The first clue that Aziz Ansari: Right Now is going to be more somber than the typical stand-up special is the song that opens (and closes) it: “Pale Blue Eyes” by the Velvet Underground. One of the saddest, prettiest compositions in the history of rock, Lou Reed’s whispery ballad invokes love, infidelity, memory and regret. It leaves you with the melancholy sensation that something invaluable has been not just lost, but squandered; Reed mourns “everything I had but couldn’t keep.” It’s so universal, you can’t help mapping it onto your own personal crises—which probably explains what it’s doing on the soundtrack to a concert film that documents Ansari’s return to the stage after the darkest year of his career.
In January of 2018, when #MeToo was bringing down powerful, predatory men almost daily, the website Babe.net published a 23-year-old Brooklyn photographer’s detailed account of a date with Ansari during which his persuasive sexual advances made her uncomfortable. The article struck a nerve, even if some readers felt that the it did a disservice to the broader #MeToo movement—to the extent that it was difficult to judge whether the interaction the accuser described met the already-fuzzy definition of “sexual misconduct.” Some declared Ansari canceled; others rushed to his defense, pronouncing him a victim of a movement that had gone too far. A middle ground coalesced around the argument that even if the comedian didn’t cross a legal or professional line, bad sexual experiences were a feminist issue, too. For my part, I mostly wished that I could delete from my mind the notion that someone whose public persona—not to mention his alter ego, the protagonist of Netflix’s Master of None—revolved around his emotional intelligence, charm and respect for women might be a slimy guy in real life.
Right Now, also on Netflix, seems targeted at viewers like me, who understand that Ansari is no Harvey Weinstein (or even Louis C.K., who returned from his brief, #MeToo-related sabbatical with bitter jokes about Parkland survivors and non-binary people) and hope to see him explain himself beyond the statement he released in the aftermath of the controversy. The mood is reflective. Ansari sits on a stool, his delivery softer and more measured than usual, as though he’s having a heart-to-heart with everyone in the room (and watching at home). Director Spike Jonze keeps his camera close to the subject, constantly reminding us that this public figure is also a living, breathing human; we see the intimidatingly large crowd from the performer’s perspective. Culled from a series of performances in Brooklyn, the special’s subtext is: If an audience in one of the wokest places on Earth has forgiven Aziz, you should, too.
The Babe.net controversy only comes up at the beginning and end of the show. Ansari expresses all the right sentiments, some of which leaked out months ago from earlier comeback sets: “Ultimately, I just felt terrible that this person felt this way. After a year or so, I just hope it was a step forward,” he says. “I hope I’ve become a better person.” At the end of the hourlong performance, he thanks the audience for taking the time to listen to him talk, because “I saw the world where I don’t ever get to do this again.” He concludes with the sentiment that success is ephemeral, so “all we have is the moment we have and the people we’re with.” But the real takeaway is in his opening remarks. Ansari recalls a conversation about the allegations with a friend, who confessed, “That whole thing made me think about every date I’ve ever been on.”
In other words, we’re all jerks or hypocrites or self-satisfied virtue signalers. Rather than convince us he’s a great person, he works to remind us of that. In a heavy-handed but effective piece of crowd work, Ansari fabricates a viral news story about a man who ordered a pizza and claimed that the pepperonis on it were arranged in the shape of a swastika. After polling the audience on whether they agree with the outraged man, he reveals his deception and lashes out at the people who weighed in either way on a story they couldn’t possibly have heard: “They don’t really care about learning, exploring, discussing,” he says. “They just wanna chime in with their little programmed reactions. They already know what they think about everything.”
His extensive complaints about performative wokeness among liberal white people don’t exactly break new ground for stand-up, nor do his attempts to sort through the art-vs.-artist debates ignited by Surviving R. Kelly and Leaving Neverland. But he does have a knack for pushing these serious dilemmas into the realm of the absurd: “What if, in 1999, Osama bin Laden put out an incredible jazz album?” Ansari asks. He raises a familiar question about whether it’s even possible to sever the deep emotional connections we have to music created by men alleged to have raped children but addresses it to a 10-year-old in the front row: “How do you erase that stuff from your life, Tyler?” There’s humor in the idea of forcing a kid to reckon with a subject adults have spent years trying and failing to wrap our heads around. The grim punchline is that Tyler is more or less the same prepubescent age Michael Jackson’s accusers were when the abuse allegedly took place.
Ansari’s comeback was never going to be a Louis-level catastrophe. He’s too self-aware for that, and he surely realizes that his young, diverse audience won’t accept anything less than a full reckoning with his misbehavior. If the fact that he’s delivering the same monologue night after night makes it hard to judge how heartfelt his mea culpa is, at least Right Now confirms that he knows he’s lucky to have come through the Babe.net crisis at all. His small rebellion is the implicit insistence that, even as purity politics increasingly govern the lives of anyone who isn’t an out-and-proud bigot, he’s only as flawed as every other human being. Ansari might not be entirely wrong. I just hope he’ll be funnier—and more original—the next time around.