tv review

Aziz Ansari Reckons With Himself

Aziz Ansari in Right Now. Photo: Netflix

What should a reckoning look like?

That’s not the question Aziz Ansari’s new special Right Now poses — not exactly. There are other questions Ansari’s more interested in asking. Questions like: What should we do about good art made by bad men? How should we feel about our own beloved cultural totems that have aged badly? How do we have conversations about changing cultural values that don’t instantly slide into simplistic reductions?

But even if Ansari’s not directly asking what a reckoning should look like, Right Now nevertheless feels like an answer to that question. It is Ansari’s first special since published a story about his behavior on a date more than a year ago, and while Ansari does not discuss that story in detail, in some way or another it’s at the center of nearly every moment of the hour-long set. It’s there when he starts the set, telling a story about being mistaken on the street for Hasan Minhaj and then watching the guy backpedal as he realized it was actually Ansari. (“Parks and Rec!” “Yeah, yeah, that’s me.” “You had that whole thing last year, sexual misconduct?” “No! No no no! That was Hasan!”) It’s there in the next moment, as Ansari shifts into serious mode to describe how scared and embarrassed the experience made him, and how “terrible” he felt that “this person felt this way.” It’s there as he says he “hope[s] he has become a better person” since then. The accusation is the springboard Ansari uses to leap into the set.

More impressively, though, Ansari doesn’t use that sincere opening as a way to get the story out of the way so he can move on to other things. Although he doesn’t make the connections explicit, the whole set continually circles back to the related web of questions his position raises — the problems and conflicts and difficult conundrums that follow from a culture that has, somewhat abruptly, shifted into a different frame of expectations about sexual misconduct and “wokeness.” Not content to just touch on his recent #MeToo story, Ansari goes back further, digging up the example of his very first special, a show where he said his favorite musician ever is R. Kelly, mimed dancing happily at a Kelly concert, and concluded the set with an R. Kelly needle drop. That set has “aged badly,” something Ansari readily owns. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” he says. “You’re supposed to change.”

The aim of some of Ansari’s comedy is at himself — like his earlier willingness to “fat shame” his cousin Harris — but the parts that land most squarely on Ansari’s own shoulders are also the moments intentionally left unfunny. His nearly whispered declaration of how humiliated he was at the beginning, his statement about how glad he is that many people are now reevaluating their own behavior, and his entire closing sequence about gratitude are moments of vulnerability that he has no interest in rendering hilarious. Most of the humor is reserved for the bits where Ansari spins those insights outward onto the audience, the culture of wokeness, and the question of how to live in the world now.

As he has in past specials, Ansari turns to the crowd several times, singling out a few people and making them into figureheads for returning bits. Those sequences are funny but feel relatively simple, especially when they rely on the happy coincidence of Ansari’s extended sequence on Michael Jackson, punctured by Ansari’s realization that there’s a 10-year-old kid sitting in the front row. Ansari pulls him up onstage and gestures to him, just as he mimed Michael Jackson gesturing to one of his abuse victims mere moments before. “I don’t know this kid!” Ansari yells in mock dismay.

But then he turns that crowd work on its head, taking a poll of the room about a recent news story where a pizza was delivered with pepperoni apparently arranged in the shape of a swastika. At Ansari’s prompting, some of the crowd claps to indicate they think it was arranged that way intentionally; some of them clap to say they feel it was a mistake. And then Ansari twists the knife: There was no pizza, there was no swastika. The story is made up. The audience was so anxious to participate, to voice an opinion, to feel outrage or skepticism, that they weighed in on a thing that did not exist.

The implications of that bit are not subtle or hard to parse. Some members of the audience are willing to stand in judgment without even the scantest idea of what they’re judging, and the connective tissue between that idea and Ansari’s misconduct allegation is pretty obvious. “We’re all shitty people!” he says. The only reason the audience isn’t as implicated in that unthinking judgment is that unlike Ansari, there’s no widely available footage of them, say, dancing to R. Kelly. It’s the kind of joke that could easily come off as defensive, as a disgruntled and frustrated complaint about the unequalness of a vast audience condemning Ansari for something they know nothing about, on a public scale the audience will never personally experience.

But the total impression of Right Now is not that it’s a defensive screed from a wealthy comedian claiming that the audience is also at fault for his behavior. It doesn’t feel like a series of excuses, either, or a plain humble prostration, or an abandonment of comedy in the face of seriousness. It is at times all of those things, and Ansari argues for, variously, the importance of reconsidering the past, the importance of discarding the past, the need for wokeness, the exhaustion of wokeness, the significance of cultural context, the frustration of contextual truths, the need for gratitude, and the emotional difficulty of gratitude. It’s intentionally full of contradictions, and Ansari has no interest in trying to resolve them. Right Now feels like a reckoning because it feels like an hour of Ansari, actively and sometimes futilely and often hilariously, attempting to wrestle with what it means to be an artist in the world right now. I’m not sure that it matters much that the result is a tangle of contradictions and generalizations and personal stories; the tangle is carefully choreographed, and the contradictions are intentional. This version of reckoning is less about answers, and more about the process of posing them.

Through it all, Ansari sits on a stool, speaking both casually and directly. The space he’s in is enormous (at the end, the camera offers a brief shot of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s many distant balconies, each full to the rafters with people). But Spike Jonze, who directed the special, mostly shoots Ansari in extreme close-up, featuring a repeated image not of Ansari and his audience, but Ansari and the crew members watching from backstage. It is sparse and close and intimate and bare. Ansari’s doing everything he possibly can to distance himself from the comedian he used to be, the guy who walked out at Madison Square Garden in front of a giant screen wearing a black tuxedo. This Ansari wears jeans and a Metallica T-shirt, but even as all of the visual cues suggest he’s trying to dismantle his own spectacle, his words say otherwise. He is grateful for this show, for the people who paid to come see it, for the chance to do this again. The guy he used to be, the guy who didn’t appreciate it enough? That guy, Ansari says, is dead.

Then, with a sense of sincerity that rings very differently now than it used to, Ansari closes his show. He turns to the audience, which he has used as a prop, implicitly railed against, made fun of, whispered his humiliation to, and has had the task of winning back to his side for the last hour. “Goodnight,” he tells them, earnestly, “and thank you very much.”

Aziz Ansari Reckons With Himself