The production fits the premise: In Right Now, Ansari’s previously declared concerns for society and its movements are filtered, this time around, through the workings of his own conscience. He spends a lot of time meditating on his old material—acknowledging the ways that what he laughed at then, he would not laugh at now. He talks about the series of jokes he made, famously, at the expense of his young cousin, Harris: “There’s not many Indians who are chubby,” Ansari said at the time—“it’s mostly small and skinny guys like me. But every now and then you see a pudgy one, and it’s awesome. It’s a rarity. It’s like a shooting star, only it’s fat, brown, and on the ground.” Today, Ansari professes to regret the joke. “Uh, probably no reason to fat-shame my little cousin on a global scale,” he says in Right Now. “I just threw little Harris under the bus!” But then he can’t resist adding: “Well, he’s a little chubby, so technically I squeezed him in.”
There are many other moments like this in Right Now, beats that find Ansari professing to have done what he has long exhorted society to do—be kinder, be better—and, then, abruptly reversing course. He signals that the earnest, #MeToo-related portion of the evening has ended, but then—in a riff about R. Kelly, as Ansari muses on old sets in which he rhapsodized about the musician—he adds: “They better not pull up them clips! I’ve had a tricky year as it is!” The audience whoops. They know precisely what, and precisely whom, he is referring to with that aside. Forward, backward: Once more, three cannily efficient words—a tricky year—chafe against the carefully crafted, strategically sensitive discussion that came before.
Discussions of #MeToo serve as bookends to Right Now. Ansari, at the end of the show, again lowering his voice to a contemplative near-whisper, tells the audience how grateful he is that they’ve come out to see him (and, the implication goes, to support him). That “means the world to me,” he says, because “I saw the world where I don’t ever get to do this again. And it almost felt like I died. And in a way, I did. That old Aziz who said—‘Oh, treat yo’self, whatever!’—he’s dead.”
He means that as a good thing: The old Aziz, young in the worst ways as well as the best, has been replaced, over the past year and a half, with someone who is older and wiser and, ultimately, better. The hero has journeyed, and that has led him to a kind of moral mindfulness: Ansari is deeply appreciative, he says, of “the moment we’re in and the people we’re with.” He asks the audience to engage in a silence, to take in the right now along with him, and it is an arresting way—earnest, meditative, benedictive—to close a show whose author, moments earlier, has pronounced that “we’re all shitty people.”
And so the whiplash whips once more. The set’s conclusion, meant to signal that Ansari is moving forward, doubles as friction. The talk of death, in the #MeToo context, is all too familiar. “My life is over,” Louis C.K., who promised to listen and learn and proceeded to do the opposite, recently seethed onstage. They erred, but they don’t deserve a death sentence, some have said in defense of men whose alleged abuses have led them to lose their jobs but definitely not their lives. And, now, from the comic who has spent years establishing himself as a canny observer of human folly, and who is now engaged, he has suggested, in his own reckoning: It almost felt like I died. And in a way, I did. It may be honest language; it is also, given its setting, revealing language. Ansari has not perished. He is, on the contrary, a celebrity still, taking part in a comeback tour that at this point has the feel of ritual and inevitability—with a personal cameraman, an eager audience, and a voice that is loud even when it whispers.