Next week Netflix will release the first Aziz Ansari stand-up special since Babe.net reported an account of his alleged sexual misconduct 18 months ago. The streamer announced it yesterday with a tweet; not only did it remind people that Ansari did, in fact, still exist, but it immediately revived the controversy that drove the comedian to effectively disappear last year—a controversy about consent, coercion and respect.
The debate over Ansari’s actions has always had a different tone than most of the other #MeToo stories that have broken since the fall of 2017. Unlike Louis C.K., whose admitted behavior was inherently one-sided and predatory, what Ansari was accused of has been written off by many as a “date gone bad”—as Ansari misreading cues, perhaps, but not purposely assaulting or mistreating anybody. (If you need a refresher, you can read the Babe.net piece here.)
I don’t see how anybody could read that Babe.net article and land on that conclusion in good faith. As Holly Green wrote here at Paste, even if Ansari’s accuser didn’t verbalize her lack of consent, the kind of passive signs detailed in her account should have made it clear to him that she wasn’t interested. “I’m asking how you could even want to have sex with someone who clearly is not interested, much less ignore so many signs of rejection to do so,” Green asked the comedian.
The accusations also struck at the heart of Ansari’s image as a comedian. In the years leading up to the Babe.net article, Ansari had depicted himself as some kind of expert in romantic relationships. His stand-up act became heavily oriented around modern dating, and not the kind of personal stories about relationships gone wrong that so many comics deal in; Ansari approached it like an anthropologist, even cowriting a book on relationships with sociologist and NYU professor Eric Klinenberg. His celebrated Netflix sitcom, Master of None, focused on his character’s romantic relationships with an almost scientific remove. Ansari had worked hard to establish himself as a sophisticated and thoughtful chronicler of 21st century romance, which made the image of him insistently trying to get a disinterested date to acknowledge his penis seem even more pathetic and seedy.
Ansari largely stayed quiet about the incident after an initial statement, although he returned to stand-up fairly quickly. By May 2018 he was doing drop-ins at New York stand-up clubs; a few months later he embarked on a full tour, which The New Yorker described as “a cry against extreme wokeness.” Outside of his stand-up shows, he’s still avoiding the spotlight, and hasn’t done any interviews or appeared on any TV shows since before the controversy started. Basically the scandal erupted, people on every side of the issue debated it for a few weeks, Ansari never engaged and pretty much disappeared, and then the debate slowly died out.
Maybe if Ansari had tried to publicly grapple with the accusations last year the news of his special wouldn’t have dredged all of this back up. Instead of trying to make himself accountable, or taking part in the dialogue that his actions created, he immediately faded out of view, only eventually addressing these subjects in a venue in which he has total control. There are enormous risks in publicly responding to these kinds of allegations, of course—with the slightest misstep or poorly worded statement he could’ve done even more damage to his reputation. But by not making that attempt—by just letting his stand-up do the talking for him—Ansari has guaranteed that the controversy will continue to cloud his career. Instead of writing about his new material people are talking about the Babe.net article again, as if the news just recently broke. Former and current fans are taking sides once more on the Aziz debate. A scandal that Ansari, the would-be anthropologist of modern romance, could’ve learned from and used to help shape the national debate on consent has instead continued to shade his career. Perhaps he’ll find a way to gracefully address the subject in his new special, but that New Yorker article and other accounts of his recent tour make that seem unlikely. Right now that’s pretty much the only interesting thing about this new special—not how much fun it’ll be to see a stand-up great back at work again, but what he’ll have to say about the controversy that disrupted his career. And Ansari has only himself to blame for that.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.