“You know what I realized recently?” Aziz Ansari asked in his 2015 stand-up special, Live at Madison Square Garden. “Creepy dudes are everywhere, and they’re so much more prevalent than I ever realized. And it really sucks, ’cause women have to worry about creepy dudes all the time.” Since then, Ansari has published a book called Modern Romance, co-created and starred in two seasons of Master of None, and, as you’ve no doubt heard, been accused of being one of those creepy dudes himself. Like Bill Cosby and Louis C.K.—though it must be noted that the allegations of sexual misconduct that Ansari faced were far less egregious than theirs—Ansari returned to the stage shortly after publication of the exposé about him. Unlike those comedians—at least based on his new Netflix special, Right Now—he’s returned contrite, leaning on his preexisting persona as a learner and evolver to contextualize and apologize for his misbehavior. It’s the most organic and tactically nimble post-#MeToo comeback thus far.
Ansari’s inclusion on the long, long list of creepy famous dudes hit many fans hard because he’s often portrayed himself as a guy who “gets it.” In Live at Madison Square Garden, he relays several anecdotes from female friends and acquaintances about the burden of dealing with male sexual aggression. Master of None often succeeded at being an empathy machine that extended its reach into some of the most ignored and least represented swaths of New York. In Right Now, Ansari doesn’t waver from the image he’s built his career on, even if he swaps out his signature suits for a Metallica T-shirt and faded jeans. (Directed by Spike Jonze and lit not particularly flatteringly, with a Velvet Underground song serving as intro and outro, the special might well be titled Aziz Ansari: Unplugged.) In contrast to his usual loud, tweedy-manic stage presence, the comedian sits on a wooden stool for most of the hour, evincing hope that progress—personal, cultural, and political—will prevail. Ansari’s optimism isn’t entirely convincing in the Trump era (“I’ve never seen white people try this hard to be nice to minorities”), but his twin refrains—that “we’re all shitty people” and that “we’re all on a journey” toward betterment—prove at least rhetorically seductive.
Ansari quickly addresses the accusations against him, though he declines to specify what they are or who made them. He felt “scared,” “humiliated,” and “embarrassed,” he says, but most of all, he “felt terrible that this person felt this way.” (He also brings up the subject a couple more times, perhaps to avoid the perception that he expects audiences to simply forget after it’s mentioned.) Ansari reframes his year of public criticism as a learning opportunity for both himself and the men around him: “That whole thing made me think about every date I’ve ever been,” he quotes a male friend as saying. But the rest of Right Now is a (not incorrect) litany of the ways we’re allowing internet outrage and performative wokeness to take the place of real change.
Via crowd work (effectively used throughout the special), he calls out our history of letting R. Kelly’s misdeeds collectively slide until a highly compelling documentary series laid out all the facts for us. He wonders aloud if two is not a sufficiently high number of pedophile victims for us to write off Michael Jackson. (He acknowledges that he’s one of the potential targets for Cancel Culture, but he mostly speaks as a conflicted consumer who needs to make difficult choices himself about his entertainment choices.) He imagines white liberals gaining points in a wokeness video game, racking up high scores for Instagram posts about Colin Kaepernick but falling back to zero when they cross the street to avoid a black man. However on-target Ansari’s criticism of virtue signaling might be, there’s something dispiriting about having each path toward progress, however torturous or underdeveloped, mocked in segment after segment. But there’s one track that Ansari does seem to endorse: coming clean about past shortcomings. The comedian recalls fat-shaming his kid cousin in an earlier special as well as announcing that, no matter what R. Kelly is accused of, his music is too good to give up.
The message isn’t entirely cohesive. “You can’t judge everything by 2019 standards,” he says at one point. Later he declares, “You’re supposed to change”—presumably according to contemporary standards. His explanations are thoroughly unobjectionable: Culture changes fast, so cultural products from even a decade ago can age terribly. But we have to root for culture to change fast because there’s a lot that needs changing. It’s a convincing continuation of Ansari’s comic persona as a reasonable everyman surveying relationships and racial and gendered injustices. Combined with his remorse, elaborated here at greater length than necessary, it justifies a deserved return to the spotlight.
But is Right Now funny, you might ask. Is Aziz Ansari funny? I’ve always found his stand-up more charming than uproarious—and here, his crackerjack flash is starkly subdued. Ansari probably makes about three too many earnest appeals to our better nature and the need to live in the present. But this is still the work of a comedy veteran who channels righteous fed-up-ness and critiques obliviousness with relatable flair. It’s probably not surprising that after dwelling on gender relations in his last few projects, Ansari now focuses his (fairly gentle) sights on race, and that’s where many of his strongest jokes—about the (Indian American) bass player from No Doubt, being mistaken for Hasan Minhaj, being exhausted by the debates about Apu on The Simpsons—come from. Cynics might interpret the move away from dating and relationships as a sidestep. I think he’s just being himself: a guy who realized that, at least on those topics, he should listen a lot more before speaking again.