He’s not wrong. We all have to be careful what we say these days, and maybe that’s not the worst trend for us as a society. But careful is the last thing you want from a comedian. We want them to say the things the rest of us can’t say. We’re the cowards who pay to sit in the audience; they’re the brave ones who grab the mic. We rely on them for laughs, sure, but not the easy kind — we want them to dissect us, to reflect us, to help us understand…us. And hopefully, to help us feel better, even if it’s just for a moment, about the messiness of being human.
Ansari stepped into the quicksand of that mess in January of 2018, when the now-defunct website Babe.net published one woman’s detailed account of an upsetting date she’d had with the actor a few months prior. He allegedly pressured her repeatedly and aggressively for sex; she said she’d come to view the encounter as an assault. In the polarized reactions that the piece inspired — and, as Ansari points out throughout his act, is there any other kind today? — there was knee-jerk condemnation of him, for being gross and predatory, and stinging rebukes for her, for overreacting to what was nothing more than a bad date.
Regardless of what happened that night, the incident could have introduced a valuable conversation about romantic encounters that occupy that vast gray area between mutually-satisfying, consensual sex and assault. But, with precious few exceptions, no one was interested in a nuanced examination of hookup norms, of the ways in which our culture teaches men to be persistent in their pursuit of sex and women to say no but to stay sweet and compliant while doing so. Outrage is the status quo, so outrage is what we got at the time.
As a human embodiment of the perils of misunderstandings surrounding sex, and as a famous comedian — a person who makes a living as a cultural critic, often mining his own experiences to illuminate a larger point about our world — Ansari had the opportunity to start that conversation, finally, with Right Now. And while it may not have registered for him when he embarked on the tour from which this special was filmed, there was still plenty of public goodwill on his side. Some fans believed that if anyone could address these issues effectively onstage, it might be the guy who literally wrote a book on dating in the digital age (Modern Romance, 2015). And who never made creepy jokes about masturbation a fulcrum of his act. (Ahem, Louis C.K.)
Instead, he punts. Ansari references the incident in his first bit of the set, in a bait-and-switch joke with a setup about race — a passer-by on the street confused Ansari with another South Asian comedian and TV personality, Hasan Minhaj, then realized his mistake and offered proof of recognition by citing Ansari’s TV credits, catchphrases, and… notorious misdeed. Punch line: “No, that was Hasan.” People erupt in cheers and applause as soon as he mentions “that sexual misconduct thing,” thrilled (or relieved?) that he’s immediately pointed to the elephant in the room.
But then he treats it more like a field mouse. His voice turning low and soft, Ansari says he was humiliated in the wake of the story, but that he mostly felt terrible that the woman in question had felt so terrible. Then he says he hopes that it’s been a step forward — for whom, he doesn’t specify — and recounts a conversation with a friend who told him “that whole thing” had made the guy rethink every date he’d ever been on. That’s a pretty powerful revelation, but Ansari caps it with a bland missive about how it’s great that the “thing” has made him and others more thoughtful. The end. Let’s get on with the show.
This quasi-reckoning takes all of about one minute. Before moving on to other topics, Ansari calls the moment “intense,” but it was oddly anodyne. For someone who’s such a close observer of the human condition and all its knottiness, it was a disappointment. There’s no question Ansari has had a difficult time over the last year. So have all the men who’ve silently grappled with whether they’ve ever pushed too hard for sex. So have all the women who’ve been racked with shame over the times they simply grew too exhausted (at best) or fearful (at worst) to continue saying no to a pushy date.
What that gasping, cheering crowd might have wanted — or, more importantly, needed — wasn’t a throwaway kumbaya moment but some kind of deeper excavation of what went down. To grab Ansari’s hand and jump into those murky waters, hoping they could come out a little cleaner. Instead, he refers obliquely to the “thing” that happened, without ever daring to even say what it was, never mind explore the complexities of it.
To be fair, Ansari did not have an easy road here. And some of his staunchest defenders in the wake of the “thing” would argue that he has nothing to publicly explain. But Ansari is a smart, skilled comedian. And this hollow moment ends up striking a note of cognitive dissonance in a special that is otherwise genuinely funny, willing to wrestle with so many of the thorny problems, hypocrisies, and contradictions inherent in today’s age of wokeness.
During his crowd work, Ansari calls out a couple of different white audience members for being too scared to risk stepping in shit to answer his questions about the movie Crazy Rich Asians and the (not-etymologically-related-to-race) word “niggardly.” He calls us all out for our willingness to cancel R. Kelly but not Michael Jackson since the release of documentaries exposing each artist’s alleged sex crimes. He doubly calls us out for not being willing to truly interrogate those abuses until they were packaged as entertainment. He calls himself out for old jokes that haven’t aged well, including numerous bits that centered on his love of Kelly’s music.
In a way, so much of Right Now swirls around the question of what behavior, in the current climate, we’re willing to excuse and what we’re not. It’s an analysis dependent at every moment on context, but, deft as he is at providing it for topics from race to media, at no point is Ansari willing to lay bare the issues surrounding the incident that has pained him over the last year. To be clear, nobody needs his version of events. What we need is a glimpse into the insights he’s gained. Are they really so vague as just “I hope I’m a better person”? Is there no way to use the craft of comedy to elevate our collective discussion of how men and women navigate sex?
Maybe it would’ve been a colossal bummer for Ansari to delve into this fraught topic onstage. Maybe it would’ve felt like medicine instead of tonic. Still, there are ways to do it. Ask Hannah Gadsby. You can argue, as many did, that her 2018 Netflix special, Nanette, in which she examined not only her assault but the toxic culture that made it possible, wasn’t funny. It’s much tougher to argue that it wasn’t important. Ansari is a very different kind of comedian, but it’s not outside of his capabilities to attempt a high-wire act — and to pull it off.
To close the special, Ansari turns earnest again, giving his audience heartfelt thanks. “I saw a world where I don’t ever get to do this again,” he says, as the crowd falls pin-drop quiet, “and it almost felt like I died. And in a way, I did.” He speaks eloquently — and, note to Gadsby critics, un-funnily — about how he’s learned to be more present and to truly appreciate human connection. “All we really have is the moment we’re in and the people we’re with,” he says. “That’s how I choose to live — in the moment I’m in, with the people I’m with. And right now, this is our moment. … So why don’t we all just take it in for just a second.” You’re waiting for the joke, but it never comes.