Towards the end of Hasan Minhaj’s new Netflix special The King’s Jester, there’s an extended bit that plays out as a conversation between the comedian and “Sam”, purportedly Netflix’s lawyer-in-chief. The routine is about how Minhaj dodges a potential defamation suit filed by Randall Smith, the CEO of Alden Capital, a so-called ‘vulture fund’: called that because of their modus operandi of acquiring local news channels, firing almost everybody, and then flipping the asset for a handy profit. You know that the comedic landscape has changed significantly when the loudest cheer in a show is reserved for a line like “Allow me to explain to you the jurisprudence of jokes”.
The King’s Jester, the follow-up to his widely acclaimed and popular special Homecoming King, is an expertly crafted hour of what’s affectionately called “Powerpoint comedy” by Minhaj at one point (referring to the comedian’s signature style of using a revolving LED backdrop of news clips, personal photographs and social media pages). The bulky 40-minute midsection focuses on the trials and tribulations of running a popular news comedy show (Patriot Act)—the behind-the-scenes stuff, moments when the comedy intersected with some decidedly grim real-life incidents. This is book-ended by 10-12-minute ‘cutaways’ which focus on Minhaj’s personal life: him and his wife struggling to conceive, the challenges of fatherhood and so on.
And while the jokes about Patriot Act are good—well-written and well-delivered for the most part—it’s the familial stuff that Minhaj excels at. These are the kinds of gags that come naturally to him. Here, for example, is what he said about his newborn daughter, describing the moment he held her in his arms for the first time.
“Do you know how I knew my daughter was Indian? Because she wouldn’t stop staring at me. I’m like, woah, you’re one of us. You have no respect for personal boundaries!”
Or where he whips out the ‘Motel Patel Cartel’ joke, which is the kind of extended joke that desi uncles everywhere have appreciated, and probably cracked some variant of themselves. As an aside, the phrase Motel Patel Cartel itself is not new. I myself came across it in childhood, in the pages of a children’s magazine called Wisdom, which sought to educate kids about important things: y’know, capitals of Latin American countries, which brown person did what where and so on.
“Beena my wife, she’s a motel Patel. That shit runs deep. For centuries we’ve been debating; Indians, Asians, Jews, who is the cheapest of them all? But only Gujarati Indians would think of a family business that you can live in. If you’ve stayed at a La Quinta Inn, a Hampton Inn, a Quality Inn, a Comfort Inn, a Super 8, you’ve been supporting this Patel cartel. They’re all from one part of India and they’re all related. I mean, Beena’s got 961 cousins…. here with us tonight!”
Every joke, every self-deprecatory gesture feels like it has been written, rewritten and focus-grouped to within an inch of its life.
If you were to read that joke in isolation, you’d think that Minhaj is becoming a smarter Russell Peters, basically, with his bingo chart of racial humour. In fact, what Minhaj is doing amounts to a kind of blow-by-blow breakdown of this style.
Not everything lands satisfactorily, of course—I thought that the Saudi consulate joke could have stopped much earlier than it did, for one. Instead, Minhaj connects it to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and somehow, it becomes all about the comedian himself—ignoring his wife’s warnings about “not antagonising the Saudis”, learning his harsh lesson eventually after he’s reminded of his status as a young father. To me that felt a little self-serving. There is a kind of humblebrag quality to the whole joke, a braggadocio that pops up in other spots as well.
But then again, why should we begrudge Minhaj his self-aggrandisement? We don’t seem to mind it when our favourite movie stars spout dialogue that consists of increasingly belaboured callbacks to their most famous roles. Hip-hop stars are almost expected to be braggarts, it’s a feature not a bug. In fact, Minhaj makes the hip-hop connection himself when he says, “I don’t want to be the Tupac of comedy. If anything, I want to be the Diddy of comedy. Staying alive while more talented people die around me!”
What we can say unambiguously is this: there’s a too-sleek quality to The King’s Jester that can be off-putting towards the end. Every joke, every self-deprecatory gesture feels like it has been written, rewritten and focus-grouped to within an inch of its life. There is a qualitative difference between listening to a scripted TV show (one with a writer’s room)—and a lone-wolf comedian working off the current cultural moment.
A writer’s room achieves a tone that’s uneven and heterogeneous by design; the idea is to cater to audiences of every demographic description possible (this is also why diversity matters in a writer’s room). A stand-up comedian’s special, however, is supposed to be Auteur Central: one creator’s vision. It really should be singular in both senses of the word. This is one area where Minhaj has a lot of room to improve—more unvarnished, visceral life-tales, Hasan, please. And fewer chai-tea and naan-bread jokes; flogging one dead cultural horse can be chalked up to editorial oversight but to flog two within the same show smacks of carelessness.
These minor complaints apart, The King’s Jester is another accomplished outing by a comedian very much on the top of his game. It never really pushes Minhaj out of his comfort zone but for now, it’ll do nicely.