With the release of Right Now, the largest comeback attempt yet of the #MeToo moment has been enacted. Yes, Louis CK has popped up at comedy festivals, and Kevin Spacey releases weird videos into the internet’s void, but Aziz Ansari’s new special is a Netflix-cosigned release where Ansari is trying to rediscover himself in a post-Babe.net world. The previously larger-than-life comic’s return to the stage with a candid, casual, and most importantly thoughtful special that is second most importantly, his best.
In previous specials, Ansari would strut on stage to bombastic applause, often in a designer suit. In Right Now, he just kind of wanders out in Metallica t-shirt that looks too big for him, as “Pale Blue Eyes” by The Velvet Underground plays. Where Ansari’s past specials saw him delivering a wide range of emotions in an enthusiastic, elevated form of himself, this special sees him performing in a reserved fashion. In Ansari’s past work, he embodied his Tom Haverford character that he portrayed on Parks & Rec-a lovably enthusiastic goof who favored luxury, although often fell flat in his endeavors. This performance has more in common with Ansari’s character from Master of None; actually, it felt like for the first time Ansari was performing as himself. Ansari cuts right to the chase and tells the audience a joke that addresses his sexual misconduct allegations-possibly the most controversial set of allegations to come out of the #MeToo movement. Unlike CK’s dismissive joke at Skankfest, Ansari offers a lot of nuance. It’s not a bit that warrants gut-busting laughter, nor does he seem to pander for applause over laughter. He makes a joke about being mistaken for Hasan Minhaj, offers a sincere look at how the movement is good and how he wants to be better, and wraps it up by saying, “I know, that’s not a hilarious way to start a comedy show.” It’s a mature introduction, because a younger Ansari may have name-dropped a few of his famous friends or brought to mind all of Babe.net’s internal problems since the story ran, but Ansari seems more compelled to make amends rather than light the room on fire.
For the most part, the rest of his set focuses on the “dangers of extreme woke-ness,” admittedly not Ansari’s lane. The themes of the set are more reminiscent of Bill Burr’s ranting than the jumpy performance-over-material work of his past, with the calmness of someone like Mike Birbiglia. What’s most notable about the set is that Ansari never veers into a “Can you believe these liberals?” or “Get a load of these conservatives?” He’s a thoughtful left-leaning guy, and he’s more focused on people hearing every side of a story. This is best demonstrated in a bit where he talks about someone ordering a pizza and it getting delivered with pepperonis in the shape of a swastika. He asks the audience to clap if they thought it looked like a swastika and clap if they thought it didn’t. The air of the room is very confused, but there are scattered applause to both questions before Ansari reveals that he made the whole scandal up. While he concedes that outrage is justified sometimes, none of us need to weigh in on things we’ve never even heard about. He builds tension with a really thoughtful and interesting set, where he rarely slips into the persona we’ve come to identify with him.
What makes the set work best though is the intimate nature of The Brooklyn Academy of Music. Ansari never needs to connect with a crowd the way a lesser-known comic may. John Mulaney can walk out onstage and just do his act without really acknowledging the audience. Bo Burnham’s set is planned down to the second, but Ansari does some light crowd work, and the show has more of a club feel than his past work. Addressing younger fans in the front row, Ansari addresses the larger crowd about being aware of your loved one’s mortality, before turning to the children and saying, “This doesn’t apply to you,” before joking about the children thinking “MY PARENTS ARE GONNA DIE SOON.” It feels more like a casual night at the Comedy Cellar rather than a big event.
As the special draws to a close, Ansari feels truly grateful to just have the opportunity to perform again. His final sections are a bit more inspiring and storytelling based. He does draw a bit from Nanette in embracing unfunny moments, but as a seasoned club comic, still finds a way to make the show funny. He gets existential in a way that can really rattle you, but he lets you go saying, “Imagine if I ended the show right there.” As the show ends, Ansari has shown he’s been visibly changed from his experiences in the past year and a half. He’s a little more weathered, wiser, and more thoughtful. Not only has he found a way to gracefully return to the stage, but he’s also a stronger comic now. He’s learned a lot, and he now seems to want to prove he’s better for it.