When Aziz Ansari announced that he’d be coming to my town a couple of weeks ago, I initially didn’t give it much thought, except to think, “Just like most dudes under a cloud of #MeToo allegations, he’s going to be just fine.” In fact, judging by the turnout here in Portland, Maine, he’s going to be more than just fine: His first show quickly sold out, so he added two more shows, which also sold out.
Part of this is a function of having a big stand-up act in our fairly small city, where we mostly get comedians and musicians on their way up or on their way back down. Despite the Babe.net piece, Ansari is somewhere near the peak of his career, coming off of Parks and Recreation and two seasons of a successful Netflix series, <>Master of None. He’s not exactly Chris Rock, but he’s probably on the same level as a guy like John Mulaney as a stand-up act, and the novelty of that in our town is a big draw. Here, it was a work-in-progress show and advertised as such. He was trying out new material, and the Overlords in Slack strongly suggested that I see him in case he said something newsworthy. In case he worked the Babe.net piece into his act.
He did not. But whatever else one wants to think about that allegation — and where it concerns Ansari, the opinion even among many progressives is split — it nevertheless hung like a cloud over the entire set. It’s difficult not to view his entire act through the prism of that allegation, and while he didn’t specifically address it, there was an extended bit that seemed to touch upon it in the parallel.
I’m not going to spoil any jokes here because 1) they asked us not to, 2) it’s a dick move, and 3) when Vulture did, Ansari’s people asked them to take it down, but I will say that thematically speaking, Ansari spends much of the show attacking the kind of culture that put him in his current predicament. Admittedly, some of it was very funny, especially when he speaks about white people trying to out-woke each other, but he also draws false equivalencies — at least in their hostile temperaments — between racist Trump supporters and militant progressives, the kind of people who complain about microaggressions and who are hostile to those who don’t use the appropriate woke terminology (binary, cisgender, etc.). While he obviously doesn’t come out and say so specifically, Ansari paints himself — and our larger overall culture, “the 80 percent of us in the middle” — as victims caught between two extremes.
It’s the sort of argument that plays well to the room, in part because racist Trump supporters wouldn’t attend the act of a person of color, while those on the other side likely wouldn’t attend out of protest. But there’s a certain Seinfeldian quality to it, too; Anzari talks politics a lot, but he’s only willing to engage in political and cultural material that paints him as sympathetic. However, on subjects where Ansari is arguably an offender, well, those people — the people behind our “think piece culture” — are too much or just as bad as Trump supporters.
The irony, of course, is that Aziz Ansari is the creator of Master of None, which in some respects, was groundbreaking in its wokeness, and it’s precisely the kind of television show beloved by the 10 percent on the far left, the people for whom Lena Waithe and Alan Yang are household names. It is the television equivalent of the very “think pieces” that Ansari takes issue with in his act. Engaging in this type of comedy, however, could still be hugely effective if Ansari could better speak to it as someone on the “inside,” as a member of “Overly Woke America,” but to do so would reveal a kind of hypocrisy — at least with the public perception of Ansari — that he’s not yet brave enough to contend with.
Granted, I don’t know how Ansari should deal with the elephant in the room, but it’s not going to go away until he publicly addresses it. There’s obviously a fine line that has to be balanced between turning his own actions into material without dismissing concerns others have with him, but finding that line is a much better option than ignoring it.
But then what the hell do I know? I’m just a think piece writer who is just as bad as a Trump supporter when it comes to tearing the country apart.