Aziz Ansari knows how to tell a joke. He knows how to write and deliver one, both physically and verbally. He knows how to take stories that are ostensibly from his own life and relay them in a way that others can relate to, while also commenting on a larger trend or problem within society. He even knows how to do crowd work without being a hack about it. When it comes to the performance aspect of stand-up comedy, Ansari is as talented as anybody else working today.
And that’s one of the main problems with his new Netflix special: It’s too much of a performance.
Right Now is Ansari’s first special since he was accused of sexual misconduct in January 2018. Other than a statement released in the wake of those accusations, Right Now is also the first time he’s publicly discussed that situation. He doesn’t waste time bringing it up, either—after an opening story of a man on the street confusing him with Hasan Minhaj, Ansari addresses the controversy in a hushed, serious tone that’s a far cry from his old excitable persona. His framing of it shows a surprising thoughtlessness, though. He’s so vague about it that you’d probably think he was the victim, if you didn’t know the story. Of course many people all along acted as if Ansari was the victim, and if he believes that himself, then it’s just proof that he didn’t learn anything or think too deeply about what happened.
In that short opening monologue Ansari says that he hopes the night he ignored a partner’s limits and comfort level can now be seen as “a good thing” over a year later because it’s made some men rethink “every date [they’ve] ever been on.” Raising awareness about consent and coercion is a good thing, but acting like that makes up for what Ansari was accused of is off base, especially since, as far as we can tell, he still maintains that everything seemed consensual to him that night. That’s what he wrote in his statement from Jan. 2018, and nothing in Right Now shows that he’s rethought that position. It doesn’t look good to give yourself points for whatever conversation was started by misconduct that you still don’t really take responsibility for.
The comedian who lamented “creepy dudes” in his last special and how women have it way worse than men is now ranting about “wokeness” like he’s a middle-aged morning drive shock jock. Much of what he says has some truth to it—he says that “newly woke white people are exhausting,” and if you’ve spent enough time on social media that line probably makes you think of at least one specific person that you know. It’s absolutely true that racist things were racist before white people became aware of them, and the concise way he frames that makes it one of the many times I laughed throughout Right Now. A certain kind of white person did overreact to the perfectly fine but unspectacular rom com Crazy Rich Asians, and the tension when Ansari calls a woman in the audience out on that is both earned and entertaining. But in the same bit he complains about people getting offended about Apu in The Simpsons, and although he’s talking about performatively woke white people, it’s hard to hear that and not think that he’s dismissing the concerns of fellow comedian Hari Kondabolu, the most prominent critic of Apu. Later on he tries to bait the audience with a made-up story about a Pizza Hut who delivered a pizza with toppings arranged in a swastika; it’s a pointless “gotcha!” moment that doesn’t serve much of a purpose, and only distracts from what Ansari seems to want to say.
Right Now gets better when he talks about how we too often take our families for granted. His observations are true, candid, and personal but universal. Crucially, it’s also removed from his ongoing debate about wokeness. It does fit under Right Now’s larger message of trying to become a better person, but without the blindness of its worst moments. And although his material about his Danish girlfriend who doesn’t understand racism amounts to little more than a minor aside, it’s still personal and funny without the baggage.
Ansari is at his funniest and most perceptive when he points out how quickly standards have changed. He brings up how The Hangover, one of the biggest comedies ever, and one that’s only a decade old, has a scene where Bradley Cooper loudly calls another character a homophobic slur. He talks about how Jim and Pam’s romance in The Office feels completely out of place with today’s heightened awareness of office sexual dynamics, and how his own show Parks & Recreation, which aired almost entirely in the current decade, had moments that rightfully wouldn’t fly today. His point is that in time almost everybody and everything looks terrible, and that it’s good that mores change and improve.
As misguided and unearned as his whispered, sad-faced opening is, it’s not the most grating part of Right Now. All the jokes about people acting out their political correctness culminates in a “both sides are equally bad” rant that isn’t too far removed from those people who blame the far left for the far right’s increasing embrace of white supremacy and fascism. It’s not quite as bad as Trump saying there were “very fine people on both sides” of a protest where the side that was protesting in favor of hate murdered somebody protesting against hate, but it’s definitely leaning in that general direction. The failure to see a difference between people wanting to improve the world and those who want to make it an angrier, more violent and more dangerous place should be another one of those things that Ansari looks back on with embarrassment in the not too distant future.
At the end of the special Ansari returns to the quiet, solemn tone he used at the beginning. This time he thanks the audience with a grave sincerity, explaining that he never really meant that in the past but does now because he knows how easily he could’ve lost his career. Considering the only consequences he’s had to deal with are some harsh tweets and the occasional critical thinkpiece, and that he’s back less than 18 months later with a stand-up special directed by an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and distributed by the largest streaming platform, it’s hard to take this part as seriously as Ansari wants us to.
Despite some good jokes, it’s hard to see Right Now as anything but a misfire—a critique of performative wokeness that is itself a performance of atonement, one that never fully grapples with or acknowledges what it’s supposedly atoning for. I can understand why Ansari wouldn’t want to dig into the specifics on a stand-up special, which presumably will be watched by fans new and old for years to come, but this is pretty much his only public statement on the situation (outside of that statement released in the immediate wake of the accusations), and it doesn’t show much understanding or acceptance of what he was accused of. It’s a portrait of a comic who just wants to throw his hands in the air and disappear from the increasingly divided culture we live in, which isn’t just irresponsible but impossible at this point.
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.