Aziz Ansari, accountability, and figuring out where to go next in a post #MeToo world

The comedian’s comedy special is a mirror and a lens into the careful line between self-interest, self-awareness and ultimately, redemption. 

November 19, 2019

It’s 2019. Unsure if this is post-apocalypse, or pre-apocalypse, you do what any sensible person your age ought to do to just forget about things for a moment: you drop a few hundred dollars on a music festival, assemble all twenty of your closest friends, and cross your fingers that you’re drinking enough water to avoid a hangover or heatstroke. It works, till “peak happiness you” gets hit with several visceral reminders of what you were trying to avoid in the first place: a hangover-induced fatigue slash full-body ache entirely reminiscent of college; an intense craving for salt and carbs; flashes of people you definitely haven’t seen or thought of since 2016, or 2017 or, 2018. 

Now, that you’ve put yourself into a healthy spiral, you have a headache and choose one of your ancient hangover recovery rituals: settling in with some tea and a Netflix Special. What screams out at you first is? Aziz Ansari: RIGHT NOW. We’re post-apocalypse, you decide.

In this current cultural moment it’s difficult to say exactly what I expected from Aziz Ansari in 2019;  who long had been the smart and witty brown guy who gave my peers and I an equal dose of representation and food for thought. I’d recommended Modern Love to all my friends, marvelling at the artistic blend of solid science, comedy, and writing Aziz brought to his millennial fans, giving them permission to feel comfortable about their 21st Century dating practices. My closest friends and I jammed out to his video for “Famous” when he teased that. I cried (inside) at his understated but vivid depiction of his relationship with his immigrant parents in Master of None. And I sat there in horror, paralyzed by shock and discomfort reading Grace’s description of Aziz’s sexual advances , fully aware of how eerily similar it felt to so many encounters in my own life, my friends lives. 

I recognized how it felt more difficult to immediately dismiss him because he was Aziz Ansari, just that funny guy next door. How #MeToo shook us to the core, but how Aziz’s role in it struck a chord on the level of mass communication breakdown we were all complicit in until then, whether or not we’d given it much thought prior. My curiosity was on high and my body was heavy. So we’re really doing this, sitting down, and letting Spike Jonze show us Aziz Ansari repent, en masse. My time is at a premium, but I’ll give you an hour of it, Aziz, despite myself.

 Unsurprisingly, and without missing a beat, Aziz immediately addresses “that whole situation,” almost glossing over the meat and bones of it to jump into everything else he has to say. He gives no more than a minute to the entire (sombre, well lit, and very quiet) meditation, he references the reaction of a “close friend,” who had commented that it “made him think of every date he’d ever been on.” Yikes. Yet, that level of honesty accurately described what I think a lot of people felt about “grey areas,” and what masses of people might find acceptable as a way of addressing the matter, all of which I think Aziz had aptly pre-assessed. Extending an olive branch to the audience as “close friends,” and “moral equals,” is probably a good way to start. 

Setting aside the fact that Aziz can’t even make the effort to pronounce “Hasan Minhaj’s” name correctly when making a half-flat joke on white people being unable to tell brown people apart, the special is extremely thoughtful, maybe too thoughtful. Aziz’s delivery, plus Spike’s direction—draw attention to his ability to perform “easy-to-digest” social commentary effortlessly— specifically by putting the spotlight back on the audience themselves. He draws a wide berth in his discussion of today’s world: from making fun of the “woke Olympics,” to experimenting with herd mentality and confirmation bias, reminding us of the omnipresence of filter bubbles, telling people to spend more time with their families, to be nicer people. 

He clearly knows his presumed audience (mostly white middle class moderates), and plays on the discomfort and fear of being exposed as “moderates,” as privileged, as complacent. He weaves cancel culture into the mix, discussing “cultural breaking points” on what  (or who) we are willing to forgive, how quick we are to decide who is passe, and the resulting fear anyone who recognizes their previous complicity, or complacency, is “forced to feel” now. In one instance he takes the example of MJ versus R. Kelly: reminding us that if the art is “good enough,” the memories are “heavy enough,” and the artist “likeable enough” that we are  willing to overlook a lot. He pulls on heartstrings and seems to recognize he’s on the verge of being thrown into the “passe pile.” At its core, it feels like he’s asking us to put him in the MJ bin rather than the R. Kelly one. 

Aziz’s special, less comedy than commentary, indexes our current cultural moment in a typically self-aware and uncomfortably eerie way, calling out the type of political performance required to show you’re alright, all while doing that same charade just for us. He situates himself by acknowledging his past. He reflects on the past version(s) of himself, as we’ve seen him. He reflects on how he speculates we all might see him; post #MeToo, “with 2019 eyes,” taking great care to emphasize the role of time, the role of context, the role of age and maturity. From this point in time, he recognizes how a lot of things we used to value—including his own work— have aged badly. Without putting too fine a point on it, he points to the ability of the culture, and of each of us- to adapt and evolve over time. “If we were all the same people we were ten years ago, well that’s just kind of shitty.” And who can disagree with that sentiment?

Aziz’s #MeToo moment was, in my view, fundamentally about our cultural views on communication and consent, and showed us how gaping that grey area can, and has been. It hasn’t been long since Grace opened that discussion, and it doesn’t yet feel closed, to me anyways. In arenas outside of romance  Ansari highlights that communication is now asocial currency. It’s rooted in experience, and as he astutely points out, the more self aware you are and “show yourself to be,”, the more social capital you can garner. We collectively value emotional intelligence, and those who can show themselves to be self aware, to be personally accountable, to be empathetic. As Aziz might say, the culture has broken. The problem with this is, through mimicry, manipulation, and just enough sleight of hand is that it’s easy to perform self-awareness. In a weird paradoxical way, that ultimately makes Aziz’s comedy special difficult to laugh at, he hits exactly on something we’re collectively experiencing: the same  charade of humble self-awareness performed to save face in the light of a call out is dually evoked to attain redemption.

With this in mind, it’s unclear how much can be redeemed. How can we continue the conversation of separating the art from the artist if the artist (Aziz?) can admit they’ve changed, and change their art too? Through “2019 eyes” can we take these apologies at face value, or are they just necessary performances required to stay relevant?  On an individual level how much of our personal thoughts, feelings, experience are we required to disclose in order to be taken seriously?

Striking the perfect balance of disclosure is difficult, but somehow, what I found most jarring about Aziz’s special was the way he seemed to have reduced it to a perfect science. Regardless of the motives, Right Now set a bar for how we proceed from 2019, how we start to view ourselves and how “redemption” works in this moment. 

I don’t know if I want to be rewatching Aziz anytime soon, or if I trust the display, or if his special helped me recover with any peace of mind. But I do know it’ll be hard, nearly impossible, for any of us to look away from the mirror of – personal accountability which seems to mean something different now. Even if we’re not entirely sure what it means yet.

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