The Dangers of Political Comedy: Hasan Minhaj Won't Die for His Art

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The Dangers of Political Comedy: Hasan Minhaj Won't Die for His Art

Hasan Minhaj doesn’t want to be Tupac. No, he says, he’d rather be like Diddy, living to get rich as his more talented peers die around him. It’s a joke, of course, a referential dig at both Diddy and himself that is almost tossed off in the midst of a brilliant, revealing, and uproarious new special. But it’s a weighty thing for an artist to admit, especially one like Minhaj, who has devoted much of his career to joking about and trying to unravel political institutions. And it serves as the crux of his new stand-up special, The King’s Jester, which I caught at a sold-out show in Los Angeles’s Microsoft Theater.

During the special, which will eventually hit Netflix (the home of his now-cancelled show Patriot Act and his first stand-up special, the much-acclaimed Homecoming King), infertility scares, islamophobia, Kumail Nanjiani and Patriot Act legal battles are all fodder for Minhaj’s signature high-wire mix of humor and sincerity. He comments on this tonal balancing act in a particularly interesting meta moment, as he stops in the middle of describing the US’s “reasonable person” standard (I promise, it makes sense in context) to emphasize that he trusts his audience to always understand his intentions.

But the key focuses, the birth of his children and the drug-like mania of attention and sudden fame, are what lead us to that thesis about Tupac. Minhaj takes the audience on a romp through some of his most viral moments—most notably times he went after autocrats on Patriot Act and the Time 100 Gala, in which he went after Jared Kushner’s connections to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman—and his elation to be trending. Minhaj’s wife Beena, a constant presence in the show as Minhaj seals the deal as comedy’s new chief wife guy, is core to this portion of King’s Jester.

She serves as a foil to the intoxicating nature of this virality, presented as the cool head calling Minhaj out for seeking attention more than actually caring about these issues (he doesn’t deny this). She’s the one bringing it to his attention that going after despots might be playing with fire. And indeed, Saudi Arabia classified the episode of Patriot Act about the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi to be a criminal act, leading to Netflix infamously pulling the episode off their service in Saudi Arabia.

This conflict, between the attention he received from controversial incidents and familial concern, comes to a head as Minhaj tells the harrowing story of an unexpected threat against his family. Minhaj leans into the sincerity the truth calls for as he describes the fear and trauma of this moment, and the suspicion that he was targeted because of his work on Patriot Act. This leads to a tough conversation with his wife, who says she’ll leave him if he ever puts the family at risk again. Minhaj quickly agrees, deciding he’d focus Patriot Act’s critical eye on domestic issues rather than foreign tyrants.

This brings him to the Diddy and Tupac comment. Sure, the attention and fame of virality was like a drug, but it wasn’t worth it if what he had to do to earn it put his life at risk. It’s something he’s talked about before. This is, of course, a reasonable thing to say. But the fact that Minhaj admitted it is fascinating for what it says about his place as a comedian and celebrity.

Minhaj’s story, his trust for his audience and his whole decision to stop focusing his comedy on despots place him indirectly at odds with many of today’s comedy stars, who’ve become obsessed with cancel culture. He stands as someone who’s seen Netflix actually pull one of his episodes and as the rare comedian to face a tangible death threat. Other comedians have allowed simple criticism to make them obsessed with digging in their heels and getting lost in a tizzy, punching down and confusing it with punching up at society at large. They don’t trust their audience, they want to fool them while finding new ones that will embrace their reactionary nature, all while saying it’s in the name of the purity of art. Minhaj is different, turning inward, blaming himself and looking for a way to do what he loves while protecting those he loves.

Maybe some of this owes to Minhaj’s own age and appeal. The audience at the special was incredibly diverse, as most of Minhaj’s shows are, with generations of immigrants particularly relating to much of what Minhaj says. What is understated is how much he appeals to millennials and older Zoomers in general. This is something he understands, as his comedy, references and even styling show. This is also why Minhaj knows he can focus less on politics and say that he would not die for his art—and it is art, by the way. Minhaj’s approach shows that he, like Jon Stewart and John Oliver before him, thinks of himself as a comedian who talks about news and not a funny newsman. His episodes of Patriot Act were his art, not journalism, even if journalists worked on them.

For millennials and Zoomers, the romanticization of dying for one’s art has faded. The revolutionary artist has fallen to the wayside in favor of the artist with “good politics.” The ethos is no longer one of conversations about selling out and never working a day in your life if you do what you care about, it’s one of working to live rather than living to work, and of not expecting an unreasonable mental burden from the public figures you love. Gone is the mysterious celebrity of yore, in comes the celebrity who “shares” and can say they trust the audience to know their heart is good. Minhaj doesn’t have to counter his wife’s claim that he only cares about the issues when the cameras are on because he trusts the audience to know him and that he does care.

In Minhaj’s words and actions, there is an implicit question: what did a comedy show mocking foreign tyrants achieve beyond signaling he was a good, brave person worthy of attention? The quickness with which he accepted Beena’s ultimatum highlights not just King’s Jester’s central story of fatherhood, but his understanding that life as a jester is dangerous when the king gets mad, and it sure doesn’t involve a whole lot of revolution. This also is in line with the increasingly fatalistic nature of millennials and Zoomers, many of whom have seemingly ridden post-2008 pessimism to a tacit acceptance that change might not come. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence then that the subtext of the special implies that Minhaj might not be so interested in returning to comedy news at all. For now, he seems keen to act (as a news anchor in a dramedy, but still) and go back to some of his stand-up roots as he does in The King’s Jester—exploring identity, masculinity, and upward mobility while making us all laugh. Maybe we’re all better off for it.


Hooman Yazdanian is a writer and film superfan based in Los Angeles. He’s constantly debating where he wants a fourth entry in the Before… series. For his movie takes and jokes, follow him on Twitter and on Letterboxd.

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