a milestone worth witnessing.