An illustration of comedian Hasan Minhaj with gold swirls around his head and smaller versions of himself walking on the swirls.

Hasan Minhaj is ready for war in ‘Off With His Head’

A report from the comedian's new stand up tour, which comes reinvigorated with righteous fury

Hasan Minhaj is currently touring with his new standup show, "Off With His Head."

Courtesy of Peace Center

Hasan Minhaj's new stand-up routine Off With His Head tours North America through July, culminating in a taped performance that will—like previous specials Homecoming King and The King's Jester—inevitably be available to stream. In the meantime, this report from the New York leg of his comic rendezvous, performed at Radio City Music Hall in April, won't spoil specific punchlines, but it will seek to address a question on the minds of many comedy fans: After his fact-checking skirmish, involving a New Yorker article that painted him as a vindictive liar, and his own response video clearing the air, what kind of Hasan Minhaj are we about to see?

The answer is surprising, uncomfortable, and delightful. Unlike his previous specials (and his political news show for Netflix, Patriot Act), Minhaj's new routine involves a stripped-down, no-frills performance without any of the graphics or dramatic lighting cues that became his signature. It's Minhaj unfiltered and unadulterated, and yet, entirely refracted through a new, self-reflexive persona: Minhaj the celebrity, upon whom the spotlight has been invasively shone, a winking sell-out who can afford to leave his old concerns of daily racism behind, along with his old material and style. However, the more he gestures in the direction of this new character—for whom power and status are primary concerns—the more he subtly reveals that the specter of Islamophobic animus, and the concerns of community in an increasingly divided United States, remain on his mind. The subject matter isn’t all that dissimilar from his previous work, but this time, the politely seedha-saadhaa (straight-laced) Indian American “good boy” goes on the offensive.

At his Radio City performance, he walked out onto stage followed by a small camera crew who captured his entrance, an ostensible entourage akin to Logan Paul's personal vlogging team. While this served a practical purpose—the footage has been released on social media—it couldn't help but feel like part of the performance. Minhaj is uber-recognizable now, and has gone through the many motions of Hollywood fame, from rise, to success, to scandal, and now, he’s bouncing back. Gone are his smart-casual shirts and loose-fitting streetwear. Instead, he emerges in a tight black turtleneck that echoes a Silicon Valley spokesperson, and an ostentatious green corduroy suit with trippy patterns reminiscent of military camouflage. He's ready to sell himself to shareholders. He's also ready for war.

The title of Off With His Head (seemingly borrowed from a Salon explainer about his New Yorker controversy) follows the regal naming convention of his previous stand-up shows. These self-inflicted monikers tell a story of their own, of a man slipping out of public favor and going from "king" to "jester"—in specials designed to highlight his outsidership to white America, professionally and personally—before finally (and fittingly) becoming persona non grata. But Minhaj has also survived his public execution. He emerges reborn, in the vein of John Mulaney's post-rehab, post-divorce comeback Baby J, in which the former SNL writer (and ostensible comedy "nice guy") embraced an edgier side of himself. Minhaj similarly rejects any seeming desire for likability, or respectability, and acknowledges his fame and celebrity status as the raison d'etre for his new direction.

He speaks, throughout the special, not only of a divided Black and white America, but of "Beige-istan," i.e. the ethnic communities outside that binary who have recently been forced to reckon with their own place (and culpability) in white supremacy and anti-Blackness. He also peppers in some self-reflexive ego for good measure, claiming an isolated kingdom on his little island of fame—population: one—while emphasizing the escape route money grants him. He never quite comes out and says it, but being rich and famous has given him the option of non-participation in society, politics, and contemporary events while living comfortably in the seat of global empire, discomforting truths seldom acknowledged when discussing the modern rat race to climb up the ladder of American capitalism. He doesn't necessarily avail of this easy out, but the temptation is inescapable, and it drives his new alter-ego. There’s a tension between who he is behind the scenes and who he’s perceived to be, by those who cast aspersions on his character, and Minhaj 2.0 exists in the uncanny valley somewhere in between.

He also, quite notably, barely mentions the New Yorker profile, which is perhaps the most surprising part of his new routine. Then again, he's said all he needed to say in his video explainer. His unspoken responses, through tone and body language, are arguably more impactful, as though he were appearing as the version of himself the article presents. While he occasionally takes direct jabs at the notion of fact-checking comedy—a conversation that sprung from the New Yorker piece—Off With His Head plays like a satirical reply to the controversy without addressing it head on. The interview has, in a way, freed him, physically and emotionally, allowing him a form of reinvention that grants him permission to indulge his worst impulses, both real and imagined. It’s part of his story now. So, as a comedian whose style involves storytelling, why avoid it?

Rather than relying on graphics and slideshows, the show's centerpiece—its gimmick, as it were—is Minhaj himself, and his manic physicality. There's a rapturous energy to him that wasn't present in previous specials (it wasn't necessarily needed), which he embodies by traipsing across the stage during certain jokes, evoking a once-restrained racehorse newly freed. There's a furious energy to this version of Minhaj, like Kanye West in the years following his 2009 VMA embarrassment, circa albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Yeezus: an artist emerging harder, better, stronger, and more knowingly pompous.

The New Yorker article—which the publication hasn't retracted or corrected—opened the floodgates for hate to flow freely in his direction. In response, he appears to have fully embraced it. People will say what they will about him. Minhaj is simply giving them what they want: an absurd, tongue-in-cheek version of himself, whose eyes widen at the prospect of tax evasion (a running gag he ties remarkably into current events), and who embodies the absurdity of the modern, post-truth world.

Once made famous by his doe-eyed sincerity, his work is now laced with biting, angry sarcasm pushed to the limit of self-importance. It’s as though he were staking his claim, as a frequently demonized South Asian Muslim, in a white entertainment hegemony. In an ultimate dramatic irony, this twisted version of himself finally has what he always wanted: he belongs.

Published on May 2, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter