Aziz Ansari feels guilty, grateful, angry, ashamed, bewildered and chastened. He’s quite funny about some of these emotions. Not so funny about others.
Little wonder. Last year, he was accused of sexual misconduct. A young woman – she was 23 and he was 35 – wrote on a website that a date with Ansari had gone very wrong, from her perspective. She felt he had acted coercively when they engaged in sexual acts and had ignored her signals that she didn’t want sex.
His response was that he was “surprised and concerned,” that he “took her words to heart” and he responded privately to the woman.
The matter was a conversation stopper. Coming after multiple misconduct allegations against powerful men in the entertainment industry, the young woman’s story raised issues about the undertone, nuance and subtleties of how men engage with women. It was described as an issue only twentysomethings could really grasp fully.
There was a Saturday Night Live sketch in which three couples try to talk about the Ansari allegation. None of them can really articulate what they feel. Every time one character started, someone else said “Careful!” or “Watch it!” The conversation went nowhere.
It certainly looked like Ansari’s career was going nowhere. The actor, writer and comedian was lumped with Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. as representative of a toxic male culture. But also cited as someone who had merely behaved poorly on one date. It was complicated. He eventually went back to doing barely publicized stand-up shows, specifically to deal with the matter and the culture in which it erupted.
Aziz Ansari: Right Now began streaming on Netflix on Tuesday, without much notice. Little wonder about that, too. Rather than promote and discuss it in advance, Ansari and the streaming service let it speak for itself.
It does, and opens with the comedian addressing the matter directly. Speaking in a low voice – everything about this special feels casual and low-key – he says this: “I’m sure that some of you are curious how I feel about that whole situation. And, uh, it’s a tricky thing for me to answer, ‘cause I’ve felt so many things in the last year, so. There’s times I’ve felt scared. There’s times I’ve felt humiliated. There’s times I’ve felt embarrassed. And ultimately, I just felt terrible that this person felt this way. And after a year or so, I just hope it was a step forward. It moved things forward for me and made me think about a lot. I hope I become a better person.”
It’s a carefully worded statement. Note that there is no outright apology. At the same time, he doesn’t dismiss the allegation against him, or try to be funny about it. What he does could still be a conversation stopper for many people. Some would say Ansari did nothing remotely like Weinstein or Bill Cosby. Others would say there’s no grey zone into which Ansari’s actions can be parked, or that he’s not contrite enough.
What the comedian does is march with some gusto into the state of America. Specifically about, “people trying to out-woke each other.” He finds the hypocrisy of people hilarious and he’s scathing: “At least racists are brief. Woke people are exhausting.” He’s got a very personal take on matters of race and cultural appropriation. “Things don’t become racist when white people figure it out,” he says. And one of his driest remarks is this: “The first Indian person I saw on MTV was … me!”
He also riffs on the stupidity of people who think races should only date and marry each other. He points out that people literally expect him to be dating Mindy Kaling. There’s an excellent segment in which he points out that the behaviour of singer R. Kelly was happening in plain sight for years. But only when it was packaged into an easily digestible documentary series for TV, did it get a lot of attention. In the matter of Michael Jackson, he is terrifying blunt and outraged.
What he’s doing, really, is confronting the confusion of the culture and how that confusion led to his situation becoming an impossible matter to discuss with reason and clarity. It’s a very clever construct – his disenchantment with a society in which boundaries confuse and some people compete to be more progressive than others, mirrors the disorienting atmosphere around his own situation.
In the end, after being genuinely funny, he’s ultra-serious again. He thanks the audience earnestly for coming, saying he means it “‘cause I saw the world where I don’t ever get to do this again, and it almost felt like I’d died. In a way, I did.” He didn’t, of course. An old version of him died of embarrassment. Watch this special, but be careful what you say about it.