Last week, in Connecticut, at a stop on the comedian Aziz Ansari’s comeback tour, ticket holders were told to lock away their electronic devices before entering the venue. At the door, ushers sealed smartphones in neoprene sleeves manufactured by a company called Yondr; a magnetic mechanism would unlock the pouches as guests departed. In recent years, various comedians have made their shows phone-free environments, aiming to keep spectators engaged and new material under wraps. (Dave Chappelle, an early proponent of Yondr, told the Times, in 2016, that the service empowered him “to be more honest and open with the audience.”) Ansari has expressed a fondness for the smartphone, once telling his audience that social media has helped to usher in “the least lonely generation.” On Tuesday, addressing a sold-out crowd at the College Street Music Hall, in New Haven, he took a more pessimistic view. “I used to waste so much time just reading the news because there’s so much of it now,” he said. “All this stuff you’re supposed to be mad about every day.”
If there is a particular source of this new weariness, Ansari never mentions it. But his new tour, “Working Out New Material,” marks his return to public life after the #MeToo controversy that quieted his career earlier this year. In January, the Web site babe.net published a twenty-three-year-old woman’s account of a harrowing date with the comedian. The article claimed that Ansari repeatedly pressured her into having sex, ignoring her refusals until she left his apartment, teary, in a car that he called for her. The next day, after she sent him a lengthy text message explaining how uncomfortable his behavior had made her, Ansari apologized. The piece, which was written by a reporter but relied almost entirely on the accuser’s account, inspired a backlash. It seemed prurient and lazy. Some wondered whether the #MeToo movement had gone too far. Many of the comedian’s defenders at the time, among them the Times columnist Bari Weiss, pointed out that his behavior may have been aggressive or selfish but differed substantially from the abuse committed by men like Harvey Weinstein. (In a statement issued shortly after the account was published, Ansari described his interaction with the woman as “completely consensual.”)
The furor directed at Ansari, though, was not simply a consequence of his alleged misbehavior. The more complex concern was his apparent hypocrisy. Ansari had built a reputation as an ardent feminist and amateur dating guru, teaming up with a sociologist in 2015 to publish “Modern Romance,” a contemporary treatise on the trials of love. In a Netflix special the same year, at Madison Square Garden, he asked female audience members to raise their hands if they had ever been followed around by a “creepy dude.” (When they did, Ansari said, “Yeah, that’s way too many people. That should not be happening.”) Both his standup and his Emmy-winning Netflix series, “Master of None,” have sought to find room within comedy for a good-natured political correctness. In 2017, Ansari delivered the first “Saturday Night Live” monologue under President Trump, a candidate whose “vitriolic and hate-filled rhetoric” he had condemned in a Times Op-Ed published months earlier. (“It’s visceral, and scary, and it affects how people live, work and pray,” he wrote during the Presidential campaign. “It makes me afraid for my family.”) Onstage, Ansari managed to channel his fear into humor, roasting Trump as “the Chris Brown of politics” even as he urged a more earnest uprising against the “new, lowercase K.K.K. movement” in America. “Change comes from large groups of angry people,” Ansari told the crowd. “And, if Day 1 is any indication, you are part of the largest group of angry people I have ever seen.”
In his latest set, Ansari suggests that collective anger has overcorrected; now, rather than hold power to account, it targets the slightest and least consequential controversies. “Why is everyone weighing in on this shit?” Ansari asked of the Twitter users who flocked to debate whether an American teen-ager’s choice of prom dress constituted so-called cultural appropriation. “Everyone weighs in on everything. They don’t know anything. People don’t wanna just say, ‘I don’t know.’ ” The bemused but progressive spirit that once informed Ansari’s commentary on current events seems to have crusted into suspicion about wokeness and its excesses. Without ever mentioning the #MeToo movement—or his own experience as one of its most disputed casualties—Ansari decries the destructive performativity of Internet activism and the fickle, ever-changing standards of political correctness. His most explicit reference to gender relations comes in the form of an extended riff about his new girlfriend, an unnamed and decidedly apolitical Danish physicist.
The comedian positions self-righteous mass outrage as one pole in a political climate built on extremes. “At least with the Trump people,” he joked, “I kinda know where they stand.” On the other side, reacting to our current Administration, are zealous and performative leftists who can’t seem to resist competing with one another in what Ansari calls “Progressive Candy Crush.” This punch line landed as a subtle, if unintentional, reference to a small group of Yale undergraduates who had congregated outside the venue earlier that evening, before the first of the night’s two performances, to protest the comedian’s appearance. “Boycott Ansari’s show,” the description of a local Facebook event read. “What he did, and what it means, cannot be forgotten.” Online, more than two hundred people had signalled their interest in attending, though only five or so showed up to demonstrate in the pouring rain, a bouncer told me. The rest of the crowd of a thousand seemed to consist mostly of twenty- and thirtysomethings who had commuted from out of town. “I think it’s ridiculous,” the bouncer said of the protest. “You might as well be standing out there protesting Tinder, or holding up a sign that says, ‘Say no to dates with expectations.’ ”
One question facing the #MeToo movement is how to rehabilitate those accused of misconduct. Should disgraced men return to the spotlight and, if so, after how much penance? Ansari’s comeback is perhaps the least controversial among a series of reappearances planned by other high-profile men, most of them facing more serious accusations. In August, nearly a year after admitting to having masturbated in front of multiple female colleagues, Louis C.K. returned with an unannounced set at New York’s Comedy Cellar. His fifteen-minute routine made no reference to his transgressions or to the ongoing reckoning, though it did include a riff about rape whistles. The surprise appearance caught many crowd members off guard. “It felt like he was being thrust upon the audience without telling them,” an anonymous woman told Vulture. Standup is an art of self-exposure, and C.K. had built his career on a veneer of candid self-laceration. His recent choice to experiment with new material, as though the past year’s events had never happened, struck many as both insensitive and uninspired—a failure of moral and artistic imagination. (The Times has reported that the controversy over C.K.’s first drop-in—and a second one, this week, during which two women walked out—prompted the Cellar to print a new disclaimer on its tickets: “If an unannounced appearance is not your cup of tea, you are free to leave . . . your check on the house.”)
In his statement to babe.net in January, Ansari made a point of affirming the #MeToo movement as “necessary and long overdue.” One might have hoped that, nearly a year later, he could find a way to reckon with one of the movement’s messiest lessons: that even men who wish to serve as allies of women can, intentionally or not, hurt them in private. Perhaps doing so might help Ansari to regain the trust of the women who feel that he has lost theirs. Instead, like other men who have reëmerged in recent months, he seems to have channelled his experience into a diffuse bitterness. An early riff in the show centered on a pizza chain that Ansari said had come under fire for arranging pepperoni slices in the shape of a swastika. He described rumors that the image of the toppings had been digitally altered, then admitted that he had made the whole story up. Hearing this, the crowd erupted in laughter at its own gullibility. “You people that are clapping,” Ansari shouted. “You’re the fucking problem.”