Aziz Ansari begins his new Netflix comedy special Aziz Ansari: Right Now, with an admission. Not of guilt, but of the fact that he’s spent the past year thinking a lot about the sexual misconduct allegations made against him in a story published by Babe.net in 2018. “I haven’t said much about that whole thing, um, but I’ve talked about it on this tour,” he says, sitting on a stool on stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. When the camera pans to the audience as he walks on, it looks like a full house. “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.”
“This person” is the woman who said Ansari ignored her verbal and nonverbal cues during a first date at his apartment. His voice is low, pacing measured. It’s different from the Ansari who, in prior stand-up sets, used to jump around on stage and shout for emphasis and was known for his shock-comedian character Randy.
This tour became a vehicle, not just for Ansari to try out his newest comedic material, but also for him to deliver a public acknowledgement, more than a year later, of what has happened and what has or hasn’t changed. (According to multiple reviews of his previous tour, Working Out New Material, Ansari never mentioned the Babe story or MeToo on stage.) It’s unclear if other audiences on his Road to Nowhere tour had heard this routine before the Brooklyn date (earlier reviews of the tour reported that Ansari avoided the topic of his allegations, and he also has a policy of not allowing cell phones at his shows). But either way, Netflix gave him a platform to express his regrets and the newfound truth he’s gleaned and broadcast it into the living rooms of millions of Americans. Ansari, uses the opportunity to be brief. “After a year or so, I just hope it was a step forward,” he says. “It moved things forward for me and made me think about a lot. I hope I’ve become a better person.”
That’s as much as he’s willing to say about how the allegations affected him (there is a part at the end where he says the story made him consider the possibility he’d never work again). With these mini-confessionals, he is addressing the public, his fans, and offering an explanation of how he’s handled the situation thus far, how he hopes to keep growing. It’s a nice sentiment; it’s refreshing to hear a high-profile comedian speak openly about being accused of sexual misconduct without completely shutting down. But Ansari seems to use this segment to just clear the air—to let everyone know he hasn’t forgotten about what happened—and move right along into the jokes, which for the most part does not revolve around his past. This feels like a missed opportunity; Ansari has spent the better part of the past year on tour, and at this point, the decision to share his fears and regrets is a calculated choice. Ansari spends much of his hour onstage making fun of cancel culture, our knee-jerk reaction to “be done” (arbitrarily, Ansari will argue) with celebrities accused of doing bad things. But Ansari doesn’t talk about how being publicly humiliated affected his place in the same culture, or how he wishes he would have been treated. It’s a moment that could have been instructional for other comedians, as well as the people who enjoy them.
Ansari is effectively arguing that entertainers don’t just disappear because they’ve allegedly hurt other people, that you can never really “cancel” someone like Michael Jackson. It’s an uncomfortable acknowledgement that could be extended to Ansari, although he doesn’t interrogate that personal reality in his set. Instead of staying in the uncomfortable place and explaining how he emerged from his own shameful experience, he leans on being self-serving.
Ansari’s special is funny, although the tone and delivery of it are less animated than his earlier material; he sounds tired at times, even when he starts laughing. The lighting feels off, more set for a murder mystery thriller than a stand-up special in Brooklyn (the special was directed by Spike Jonze). But Ansari still takes an anthropological view of the culture, and he is most entertaining when he is skewering white people for treating overcoming systemic racism like a video game or something that can be accomplished over rousing arguments at brunch. He’s sympathetic towards well-meaning people who recently discovered that Apu, the main Indian character on The Simpsons, is a hodge-podge of Indian stereotypes—but correctly adds, “I appreciate the support, but things don’t just become racist when white people figure it out.”
Ansari accurately captures how exhausting it is listening to white people talk about their personal crusades against racism, the potential oversteps of the well-intentioned impulse to right certain wrongs. He talks about the irony of the public’s reaction to R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, how their music is still beloved despite the growing knowledge of their alleged wrongdoings (wouldn’t it be embarrassing if someone in the audience was captured on video dancing to “Ignition (Remix)” in their car?, he jokes). So it’s especially strange that Ansari doesn’t talk more about the moment the public became aware of his alleged wrongdoings, and how it changed him personally and shaped his career. Perhaps that’s because the Babe.net story has not really affected his place in the culture, more than a year later. Ansari is fine, and he was always going to be; the existence of his Netflix special is proof of that. (Netflix has also said it has plans to renew his show Master of None.) But Ansari could have potentially been groundbreaking by speaking from the position of someone who was almost cancelled and weaving those thoughts throughout his comedy. It almost feels withholding not to, given how open he is at the beginning (and again, at the end) of his set about the fact he does feel like a different person.
To his credit, Ansari is able to make fun of himself—after all, there is
video footage of him talking loudly about his love for R. Kelly (it was in his earlier stand-up), and how that’s caused him massive anxiety. He knows better now, but that doesn’t mean he’s a fully realized version of himself, because everyone’s a shitty person, he says at one point—and if you don’t think you are, you’re probably that much shittier. Making his embarrassment visible—blowing it up onstage like a goofy balloon animal—is a strength of Ansari’s show. “I’ve had a tricky year as it is,” he says, referring to his fear of being a soundbite in the coverage surrounding R. Kelly. If only he’d gone further and painted a picture of what exactly was so tricky about it.