The comedian and actor's Right Now special offers a calculated but thoughtful response to cancel culture
AZIZ ANSARI: RIGHT NOW (Spike Jonze). Streaming on Netflix. Rating: NNNN
Aziz Ansari addresses his sexual misconduct accusations right off the bat in his Netflix stand-up special, Right Now. The comic and actor, who built his brand on being perceptive and sensitive towards matters dealing with race and sex, describes his humiliation and more after a woman aired out her horrible experience with Ansari.
In an article published on the now-defunct Babe.net, a woman using the pseudonym “Grace” described a terrible date with Ansari, in which he pursued sex with horn-dog insistence and ultimately got his way despite her hesitance and discomfort.
The Babe.net story, as irresponsible as it may have been by journalistic standards, expanded the #MeToo conversation to include bad dating behaviour. Ansari may not have committed a crime, but he became the whipping boy for all the men who are creepy and inconsiderate.
“That whole thing made me think about every date I’ve ever been on,” says Ansari, quoting a friend, though he might as well be quoting the internet’s final positive spin on his moment with Grace.
Ansari’s sexual misconduct address lasts just over 90 seconds before he puts it behind him and moves on to telling jokes and skewering the culture. Except that Grace is never really gone. Her story remains as a structuring absence throughout the hour-long special.
All the jokes and editorialized observations – covering extreme wokesterism, Surviving R. Kelly, Leaving Neverland and cancel culture – comes from the unique perspective of a man who stood on the brink of being cancelled himself. When Ansari discusses what is no longer acceptable in comedy, he might as well be discussing how standards have changed after #MeToo. When Ansari discusses separating art from artist when it comes to Michael Jackson, he knows you’ll be thinking of him too. When Ansari is criticizing people’s rush to state their virtue-signalling position on so-and-so scandal, you know he’s pointing the finger at those who pointed a finger at him.
Ansari’s gags, whether poking fun at himself or his gullible audience, have a soul-searching feel, as if the tainted comic is exploring where he fits amidst all these debates and controversies. He’s figuring out the space he occupies in a rapidly shifting culture. Or maybe he’s helping us figure it out.
Some of the jokes are laugh-out-loud, some elicit grins and nods in agreement and some just mull about awkwardly or are left underdeveloped. I personally don’t care for bits imagining Osama bin Laden as a jazz legend (how could we listen to his music after 9/11?), or the run-ins Ansari’s dick had with his girlfriend’s IUD. The goofiest jokes can curdle when the topics can be so sombre.
But even such weak bits can’t be dropped because they fit in with a show that is brilliantly conceived as a conversation rather than a gag reel, something to move us forward after Ansari’s conduct, while understanding that there’s just no way to get away from it.
That the show begins by addressing the Grace controversy and ends with Ansari figuring out his sex issues with current girlfriend, Serena Skov Campbell, is part of that evolution. That whole IUD bit is all about how he’s still awkward and selfish when it comes to relationships (in as comic a way as possible) and women still get the short end of the stick. But it’s progress!
Right Now’s calculation and precision, in both the conversations and aesthetics, is an event unto itself, as if Ansari and his team have scoured the entire internet (all the hot takes and think pieces) and figured out every beat he needs to hit for cancel culture to embrace him again.
Ansari nails it when he compliments people for their “capacity for listening and understanding” when he speaks softly during those serious talks when he closes the show with a final note on the sexual misconduct controversy, expressing gratitude for being able to return to his audience when he decides to wear a cheap Metallica t-shirt (they opt for nothing fancy here).
And director Spike Jonze nails the message while manning his humble 16mm camera (again, nothing fancy, but still ingratiatingly cool). Jonze gets up close so that we not only see every emotive expression on Ansari’s face but also glimpse what we assume is a large crew of handlers watching their lucrative client from backstage.
Ansari and Jonze let us see everything as if to tell us they’re puncturing all illusions, revealing the infrastructure, and being as intimate and sincere as possible, warts and all. Whether that sincerity is genuine is hard to say. Ansari seems to be as excellent at stage-managing his public image as Beyoncé.
I’m too cynical to wholeheartedly believe a show that has been planned and rehearsed, with gags Ansari practiced on Toronto audiences last year at Roy Thomson Hall before they were sculpted and perfected into this.
But I stand in awe of it. What Ansari has ended up with is a purposefully awkward, moving and thoughtful response to the zeitgeist. And where the conversation goes from here is a thing both I and he will be closely watching.