There is a quote by Lutheran minister and former comic Nadia Bolz-Weber about stand up comedy that I find myself going to when I watch an especially poignant special: “Comics tell a truth you can see only from the underside of the psyche. At its best, comedy is prophesy and societal dream interpretation. At its worst it’s just [dirty] jokes.” This combination of the profound and occasionally the profane is what elevates comics as Bo Burnham, Mike Birbiglia, and Dave Chapelle. Aziz Ansari marks his return to comedy, with his latest Netflix special “Right Now”, trying to balance this same dynamic while coming down from the mountain and back from the valley in a special that teeters between thoughtful, contrite, and entitled.
I must admit I’ve only been a periodic admirer of Ansari’s broad career. While his stand up has never been top tier for me, it’s hard to not appreciate his energy and extravagance, qualities loved in his TV characters on Scrubs and Parks and Recreation. So prepare yourself for when you see him come out on stage not sporting his typical dapper three-piece, but instead jeans and a faded Metallica shirt. And the dissonance does not stop there: a mellow Velvet Underground track plays over the analog looking video aesthetic (the special boasts the directing credits of Spike Jonze). As opposed to bouncing across the stage as he is usually used to, Ansari resigns himself to a single stool on the right side of the stage for most of the special, complete with a lone angled camera shot to show the friends watching from the backstage. The signaling is intentionally jarring; Aziz is not the same person, as he will forthrightly tell you later on. All of this would feel more refreshing and authentic if it only felt a bit more spontaneous but unfortunately, it plays as part of a bigger effort of a comedian to rebuild his cultural stock after allegations of sexual misconduct were publicized a year ago. Admirably, he starts his special addressing how it has affected him and presents himself as repentant and sympathetic. However, his positioning himself more prominently as the victim of the ordeal with little deference to his accuser sets a tone that overshadows the rest of the special. Indeed, Ansari’s commentary on exhausting and arrogant wokeness would seem more poignant if he didn’t just barely characterize himself as a victim of call-out culture. All the same, Ansari’s thoughts on the progressive tilt in our society and the seemingly apparent vanity in SJW’s, specifically of the Caucasian persuasion, remain astute observations on our changing culture.
Further explorations include the public opinion on disgraced artists such as R. Kelly and Michael Jackson and the flexibility in our collective moral standards. In this effort, Ansari does well at making it apparent that he is including himself in his own criticisms. He never feels like he is chastising a society that he is separate from, rather internally probing his own values as a part of a greater collective. There are times when he targets specific members of the audience, but his back and forth with these individuals is always playful and some of the best moments of the special. Additionally, he calls his own past work out for its problematic content, whether it’s his early admiration of R. Kelly or his ridicule of his cousin Harris, but again, it toes the line of conveying true introspection and portraying him as a victim to the culture’s unflinchingly rising moral standards.
The low point of the special is arguably the most personal when Ansari reflects on his interactions with his grandmother with Alzheimer’s and his own immediate family. It’s a recounting that’s peppered with humorous musings, but ultimately never seems fitting until the end of the special when Ansari confesses how he always took his stand up career for granted. He then describes how the publication of the outings and the fallout has given him a new perspective, one of gratefulness for the ability to pursue his chosen career. They are sentiments that in any other redemptive context would resonate with others. However, Ansari may still have some work of convincing the public of his reformation.