Last year’s #MeToo humiliation of Aziz Ansari might have been the clearest sign that things were going too far. He was accused not of assault, but of boorishly pressuring a date for sex during a consensual encounter that ended when she decided to leave, in a lengthy, graphic, viral story from an anonymous source. Jerkish behavior that would normally be addressed person-to-person resulted in a worldwide shaming and serious career damage.
One could mount a comeback from such an ordeal with groveling, or with defiance. Instead, in his new Netflix standup special “Right Now,” Ansari addresses the issue briefly and maturely, then launches into one of the funniest and most insightful performances of his career.
There’s no apology here. Instead, shortly after strolling onto the stage in a Metallica shirt — and joking about trying to blame the situation on another Indian-American comedian he’s sometimes confused with — Ansari says this:
I haven’t said much about that whole thing, but I’ve talked about it on this tour because you’re here, and it means a lot to me. And I’m sure some of you are curious how I feel about that whole situation. And it’s a tricky thing for me to answer ’cause I felt so many things in the last year or so.
There’s times I felt scared. There’s times I felt humiliated. There’s times I felt embarrassed. 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.
It moved things forward for me and made me think about a lot. I hope I’ve become a better person. And I always think about a conversation I had with one of my friends where he was like, “You know what, man? That whole thing made me think about every date I’ve ever been on.” And I thought, “Wow. Well, that’s pretty incredible. It’s made not just me, but other people be more thoughtful, then that’s a good thing.” And that’s how I feel about it.
Then he continues with his material, including a bit hilariously ridiculing “woke” white people at the same time he celebrates the social progress that such people, in their own silly way, represent. He sends up the ways that whites aim to “out-woke” each other, turning social justice into status-jockeying. But mostly, like the rest of America, he just finds it all tedious:
Say what you will about racist people, but they’re usually very brief. Newly woke white people are exhausting! [Long string of woke gibberish] Can you just call me Apu and leave me alone?
Yet he hasn’t gone reactionary — far from it. He’s glad that mores have changed, noting it wasn’t that long ago that comedies such as The Hangover (2009) threw around homophobic slurs; he hopes in 50 years we’ll be ashamed of what the world was like in 2019. He does, however, counsel some tolerance for people who once acted in ways we’ve since decided are unacceptable.
Perhaps the most memorable routine, though, involves the famous Pizza Hut swastika story, where a restaurant was accused of making a pizza with the pepperoni arranged in the shape of a Nazi symbol — but some people saw it as just a regular pizza. Ansari asks the audience to clap if they thought it was a swastika, and then if they thought otherwise.
The story is made up. There never was a swastika pizza. But some audience members take sides and clap anyway. One even identifies the news source where he read about the incident. It’s a stunning illustration of how political polarization rots the brain, and it fits into a broader theme that we could do with less outrage and more honest discussion among people with differing opinions — a point Ansari makes more explicitly when discussing the uproar over a white teenager who wore a traditional Chinese dress to prom.
Refreshingly, Ansari avoids the incessant and usually unfunny Trump-bashing too many comedians rely on when short on better material. To the contrary, he points out how trivial modern America’s problems are relative to what previous generations dealt with. “Could you imagine if we had a draft with today’s people?”
Coming back now is difficult for Ansari, between his career imploding a year and a half ago and the fact that he’s always been a dedicated progressive himself. “Right Now” threads a few needles at once: He appears sincere about having learned from his prior poor behavior, even after suffering a public shaming that would have left many bitter and angry; he lampoons the dumbest excesses of the modern Left rather than trying to ingratiate himself with the social-justice-warrior types; he proves capable of doing this without renouncing the liberal beliefs he held before his fall from grace.
But best of all, this is an incredibly funny hour of television.