Aziz Ansari has a penchant for addressing the elephant in the room. In the opening lines of his newest special, Right Now, he does so in a small way by introducing the cameraman filming next to him, acclaimed filmmaker Spike Jonze. He explains, “This guy is with me, he’s authorized.” Jonze, who directed the special, laughs alongside Aziz and the audience, though he only rarely shares the frame with Ansari. Usually, the special is in tight shots close to Ansari’s face, only Ansari and occasionally others in the background are visible. When Jonze does show up, he’s somewhere in the distance – the attention stays on the comedian, as it should. It’s Aziz’s show, after all. Still, this small acknowledgment sends a clear message to the audience: “We’ll be keeping things real tonight.”
It also paves the way for when, less than a minute later, Ansari addresses the much larger elephant in the room: the widely covered and bitterly divisive sexual misconduct allegations leveled against him last year by Babe.net, a now-defunct feminist website. To summarize, a woman (under the pseudonym Grace) accused the comedian of making her feel violated, saying that he ignored both her nonverbal cues and explicit requests to slow things down. The website accused Ansari of hypocrisy, considering his fervent support of the Me Too movement and “woke’ brand of comedy. Grace told babe.net, “I’d seen some of his shows and read excerpts from his book and I was not expecting a bad night at all, much less a violating night and a painful one”.
For his part, Ansari is contrite and mature in his response. He tells his audience, “It moved things forward to me, it made me think about a lot…If this thing made not just me, but a lot of other people be more thoughtful, than that’s a good thing.” It’s not a funny introspection, there’s (almost) not a joke in it, which he acknowledges. But, it goes a long way to getting the audience on his side, to show that he really is the thoughtful, introspective guy that he bills himself as, and, more importantly, it shows a level of maturity that very few of the men caught up in the #MeToo furor have shown.
Ansari discusses a lot of serious issues in the special, all of them with the far more humor, and most with an equal level of seriousness. He delights in making his audience uncomfortable: he grills one woman for her thoughts on Crazy Rich Asians, making fun of her for being unsure of her opinion in front of an Asian person. He mocks his own friends who put aside their own feelings in order to seem more progressive. If nothing else, Ansari is good at getting to the heart of “woke” white liberal hypocrisy. He gets to the heart of the hypocrisy, for example, of liberals who want to legalize marijuana without freeing the people, many of whom black, that society locked up for using it.
He doesn’t stop there, Ansari continues to tackle deliberately controversial topics throughout the special: from family tragedy, to the recently detained R. Kelly, to performative wokeness, to Alzheimer’s, to racism. None of these are particularly groundbreaking topics for humor but Aziz has a unique knack for observation, and he’s not afraid to make his audience sweat a little. Right Now is at its best right when it’s at its most uncomfortable – they’re special moments, and they oftentimes lead to his funniest jokes.
But, when it comes to Aziz Ansari, not every joke is created equal. His impressions, for example, can be grating. Yes, I’m completely aware that it’s what he’s known for but I stand by it. They are distracting and can sometimes interrupt rather than help the flow of his comedy. Ansari often gets so caught up in the impression itself that he delays the punchline, which isn’t always so great to begin with. It feels like Ansari’s impersonations are more an excuse for him to put on a silly voice that amuses him than an essential element of his comedic delivery.
For every three jokes that work, there’s one that doesn’t. Not terribly so, nothing in this special is cringeworthy, but sometimes the jokes just don’t hit the way they should. Maybe the seriousness gets in the way, maybe he didn’t workshop these jokes enough, but there are enough that don’t work so that they’re noticeable. At times, even the audience’s reaction seems a tad muted. Part of this comes from his observations, which are obvious just as much as they’re insightful.
That’s not to say that Ansari doesn’t have anything meaningful to say. Quite a bit of a special is insightful, intelligent, and moving. But, just as often, it doesn’t seem like he has anything particularly original to say. When Aziz ruminates for 30 seconds about how important it is for us to appreciate the time we have with our parents, all I can say is, “Well…..thanks I guess”. His observations on visiting his parents aren’t particularly new and aren’t particularly funny, and this particular interruption seems unnecessary, and mostly unrelated to what he had been previously discussing. I’m sure it has value to someone – I certainly could always use another reminder to appreciate how much time I have left with my parents – but I don’t need Aziz to tell me that. That’s not to say that this is a bad special: it’s very, very good. Even though the special loses some steam as it goes along, Aziz certainly is able to find at least a little comedy from every topic he discusses.
Ansari’s been working as a comedian long enough to have a good sense of the craft: he knows how to structure a joke, he knows how to present himself in a sympathetic way, he knows how to manage the audience’s expectations. He’s very good at his job. Which, of course, raises its own questions in a special that sells itself on authenticity: how much of this is real and how much of this is a very, very strategic, extremely well thought out act? If it is an act, what does that mean for Ansari’s moral character, and what does that say about the success of the Me Too movement? Does Ansari’s contriteness mean anything if the special is intended specifically to cast him as the beneficiary of a story of redemption?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. I take Ansari at his word that he means it when he says that he feels that the events of the past year have made him a better person. I’m not going to try to tackle everything involved with that story: if babe.net’s piece trivialized sexual violence, what Ansari has to apologize for, whether he deserves another chance. I’m not equipped to address these concerns; yet I can say, definitively, that if Right Now is any indication, Ansari probably still has a long career ahead of him.