TV

Aziz Ansari’s New Netflix Special Is Awkward, Sharply Funny, And A Sign Of The Contextual Times

Netflix

Netflix released Aziz Ansari’s new comedy special, Aziz Ansari: Right Now, without much notice. That’s really not unusual these days, for the streaming giant doesn’t follow the traditional movie studio or network format of dropping trailers to launch publicity campaigns months in advance. There are exceptions to this process, but in the case of the Master of None star’s return to Netflix, the drop feels swifter and quieter than usual. We saw a trailer close to the Fourth of July with a vague “next week” note, and boom, the special, directed by Spike Jonze, dropped from the sky a few days later. One could overthink the timing of this “surprise” or just go with it because that’s exactly what the comedian in question is doing.

Obviously, most of the people interested in watching this special (or not) are aware of the sexual misconduct allegations made against Ansari. Given the timing of those claims, his nuanced response has been compared to that of Louis C.K., whose angry onstage outbursts differ greatly from Ansari’s recent muted return to the spotlight. I won’t go down the road of comparing the accusations against both comedians, which would feel flippant other than to say, yes, there’s a spectrum within which such cases should be discussed. What we do know is this: Ansari was accused in 2018 of sexual misconduct by an anonymous woman, whose claims were published on a website that doesn’t exist anymore. The alleged circumstances led to a furiously embattled discussion about sexual consent and whether Ansari committed sexual misconduct or simply had an embarrassingly bad date. That debate still rages on social media, and the subject of this outcry knows damn well this will be the case.

All of this presents a very difficult position, not only for Ansari but for anyone who must critically evaluate his comedy special. It’s almost impossible to go in objectively here. Fortunately, Ansari does — after arriving onstage to an enthused NYC crowd — confront the proverbial elephant in the room head-on, but he does not prostrate or martyr himself. He doesn’t apologize or admit guilt, either, but he doesn’t waste time before acknowledging what everyone is thinking, and he admits that he feels terrible about making someone else feel awful. No denials surface, but there’s also no pretense at hand, and no wizardry, for Jonze shoots his subject starkly and largely in close-up. And Ansari doesn’t overstretch, argue, or ask anyone to take his side. However, it remains apparent that the comedian was stunned at how distanced he felt from the perspective of his accuser.

That, right there, serves as the jumping-off point for Ansari’s entire set. As a society, we talk so much about heated issues, and we’re so extremely online and “connected” while feeling disconnected. Yet Ansari doesn’t draw direct comparisons to his situation. He simply (and explicitly) explains to his audience that he needed to articulate his feelings on an unavoidable subject before moving on to what he hopes will be an enjoyable hour while sighing, “Well, that was pretty intense.” He’s not wrong, and on that note he dives headfirst into an enormously blunt set of examples that prove his past year has not only been unpleasant, but also a sign of the contextual times.

Without saying too much, I will say that Aziz Ansari: Right Now feels like necessary viewing in 2019. He makes the case that we’re living in times when the knee-jerk drive to pick a side on any loaded issue can seem overwhelming. In doing so, he offers a stunningly effective example (unrelated to sexual misconduct) that leaves his live audience floored. And he illustrates how it’s difficult right now to carry on any dialogue that moves toward understanding in a world full of echo chambers.

Things get messy when Ansari tears down his old and awkward onstage bits about how much he continued to love R. Kelly’s music (while being aware of mounting allegations against the musician). He also discusses how certain episodes of Parks and Rec (in which he obviously appeared) don’t look so great “with 2019 eyes.” Ansari argues that everyone has blind spots — “we’re all shitty people” — and he offers an armchair analysis of the “breaking points” of culture. His targets are many, including society’s handling of The Simpsons‘ Apu situation and how white people tend to keep score on their own declarations of wokeness.

This special gets circular and heavy, but that’s not to say that Right Now is entirely serious, for it is not. The Master of None star tells a noteworthy IUD anecdote that could have easily misfired, but it’s solid. His final moments onstage are also worth drinking in, as he eulogizes the old Aziz Ansari and delivers a unique message of gratitude. Ansari’s attitude appears to be genuine, mostly because he still seems like the same awkward Aziz, though one who has irrevocably changed over the past year, for what he hopes is the better.

‘Aziz Ansari: Right Now’ is currently streaming on Netflix.

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