Aziz Ansari wastes no time in his new comedy special (“Right Now”) before addressing the elephant in the room. After easing into a story about dealing with a fan confusing him for Hasan Minhaj and jokingly trying to pawn off the “whole sexual misconduct” thing onto Netflix’s other prominent Indian-American guy, Ansari takes a real moment to address it. “I’ve felt so many things in the last year,” he says of the allegations levied against him in January 2018. “There’s times I felt scared, there’s times I felt humiliated, there’s times I felt embarrassed, and ultimately, I just felt terrible that this person felt this way.” He goes on to say that he hopes he’s become “a better person,” and if it’s made “other people more thoughtful, that’s a good thing.”
With that, he heaves a sigh alongside the sold out Brooklyn crowd. “Well that was pretty intense. What else should we talk about? America?” Tension appropriately broken, he moves on.
Unlike his 2015 comedy special in which Ansari prowled the enormous stage of Madison Square Garden in a fitted suit and huge projections emphasizing every other joke, “Right Now” is carefully calibrated to convey a more intimate, self-aware vibe. Ansari’s ditched the blazer for a faded Metallica t-shirt; he spends much of his time perched on a stool, making eye contact with an audience that vacillates between amused and wary of however he’s going to call them out next. A handheld camera operated by none other than director Spike Jonze (“Her”) homes in on Ansari’s face, the better to catch every bemused, contrite, sincere expression that might flicker across it. If “Live at Madison Square Garden” screamed “looks like we made it!”, “Right Now” is built to undercut that swaggering image so that Ansari can emerge as A Changed Man.
Even independent of the actual punchlines, these choices are smart and reflect the singular place Ansari still holds now, almost two years after the #MeToo movement kicked into high gear with the Harvey Weinstein allegations. Ansari’s case was immediately different; he had a single anonymous woman (“Grace”) accusing him of pressuring her on a date rather than dozens of high profile names coming out with horrifying receipts of sexual assault. It wasn’t published in the New York Times and awarded a Pulitzer, but dropped on the now defunct Babe.net and blasted for sloppy reporting. And yet, what Grace talked about in the piece — going out with a guy she thought was nice before feeling like she had to get more sexual than she actually wanted to — resonated. Even when sexual assault isn’t taken seriously (which is still far too often), “assault” is a cut and dry term most can understand. Grace’s experience spoke to an incredibly common dynamic that many accept as the cost of living, so it’s not exactly surprising that her calling it out as unfair struck such a serious nerve.
Ansari has clearly been wrestling with his part in this debate and what he should say about it, if anything at all. His acknowledgment at the top of the special — apparently an edit from earlier stops on his tour when he saved it for the end — is a slightly expanded retread of his initial statement after the fact, when he said he was “surprised and concerned” to hear about Grace’s side of the story. In both cases, he expresses sympathy for the woman who had such a bad night with him that she felt compelled to share it with the world, but is careful not to admit fault or apologize.
From a purely structural level, it’s fascinating to watch Ansari pivot hard from this incident as a piece of housekeeping before he can get to what he really wants to talk about. “Right Now” is otherwise a packed set of punchlines and anecdotes about performative allyship, living in the moment, and how the goalposts of decency keep shifting. Complaining about “wokeness” could easily come off as out of touch and cranky, but Ansari largely avoids that trap by cracking slyly scathing jokes about the “newly woke white people” whose well-meaning indignation can tip the scale into “condescending.” He does stumble when trying to compare right-wing trolls with strident online liberals as being basically “the same person” in their inflexibility, never mind that one side tends to overflow with toxic racism while the other errs towards aggressive tolerance.
In one of the special’s more self-conscious segments, Ansari addresses how he used to talk about R. Kelly and all the “amazing things” the singer did beyond the myriad allegations and charges against him, insisting that he “wouldn’t say that now.” Ansari even mentions re-watching an episode of “Parks and Recreation” in which his character gave a woman a teddy bear with a nanny cam embedded inside. If he got that script now he might push back, he says, but back then, “it was a different cultural context…you can’t just judge everything by 2019 standards.” That might be true, but the next obvious observation is that trying to trick a crush into taking a nanny cam was never a particularly decent or funny thing to do, so what’s the problem with “2019 standards” pointing out as much? If even a fraction of the allegations against R. Kelly are true, isn’t a broader refusal to indulge him a public good? Despite expressing an enthusiastic willingness to have hard discussions, Ansari never quite acknowledges that flip side of the overcorrecting that makes him roll his eyes so hard. Sometimes it really can force a necessary conversation, not to mention long overdue change.
It’s hard not to think about this at the end of “Right Now” when Ansari circles back to the allegation that made him rethink his entire life (and brand). Expressing his gratitude for everyone at the show, Ansari gets quiet. “I saw the world where I don’t ever get to do this again, and it almost felt like I died,” he says, going on to say that the “old Aziz who said, ‘oh treat yo self’ or whatever” might as well have died. But the fact remains that Ansari didn’t die, or anything close to it. He took a break, went on the road, sold out shows across the country, and released a Netflix special directed by Spike Jonze. Ansari, both new and old, never had to apologize in order to be just fine.
“Aziz Ansari: Right Now” was released July 9 on Netflix.