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Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix special demonstrates the pitfalls of COVID comedy

The just-released ‘Nightclub Comedian’ has smart, up-to-the-minute pandemic jokes but flounders when trying to equivocate on the anti-vax movement.

Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix special demonstrates the pitfalls of COVID comedy
[Photo: Marcus Russell Price/Netflix]

Sometimes it seems like non-topical standup comedy is a relic of the past.

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The ideal hour special used to be a timeless one, something fans could revisit a decade or two later without the jokes feeling terribly dated. Much of the 21st century, however, has been marred by moments of such all-consuming urgency that to not speak about them on stage would seem like a radical act of fashionable detachment. The past six years have only accelerated this sense, with an abundance of specials that feel like watching a one-person Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang watch CNN. The latest Netflix offering from Aziz Ansari, for instance, is a case study in both the good and the bad of capturing topical comedy for posterity.

During his previous outing—the 2019 special, Right Now—what was most topical at the time was that Ansari was performing at all after a period of self-imposed exile. Following a meteoric rise in the late aughts, and a pivot toward auteurship with Master of None in 2015, he had been laid low by a speciously reported #MeToo allegation in 2018. Despite filming Right Now in a typically heated moment of the Trump era, the allegation against Ansari was the subject he would have been remiss to avoid at the time.

Nightclub Comedian, which Netflix dropped on January 25, picks up with Ansari in December 2021. He now inhabits a world so beset by COVID and political upheaval that it almost seems absurd that it was ever a national news story that Ansari once allegedly behaved like a sex pest. Indeed, he spends so much time talking about the current moment, the title Right Now feels wasted on his last special. (This one is called Nightclub Comedian because it was filmed in the cozy confines of the infamous Comedy Cellar, rather than that other bastion of New York comedy, Madison Square Garden, where he recorded a previous special.)

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Like most other standup hours in the past 18 months, Ansari front-loads his set with COVID material. (At this point, Netflix should at least consider adding a “Skip COVID material” button on its new comedy specials except that, in this case, it would leave only about 10 minutes of the notably slim 29-minute special.) Nightclub Comedian is also top heavy with the pandemic jokes that go down the smoothest. He commiserates with the audience, poking fun at some of the U.S.’s more questionable COVID decisions, like making eminently duplicable vaccine passports.

The problems start when he wades into the topic of anti-vaxxers.

The desire to challenge audiences and prod them out of their ideological bubbles is commendable. It’s the opposite of pandering, which is often comedy’s nadir. The subject of anti-vaxxers in the “unconscionably prolonged” phase of a pandemic, however, requires a level of nuance that the frequently frenetic Ansari is not known for. He approaches this territory as though he had walked in on the audience viciously wishing that Aaron Rodgers would just die of COVID already, and thus gently tries to steer them toward seeing things from Rodgers’ side.

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“They [anti-vaxxers] are trapped in a different algorithm than you are,” he says. “And if you’re calling them idiots, you’re trapped in another algorithm.”

Well, first of all, without giving away any punchlines, the gist of Ansari’s jokes about Rodgers and Kyrie Irving is that they are anti-vax because they are dumb. He is chiding the audience for apparently calling such people idiots, even though he just did the same thing! More importantly, though, why the need to both-sides the anti-vax movement in the middle of a pandemic? One side is wrong and dangerous; the other is right and can be obnoxious. These are not equally valid perspectives worth comparing.

The camera lingers on some thoughtful faces in the crowd during this stretch, as though Ansari is expanding their minds, as though “Be kind to the anti-mask, anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine crowd” is a message that hasn’t appeared in prominent op-eds pretty much since Day One of the pandemic. Those faces only have time to look thoughtful in that moment, though, because they are not laughing.

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“This current strategy of shaming people isn’t gonna work,” he says, shaming the audience for, he presumes, shaming the unvaccinated.

Ansari is better on other COVID-related issues, such as how generally terrible things are in the retail and service industries right now. Perhaps because it’s another issue with two sides but, in this case, he doesn’t explore the other side by asking his audience to empathize with management refusing to provide benefits and pay raises.

Perched on a stool in the cavern-like warren of the Comedy Cellar, mere feet from his audience, it’s clear that Ansari has grown as a comedian since the days when he was selling out Madison Square Garden. Back then, he would perform most jokes with a degree of physicality so pronounced, viewers could understand him from way up in the nosebleed section or at home with the sound off. Ansari’s greatest period of success arrived during the comparatively carefree Obama years (comparatively, I say!), when jokes about dating and food and meeting Kanye West didn’t feel like they were coming at the expense of more urgent topics that might leave the audience with a message.

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It’s probably not a coincidence.

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