Aziz Ansari is here right now

He's reexamining pop culture and himself, but is it enough?

Last week, comedian Aziz Ansari surprised everyone with a special announcement: Right Now, his first comedy special since 2015’s Live at Madison Square Garden, was coming to Netflix. Not only that, but the Spike Jonze-directed new hour would begin streaming just over a week later on Tuesday, July 9th.

Well, today is Tuesday, July 9th, and Right Now is streaming… right now… on Netflix.

So, aside from the fact that Ansari is a well-known comic whose television bona fides includes Parks and Recreation and Master of None, why does the fact that he just dropped a surprise comedy special even matter? Because in January 2018, the 36-year-old performer was accused of sexual misconduct in a controversial article published by Babe.net, a since-shuttered youth-oriented news and gossip website. The woman who made the accusation, “Grace,” claimed that the pair went on a date that ended with Ansari repeatedly ignoring her verbal and nonverbal cues regarding non-consensual sex.

The article arrived in the midst of the Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K.-fueled #MeToo movement, which had already seen those two entertainment titans finally taken down a peg or two after years (if not decades) of repeated (and oft-ignored) rumors. As a result, both Ansari and the Babe.net article were discussed and debated ad nauseam. The latter spurred vigorous and nasty back-and-forths in numerous media circles. The former, meanwhile, removed himself from the spotlight soon after he addressed the accusations in a statement.

So, yeah, Ansari is back on television a year and a half later, and judging by all of the press that Right Now’s announcement and premiere has already generated, it seems both his comedy and his baggage has rejoined the zeitgeist as well. From headlines as monotone as CNN’s “Aziz Ansari returns to Netflix with comedy special,” to titles with more direction and argument behind them — like HuffPost’s “Aziz Ansari Is Returning To Netflix After Me Too Scandal” and Refinery29’s “Netflix Announces A Surprise Aziz Ansari Special & The Timing Is Interesting” — reactions have been across the board. (The latter is especially intriguing, though, as the Refinery29 article connects Right Now’s reveal with the recent closure of Babe.net.)

Not to mention social media and comments sections, where Ansari’s fans and detractors have already engaged with Right Now’s release.

Regardless of the media controversies the Babe.net article sparked, I believe that we should listen to all victims of sexual assault. It’s the least we, as a culture, can do, since more often than not, the structures inherent in our society tend to ignore (or lessen the claims of) victims of rape, sexual assault and other forms of abuse. The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have called more attention to these disparities in recent years, but the disparities are still ever-present.

I also believe that you cannot separate the artist from his, her or their art. To claim otherwise is to make a bullshit argument based on bullshit philosophy that I’m not going to dig into right now. (But, I’ll happily do just that if asked by enough people. Fair warning: you’ll be bored out of your mind.) So, in that sense, it’s impossible to talk about Ansari’s new comedy special without mentioning the Babe.net article and how it has affected the comedian’s career — and our perceptions of him as a person and an artist.

(Though the “separate the artist from the art” topic makes for an easy entryway into all of this, as Ansari explicitly discusses and plays with the idea in relation to the recent documentaries about R. Kelly, Michael Jackson and the sexual assault allegations against them.)

As a stand-up comedy critic, however, I also believe that, despite all of these things, Right Now is worth watching. (Netflix obviously does, too, or they wouldn’t have given Ansari and Jonze the chance to film the comedian’s Road to Nowhere tour and a place to show it to a global audience.) I try to keep track of what the industry’s big movers and shakers are up to, and Ansari definitely remains one of these. Otherwise, why are we even still talking about him?

Some of Right Now’s beats hit hard and fast, like the routines about woke white people, hot take culture and separating artists from their artistry. Others… not so much. Though this is generally the case with most new comedy specials, but with the highly-focused microscope the Ansari now finds himself under, what’s good is really great and what’s not is even worse.

More than anything, however, I’m intrigued by Ansari’s decision to reorganize and reframe what I saw of his early Road to Nowhere tour. Back in February, when the tour officially started just north of Boston, his combined bits addressing the Babe.net article and being mistaken for Hasan Minhaj came at the end of the performance. In Right Now, however, the comic puts these beats front and center. It’s the first thing he talks about after walking across the Brooklyn Academy of Music stage.

“I felt so many things over the last year,” he says. “There’s times I felt scared. There’s time I felt humiliated. There’s times I felt embarrassed. But ultimately, I just felt terrible that this person felt this way. And after a year or so, I just hope that it was a step forward. It moved things forward for me. Made me think about a lot of things.”

It was a poignant moment in the live show, and it’s just as poignant in Right Now — if not more so, thanks to its new place at the beginning and Jonze’s decision to film Ansari up close and off to the side while on stage.

It’s also a stark departure from the one other major instance of a comeback that stand-up comedy has seen since the initial #MeToo spark in late 2017: Louis C.K. Last August, after keeping to himself for about nine months, the Louie star returned to New York’s famous Comedy Cellar for an unannounced performance that rocked the comedy world. It sparked multiple rounds of takes about whether or not Louis had done enough penance or said the right things after he’d admitted that multiple claims of sexual misconduct levied against him were true.

Since then, Louis has gone on the offensive. He’s poked fun at the Parkland shooting survivors, issued severe legal threats against would-be bootleggers and reporters (?) covering his live gigs across the country, and more. He is, as the comedian Hannah Gadsby put it in a Los Angeles Times interview, “angry and bitter.”

“He is a joke now. And I think it’s important to keep making that joke. This is dangerous to talk about, but I’ll give it a go. What the issue is, for a long time Louis C.K.’s comedy platform was that he was this hopeless guy bumbling through the world. And at some stage, he was no longer that, but that was still his voice. And I think he still believes that. He has not reassessed his position of power, and that is why he was able to abuse it. It’s difficult to see a shift in your own power and privilege. It’s not something we’re trained to do. He still honestly thinks he’s the victim in all of this.”

At least in terms of how each comes across during their stage performances, it seems that Ansari’s approach to reentering the spotlight and addressing the claims made against him has been far more mature and productive than what Louis has done. So, there’s that.

To be honest, I haven’t watched a Louis C.K. comedy special or listen to one of his albums since November 2017. I hadn’t watched or listened to any of Ansari’s comedy since January 2018, either, until I attended his Road to Nowhere stop in Boston last February. I was skeptical then, and even after watching Right Now, I remain skeptical about it all. But from my perspective — that of a white cis straight male who has never been sexually assaulted in his life — my initial feeling is that Ansari is going about this in a far more open and productive way that Louis.

Of course, seeing has how I did not experience what “Grace” allegedly did on her date with Ansari, or what the many women who were confronted by Louis’ abuses of power experienced, I defer to them.


Random Bits

In September, Bill Burr and Al Madrigal signed a new deal with Comedy Central that, among other things, would see the former “present” new specials from lesser-known comedians on the cable network. The first of these, Paul Virzi: I’ll Say This, premiered in November. The latest, Bill Burr Presents IanTalk: Ideas Not Worth Spreading, debuts this Friday, July 12th at Midnight. Remember when Hannah Gadsby’s critics all said that Nanette was more of a Ted Talk than a comedy special? Well, Ian Edwards’ latest is a comedy special in the form of a Ted Talk.


Crowd Work

Don’t forget, I actually want you to respond. Send me whatever questions, comments are snide remarks that you may have about my thoughts on stand-up comedy, or comedy-related matters I didn’t cover, but are nonetheless on your mind. To get in touch, simply email me and we’ll go from there.

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