It wouldn’t be accurate to describe the 2018 sexual misconduct accusation against Aziz Ansari as the elephant in the room during the comedian’s new Netflix special.
It is the room.
“What else should we talk about?” he asks, after addressing the issue right up top, in a not-quite-mea-culpa that anyone who’s been paying attention knew was coming. Ansari has plenty else to talk about, of course, but it all comes back to the fact that he spent 2018 in quasi-cancellation limbo and now feels weird about it.
Right Now is an authentic portrait of a comedian struggling to come to grips with himself, his fame, and what society considers right or wrong at any given time.
A quick recap of Ansari’s career: After an accelerated rise through New York’s stand-up circuit as an NYU student, the comedian and his cohorts (Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel) landed the well-liked but short-lived sketch show Human Giant on MTV in the mid-aughts, along with some minor film roles. He soon leapfrogged into network sitcom fame with his role on Parks and Recreation and leveraged it with a series of increasingly larger stand-up tours. By the time he broke through to the Auteur level of creative success with Netflix’s critically adored Master of None, he was playing multi-night stints at Madison Square Garden and authoring a best-selling book about modern relationships.
Then came babe.net.
Months after the #MeToo movement began outing predators like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, a sloppily rendered article on that now-shuttered website outed Aziz Ansari as a sex pest. Even the most damning read of the salacious story portrayed the comedian as an a-hole who didn’t know when to quit, rather than anything near the level of the kinds of men the #MeToo movement had been exposing. As I argued at the time, it was a completely separate conversation, but one we needed to be having. Unfortunately for Ansari, the harbinger of that conversation happened to be someone who had portrayed himself in his work as a thoughtful, feminist-leaning man. Even if he didn’t deserve to lose his career over the accusation, public opinion seemed to suggest he deserved at least a bit of a time-out to try and square what he’d done with how he’d portrayed himself. Maybe all men needed that.
Now here we are with Right Now, the comedian’s surprise comeback special following months of touring that have been heavily documented (and not just by the cameraman). This special has been sold to us as a more stripped-down affair than it’s predecessors. Where once Ansari wore crisp, shiny suits, he appears in Right Now rocking vintage Metallica “Ride the Lightning” shirt and jeans. This is the raw shit, the packaging conveys. And it’s not entirely inaccurate. This is a stripped-down Aziz. The comedian famous for manic act-outs remains seated on a stool most of the time, and frequently dims his voice into a near-whisper when things get serious. Spike Jonze directed the special (because Paul Thomas Anderson was too busy filming Sandler’s?), and Jonze favors extremely intimate close-ups of the comic, so it feels as though we’re sitting right next to him.
What does our seatmate have to say? Well, his strongest material (in one man’s opinion) is about race. He has a lot on his mind about 2019-grade hypersensitivity, reserving most of his ire for white people who make a show of getting offended on other people’s behalf.
“Things don’t just become racist when white people figure it out,” he says at one point, to a justified applause break.
However, some of his material about race bleeds over into what appear to be hopefully exculpatory jokes about changing societal norms. When he segues from how it’s weird that we all allowed Bradley Cooper to get away with “Paging Dr. Faggot!” in The Hangover just 10 years ago, to how he thinks Jim from The Office might be seen as guilty of workplace misconduct today, there’s clearly a meta-message here. It feels like a manipulative attempt to contextualize his own misconduct accusation, which might not have seemed so bad if it came up 10 years ago.
“You can’t judge everything by 2019 standards,” he says a moment later, referring to some gross moves by the pervy-but-mostly-lovable character he himself played on Parks and Rec. Now the message is no longer meta. He’s directly-indirectly asking us not to judge him as harshly as we might. But it’s odd to sorta kinda be told not to look at his recent baggage through a 2019 lens during a special called Right Now.
It’s an example of the tension between the comedian and the audience that runs throughout here. Ansari can scarcely hide his contempt for some of the audience, like myself, who are watching his special with an evaluative 2019 eye, along with anyone who isn’t famous and therefore doesn’t have to watch their every move and utterance to ensure it doesn’t retroactively offend one day.
Paradoxically, though, the manipulation and the tension both only add to an overall honest portrait of a comedian trying to navigate his new reality. It feels like we’re seeing a whole person–what he wants us to see, and what he doesn’t; how he’s moved and how he can’t yet. He is struggling, and he’s in a transitory space, but he seems legitimately interested in what’s wrong and what’s right—right now and forever—even when he takes a wrong turn or two on the way.
The name of the special is Right Now, and Ansari includes some material in the end about living in the moment. But eventually, whenever he or anyone else looks back at this special, they will inevitably remember Right Now as the moment immediately Just After. It’s a transitional special, a snapshot of a very specific time, right before whatever’s next. And there’s nothing wrong with that.