As befits the title of his latest stand-up special, Aziz Ansari concerns himself with the present in Aziz Ansari Right Now, addressing how he’s navigating the world following an accusation of sexual misconduct in January 2018 as well as looking at how the wider world navigates shifting social mores. The somber soliloquies about gratitude and the ephemerality of fame that bookend the set suggest the new special will feature the same kind of reflection and thematic dovetailing that made Ansari’s earlier stand-up specials like Buried Alive and Live At Madison Square Garden so enjoyable and compelling. But cultural norms aren’t the only things that have changed since Ansari shot his last special—Right Now is lighter on introspection than any of his best works, signifying a step back in his evolution as a comedian.
Ansari opens the show at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music (where he performed in May) with a joke that acknowledges the allegations first reported in the now-defunct online publication Babe.net last year. The setup, which involves being mistaken for fellow comedian and Netflix compatriot Hasan Minhaj, will already be familiar to anyone who read early dispatches out of his Road To Nowhere tour. But the acknowledgement clearly comes as a surprise to his enraptured audience, who greet Ansari and director Spike Jonze with a standing ovation when they first make their way to the stage. Ansari describes the tumult of emotions he experienced in the last year—“There’s times I felt scared, there’s times I felt humiliated, there’s times I felt embarrassed”— in hushed tones in an even quieter theater. “Ultimately,” Ansari says of Grace, the pseudonymously subject of that Babe article, “I just felt terrible that this person felt this way.” Jonze’s camera remains on Ansari as he breathes and shares that “after a year or so, I just hope it was a step forward.”
It’s crowd work unlike any crowd work Ansari’s done before, but it’s still crowd work; there’s still a give-and-take occurring. Everything about the production of Right Now is incredibly well considered, from the special’s more intimate setting (at least, compared to MSG) to Ansari’s casual wardrobe to Jonze’s choice to remain onstage with the comedian, where he personally captures even the briefest of pauses. His energy shifts up and down, but his act-outs—which run the gamut from impersonating performers of “wokeness” to succinct racists to his 25-year-old self—remain a reliable source of humor. Ansari’s demeanor here isn’t regretful or chastened, exactly, but it is at odds with his usual swagger, the better to demonstrate how much contemplation he’s ostensibly done in the last year and a half. It’s a reminder that the special’s thoughtful construction isn’t just a result of Ansari taking a step back to reflect on his dating behavior; it’s the culmination of a stand-up act that had been honed during dozens of preceding shows.
In fact, it’s hard to watch Right Now and not think how smart, how strategic, Ansari’s choices are throughout. In referencing his months-long seclusion (which was followed by an even longer, international tour), Ansari strengthens his bond with the BAM audience, whom he soon polls in his signature manner. But first, he makes the not-altogether-original observation that the country is divided, espousing a little horseshoe theory that puts the audience at ease—they’re not like all the knee-jerk posters who battle each other online (again, smart). Ansari then switches to surveying mode, but where past subjects were romance and relationships, these attendees are asked about whether they’ve written off R. Kelly, who’s facing a slew of new charges, or Michael Jackson after new documentaries shone a light once more on allegations against those two artists. Now, the audience’s laughter becomes uncomfortable, sometimes vanishing entirely.
The comedian’s self-reflection ceases (and it doesn’t really start up again until the very end); he now asks his fans in the theater to think about who they believe and who they support. Ansari’s doing his job of holding up a mirror to society, and he’s doing it well. Just when the audience thinks he’s settled on the deplorableness or righteousness of a subject, he adds another layer of information or inquiry. As seen in one of the promotional clips making the rounds ahead of the special’s debut, Ansari asks an audience member about the 2018 rom-com Crazy Rich Asians. He’s genial in his inquiry, but the woman soon questions her earlier assessment of the film, which Ansari takes as support of his theory that much has changed about society in just two generations—he observes that where this audience member is worried about offending an Asian American man over an Asian American-led film, her grandmother would have just called the film “the one with too many Orientals” and called it a day. This cautiousness, for Ansari, is a sign of progress, but not one that escapes unscathed from his set.
This is all foundational work for what’s at the core of Ansari’s latest collection of observations and musings—that whatever our current values are “right now,” they can’t really be applied to the past. He’s heartened by the evolution to an extent, but also warns the audience of looking at the past, whether it’s praxis or classic pop culture, with “2019 eyes.” You could inadvertently ruin The Office for yourself, the way Ansari now questions some of his Parks And Recreation storylines. “Look, we’re all shitty people” with shortcomings, Ansari declares to reflexive applause and laughter. But, he suggests, flawed as we may be, we’re all learning from our shortcomings. Everyone is on a journey that hopefully ends with self-improvement.
It’s a rather pat observation, especially compared to the insightful humor that makes up much of Ansari’s previous work. The fact that Ansari arrived at such a dull point raises the question of just how willing he is to turn his analysis inward; although he’s clearly grateful for the opportunity to continue with his career, for now, Ansari seems content to hold up a mirror to everyone but himself.