‘Aziz Ansari: Right Now’ Is an Incredibly Awkward Stand-Up Special — and Better For It

There are contradictions galore within “Aziz Ansari: Right Now,” the comedian’s first stand-up special in four years and first widely accessible entertainment offering since the second season of “Master of None” (which premiered in May 2017). For one, the new Netflix release isn’t all that funny — it’s a stand-up special, but it’s not really out for laughs. Framed by a sincere pseudo-apology and an earnest thank you, Ansari’s not interested in going for the joke at all costs, so much as he wants to engage again with the audience he almost lost.

The former point marks the comedian’s natural trajectory, as he transitioned from an inward-looking storyteller, finding humor in everyday conversations, to an outward-looking humor-ologist, examining modern social patterns through audience interaction while on stage and conducting actual field research when off of it (shown in his book, “Modern Romance”). But the idea of losing his audience, which took a hit when a 2018 article highlighted a sexual misconduct claim against Ansari, is what’s really driving “Right Now.”

His desire to mend any broken ties is seen right from the get-go, as he opens by talking about the sexual misconduct allegations — the reason for his self-imposed exile and an interaction he feels “terrible” about.

“I felt so many things in the last year — there are times I felt scared, times I felt humiliated, times I felt embarrassed,” Ansari says. “And ultimately, I just felt terrible that this person felt this way. After a year or so, I just hope it was a step forward. It moved things forward for me, it made me think about a lot.”

Director Spike Jonze brings much of his style to the proceedings. He tracks Ansari into the venue from the street, with The Velvet Underground’s cover of Lou Reed’s “Pale Blue Eyes” covering the snippets of conversation between a clearly nervous performer and the cameraman who will stick by his side — literally — throughout the set. After ducking in through a nondescript side door, the camera walks onto stage with Ansari and plants right next to him for the 65-minute duration. Ansari acknowledges his presence, telling the audience not to worry, that he’s not some aggressive paparazzo — he’s supposed to be there.

But the shots from stage prove the most evocative. Though there are plenty of traditional angles (from the front row of the crowd, from a behind a few heads in the middle, from both sides of the stage, zooming in as Ansari speaks), whenever Jonze cuts to the shot right next to Ansari, right there with him on stage, it feels like you’re being invited to experience the set from the comedian’s perspective instead of the viewer’s. You’re no longer part of the audience because that’s not how the audience would see things — you’re one with Ansari, seeing his nerves as his voice drops to a cracking octave whenever he’s making a sincere statement and feeling his relief whenever he snags a laugh or a round of applause.

It helps that Ansari is dressed down; a more fitting subject for Jonze’s disheveled standards, sporting a vintage Metallica t-shirt, gray jeans, and black Vans, showing the feet bones only an X-ray would reveal, this is a far cry from the besuited megastar who sold out Madison Square Garden. He’s stripped down for a stripped bare set, and Jonze makes the most of his look, shooting on distressed 16mm film with flecks of dust either inserted in post or captured for real over a three-day shoot.

And here’s what “Right Now” comes down to: Is it the real deal, a carefully designed comeback, or both? Every observation Ansari makes can be tied back to his most recent bad experience, a train of thought that’s inevitable for the audience as much as the comedian. How could it not affect him, just as it had to affect viewers’ perception of him? Ansari appears to know this, and even when he ostensibly moves past the allegations, he’s embracing the messy new nature within his public persona.

When he talks about “white woke people” who write think-pieces about every little thing, is he thinking back to all the think-pieces that were written about his sexually aggressive behavior? When he says you can’t judge everyone and everything by 2019 standards, is he asking not to be judged by who he was, but who he is now? When he comments about how weird it is that we watch horrifying yet illuminating documentaries like “Leaving Neverland” as entertainment, is he also commenting on how weird it is that we read articles about celebrities’ sex lives for entertainment, too?

Ansari doesn’t offer explicit answers for these seemingly invited questions — after all, they only exist in the audience’s imagination — but he doesn’t offer answers to the explicit questions either. When more audience members say they’re through with R. Kelly than Michael Jackson, he points out the disparity, but he doesn’t chastise anyone for their apparent hypocrisy. Not really. He’s still trying to earn back their trust; their faith in him as a cultural interpreter. Perhaps he doesn’t wrestle with these kind of contradictions hard enough, or offer any deep, previously unseen insights gleaned from his unique experience, but by all accounts he’s still in the middle of it. “Right Now” is a check-in, an update, a work-in-progress, and it strains to bring the audience back to Ansari, even while many have already come running.

At set’s end, he again dips back into sincerity, claiming the Old Aziz who was always looking forward to the next stand-up special, next show, or next project is dead — replaced with a New Aziz who honors the moment as it’s happening. With that in mind, he thanks everyone for coming, but not the way he used to: This time, he has everyone close their eyes, takes it all in, and then he says, “good night and thank you very, very much.” Ansari knows that by spending their money and making the trip to this venue, this group has already agreed they want to hear more of whatever he has to say.

But the biggest question lies with the audience watching at home: Checking out a Netflix special at the click of a button is less of a commitment, but Ansari wants to earn that time and more. By not forcing answers onto his audience, by not being the overbearing, opinionated stand-up that exists elsewhere, by not overtly retaliating against any perceived injustice, he’s backing up his claim to have spent the last year or so listening instead of brooding.

As he walks off stage, Jonze’s camera tracks him to the opposite side he entered on, and Ansari lets out a big sigh and then smiles — cut to black. He’s done. He got through it. Now, let’s see what happens next.

Grade: B

“Aziz Ansari: Right Now” is streaming now on Netflix.

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