He looks tired, Aziz Ansari does, when he comes on stage at Liberty Cinema, Mumbai, to a rousing welcome in an auditorium packed to the rafters. Dressed in an oversized Metallica T-shirt and jeans, the 36-year-old Indian-American comedian, producer, actor and writer is quieter than one expected — the energy of his 2015 Live at Madison Square Garden (MSG) show on Netflix seems to be missing. At 1,200 seats, Liberty is one zero less than the capacity of the New York venue, but this isn’t about performing to a smaller audience; his 90-minute set is a demonstration that Ansari is a changed man.
Last January, when a woman accused him of sexual misconduct in a rambling and problematic article on Babe.net, it polarised Ansari’s global audience — since it was an out-of-the-office environment, could it be considered as part of the #MeToo movement or was it simply a date gone wrong? On Saturday evening, Ansari directly addressed the elephant in the room. He starts by describing how he’s been recognised on the street in Mumbai. “Netflix!” a man exclaims when he spots Ansari, only to confuse him with Hasan Minhaj. He quickly amends his mistake and lists out Ansari’s hit shows — “Parks and Recreation!”, “Master of None!” — before saying something on the lines of “weren’t you accused of sexual harassment…”
Up until this moment, the crowd has been treated to Ansari’s slice-of-life conversations about how white guilt in America can be exhausting for people of colour; his grandmother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s; chatting with audience members about magic mushrooms in Kodaikanal. Ansari also delves into the controversies surrounding R Kelly (accused of having sex with underage girls) and Michael Jackson, accused of child sexual abuse by two former fans in the recent documentary, Leaving Neverland. “How do you feel about Michael Jackson now?” he asks the room, noting that time plays an important role in what is deemed as acceptable, and more importantly, what is forgivable, or not. He ponders if there is a way to separate the art from the artiste, and whether, in the age of social media, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. “We’re all shitty people,” is a constant refrain in this segment of the show; one can see the direction in which this conversation is heading.
Given the accusations, this part of the set is bit too much on the nose. But the subject matter is par for the course — since he broke on to the scene 10 years ago, Ansari, a self-identifying feminist, has addressed all the ways in which the battle of the sexes is designed to point to a single winner — men, mostly straight men; and the the man at the top is definitely white.
A large chunk of his MSG show is about creepy guys; Master of None takes an unflinching look at racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny; his immensely readable non-fiction book, Modern Romance explores how love, romance and dating have changed over the decades. A year after the article, what does Ansari have to say for himself? “There were times I felt really upset and humiliated and embarrassed, and ultimately I just felt terrible this person felt this way,” he says. It sounds like an oblique admission of guilt, and he adds that if his mistake furthered the conversation around consent, if it has been able to make men go the extra mile to make women comfortable, that would be a good thing. It’s more than anyone accused of a similar crime has said (with the exception of Dan Harmon, writer-director of Community, Rick and Morty), but is it enough?
With its stripped down and bare-boned style, Road to Nowhere plays to his strengths — he doesn’t need any gimmicks, although it is strange to hear him do a white person’s impression of an Indian accent, in India — his talent is clear to see in the way he sets up a joke, how he can link a single punch-line across different situations with equal success, how he can bring levity to topics such as 9/11, and the death of our loved ones.
However, Ansari’s latest offering leaves one with several internal conflicts; often, the material blurs the line between being honest and being emotionally manipulative. Sitting on a bar stool for nearly the entire show, mumbling to the extent that the audience in the balcony can barely hear him, Ansari is visibly contrite, especially when he says that he thought his career had come to an end. His apology, his compunction implicates his audience in his rehabilitation as comedy’s most woke bro — Aziz Ansari 2.0 is a new and improved man, humble and grateful that his shows have sold out in the land of his ancestors. Simply put, Road to Nowhere is Ansari’s road to redemption.