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How Do We Feel About Aziz Ansari’s Return to Netflix?

Photography via Matt Baron/Shutterstock

Two FASHION staffers discuss whether Ansari’s comeback is controversial, and what we hope he addresses in his new comedy special.

The ranks here at FASHION are not filled with men. Shocking, right? But there are one or two (there are actually, literally, two). Naturally, when a question about male/female dynamics arises it’s only fair that one of them stand in for the members of his gender and provide some insight. Our last topic of conversation was about Bohemian Rhapsody’s controversial director Bryan Singer, and today we’re talking about the fact that Aziz Ansari is returning to Netflix with his first post-#MeToo comedy special. Two of our staffers—from the men’s corner, Greg Hudson, and from the women’s, Pahull Bains—talk it out.

Pahull Bains: It’s a familiar tale: men screw up, disappear for a while, and return stronger and more powerful than ever. Some men, like Trump, don’t even have to do the disappearing bit. They just get stronger and stronger right in front of our eyes. It’s like watching Mark Ruffalo transform into the Hulk, only with less grunting (and a lot less saving-the-world).

Anyway, the latest disgraced man to return is Aziz Ansari. Next week, he’s back on Netflix with a new comedy special, directed by Spike Jonze (is it just me or is that a weird choice?). Aziz Ansari: Right Now was filmed during the Brooklyn stops of his ‘Road to Nowhere’ tour, which has taken him everywhere from Mumbai to Sydney to London to Austin over the past several months. Now, we know comebacks are inevitable. But because we’re either eternal optimists or just absolute idiots, we seem to hold out hope that these disgraced men will return as chastened, repentant, more respectful versions of their earlier selves. Louis CK has already proved us wrong. So what can we expect of Aziz?

Judging by the reviews coming in from various international outlets as he makes his way across the globe, the comedian who built a career on being a woke ally is dancing around the elephant in the room instead of mining it for thoughtful, introspective material. Reviews have been mixed—Vulture called his New York show “sombre,” while the Guardian deemed his London set “combative”—but a word that comes up often is bitter. It shows up in a New Yorker review of his New Haven show, in a Cut report from a show in Massachusetts, and a Quartz piece from Connecticut.

So rather than grapple with the complex gender dynamics, social norms and patriarchal traditions that landed him on Babe.net’s homepage, he seems to have directed his energy towards criticizing his critics. Well not his critics necessarily but in general the “really hardcore woke people” trying to outdo each other in a “secret progressive Candy Crush” game. In short, he’s angry with people for being angry, instead of taking a beat to think about why.

I’m not quite sure what to expect of this documentary of his Brooklyn shows but considering he knew they were being taped, I’m betting he brought a fair bit of introspection and penitence into this one. Because when you’re plotting your return to the small screen for the first time after a scandal of this magnitude, you make damn sure that you look good. What do you think? Or rather, what are you expecting to see?

Greg Hudson: I’m not looking for points or anything, but when I have an internet-based written discussion with a co-worker, I like to read their thoughts before responding. I know it’s not required–after all, listening before we speak isn’t really something most men “do”– but I’m glad I did. Because this is hella interesting!

Aziz Ansari’s inclusion in the #MeToo narrative was always ambiguous: some people–and not just dudes–saw it as a sign that the movement was overreaching and overcorrecting, whereas as others saw it as an opportunity to call out and discuss the more insidious, banal side of misogyny that allows men not to think about their partner’s comfort and pleasure, so long as they don’t explicitly shout NO TOUCHING! Even those who were ready to cancel Aziz along with all the other MeToo Men would begrudgingly admit that what he did was in a different category than what Weinstein, or even Louis did. But…there was still a shadow cast over him.

What I find so interesting is that, more than a year later, Aziz Ansari is apparently still up for interpretation. (Granted, that’s true of literally everything in the world: it’s all subject to individual interpretation and meaning). Maybe we read different reviews of the same events, but I think we saw a lot of the same stuff, and yet our conclusions are not the same.

When I read about shows from his tour, sure the writer mentioned that she sensed “a bitterness emanating from the stage,” but I wonder how much that was confirmation bias. I wasn’t there, nor do I know what the writer’s beliefs were going in that she was looking to confirm. But, for me, the lines that stood out from that review were the ones that seemed to contradict the idea he was traveling down the same path as Louis. Namely: “Unlike Louis C.K., who seems to have given up on trying to win back the affections of people who wrote him off… Ansari’s set had moments of genuine contemplation.”

For me, who (full disclosure) felt that Aziz didn’t deserve to be in the #MeToo conversation at all [and we can totally re-open that discussion if you’d like!], it sounds like the theme of the show is totally appropriate. “The set revolved around the question of cultural forgiveness, and the idea that we’re all flawed people who make mistakes and that the knee-jerk ‘cancel culture’ that we all participate in only serves to exacerbate divisions.” Isn’t that an entirely appropriate angle to take? It’s not claiming innocence, nor is it raging bitterly against progressive politics. It’s pointing out a social issue that is surprisingly hard to address: people who pride themselves on doing the right thing have an almost impossible time admitting that they are actually doing harm.

And yet, more and more stories are coming out about the real world pain and disproportionate punishment that arises from cancel culture. I don’t think talking about that, especially if it’s with humour and humility (which his sets are, according to the reviews), should be seen as bitterness. Nor should we see this as an example of how naively, foolishly forgiving we are to men who screw up.

We all talked about how the danger with #MeToo was that there was neither a process in place to adjudicate complaints, or to provide a path to redemption. (Actually, even saying that sounded like a defense of bad behaviour in the moment). If we don’t allow someone like Aziz, who never denied his actions, who apologized both publicly and privately, and who clearly had made being an ally not just a talking point in his comedy, but a part of how he worked, the freedom or space to “come back,” then is the movement really about justice?

PB: I feel like his take on the current culture of “cancelling” people would be stronger if he actually acknowledged his place in it. I don’t think we can hope for any progress if we sweep things under the rug or try to address things in blanket terms rather than specific ones. I know we both agree that what’s being lost in present-day discourse is nuance, and how can you have nuance without specifics? I also find it odd for a comedian who very publicly mines the personal and private (talking about his grandmother’s Alzheimers, his immigrant experience etc) to suddenly take a giant step back from the personal at this crucial moment. As a person who’s a medium-level fan of Aziz’s (I really enjoyed Master of None but haven’t seen much else that he’s been in), I think I would admire and respect him a whole lot more if he addressed all of this straight up, if he talked about how cancel culture suddenly got real for him when the Babe piece came out, and how it made him think about wokeness being taken to an extreme. (As well as his own, former, place in our culture as a woke poster boy.) I guess what I’m saying is I’d love to hear from him why he thinks he doesn’t deserve to be cancelled, instead of just railing nebulously against the system that might be trying to do so. (And I don’t even agree that it is!)

A couple of reviews mention Aziz briefly touching upon the experience with Grace: “Ansari recalled a conversation in which a friend told him it made him rethink every date he’s been on: “If that has made not just me but other guys think about this, and just be more thoughtful and aware and willing to go that extra mile, and make sure someone else is comfortable in that moment, that’s a good thing.””

Now I’d love to hear him riffing more on that. You mentioned how Aziz had made being an ally a focal part of his work, and I’m curious: how do you see him continuing to be a feminist ally if he doesn’t publicly—through his comedy, which is the easiest way to reach millions of his male fans—address what he’s learned and how he may have changed? If all his fans take away from these comedy sets is that it’s the people who are wrong for overreacting, that’s not correcting anything at all is it? I just don’t see how he’s going to hold on to his woke badge if he refuses to engage meaningfully—head on—with this issue.

GH: Obviously, this is all hypothetical at this point, since we’re basing our opinions about a comedy special we haven’t seen on a handful of small write ups that describe snippets of new material that may or may not have survived long enough to be in the show. So, we don’t know if he digs deeper into that specific event, or his general complicity in a patriarchal society. Maybe he does and it’s masterful!

But, my question is: why is his woke card at risk? Divorced from the social context of the time, what must he address, reckon or wrestle with? To me, this a reminder of the fungibility of memory. Tests have shown (I know because I spent about ten minutes Googling it) that people will still make inferences and judgements based on misinformation, even after they’ve been told that the information they were given was inaccurate.

So, if a group of subjects were told about a house fire, and then told about how there were highly flammable paints and chemicals in the garage before the fire started, they understandably infer that those paints had a hand in the fire. Interestingly, and kind of distressingly, even after subjects were told that at the time of the fire those paints had been removed (so they definitely weren’t a catalyst), subjects still surmised that the fire was probably caused by those damn paints and things.

While Aziz’s story was unfolding, there was a general acceptance that this wasn’t as serious as all the other stories, but that acceptance started feeling as genuine as “I’m not racist, but…”. Aziz isn’t as bad as Louis, but….

And so now, that’s how we remember the story. We know he didn’t do anything super serious, but it all happened at the same time, and we remember the outrage and so…now Aziz has to be a proxy–or at least a pilot–for every other man who has been shamed.

Still, one might argue that the conversation about entitlement, consent, communication and sexual privilege needed to happen, and so any negative consequences experienced by Aziz was justified (and likely negligible). I think that’s probably true–or rather, I believe the people who take this stance. But if that’s the case, then it shouldn’t be about Aziz, and whether he’s grown now.

Stipulated that you may not be able to write in Aziz’s voice, what does him reckoning with his actions even look like? I’ve started to notice, as we talk about presidential candidates and their personal and professional histories, that when a pundit says that X will really have to reckon with Y, what they really mean is that Y should disqualify X. The idea of reckoning is so vague as to be meaningless. When we don’t have a firm definition of what “reckoning” looks like, let alone when it is done sufficiently, then the whole process becomes futile in its subjectivity.

Yes, there is the lesson men need to learn about explicit consent and communication, but more broadly, everyone can look at their willingness to pile on strangers while giving themselves a pass, and see something untenable and unjust.

PB: One major thing I think we tend to forget when we talk about how/whether public figures should atone for misdeeds/misbehaviours is the fact that they’re public figures. They don’t owe us any explanations but by this point they should be damn well used to being asked for them. (You wrote that if a friend had done the same thing, I’d assume he’d wrestled with it enough but no I certainly wouldn’t, unless he explicitly told me so.) So since we’re not all best buds with Aziz, and he’s not telling us any of this over a glass of scotch, we expect him to address it on stage. Because when you’re a public figure whose career is built on engaging candidly and irreverently with both what’s going on in the world and what’s going on in your life, it seems particularly disingenuous to just ignore a scandal that you’re at the centre of. Don’t you think by not addressing this whole thing directly, he’s basically just asking us all to pretend it didn’t happen? And the thing is, one of the reasons I want him to address it is precisely because I think he can move on from it, that it’s not disqualifying.

I feel like this is one of those instances where the actual problem isn’t as telling as your response to that problem. I, like many others, agree that this shouldn’t be conflated with the other #MeToo stories, and is emblematic of a larger, structural issue than a single man’s actions. He’s a tiny symptom of a much larger problem, and at the same time, uniquely positioned to address that problem in a way that, down the line, might even result in real change. To just ignore it seems like a huge missed opportunity.

You asked earlier at some point: “Divorced from the social context of the time, what must he address, reckon or wrestle with?” And my response is that you simply can’t divorce context from these sorts of game-changing conversations. We wouldn’t even be talking about Aziz and Grace 20 years ago — it wouldn’t have even been a story. Heck, Peter Farrelly said in a published story in the ’90s that he liked to whip his dick out at unsuspecting people and that barely registered as a blip. As our culture’s threshold for bullshit changes, so do the kinds of conversations we have, and what we accept from the men (or women) responsible for that bullshit, whether in our personal lives or public ones.

GH: I do think that the conversation that grew out of the scandal was a positive one, or at least one that was needed–more needed than I would have thought, which shows how much it was needed (Hello circular reasoning!). But if a positive thing came out of it, then why is his ‘comeback’ controversial?

PB: I don’t think it is though. I don’t think people want him to be exiled or to become a pop culture pariah. I think it’s the substance of his comeback that might be considered controversial if he just pretends the whole Babe thing never happened, or worse, says the onus is on everyone else for overreacting, not on the patriarchal culture that made it okay, for so long, to behave the way he did and not think twice about it.

GH: I think he can call out and critique cancel culture without implying that it’s society’s fault that he got in trouble. Can’t he? And based on the little snippets of his shows in some of the reviews, he’s not saying people are too sensitive. He’s saying society picks and chooses who to cancel, who to be outraged by, without consistency or accountability. And he’s saying we all do it to a certain extent. Hence the difference between people’s reaction to R. Kelly vs Michael Jackson. It’s why John Lennon, who abused women, and Led Zeppelin, Motley Crew, Guns and Roses, and hell, David Bowie who all did horrible things with and to groupies, are still beloved. It’s hypocritical. But, since we weren’t around for their misdeeds, we’re cool about overlooking them?

Normal people can make mistakes in private, they can apologize to who they offended, make restitutions as much as possible, and grow, all without people calling them out on social media. Historical people already did their misdeeds, and cultural consensus is pretty hard to change, so they often get a pass. What Aziz is saying is if we were to shine celebrity-level spotlight on any random person, we’d likely find something for which, if they were a present day celebrity, we could yell at them about. For instance: still listening to Michael Jackson. And so, if no one is perfect, it’s awfully dangerous to hold people up to a perfect standard.

I think mostly though–and this extends beyond Aziz–I don’t like the vagueness of people’s expectations. He didn’t reckon with it! But what does that mean? It’s like, people always say the most important thing in a relationship is communication. As a divorcee, I totally agree! But also, no one actually tells you, while giving you the communication advice, what that means.

PB: Yes but that’s just it. He’s not a “normal person.” He’s a public figure that “normal people” look up to and possibly even emulate. Yes, society does pick and choose who to outraged by and to what degree, but the response is still dictated by the level of the “crime” (using this term very loosely here). I think most people would agree that Aziz’s role in this whole conversation is very different from say, Weinstein or Kelly or CK. And I think that’s largely why people are hoping he addresses it; there’s not much room for defense as far as those guys go, but there is plenty of room for Aziz. I think what people are hoping for is a thoughtful take on everything that’s happened in the last year—happened to Aziz, specifically, and to our culture as a whole, as a result of that story. Like it or not, he’s at the centre of a culture-shifting conversation that’s incredibly important. It’s hard to say what him adequately “reckoning” with it would look like, but maybe we can circle back on this once we’ve actually seen the damn Netflix special?

GH: And if it isn’t good, we can just talk about John Mulaney’s specials. They are also on Netflix and not at all controversial!




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