comedy review

Aziz Ansari’s Empty Authenticity

Aziz Ansari in Nightclub Comedian. Photo: Marcus Russell Price/ Netflix

Aziz Ansari has always been a comedian who cares about how things look, and on the surface, his new half-hour special for Netflix, Nightclub Comedian, looks pretty good. Like much of his Netflix series, Master of None, Ansari directs Nightclub Comedian himself, and the two shows share some aesthetic obsessions. They are grainy and immediate, with framing designed to feel casual and close. Nightclub Comedian is a brief, fully realized paean to that aesthetic and to its favorite signified friend, authenticity. The priorities of Nightclub Comedian, whatever you may feel about them, are clear: to portray Ansari as legit, to show how cool it can look when a seasoned comedian does comedy, and to underline Ansari’s abilities as a serious, thought-provoking stand-up. Nightclub Comedian achieves two out of those three goals.

Ansari’s last special came in 2019, and he spent much of that hour trying to examine himself and his work. He dissected his previous material on R. Kelly. He talked about the tension between audiences and comedians, the feeling of too-close examination from the public eye, the way social media encourages a rush to judgment. It was a cancel-culture special. Nightclub Comedian has none of that sometimes self-congratulatory self-reflection, and it lacks any of the more interesting, prickly anger Ansari was reflecting back at his audience three years ago. The new half-hour gestures toward depth in such moments as the one in which Ansari asks his audience why they are willing to buy NFTs but not to give a spare dollar to an unhoused person on the corner. (This is a paraphrase, but barely.) He asks the crowd to consider whether they think they use the internet too much (yes), and he pauses while they wonder if they have made enough change in the world (no). But Nightclub Comedian is mostly about the look, especially about how it makes Ansari look.

The half-hour begins with black-and-white footage of a very young Ansari descending the Comedy Cellar stairs. Then it cuts to the present day when Ansari is now standing backstage waiting to go on. He peeks around the corner, anticipating his moment. He glances at a notebook, then closes it. “The audience was unaware of the night’s lineup,” an interstitial card reads before Ansari heads out onto the stage. The crowd goes wild, thrilled to see a recognizable face. Nightclub Comedian is happy to let their excitement read as something even bigger — with this kind of reception, Ansari comes off like a figure from the cultural pantheon, suddenly and unexpectedly descended onto the earth. “I like doing nice theaters and everything,” he says, surveying the Comedy Cellar crowd, “but sometimes you’ve gotta come back and compete with chicken wings.” He could be in a larger room, but he is a man of the people, and he has come here to do something real.

One of his first jokes extends this claim with a line about waiting to get into a restaurant while an employee checks all the customers’ COVID passports. He gets too much love in New York, he says, and the proof is that rather than checking his COVID pass, the employee recognizes him and just waves him into the restaurant. “I was like, ‘No no no no no! Please check my pass!’” Ansari continues. It’s a twisting little line, reinforcing the same paradox he’s trying to embrace in that chicken-wings bit: He is famous, but he should be applauded for how anxiously he pushes away that fame. Presumably, he doesn’t intend for his audience to register that he’s saying this while filming a Netflix special written and directed by himself.

It’s a contradiction Ansari does not examine, even when his own material pulls him closer to the crux of the problem. He swings at other comedians and artists who pursue moneymaking ventures like brand partnerships and luxury-beverage companies. He jabs at Kevin Hart with a joke that begins with an admittedly hilarious image of Hart promoting lawn mowers, performing stand-up that plays only when you get on the back of a John Deere. “Kevin Hart would never be up here for free, okay?” Ansari says, pretending to bemoan his own lack of brand-partnership deals. The joke never commits — there’s never any question about what Ansari actually thinks about this celebrity economy, never any uncertainty about what Ansari considers a worthwhile use of energy. We always know he is mocking the celebrity-beverage industry, and if his tone weren’t enough, the entire framing of the special is a values-defining thesis statement. Ansari cares about authenticity and legitimacy; he’s down with doing a late-night appearance in this basement, and everyone else has sold out. Never mind that Ansari’s not doing this for free any more than Hart would be, unless he’s somehow giving this special to Netflix as a gift.

It’s like this throughout Nightclub Comedian. Ansari wants to have his down-to-earth authenticity and dine out on it, too. All of it is performance masquerading as unfiltered, under-rehearsed straight talk, and the camera swings around to capture its effect on the audience. Shots from behind and off to the side of Ansari show the crowd seated right in front of him, their faces illuminated by his lights. There are a surprising number of crowd-reaction shots, which already feel unnecessary given how often Ansari frames himself with visible audience faces in the background. They’re even more unnecessary in the way Ansari uses them: as contemplative faces that show up in the pauses while he transitions through the serious moments. See? He’s real, and he’s got important stuff to say.

If at any point Ansari’s material reached for the same goals as the look of the special, Nightclub Comedian might be a different experience. For this special shot as a close, intimate, immediate, raw half-hour of comedy, though, Ansari never skirts anywhere close to vulnerability or risk. He has jokes about vaccines that posit that not everyone is equally qualified to make scientific decisions. He spends a while on the idea that fast-food workers are skilled employees and that the whole world feels understaffed. He complains about our addiction to content, even as he is performing and producing it. His most surprising revelation is that he has started using a flip phone, and he pulls it out of his pocket to gasps and groans so pronounced it’s as though he has announced that he’s dying.

Without much in the way of interesting ideas, all that’s left for Nightclub Comedian is the look, and, in moments, it is beautiful. The colors are vibrant, Ansari’s outfit is a pitch-perfect blend of casual but obviously exclusive, and the Comedy Cellar never looked so inviting. The premise has appeal — that half-hour run time, the suggestion that this is one solid set caught on-camera, the sense that Ansari has actually managed to convey the live-comedy feeling that’s so hard to capture onscreen.

Except if you look closely, all the faces around him change. The crowd is different from one shot to the next. It’s not one authentic performance; it’s many of them stitched together. If it were a special built on strong material, or if its central idea were more about Ansari’s performance and less about his disdain for the appearance of performing, that kind of continuity error would be an unfortunate but insignificant fact. But the look of this special — its claim of being real — is all that it’s about. When that part of it crumbles, what’s left?

Aziz Ansari’s Empty Authenticity