The US comic is cynical about competitive virtue-signalling in a show that doesnt directly respond to allegations against him but is full of friction
What happens to men accused of sexual misconduct in the #MeToo era? Assuming their offences dont incur legal sanction, how, if at all, might they be rehabilitated? How soon is too soon for a comeback and what should it look like? One place that debate isnt being staged is in Aziz Ansaris new standup show, which made an unheralded visit to Londons Top Secret Comedy Club last night. Ansari doesnt mention the babe.net article in January in which a woman he had dated accused the Master of None star of inappropriate behaviour, which he denied.
Some will say: why should he mention it? The Ansari accusations werent about workplace harassment, nor serial abuse. The details of the complaint against him seemed, to some, open to interpretation. Ansari wasnt found guilty in the court of public opinion; at worst, it was a hung jury. In which context, why rake over the whole ugly and contentious experience in a comedy show? Ansari chooses not to do so although those looking for clues to his feelings about it were given plenty to chew on at this work-in-progress UK outing for a set hes recently been performing in the US.
I should say straight away: it was a terrific show, far superior to his 2013 and 2014 offerings at Hammersmith Apollo. Back then, I found him a bit smooth and complacent. Its a totally different vibe tonight: homelier venue, Ansari dressed down and theres much more friction to the opinions he expresses about social media, race and (in particular) wokeness. Half a decade ago, he was all sunlit optimism about our connected culture, which had made us the least lonely generation ever. Now I wonder why? hes cynical about competitive virtue-signalling online and the Twitter rush to judgment on anyone deemed insufficiently PC.
To be fair to Ansari, this doesnt come across as special pleading, nor remotely peevish. But, playful as it is, there is a bit of needle to the show which I found welcome after the too-slick stylings of his earlier work. One routine after another mocks the people who pile in online without understanding the cultural issue at stake. The my culture is not your prom dress barney in the US; another boycott Starbucks campaign; the Simpsons/Apu controversy Ansari undermines them all. He laments our instant gratification culture, seeking quick fixes to intractable, deeply rooted problems. With a little sympathy and a lot of ridicule, he mimics white people desperately over-correcting their grandparents racism. Wokeness, he suggests, can go too far.
It doesnt all work. At one point, he uses his audience to demonstrate how readily people take sides in a Twitterstorm but the audience dont play ball. A later routine very amusingly depicts Ansari as R&B crooners Boyz II Men trapped between the Biggie and Tupac extremes of Trump and the warriors of woke. Im not convinced the latter are quite the monolithic self-righteous pieces of shit Ansari describes them as. But that barely diminishes the comedy of a routine that calls powerfully for more sympathy and less zealotry in the public conversation.
Its not alone as a standout set-piece. Another imagines police persecuting white people for their love of Friends and their irresponsible use of farmers markets. The closing section discusses Ansaris interracial relationship, and jokes from a feminist perspective on current options in birth control. Of course, Ansari has always joked from a feminist perspective; thats why the babe.net allegations hit so hard. With justification or otherwise, doubt has been cast on Ansaris sensitivity to womens feelings; on his basic decency, really. In which context, jokes that foreground his relationship, and his alertness to gender injustice, land in a slightly different way. As a reassertion of his good-guy credentials, if you want to cut him slack or as hypocrisy, if you dont.
If youre in the latter category, you wouldnt (I guess) buy tickets for a top secret last-minute Aziz Ansari gig in the first place. For the rest of us, well, it would be fascinating to hear Ansari address the accusations against him in his comedy. It might, just, help rebuild bridges to those fans who felt let down by the allegations his accuser made to babe.net in January. In the absence of such a reckoning, I can at least report that the scandal has lit a fuse under Ansaris comedy. What was gilded looks like its taken a few knocks. A smooth act now has rough edges. He was once agreeable; now he seems up for an argument.
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