Aziz Ansari and the Physics of Moving Forward

In his new stand-up special, the comedian celebrates progress—but denigrates the work that progress requires.

Ansari arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute gala, "Art of the In-Between," in 2017.
Lucas Jackson / Reuters / The Atlantic

The allegation of sexual misconduct against Aziz Ansari, published in early 2018 on the now-defunct website Babe, doubled as a #MeToo Rorschach test. Some saw the woman in the story, “Grace,” as a victim of Ansari’s alleged sexual aggressions; some saw Ansari, just a guy doing guyish things, as a victim of shoddy journalism. And many others saw, in that sad story of the famous man and the pseudonymous woman, themselves: While other #MeToo stories implicated men of obvious monstrosity, the menace of Grace’s was its revealing banality. The allegation quickly transformed into an allegory: about consent and its gray areas, about sexual scripts that play out without dialogues, about disordered conceptions of empathy.

Ansari, after issuing a statement in response to Grace’s claim, largely avoided discussing the matter in public—a fact that helped the story to trail off, its controversies punctuated with unsatisfying ellipses. And then, last year, Ansari launched a new tour (elliptical title: “The Road to Nowhere”); the set begins, each time, with a discussion of his feelings about the Babe story. A version of that show, performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in mid-May, has now been converted, under the direction of Spike Jonze, into a Netflix special, Right Now—which means that Ansari is finally discussing the allegations, not merely in in-person comedy shows, but on a global stage.

“I felt so many things, in the last year or so,” he says in Right Now. “There’s times I felt scared. There’s times I felt humiliated. There’s times I felt embarrassed.” He steadily lowers his voice to a near-whisper. “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. And it moved things forward for me; it made me think about a lot. I hope I’ve become a better person.”

He also hopes, he says—acknowledging the allegorical dimensions of the story—that other people have become better through their exposure to it. “You know what, man? That whole thing made me think about every date I’ve ever been on,” Ansari says a friend told him. “And I thought, Wow, well, that’s pretty incredible. This made not just me, but other people, be more thoughtful, and that’s a good thing.’”

Here Ansari pauses. “And I know this isn’t the most hilarious way to begin a comedy show!” he says, as the audience begins to applaud. “But it’s important to me that you know how I feel about that whole thing before we share this night together.” More applause, and then: “Well, that was pretty intense!”

The line serves as a transition and as a broader kind of signpost: The awkward part is over. We’re moving on. “What else should we talk about?” Ansari asks, cheerfully.

We talk about a lot, it turns out, over the next hour: Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Crazy Rich Asians, appropriation, cancellation, Pizza Hut, journalistic think pieces, performative allyship, the misogyny of birth-control pills, the utility of IUDs, the absurdity of the current news environment. Much of it is effective, and much of it is a continuation of what came before: Right Now is sociological in tenor. It takes the thing its performer has long professed to be interested in—empathy—and interrogates it, just as Ansari did so fantastically in Master of None, his scripted series, and more subtly in Modern Romance, his book (co-written with Eric Klinenberg), and in his previous comedy shows. Live at Madison Square Garden, Ansari’s 2015 Netflix special, made use of his exceptional skill with crowd work to point out revealing fractures in his audience’s experience. “Raise your hand if you’re a woman and you’ve ever been followed around by a creepy dude,” he said. “Raise your hand high! Raise it really fucking high!” He paused, surveying the sea of hands with mock horror. “Everyone just look around and see how many hands are raised right now! Yeah, that’s way too many people! That should not be happening!”

There have been many shoulds in Ansari’s act, over the years. There have been many breezy uses of the collective we. (“Why do we do this?” he asked, of the noncommittal social habits of Millennials, in the 2015 special. “I think it’s ’cause we’re also part of the least lonely generation, the least isolated generation, you know?”) The comedy of empathy often doubles as the comedy of morality, and Ansari’s distinct brand of it has exuded, over the years, a frank kind of optimism: a sense that admitting and confronting our flaws is the first step toward overcoming them. It’s art that has implicated its audience, but that has done so based on the implied conviction that we, as nebulous and tenuous as that grouping might be, can always be better tomorrow than we are today.

And so it is a striking moment when, in the new special, Ansari makes the following declaration: “We’re all shitty people!” he says, flipping his earlier optimism, with brutal efficiency, on its head. At another moment, Ansari returns to his old form: “We’re all on a journey” toward realizing better versions of ourselves, he says. At another point, discussing the current speed of cultural movement: “You can’t judge everything by 2019 standards.” But, meditating on some of the jokes he made years ago that he would never make now: “You’re supposed to change.”

It is rare to see the dynamics of progress and backlash on such flagrant display. Are we shitty, or are we fixable? Is forward movement admirable, or is it mockable? Can we make moral judgments in 2019, or can’t we? The answer can be yes in each case, definitely, if certain nuances are entertained. And the overarching point is, as it so often has been in Ansari’s work, generosity: Let’s give ourselves a break, he is saying. (He is, notably, in this first special after he was accused of sexual misconduct, including himself in that permission.) But as Right Now goes on, its jokes come to suggest not compassion so much as confusion. Ansari, the surveyor and the critic, spends a lot of time talking about call-out culture, mostly to make fun of it. He then calls out, himself, those who refuse to do the work of “learning and exploring and discussing.” But he also rolls his eyes at those who would do the discussing. “Nowadays, man, sometimes even when the stuff is racist, I’m like, ‘Can we just talk about something else?’” he says. And then: “I don’t think we’re going to fix it at this brunch.”

In one way, this makes for comedy that is, as Right Now’s title suggests, extremely true to its moment. The jokes here are by turns extremely earnest and extremely cynical, and there is insight buzzing in the messy mergers of the two: To be alive right now is often to feel tangled and disoriented and caught in the midst of things. But progress does not happen of its own accord; forward movement requires intention and effort and, often, awkwardness. Much of the discomfort Ansari mocks in the show’s more cynical moments is what will result, inevitably, when a culture finally acknowledges all the truths that cannot be contained within a collective we. The question becomes how you treat the discomfort—as something to be celebrated, or as something to be denigrated. Ansari’s answer, over a show that has some great jokes and some distinctly less-great ones, is another kind of ellipsis: Can we just talk about something else?

Instability is everywhere in Right Now. Jonze, after following Ansari on the streets of New York, walking to his venue, shot the set onstage with the comedian. (“He’s authorized,” Ansari tells the audience of the cameraman standing next to him; “he’s not, like, a very audacious bootlegger who really doesn’t give a fuck.”) What results from that proximity are frames that are shaky and intimate, often revealing angles not typically presented in Netflix comedy specials. (Viewers get some shots from Ansari’s perspective—the cavernous audience splayed before him—and others from the side, revealing a coterie of people watching the proceedings from the wings.) The effect is to present Ansari as both central and vulnerable, and this is another way that Right Now is of its moment: It is a work of winkily manufactured authenticity.

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.