Arriving at the first of Aziz Ansari’s string of New York City stops on his Road to Nowhere tour at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) means first playing a game of Frogger with the Ubers on Lafayette Avenue and wading through a thick cloud of vape smoke, until you eventually arrive at a checkpoint where you surrender your phone.
The entire exercise answers several existential questions, such as “how does one trigger a collective 900-person panic attack?” (lock up their phones!) and “where were all the white people in Brooklyn on Thursday night?” (the Aziz show!). A bit in which the opening act DJ warmed up the crowd by pumping “Wonderwall” from his turntables cleverly riffed on that latter point.
At a time when leaks of sets and videos of jokes have been an increasing concern in the comedy community, there have been controversial crackdowns, from surrendering phones at the door like at Ansari’s performance to, in the case of a recent performance from Louis C.K., even agreeing to not share any content from the set in any way without consent (LOL!), at risk of legal action.
With Ansari and C.K., however, the clamoring to keep things under wrap isn’t just to maintain the surprise of the material. As both face scrutiny for how their respective sets handle their experiences as men implicated—albeit for wildly different kinds of allegations—in the #MeToo movement, the newsworthiness of their remarks has made the impulse to record and share publicly all the more difficult to wrangle.
Though the Parks and Recreation and Master of None star has been performing regularly over the last year, this is his first major set in New York City, Ansari’s hometown, since a woman detailed in an article a sexual encounter she had with him that published at the fever-pitch peak of the #MeToo movement threatened to derail his entire career.
He’s been addressing the story, his experience processing it, the media frenzy surrounding it, and what he’s learned from the ordeal in various ways since returning to the stage in February, a little over a year after the website babe.net published the article, “I Went On a Date With Aziz Ansari. It Turned Into the Worst Night of My Life.”
Reports from previous tour stops suggest that he had been waiting until the end of his set to address the story, but on Thursday night in Brooklyn, it was the very first thing he spoke about. The language was about the same, comparing notes from other reporters in other cities. He was candid, contrite, contemplative. Very somber. Very serious.
“Not the most hilarious opening to a show,” he joked, after about two minutes in which you could hear a pin drop in BAM’s cavernous opera house as he addressed the controversy.
In fact, the experience seemed to be the genesis for the entire set, which, in Ansari’s mischievous and observant style, considered and poked fun at the ways in which “wokeness” has come to define our lives in recent years, to effects both wonderful and absolutely exhausting.
More mellow and amusing than uproariously funny, his Road to Nowhere set was something kind of remarkable. Ansari seems to have used a traumatic event that ignited a cultural conflagration when it came to debates about consent, #MeToo, and responsibility, and turned it into an entire set that reveals the ways he has had to personally reconsider his own values—in turn commenting on how our entire culture is handling rapidly changing rules and mores.
During a phase of the #MeToo movement when we’re asking what would it take for a person to be “forgiven” or “redeemed” in the face of allegations made against them, Ansari is doing perhaps the most admirable job of considering the impact of his actions and his story. He is attempting to translate it into a piece of art that adds value to the conversation going forward.
There’s a low bar, of course, with Louis C.K. going full alt-right in his petulant response to being comedian non grata. But Ansari is clearing it. Road to Nowhere may not be the funniest comedy set I’ve seen. But at this moment in time, and coming from the person delivering it, it may be the most thoughtful.
When the babe.net story published, it shook the #MeToo movement off its axis. Part of it was because the person being implicated, Ansari, was so generally beloved, even considered a feminist ally. Part of it was because, amidst a conversation that had been torched by passion and engaged in almost exclusively in extremes, here was a story that required nuance.
It was not about workplace harassment or the kind of violent, obtrusive abuse that had defined so many of post-Harvey Weinstein stories. It was about a bad date in which a famous person pressured a woman into having sex.
The story became a lightning rod in the movement. Did its writer uncover a subtle, complicated, and searingly relatable layer in the spectrum of systemic abuse? Or was it an irresponsible false equivocation that seized on a larger story to bring attention to a personal matter?
More, did Ansari deserve to suffer the same career repercussions as men accused of much ghastlier acts because of it?
Proving how complex these issues are, there was no firm answer that materialized to any of those questions, and Ansari said as much during his show Thursday night.
He opened the show talking about how hard of an experience it was to go through, that he felt scared, humiliated, and terrible for the woman who had gone through such a terrible experience because of him.
(Again, our phones were locked away at the door, so, while we took handwritten notes, no recounting should be considered transcript.)
He mentioned that a friend had talked to him afterwards and said that reading the article made him rethink all of the experiences that he has had with women, suggesting that’s a very good outcome of all this. He said that he had his own personal “reckoning” with these issues and his behavior, one that mirrored the larger “reckoning” we’re having as a culture. In the end, he said, that can only be a positive thing.
He touched on other reckonings we’re having as a society, like the recent preoccupation with cultural appropriation, specifically the trend of white people trying to “out-woke” each other in trying to put an end to it. “I don’t think we’re gonna fix it at this brunch,” he joked, wondering if there’s some game of “progressive Candy Crush” that white people have been playing.
R. Kelly and Michael Jackson each had a reckoning in his set, especially given the fact that Ansari’s first stand-up special featured an extended bit in which he bragged about being at an R. Kelly concert. “That didn’t age well.”
He told personal stories about connecting with his grandmother and his parents. It was all very sweet, perhaps the most well-meaning stand-up set we can recall seeing in a while.
It’s an interesting thing to attend a show like this, the first major public venture by a personality attempting to prove they are worthy of redemption. Even when you just look around you, you are surrounded by people who have made a loaded choice by purchasing a ticket to be there.
You’re no longer, at least not on this tour, going to see the guy from Parks and Rec that you love. You’re drawing a line in the sand, saying that either you don’t think the story told him about him is worth sanctioning his career, and especially not your enjoyment of his comedy for. Or you’re saying that you feel like he’s taking the steps to make amends, and at the very least is owed your curiosity as to how he’s going to do that. Or you’re saying you don’t care one way or another.
Thursday’s show was the first of six he’ll be performing in New York City—four at BAM, two at Radio City Music Hall—and at the tail end of a tour that’s been in as high demand as ever since his first post-#MeToo dates in February. These aren’t small clubs where he’s trying out his material, either. They are major city venues, and he’s selling them out. That alone sends a signal about the willingness to forgive him, or at least go with him on this journey to forgiveness.
In other words, there is a lot of goodwill towards Aziz Ansari.
Most comedy sets end with the comedian delivering their best punchline, a mic drop of a joke that ties in all of the anecdotes they’ve been telling that night, triggering a loud uproar from the audience to leave the stage to.
Instead, Ansari turned contemplative again. Speaking softly, he said there was a time during the last year when he wasn’t sure if he would be allowed to perform stand-up again. When he says “thank you, good night,” it’s not a hollow send-off anymore. He has real gratitude for his platform now, and intends to use it responsibly.
And you know what? I kind of believe him.