After lying low for a while, Aziz Ansari made his return to comedy last year following the publication of a Babe.net story in which a woman known as “Grace” said Ansari allegedly pressured her into performing various sexual acts on a date. The nature of the allegations—especially as part of a wave of reporting on Harvey Weinstein and other serial harassers—ignited misplaced criticism about the #MeToo movement and concern that the article would derail Ansari’s career. Apparently, Ansari was worried about that, too.
Shortly after the Babe story was published in January 2018, Ansari released a brief statement through his publicist, saying that though the encounter seemed “completely consensual” to him, he had taken Grace’s words to heart and continued to support the #MeToo movement, calling it “necessary and long overdue.” Now, as he returns to the public eye, he’s addressing the subject in more depth, as he did this week at the Village Underground in New York. “There was a moment,” he said, according to Vulture’s Jesse David Fox, “where I was scared that I’d never be able to do this again.”
Vulture reports that Ansari made a joke during his set about a fan mixing him up with Patriot Act host Hasan Minhaj, telling the audience that the fan asked, “You had the whole thing come out last year—sexual misconduct?” to which he responded, “No, no, no, no, no, no, that’s Hasan!” From there, Fox writes, the tone of the event turned “somber” as Ansari acknowledged why he hasn’t addressed the issue in much depth:
First, he said, he wanted time to process and determine what he wanted to say. Second, “it’s a terrifying thing to talk about.” “There were times I felt really upset and humiliated and embarrassed, and ultimately I just felt terrible this person felt this way,” he continued, his voice wavering. “But you know, after a year, how I feel about it is, I hope it was a step forward. It made me think about a lot, and I hope I’ve become a better person.”
Ansari added that a friend of his said that the controversy made him reconsider past dates he had been on. “If that has made not just me but other guys think about this, and just be more thoughtful and aware and willing to go that extra mile, and make sure someone else is comfortable in that moment, that’s a good thing,” Ansari said.
Ansari’s new comments are notable in part because they mark a significant change in tone from his other recent stand-up about internet outrage and sexual misconduct. “The amused but progressive spirit that once informed Ansari’s commentary on current events seems to have crusted into suspicion about wokeness and its excesses,” Eren Orbey noted in the New Yorker of Ansari’s tour in the fall.
In fact, as recently as last week, Ansari told an audience in Massachusetts that “It’s a scary time to be working on the jokes,” according to Anna Silman at the Cut. In that set, he referenced Kevin Hart (“I’m not defending Kevin, but we’re all shitty people, we all get better”) and joked that Pam and Jim’s flirtation on The Office would now lead to “a landmark sexual harassment case,” as would his character Tom Haverford’s behavior on Parks and Recreation.
Ansari is probably right about Tom, who once gave a female colleague on whom he had a crush a teddy bear with a hidden nanny cam and encouraged her to put it in her bedroom, a joke that has not aged well (and was arguably not even funny at the time). Whatever his character’s fictional sins, Ansari at least seems to be more reflective onstage about his real-life past actions than, say, Louis C.K., who reacted by, among other things, mocking the Parkland teens. On the other hand, that’s an awfully low bar to clear.