“I think the country is divided into three groups,” declared Aziz Ansari on Thursday night. It was one of the first tour stops on his “Road to Nowhere” stand-up tour — his official return to the public eye after the contentious sexual-misconduct allegation and ensuing media backlash that put his career on temporary hiatus. These groups, explained Ansari, include “the really hardcore Trump people who are like Hillary did ISIS,” “the really hardcore woke people who are like ‘I haven’t used a gender-neutral bathroom since ’86” and “the rest of us, the third group, who are utterly terrified of these other two groups.”
Ahead of the show, I chatted with some of the crowd at the Chevalier Theater in Medford, Massachusetts (about 20 minutes outside Boston, with as much atmosphere as a high-school auditorium). Though it was a stark contrast to Madison Square Garden and other venues he’s performed in before, the 1,000-plus strong crowd was pumped to see him again. “I love him!” said Anthony, a software engineer from Boston, who was there with his girlfriend. “I’m happy to see him mount a comeback. I’m definitely on his side.”
“Do I hope he addresses it?” said one male fan named Ravi when I asked him about “the #MeToo stuff” — an anonymous account of a sexual encounter with Ansari published by babe.net last year. “What I hope is that he addresses why we have to put our phones in these sacs instead of being on dating apps. We’re all here to see Aziz, come on, these are the people you want to be looking for on dating apps!”
Ah yes — the sacs. All of the thousand or so guests at the show were asked to enclose our phones in ‘Yondr’ sacs (magnetized pouches that remain sealed throughout the performance). We were also informed via the venue’s website that anyone caught recording would be ejected immediately and that unauthorized use of the material is “strictly prohibited and is punishable to the full extent of the law.” Louis C.K. — another comedian coming back from a #MeToo scandal — recently had his controversial sets leaked online, reigniting the conversation about the validity of his return to the stage, but the abundance of precaution seemed unnecessary; about a third of the people I spoke to hadn’t heard of the allegations against Ansari. Those who had seemed sympathetic, not there to serve as P.C. police. “I think he has been dealt a bit unfairly,” added Ravi. “It felt a bit like there was this massive wave of overcorrection, when what’s his name, that disgusting guy.”
“Uhhh….” — my mind ran through its seemingly endless rolodex of “disgusting” guys — “Harvey Weinstein?”
“Yeah, Harvey Weinstein!” he said. “What Aziz did wasn’t gentlemanly, but it wasn’t really in the same league. That was just a very angry moment where anything you did could be held against you. So I told myself that if he does come back we should let him tell his side of the story.”
The women I spoke to seem to feel pretty much the same. “We were just talking about it today,” said one woman who had Ubered in from Boston, “We feel neutral about it — I mean it was a bad date.”
“He got carried along with all the #MeToo stuff, but I’m open to giving him a second chance,” added the girlfriend she was with.
I was also curious to hear Ansari’s side of the story, if he had one to tell. I’ve been a fan since his UCB days; I have seen every episode of Parks & Recreation and Master of None and have seen him do stand-up multiple times, usually during drop-ins the Comedy Cellar in New York. Still, I feel an air of residual ickiness when I hear his name, partly because of the knowledge that this comic who built his brand on being a progressive feminist ally — the auteur who brought Lena Waithe into mainstream consciousness after she co-wrote a groundbreaking Master of None episode about her coming-out story — was also the kind of guy who would would aggressively “claw” a woman during a sexual encounter. Could I drown out all that noise and just have a good time? I tried to have an open mind.
After two opening acts and repeated warnings from MC Wil Sylvince to PLEASE not heckle and not be “an asshole,” Ansari strolled onstage in a leather jacket. The resulting set was tight and well-rehearsed. The crowd loved it. At times I found it very funny, mostly when he talked about personal stuff, like his relationship with his grandmother, or riffed on pop-culture ephemera, like his newfound appreciation for the hip-hop trio Migos. At other moments, I found myself pursing my lips, sensing a bitterness emanating from the stage that put me on edge.
Overall, the whole performance felt like a response to the events of the past year. That infamous babe.net article was the black hole around which the entire act orbited, even if it wasn’t mentioned directly. A lot of the material was stuff I’d heard trickling out from his comedy club appearances in the past few months — what The New Yorker described as “a cry against extreme wokeness.” 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. He also hinted at his own complicity in a world that’s sexist and racist and problematic in all kinds of ways, without explicitly dissecting how or why that was the case. “Racists are at least brief; newly woke white people are exhausting,” he said at one point, before breaking into a little mocking ditty that went: “thiiink pieeeece thiiiink piieccceeee I’ve just read a thiiinkkk piece.” The crowd clapped appreciatively. We are the the ones who get it, people of Medford, Massachusetts, he seemed to be saying — we are the reasonable folks, aware that racism and sexism etc. is bad, but that freaking out about it can only make it worse.
“It’s a scary time to be working on the jokes,” he mused. “Even people in real jobs are getting into trouble.” He referenced the Kevin Hart Oscar hosting fiasco and people’s propensity to dig up celebrities’ old tweets to look for past failings. “I’m not defending Kevin, but we’re ALL shitty people, we ALL get better,” he said. (Do we, really, all of us?) “Do you know who did something shitty eight years ago? Guess who? MOST PEOPLE IN THIS ROOM,” added Ansari. Pretty much everything was once innocuous is offensive now, he added. Jim flirting with Pam on The Office? That’s not adorable anymore! Now Pam “would be bringing a landmark sexual harassment case,” he mused. He referenced a scene on his own show, Parks & Rec, in which his character Tom Haverford gets a nanny cam to spy on Rashida Jones’s character Ann, joking that he’d never agree to do that scene now because Tom would “go to jail.”
A central portion of the set was seemingly new material focused on R. Kelly and the recent documentary about him. While celebrities like Chance the Rapper have all had to make statements condemning R. Kelly, said Ansari, “you know who we haven’t seen a statement from? This guy,” singling out an audience member in the front row, some average Joe whose past R. Kelly patronage is blessedly protected from public scrutiny. It was just one of the times Ansari put himself in dialogue with his audience, forcing us to consider our own checkered pasts and our complicity in the social media pile-ons that had targeted him and other celebrities.
“You know who they have footage of [supporting R. Kelly]?” added Ansari. “ME.” He described how in a stand-up set back in 2010, he had gushed about an R. Kelly concert, and how looking back, the bit “has not aged well.” Now he remains “terrified” that Wendy Williams is gonna dig up that old material and break it down on her show. It was as if Ansari was outing himself preemptively against any potential cultural transgressions. Ansari did acknowledge that he too was done with R. Kelly at this point, and asked the audience to clap if we were “muting” him; most people clapped. Then he referenced the Michael Jackson documentary that recently debuted at Sundance, which detailed harrowing allegations of child sexual abuse by the late pop icon, and asked us if we would all subsequently “mute” MJ if that film turned out to have a similar cultural impact. Less people clapped. “Why, because you liked the music more?” Ansari chided. He singled out that same audience member, who hadn’t clapped for MJ. “What if instead of two kids accusing him, it was 1,000 kids?” The audience member acknowledged that in that case, if it was 1,000 kids, that would be a different story. Ansari seemed to have proved his point: that cancel culture is a slippery slope, full of arbitrary metrics, and that we decide to boycott someone not based on any objective bad-ness, but on when and how their allegations are packaged to us, based entirely on our own subjective whims.
Unlike Louis C.K., who seems to have given up on trying to win back the affections of people who wrote him off — his return to comedy has included material mocking gender-neutral pronouns and deriding the Parkland shooting activists as “boring” — Ansari’s set had moments of genuine contemplation. He spent a lot of the second half of the set sitting down on a stool, musing on aging and growing up. “I’m not that good a person, but I’m working on it,” he said, talking about his relationship with his parents and grandmother. The show even had a touch of the sort of feminist banter he was known for a few years ago; he talked about his new girlfriend, a Danish physician, and remarked on the unfair lack of birth control options for women; either she keep her current copper IUD, which keeps poking him in the dick, or she goes back on the pill, which negatively affects her mood and makes her anxious. “I risk penal bruising or you become a shittier version of yourself? That can’t be the best option we have!” (He then acknowledged that, sadly, it is).
At the end he thanked us genuinely for coming out, saying that while a lot of stuff ends up on the internet, this was our special night to all be here together.
Leaving the theater, it was clear Ansari had picked an appropriately safe space for his first show. The crowd loved it. “I think he was able to take whatever had happened and extrapolate and make a very genuine observation about what’s happening around extreme views on both sides,” said one woman who was there with a group of comedy-loving friends. “I actually think the way he did it was better than addressing it directly,” added another guy in her group. “He didn’t make it awkward for anyone but he was able to vent a bit about what happened.”
Another male friend chimed in. “He shouldn’t have had to address it! I think Louis C.K. should still be allowed to come back, why not?” The women in the group grimaced at him, as if warning him not to overstep. He turned to me. “Weren’t you surprised he played here, though?” he said, gesturing at the small, unassuming theater behind us. “Like, where did he used to play?”
“Err … like, Madison Square Garden.” I responded.
He raised his eyebrows at me, as if to say, so hasn’t he been punished enough? “Riiiight. So this is his #MeToo comeback.”