'Aziz Ansari: “I’ve always been a feminist”' ran the headline of an article promoting his novel Modern Romance in 2015. Two years later the statement “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned out to be the worst night of my life” spread through the internet like wild fire. Known as he was, as one of the few men who truly understood women’s plights, the comedian’s entry in the list of sexual misconduct accused celebrities had been especially emphatic. A vocal ally of the Time’sUp movement, he had repeatedly called out “creepy dudes” in his shows, only to earn the title for himself.
But as big as the scandal was, no one thought it capable to end Ansari’s career. Not when confessing to sexual harassment charges hadn’t meant an end to Louis CK. Not only did CK make a comeback, he made an especially distasteful one as though with a licence now to do maximum possible damage.”My life is over. I don’t care” he brandished as he did his first show back with no trace of apology, making primitive tone deaf jokes. His comedy had always been risky but making sexual assault jokes right after a harassment case was arguably not the greatest of the ideas.
If he had just waited a bit, he could have learnt a few things from colleague Aziz Ansari who has just managed to pull off the biggest 180 of the year with his new Netflix special Right Now. At the peak of his career, Ansari could afford no slip ups in redeeming himself. Right Now is a triumph in that regard, a carefully structured set, with each joke strategically placed to break down any and all existing apprehensions.
The Spike Jonze-directed special gets up close and personal with a post Me Too, wiser and contemplative Ansari.“I felt scared, humiliated, embarrassed and ultimately I just felt terrible that this person felt this way”, he whispers into the microphone as Jonze focuses the camera on his face. (One of the many bgm worthy shots in the special).But eventually it was a “step forward” he explains, as it had made not just him, but also others more thoughtful. And this wins him applause from the crowd. If Louis CK returned with ‘a this is me, deal with it’ attitude branded on his forehead, Ansari walks out tentatively as a changed man. At least a changed comedian. As a seemingly more mature Ansari delivers his jokes from the stool for almost the entirety of the show, no trace of the previously theatrical comedian is to be found.
Jonze’s camera goes behind the curtain, showing the crew watching from the sidelines, the equipment used and focuses on a very real and relatable Ansari. But under all such directorial skill lies concealed the fact that in Right Now, Ansari expresses his regret in the first five minutes and spends the next 55 craftily shifting the focus away from his own faults on to those of the society.
People only react when controversies morph into entertainment he argues. “We all look the other way,” he says unless the facts come in the form of a binge-worthy documentary.
When asked to clap if they are truly done with Michael Jackson and R. Kelly following the famous allegations, Jonze skilfully focuses the camera on the unsure faces in the crowd. Only a smattering of claps crop up (even the subtitles say so).
In a yet another clever decision, Ansari construes Phil as a racist, Jim as a stalker and his own character Tom as a creep from the fan favourite Hangover movies, The Office and Parks and Recreation. We had all enjoyed watching these characters he says and the audience agrees, albeit nervously. But before the guilt settles in, Ansari provides the solution himself. “We are all shitty people...but we slowly get aware and become better”. And with that he has everyone on the same boat, sharing the blame of ignorance.
Though he never establishes a direct link with his own experience, his calm veneer drops as he speaks with anger about the ‘woke’ internet community. “They don’t really care about learning and exploring and discussing. They just want to chime in with their little programmed reactions”. The audience does their part in proving him right as they fall for a carefully set up trap, giving opinions on a nonexistent issue. “You are the problem,” Ansari now says with confidence
Right Now is a success as within 60 minutes Ansari rebrands himself, wins the pity of the crowd and even gets to throw a few blows. At the end of the set, he finds himself redeemed not just in the comedy scene but in the hearts of the people.
But it almost seems like he needn’t have gone through all the trouble. The special starts with him strolling on to stage to a hearty welcome from a crowd on its feet. He had already been forgiven. The decision had already been made. Ansari then spends the entirety of the show convincing the audience of their right call but never once with an apology.