Aziz Ansari has been evasive. The celebrity figure invokes the right to avoid reality in times of personal crisis. Early reviews of “Working Out New Material,” Ansari’s recent standup tour, picked at the comedian’s seemingly spooked circumventions of what everyone in the audience already knew. Ansari’s comedy had never been one of lacerating introspection, but it had been one of bro-y complicity; he situated himself as a callow, slick-suited jester, a co-conspirator of the millennial life-style cult that praises interracial mixing, feminist dating, social-media optimism, and bleeding-heart politicking. With a sociologist, he’d co-written a courtship digest called “Modern Romance.” On “Master of None,” he fell in love in Italy in black-and-white. The allegation against him, published by the now defunct Web site babe.net, in January of 2018—that he had pressured a young woman, pseudonymously referred to as Grace, to have sex after a date—made Ansari’s expertise seem fraudulent. Not acknowledging as much smelled like creative cowardice.
In “Right Now,” his new Netflix special, Ansari finally musters some honesty. At the outset of the hour, he breezes through an old-faithful setup: an anecdote about a well-meaning New Yorker confusing Ansari for a fellow Netflix mainstay, the comedian Hasan Minhaj, who is also Indian-American. The man, in Ansari’s telling, quickly notices the gaucheness of his blunder, and course-corrects by frantically listing Ansari’s C.V.—the romantic “Master of None,” the antic “Parks and Recreation,” and “You had that whole thing last year, sexual misconduct.” Ansari eyes widen, and his arms violently flail as he pantomimes his own response: “That was Hasan!”
Then Ansari dials down his loud and nasal drawl to sotto voce. Nominally, he has just told a joke, but the audience is making a sound that rings less and less like laughter. Ansari wades from comedy to crafted contrition. For Grace’s story, he has developed a shorthand—“that whole thing.” That whole thing made him feel, he tells the audience, “scared,” “humiliated,” and “embarrassed,” and, “ultimately, I just felt terrible that this person felt this way.” The speech is fine and obligatory, elevated to artful by the director of the special, Spike Jonze. Wearing an Easyrig, Jonze is onstage with Ansari, orbiting him from close range. He applies harsh police lighting to Ansari, who is not so much seated on his stool as he is condemned to it. It is so bright that it illuminates people waiting in the wings of the stage, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the special was filmed, people who might be Ansari’s managers and agents and yes-men. The shot is ugly, intriguingly framed.
Those same words could summarize the whole of “Right Now,” which reads to me as Ansari’s first authentic comedy special. I hadn’t previously thought deeply about the cultural presence of Ansari, because his body of entertainment had not invited me to do so. He specialized in increasing the banal pleasure of the crowd. On “Parks and Recreation,” as Tom, he encouraged you to “treat yourself.” He rode around in designer vehicles with Jay-Z and Kanye West in the music video for “Otis” (also directed by Jonze). He was a foodie who at the same time cannily dismissed “foodie culture.” But in “Right Now” Ansari is a fitting ambassador for a certain bourgeois ambivalence. The special bristles with shame, indecision, anger, and guilt. Ansari has feasted, and this is the hangover. Two refrains ground the material, which roves like a drone over events that, in Ansari’s telling, expose the terminal hypocrisy of modern culture. The first is that Ansari hopes that everyone, including himself, wants to be a better person. The other: “We’re all shitty people.”
I got a weird feeling, watching “Right Now,” that the #MeToo story had liberated Ansari, forcing him to kill his old persona and give his new one teeth. “That old Aziz who said, ‘Oh, treat yo’self’? He’s dead,” he says, at the special’s end. He has developed a disdain for the brand of bland likability he formerly hawked, even as he can’t quite escape its skin. He audits his old bits mercilessly, indicting his former willingness to do or say anything for a laugh. Harris, the “chubby cousin” who had been a mainstay in Ansari’s family-manners riffs, is buff now, Ansari assures us, and works out compulsively; he acknowledges that he had been “fat-shaming” Harris for a national audience. He recalls that, in his first standup special, he had described going to an R. Kelly concert. “Clap if you’re done with R. Kelly,” he asks the crowd at BAM, after wondering aloud why it took a “bingeable documentary” to get people to care about the singer’s abuse of young black girls. He similarly flays the response to the recent documentary about Michael Jackson and riskily spotlights a ten-year-old kid sitting in the front row. The point—that entertainment excuses evils, and that we don’t process truths unless they entertain us—is both banal and impossible to emphasize enough.
Ansari makes clear that it isn’t exclusively remorse that is pushing him to reëvaluate the recent past. “Gotta be careful about what you say and about what you said,” he cautions, the irritation bright in his voice. Ansari is older now, and he’s got a bone to pick with “wokeness,” the spoils of which he had previously enjoyed. Ansari mocks progressive white people—his crowd—for ultimately only caring about accruing social capital through performing escalating acts of political correctness, like a game of “progressive Candy Crush.”
“Right Now” is conscious of the manipulative powers of performance, although Ansari is not yet clear-eyed about who it is he wants to lecture. One cheap bit, which involves Ansari repeating the word “niggardly,” feels like he is brushing up against the third rail to prove that he won’t be cowed by his public reckoning. He admits that the new wokeness is not all hollow—in his thirty-six years, he’s never felt white people as attuned to the problems of minorities as they are today. The audience is his toy in a game of fluctuating self-loathing; his crowd work is frequent, casual until it quickly becomes a little cruel. At one point, he lays a trap, meandering toward a story: “A guy orders a pepperoni pizza, the pepperonis are arranged to look like a swastika, but now some people online are saying it doesn’t look like a swastika.” A man in the audience claims to have read about the incident in the Washington Post. Then Ansari reveals that he made the whole story up. “You think your opinion is so valuable, you need to chime in on shit that doesn’t even exist,” Ansari scolds. It’s cutting, and, like many moments in the show, it is impossible not to hear it as a coded personal grievance.
“Right Now” isn’t very funny, and perhaps a “#MeToo comeback” shouldn’t be; I think I’d like Ansari’s special less if it were. I winced a little when, early in the show, Ansari recalled a friend saying that the controversy surrounding Ansari had prompted him to reflect on his own treatment of women in the past. “It’s made not just me but other people more thoughtful,” Ansari says. “And that’s a good thing.” This is a complicated maneuver, a claim to #MeToo allyship that is also showy self-sacrifice. It’s hard to believe that Ansari believes any part of the event was “a good thing.” In a few other moments, he seems to retreat toward crowd-pleasing fare—a joke about the lack of male birth control and his girlfriend’s IUD bruising his penis; a parody of the girlfriend, who is a Danish physicist unlearned in American racism. But the contradictions of “Right Now” are destabilizing enough to draw me back in. Ansari knows that the stakes have been raised.