A Review of The King’s Jester

Comedian Hasan Minhaj’s Pittsburgh show last Thursday delivered hilarious but profound remarks on family and fame.


Victoria Ren

The bright lights of the Benedum Center proudly announced the arrival of Hasan Minhaj’s new comedy special, The King’s Jester, to Pittsburgh on Thursday.

Sam Podnar, Staff Writer

Last Thursday evening at the Benedum Center, comedian Hasan Minhaj (pronounced HA-sun MIN-haj, not Hasaaan Minhaaaj) stepped onstage and was met with wild applause. Gazing up at the packed theater, situated in an eager yet comfortable stance, he was armed with just a handheld mic, a large screen behind him that would become active during the show, and an hour’s worth of killer material. 

Minhaj made his way to Pittsburgh on January 20th to perform his new comedy special, The King’s Jester, halfway through an eight-month-long tour that will peak with a taping at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The show, four years in the making, delves into Minhaj’s family, fame, and friction between the two.

The 36-year-old from Davis, California saw his career propelled to impressive heights when Jon Stewart hired him for The Daily Show, a late-night talk show that expresses comedy through political satire. He went on to host the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2017, earn a spot on the 2019 TIME 100 list of the most influential people in the world, create with Prashanth Venkataramanujam a Netflix show and a comedy special, and win two Peabody Awards for those productions. 

He even testified before Congress in 2019 on the student loan crisis, launching his hilarious, seemingly effortless quips in front of one of the toughest audiences a comedian could ask for. 

The King’s Jester comes nearly five years after the Netflix debut of his first stand-up comedy special, Homecoming King, another royally-named show in which he meditates on racism, family, generational differences, and being Indian and Muslim in America. As Minhaj put it, “It’s about hope, forgiveness and the American Dream.”

But The King’s Jester veers in a different direction, with Minhaj exploring his career, fame, family, the nature of satire, and why he does comedy. Though the audience is treated to his signature energetic style and whip-smart comedy, Minhaj discusses experiences that haven’t been brought to light before, many of which relate to his wife and young children, and it feels more obviously tethered to today’s world than Homecoming King, which takes most of its content from the ’90s and early 2000s. Social media and the attention he gets from it, for example, is a major focus of the show.

While his identity as Indian and Muslim American and a child of immigrants is examined deeply in Homecoming King, it serves as more of a backdrop for this new special. Many key moments hinge on his race, but his cultural identity is more seamlessly woven into the various narratives he jumps between than explicitly stated—there’s an understanding with the audience that it’s the foundation upon which his life is built. 

He doesn’t cater to a white audience, instead rolling out jokes about his ethnicity and culture that are unashamedly only for one segment of the audience to fully understand; it’s a breath of fresh air for the world of comedy, which has historically been dominated by white individuals.

His skill as a compelling, powerful storyteller comes through full-force in The King’s Jester, making for a wildly funny, ceaselessly entertaining hour. Long-known for his large stage presence—plenty have mocked how extensively he uses hand gestures when doing stand-up—he takes this to the next level in the show. One moment he’s up and parading around the stage, imitating the walk of some stuck-up antagonist; another he’s crouched on a lone stool, miming some awkward encounter; another he’s laying down on the stage, flat on his stomach, bantering with an audience member.

And Minhaj’s frequent interaction with the large screen behind him, which projects everything from pictures of family members to social media feeds frenetic with activity, as well as the dynamic movement of lights that flows with the stories, makes the entire show spellbinding. This perfectly-choreographed use of technology to enhance Minhaj’s stories mimics the engaging, fast-paced style of his show Patriot Act, a Netflix series about current events that expertly weaves together politics and comedy. 

“Hasan is deeply tuned into that storytelling style,” said Steve Bodow, executive producer and showrunner of Patriot Act, about Minhaj’s signature use of screens. “Constantly in motion.”

His skill as a compelling, powerful storyteller comes through full-force in The King’s Jester, making for a wildly funny, ceaselessly entertaining hour.

Six seasons’ worth of episodes—what Minhaj calls “woke TED Talks”—began with a deep dive into the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia. The episode was pulled from Netflix in Saudi Arabia, and the fallout, during which Minhaj was shot to the top of the headlines and came face to face with the power of the Saudi government and royal family, is the focal point of The King’s Jester. Minhaj wrestles with the conflict between speaking out against those who could cause real harm and protecting his family and himself, grappling with the consequences of his comedy. 

“Comedians have this platform. Especially right now and especially the platform I have. You can be a provocateur. You can say crazy s*** for crazy s***’s sake. Or you can aim that towards something,” he said in an interview with Vanity Fair

The show’s title nods to his position as a “jester,” mocking the rich and powerful. As Minhaj states succinctly in the show, no matter your wealth and prestige, “You cannot buy your way out of ridicule.” He embraced this tenet when he hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, taking jabs at Washington’s elite with clever candor; Minhaj later remarked, “I would say I felt the most like an American when I was at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner making fun of the most powerful people in the world.”

One big theme of the show is “satire versus sincerity,” something he constantly wrestled with during his four-year-long stint as a senior correspondent at The Daily Show. In The King’s Jester, Minhaj pokes fun at those who take issue with satire or can’t discern it from real life. But occasionally, his outlandish stories stretch into the territory of a little too crazy to be true—the pieces of the tales fit in ways that are so satisfying or on-the-nose as to be a degree unbelievable. Minhaj verifies a few with video evidence, but the audience is left to wonder about the rest. 

Minhaj could be exaggerating for comedic purposes—the most likely explanation—or he could be forcing us to examine our own ability to discern the truth, suggesting that we’re not quite the “reasonable people” that the law references when setting the limits on satire. It’s the kind of meta-humor that Minhaj hasn’t historically been known for, but there’s room for speculation. 

The King’s Jester certainly has a different ratio of comedic moments to serious reflection than its predecessor, Homecoming King, giving more time to the former than the latter. But while the new show passes the comedy test with flying colors—Minhaj really has spent every year of his career getting even funnier—it comes up short in meaningful contemplation. 

Minhaj doesn’t let his more serious stories, which are incredibly powerful and telling, simmer for long enough, draining them of a bit of their effect. He’s shown his ability to be openly, incredibly profound and reflective, both in his previous special and in interviews, but he doesn’t give quite enough time and weight to the deep conclusions that the audience waits for. 

And the show does, at times, feel a bit all over the place and is considerably more disjointed than Homecoming King, which revolves around a single narrative and comes to a satisfying conclusion.

Perhaps the show lacks in this area in contrast to Homecoming King, in which Minhaj dedicates ample time to asserting his claim to equality and processing the errors of his ways; perhaps it’s because Minhaj is now discussing the weight and difficulties of fame—not something much, if any, of his audience can relate to. Or perhaps Minhaj is leaving viewers to wrestle with his ruminations on their own time.

But The King’s Jester wonderfully showcases Minhaj’s incredible command of his audience, jerking the packed theater from hysterical laughter to silence in sobering realization. I found myself gasping as he artfully reached shocking payoffs to captivating buildups, felt my stomach drop as the theater fell silent and my shoulders relax with relief as he landed another perfectly placed joke to ease the tension. 

Minhaj’s deft storytelling abilities are obvious in episodes of “Deep Cuts,” segments after tapings of Patriot Act in which he effortlessly spins compelling, hilarious answers to audience questions; in The King’s Jester, it’s on full display in a sharper, more rehearsed form. The show is a rollercoaster, one that solidifies Minhaj’s hard-earned spot at the top of the comedy world, and despite diving into different topics than his first special, it’s still deeply personal and thoughtful. 

When watched with Homecoming King in mind, the show exhibit’s Minhaj’s growth as a person and comedian. He opens his first special with reflections on his recent marriage; he begins The King’s Jester by recounting a story focused on his future children. In Homecoming King he relates his father’s frustrating words—“Log kya kahenge?: What will people think?”—that had held him hostage for much of his young life; The King’s Jester explores this question in a much different way—What do people think about his comedy, and how should he respond?

Minhaj recounts in Homecoming King that following 9/11, his father told him, “Hasan, whatever you do, do not tell people you’re Muslim or talk about politics.” Minhaj proceeded to defy that advice, asserting his right to a piece of the American Dream and breaking into a brutal field through sheer force of will and relentless crafting of his art. He’s seen lucrative success, and The King’s Jester is an incredible celebration of and reflection on that success.