COMEDY SPECIAL "Aziz Ansari: Right Now"
WHEN | WHERE Streaming now on Netflix
WHAT IT'S ABOUT In his first stand-up special for Netflix since being accused of sexual misconduct in January 2018, Aziz Ansari directly addresses the misconduct, then talks about a variety of other subjects, including his grandmother, who has Alzheimer's. This special, directed by Spike Jonze, was filmed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in mid-May.
MY SAY In the opening seconds of "Right Now," Ansari discusses the elephant in the room. Soon enough, he moves on to the giraffe in the room, then a zebra, some lions, a hippopotamus, a dancing bear, a llama and finally, in the closing minutes, what appears to be the elephant again.
That elephant? Do I really need to tell you what this elephant did and why he was in the room to begin with? Google it (keywords: "Ansari," "worst date ever"). Elephants in rooms are never good things. They tend to be hard to ignore and are rarely bearers of glad tidings.
This one badly hurt Ansari's career. Nevertheless, after his metaphoric tour of the circus animals, so to speak, after all the material about cultural appropriation, white people, racism, R. Kelly, "The Office," Michael Jackson, digitally altered pizzas, his grandma and his current girlfriend, you may suddenly come to the realization that he was really talking about elephants all the time.
His elephant. Your elephant. My elephant. Our elephant.
Obviously, there's no playbook on how to salvage a career that has been entangled, or torpedoed, by #MeToo, no one-size-fits-all either. Louis C.K., for example, is playing to packed clubs in Texas where he jokes that everybody has "a thing [and] now you know my thing." No apologies but certainly no ducking either. C.K. has even worked his "thing" into the act.
Ansari takes a different approach here. There is no apology, though hardly no remorse. "At times I felt scared, times I felt humiliated, times I felt embarrassed and ultimately, I just felt terrible. After a year or so, I just hope it was a step forward."
From there, "Right Now" becomes, in a comically inverted way, a plea for tolerance, for perspective shift, for a check-out-the-world (from where I stand) riff. "We're all [lousy] people," Ansari concedes, but by setting himself up on the other side of jokes — for example — about "newly woke white people" who are "playing some sort of secret progressive Candy Crush we know nothing about," he also places himself in a defensible position, as if to say, don't judge me lest you judge yourselves first.
It's a clever reversal, and usually a funny and effective one, but confrontation carries risks — a gauntlet thrown before viewers, including his own critics who may have wanted to throw some gauntlets of their own. What about the date? What about your behavior? What about #MeToo?
Those are serious questions, and Ansari knows it. But he also needed to take a risk and this show was a big one, its wrap bigger still. Thanking his abused but thoroughly satisfied audience for coming "just to hear me talk into a microphone for an hour," he added: "I saw the world where I don't ever get to do this again. It almost felt like I died. In a way I did. That old Aziz? He's dead."
That old elephant? Yeah, him too.
BOTTOM LINE Risky show, risky strategy and both pay off.