Aziz Ansari: Nightclub Comedian
Director – Aziz Ansari
Rating – 4/5
Filmed in December 2021 at the famed Comedy Cellar in New York City, Aziz Ansari’s surprise new standup special on Netflix—Nightclub Comedian—is a lowkey half-hour in which he casually pulverises privilege and disses Kamala Harris for being less visible than Bigfoot, all the while retaining his animated observational style. But instead of wasting his talents on taking pot-shots at celebrities, which he does—a bit about Ice Cube’s hypothetical colonoscopy is especially funny—Ansari spends most of time on stage ruminating on the last two years, in which he has, like all of us, been reshaped by the pandemic.
Nightclub Comedian takes Ansari back to his roots—quite literally. The Comedy Cellar is where he first performed a set, and Ansari makes sure to open and close his new 30-minute special with clips of that show (in which he apparently killed, by the way, going by the crowd’s reaction at the end).
He was a more inward-looking comedian when he started out, but along the way, evolved into an extension of his Tom Haverford persona from Parks & Recreation. Ansari became an arena comic, screaming his way through hour-long sets by making low-hanging-fruit observations about pop-culture. He does that in Nightclub Comedian as well—there’s a mildly funny bit about football player Aaron Rodgers being a ‘dummy’ for rejecting vaccines—but his manner is different. Ansari isn’t the yuppie blowhard that he used to be on stage; he’s older, wiser, and now, he has a flip phone. His transformation into an Indian uncle is finally complete.
The flip phone was a last-ditch effort, he says, to keep the noise of the internet at bay. In a bit of crowd work, Ansari admits that he tried everything to feel more connected to the world around him, from setting a time limit on his iPhone to deleting social media apps. But nothing worked, he rues, deftly moving on to the larger point—China’s emergence as a surveillance state. It’s whip-smart writing.
It took a major personal set-back to change his (creative) perspective. In 2018, Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct by an anonymous woman. He promptly apologised and did what every other celebrity at the time who was put in a predicament such as this did—he stepped back for some years. Because it was generally decided that the allegations against Ansari couldn’t be compared to the ones against, say, Harvey Weinstein, his un-cancellation was just as swift. In 2019, he made a comeback as a touring comic, concluding his run with a new standup special on Netflix—the moving and intimate Right Now.
I watched that show live in New Delhi, along with a captive crowd at the gymnastics arena of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. The show ended with him addressing the allegations in a way that could be construed as mildly calculating—crucially, the taped special on Netflix opened with it. Right Now was directed by the Oscar-winner Spike Jonze, who made the bold decision to put the camera inches from Ansari’s face, and resisted the urge to shoot from multiple angles. It created a sense of personal connection between the audience and the artist, which, I suppose, was the point.
Directed by Ansari himself, Nightclub Comedian is set in a more intimate room than the gymnasium arena at JLN Stadium, but it isn’t nearly as personal as Right Now. Think of it as kind of like Kevin Hart’s Zero F**ks Given, which was shot inside his ‘living room’, or like the Ten on Ten sets that Vir Das has been doing in jungles since last year, or even like Dave Chappelle’s 8:46, which barely qualifies as a comedy special at all.
But very much like Right Now, the central theme of Nightclub Comedian—and this is perhaps the principal driving force behind Ansari’s creative mindset currently—seems to be empathy. Instead of having a knee-jerk reaction to misinformation (and the people who spread it), he asks the audience to maybe click on some of the articles that anti-vaxxers read, before quickly adding, “Don’t go too hard, though.”
Nightclub Comedian also has some of that classic Ansari contradiction—in one moment, he is empathising with the people who lost their jobs during the pandemic, and in the next, he’s criticising a culture that enables people to ‘work from home’ and keep getting paid for (what he implies is) less effort. Everyone can do so much better, he says, no longer hiding the fact that he’s pointing fingers at the small crowd in front of him. “There’s a guy outside right now with a cup, asking if anybody has a dollar to spare,” he half-shrieks. And then he drops his voice down to a whisper: “We have so much. We just don’t want to give it to him.”
Nightclub Comedian is minor Ansari, but it’s still a moving time capsule of life in the midst of global upheaval, and an important transitional piece by a performer constantly looking to evolve.