By Matt Hanson
Aziz Ansari does get laughs throughout his set, but the tone of Right Now begins and ends on a note of sobriety.
In some ways, Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix special Right Now is the most important work of his career to date. Ansari made himself something of a household name by playing the ultra-millennial Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation as well as writing and starring in his own Netflix show Master of None. Ansari has released a series of very well-received standup specials, including a triumphant set at a sold-out Madison Square Garden. Part of his charm as a comic came from how frankly and sensitively he talked about gender issues and stuck up for women’s rights, making a point of highlighting how commonplace sexual harassment is and ridiculing men’s ham-fisted attempts at smooth talk.
So it was to many people’s deep chagrin when an anonymous first-person account appeared of a date gone wrong, accusing Ansari of boorish and aggressive behavior. It wasn’t close to Weinstein-level vileness, to be sure, but it was certainly enough to be embarrassing. The story created a heated national discussion about dating etiquette and the sexual politics thereof and Ansari’s behavior was scrutinized on all sides. His meteoric career arc suddenly seemed pretty wobbly — Netflix didn’t immediately sever ties and cancel his show, but Ansari’s future as a significant comic remained in jeopardy.
Right Now is his first special since the fallout and it sets a bit of a somber mood right at the start, with a melancholic Velvet Underground tune playing while the comedian walks casually from the street into the venue. Known as a snazzy dresser, always seen in flashy suits, Ansari looks smaller and more boyish in a Metallica T-Shirt, jeans, and slip-ons. He doesn’t strut around the stage or make elaborate gestures either. Instead he’s slightly stumped on a stool that he rarely leaves. Director Spike Jonze keeps the camera tight on Ansari throughout, making sure to include a deep background shot of people standing in the wings behind the stage watching the performance. This hyper-attentiveness couldn’t possibly be accidental — what is interesting is whether or not it’s intended to exonerate Ansari or to implicate him. The nervous, slightly ambivalent tone is set early on and maintained throughout the hour.
To his credit, Ansari confronts the issue head on, explaining how he went through a whirl of emotions and how deeply he regretted the pain he’d caused. He keeps his eyes on the floor most of the time and doesn’t let up on his earnest accounting of what he’d been dealing with. After some time passes, he deflates the awkwardness; he remarks on how awkward the situation is and how it’s especially weird as an opening bit, given that it’s the beginning to a comedy special. The audience laughs with relief. Ansari then goes back into the more comfortable routines about the excesses of wokeness (“I don’t think we’re gonna solve everything at this brunch”) and does some crowd work.
What’s interesting is how he makes a semi-confession at the beginning of the special and then subtly extrapolates its themes outward. At times he remarks that “we’re all shitty people” and makes similar statements that seem intended to put his actions into a larger context of human frailty. Some of his older jokes don’t sit well with him anymore, he explains, and his R Kelly fandom (which was once the source of some pretty amusing anecdotes) isn’t a good look right now, either. When Ansari talks to the crowd, he makes a point of singling out specific members of the audience and incorporating them into the material. He is clearly quite talented at doing this; he gets pretty big laughs.
One joke he sets up is particularly striking. Ansari describes a pizza parlor that got into trouble making a pizza with pepperonis laid out in the shape of a swastika. He mentions coverage in the New York Times and The Washington Post and asks people to raise their hands if they’ve heard about it. A few hands go up. More people applaud their disapproval. He selects one person in the crowd to respond to this information, only to ultimately flip it around and admit that there was no actual story — he just made it up! The crowd laughs in kind of a stunned way, and Ansari responds that “see, you guys are the problem!”
The point is well taken — a herd mentality can fairly be said to have been afoot within some social-media driven outrages over proper wokeness. And there are far too many people who man the battle stations at the mere rumor of impropriety without getting all the facts first. But, in some ways, this was a trick question asked in bad faith — if a comedian says a certain situation happened and treats it as a fact in order to be the fuel for humor, it’s not unreasonable for an audience to assume that it’s true. Setups are part of the joke, after all, even if the punchline is what gets all the laughs.
Ansari does get laughs throughout his set, but the tone of Right Now begins and ends on a note of sobriety. By the end of the routine, he is direct about thanking the audience for coming out, admitting how afraid he was of losing his ability to do comedy at all — which, he explains, he used to take for granted (with TV shows and sold-out stadiums, who wouldn’t?). He emphasizes that he is trying to stay fully present in the moment and to be grateful for what he has — an audience that’s willing to pay money to have him make them laugh.
Of course, as everyone either knows or eventually finds out, scratch an artistic genius and you’re likely to find a creep. No one doubted Bill Cosby and Louis C.K.’s mastery of their mediums but now their defenders are few and far between. And there’s no evidence thus far that either comic has provided any gestures of repentance. Ansari isn’t necessarily at their level of comedic brilliance, but he isn’t as dangerously screwed-up as they are either. In some ways, the #MeToo movement has been a powerful tool to call some men out on their disgusting behavior; making sure that they are publicly shamed and punished. It’s a very good thing that women have this voice and the ability to use it. The problem is that it’s not up to the women to be better — God knows they’ve been putting up with plenty of bullshit for long enough. Men have to grow up; to be willing to accept responsibility for the ways in which their behavior has been encouraged to go unchecked, their urges allowed to go uncensored. Men have to try to be better human beings.
George Orwell wrote that he never trusted a biography that didn’t reveal something shameful about its subject. Which might just be a way of saying we’re all shitty people. But there’s a lot of honor and dignity in admitting one’s bad behavior and using it as an opportunity to grow. Right Now is slightly tense and unwieldy for a variety of reasons — Ansari kicks off the show by putting himself on the spot and he doesn’t shy away from doing the same with the audience. Who knows if this cultivation of awkwardness will continue in Ansari’s comedy going forward? But it shows that, at the moment, he is trying to bring an acknowledgement of shame into his art.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.