Review: Hasan Minhaj’s “The King’s Jester” at Virginia Theatre lacks focus, structure

Comedian+Hasan+Minhaj+performs+at+the+Two+River+Theater+in+Red+Bank%2C+New+Jersey+on+Feb.+22.+Minhaj+performed+in+Champaign+at+the+Virginia+Theatre+on+March+26.+

Photo courtesy Patrick O'Shea/TNS

Comedian Hasan Minhaj performs at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey on Feb. 22. Minhaj performed in Champaign at the Virginia Theatre on March 26.

By Alexis Ramirez, Staff Writer

Hasan Minhaj’s “The King’s Jester” lacks the structure of his first stand-up special “Homecoming King” and the focus of his explainer-style Netflix series “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj,” but that may be one of its greatest strengths.

Minhaj doesn’t limit himself to one story in this one-man comedy special. It’s been four years since the release of “Homecoming King,” and a lot has changed since then.

Discussing fatherhood, fame and freedom of speech, “The King’s Jester” is more than a comedy show; it’s reminiscent of a catch-up conversation with a close friend you’ve lost touch with during the pandemic.

Champaign residents had two opportunities to watch the show at the Virginia Theatre on March 26. The line for the second showing wrapped all the way around the block and did not begin moving until the planned starting time of 10 p.m. Minhaj took the stage nearly one hour late.

Minhaj is known for his genuine interest in engaging with his audience. Minhaj used to film “Deep Cuts,” a Q&A segment series, with the audience in between takes of “Patriot Act.”

In his YouTube video titled “Deep Cuts Are Back!,” Minhaj expressed that he missed the sessions and revealed he would occasionally take questions from the audience at the end of early shows.

“It was really fun because sometimes they would ask really personal questions; sometimes the audience would roast me,” he said. “But more importantly, it was this really cool opportunity to see the audience … I love the culture coming out, supporting the show and us hanging and having a vibe.”

Those who have watched Minhaj’s behind-the-scenes YouTube videos, and his talk show appearances, will recognize some of the show’s jokes regarding his infertility issues, M.D.s and Doctors of osteopathic medicine, and not following activist and Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai back on Twitter. But there’s still plenty of unreleased material to enjoy.

Those new to the work and life of Hasan Minhaj need not do their homework. The themes he discusses are universal, and cultural context and other background information is always provided.

“I’m purely just looking at clarity,” Director Prashanth Venkataramanujam said in the first behind-the-scenes video for the comedy special. “Are people who maybe haven’t been following what he’s been doing for the last year — like, is this making sense to people? That’s the first hurdle of putting together any nascent show.”

Venkataramanujam graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology. He helped Minhaj write his 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, worked as an associate producer for “Homecoming King,” and co-created “Patriot Act.”

Minhaj’s career has for some time been closely related to politics. He graduated from the University of California, Davis with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He joined “The Daily Show,” widely regarded for its innovations in satirical news programming, near the end of Jon Stewart’s tenure.

“The King’s Jester” derives its name from the most important and only full-fledged political moment of the show: Minhaj’s stories of government surveillance.

Minhaj expressed disdain for the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on a lawsuit related to Operation Flex. The FBI program recruited Craig Monteilh, a former amateur bodybuilder, as an informant to spy on Irvine, California’s Muslim community in 2006. Monteilh posed as a convert to Islam and covertly recorded conversations in mosques and in the homes of community members.

The Supreme Court, siding with the FBI, decided on March 4 that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act does not override the state secrets defense.

Minhaj also discussed the Saudi government’s censorship of an episode of “Patriot Act,” his coverage of the 2019 Indian presidential election, and his comments directed at Jared Kushner at the TIME 100 Gala.

He described the internet and social media as the great equalizer. For the first time in history, no public figure is safe from mockery at the hands of ordinary people, but no jester — not even Minhaj — is safe from the consequences of their actions.

Again, political commentary and Minhaj’s upbringing are not the entirety of “The King’s Jester” and that’s fine.

“It’s really important that you show artistic growth, especially considering the last special I did was four years ago … That’s the pressure that I have on myself right now. Like, ‘Hey, man. Your sophomore album better not lean on the same tropes and stories that you had in the first album,’” Minhaj said in the first behind-the-scenes video for the comedy special.

“The King’s Jester” continues to innovate on Minhaj’s slideshow presentation style of comedy. The show’s set is highly packageable, consisting of a simple lighting and rear projection setup. Minhaj shows greater restraint when it comes to on-screen graphics; visuals work only to advance the stories and the lighting works to amplify the mood throughout the show.

Minhaj experiments with a wider range of voices to complement his high-energy delivery, but his greatest strength is his sense of time. Just as one starts to ask, “Wait, wasn’t he talking about– ?,” He pulls the audience back from the tangent.

At the end of the second showing, Minhaj invited the audience to stay for another moment and delivered material from his notes he’d forgotten or intentionally left out. Minhaj also revealed he has already started working on his next comedy tour with fellow “The Daily Show” correspondent Ronny Chieng.

 

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