Welcome to Hasan Minhaj’s Inspirational School Assembly

Hasan Minhaj in The King’s Jester.
Photo: Clifton Prescod/Netflix

Inside Hasan Minhaj, there are two wolves. One is a person Minhaj regularly describes throughout his new Netflix special, The King’s Jester: a loose cannon, a man who cannot control his own wildest impulses. He’s daring! He stands up to power, and he makes unwise, chaotic decisions that cause uproar and disruption for his family. That guy, that wolf, is the subject of Minhaj’s stories about himself. He appears largely in retrospect, a character reconstructed through Minhaj’s memories of his own actions, and occasionally through video or photographic evidence that this messy, exciting, single-minded version of Minhaj has existed. 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 still every bit as rapid-fire and arms-flailing and slightly manic as he’s always been — as a correspondent on The Daily Show and in his own Netflix series, Patriot Act. But the broader impression he communicates throughout this new special is one of slickness and overrehearsal, the performative upbeat energy of a motivational speaker or guy trying to get you to come in on his multilevel-marketing company. He’s a try-hard, that second wolf. He’s got every single line down absolutely pat, but not just every line — every gesture, every facial movement, every vocal cadence as he shifts from one idea to the next. Stand-up, especially when it reaches the point where it’s filmed for a special, is often controlled and tested to within an inch of its life; there’s no blaming Minhaj for being well prepared. But 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, and there is ample material to joke about. He and his wife want to have a baby, struggle with infertility, and finally his wife gets pregnant. Roughly during the same period in his life, Minhaj is transitioning out of his role at The Daily Show and moving into Patriot Act, which are both opportunities that allow him to lean into a side of himself that is both successful and self-destructive. He tells stories about angering the Saudi royal family and inserting himself into as many politically and culturally controversial topics he can think of. He does not care enough about how his actions might 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 of as 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 the mix of Minhaj’s salesmanlike persona and his particular narrative style has a distinct message-based flavor to it. The King’s Jester is, as Minhaj says at one point in the special, a form of “PowerPoint comedy.” It’s often very fun to have images appear throughout to accompany his material, especially in the case of a story about accepting an award and deciding in the middle of that speech to needle Jared Kushner, who had just walked into the room. Still, the combination of the PowerPoint-like presentation and Minhaj’s performance makes you wonder if he’s about to click open a slide with a list of “Key Takeaways” from his presentation, or “Action Items,” or perhaps a big “So What Can We Learn?” heading, followed by a parade of bold-font bullet points that march in with each new click. “The first joke I ever told saved my life,” he says at one point, “and now my stupid-ass jokes almost cost me my baby’s life.” His wide eyes stare out at the crowd, mega-earnest. He wants the audience to feel moved. It also feels like someone might pass around a pamphlet on how to make good life choices.

It might be a relief if someone did, actually. It would be a way to laugh at his own performance, to acknowledge how overwrought and overdetermined it sometimes feels. As much as anything, The King’s Jester is a special about Minhaj coming to terms with himself and attempting to find a balance between his total dedication to comedic ruthlessness and protecting his family from any 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.) So much of The King’s Jester is ostensibly a way to recount moments of failure or poor judgment: He should not have gone into that embassy! He was cruelly ignoring his wife’s feelings! He put his own ego over the safety of his daughter! That wild, uncontrollable version of him did all these alarming things! At every turn, though, the unpredictable potential of wolf No. 1 is quashed by the confident control of wolf No. 2. There was never any real danger. See, here he is on this weirdly modern stage standing next to a stool that belongs in the lobby of a well-heeled corporate attorney’s office, telling us about his past with high-key self-congratulatory retrospection.

There are sections of The King’s Jester that stand out, sometimes because of and sometimes in spite of Minhaj. In some storytelling moments, he embodies that other version of himself without immediately betraying its messiness for a nice lesson or takeaway. After coming home in full knowledge that he has ignored his wife’s wishes, Minhaj acts out his decision to start washing the dishes in order to atone for his actions without actually 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 like 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 flawed and ashamed, and it rings with transparent emotion. He represents and reflects on that act without trying to excuse it, and the story is so much stronger for it.

But the implicit assumption Minhaj makes about this special is correct. His life has been full of compelling events, and they 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 how noteworthy it all is.

Welcome to Hasan Minhaj’s Inspirational School Assembly

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