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Aziz Ansari arrives to the Rockefeller Center for a taping of Saturday Night Live on September 29, 2018, in New York City.
Aziz Ansari arrives at the Rockefeller Center for a taping of Saturday Night Live on September 29, 2018, in New York City.
Robert Kamau/GC Images

Aziz Ansari’s new standup set, and its complicated, necessary role in #MeToo

I saw the comedian perform in Chicago. His latest material could take the #MeToo conversation to a new place.

Aziz Ansari isn’t afraid to talk about sexual misconduct.

R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, the strangeness of watching the workplace romance of The Office in a post-#MeToo world — all came up during Ansari’s show in March at the Chicago Theatre, part of an international tour that includes upcoming dates in the UK, Sweden, and Denmark, as well as elsewhere in the US.

The tour is Ansari’s first major one since he was accused, last year, of repeatedly pressuring a woman for sex during a date that left her feeling “violated.” The allegation became one of the most controversial of the #MeToo era, with some questioning whether a story about unwelcome behavior on a date — not workplace harassment or assault — should be discussed in the context of #MeToo.

The Chicago Theatre before Aziz Ansari’s performance on March 5, 2019
The Chicago Theatre before Aziz Ansari’s performance on March 5, 2019.
Anna North/Vox

Before the sold-out show, several fans in attendance told me they expected him to address the allegation in some way. “It seems like the elephant in the room,” one said.

Ansari didn’t bring up his own story until the very end of the set. But he made it clear right away that he wouldn’t be shying away from the issues at the core of the #MeToo movement. Where some accused men have retreated into anger in the wake of #MeToo, he showed that his perspective is thoughtful, nuanced, and — at least to some degree — self-aware.

As I walked out into the freezing Chicago night after the show was over, it was clear to me that Ansari has a role to play in #MeToo. His discussion of the allegation against him, when it came, left a lot to be desired. But by bringing up his allegation in his set, alongside discussion of the allegations against Kelly and Jackson, Ansari was implicitly rejecting the argument that someone’s behavior on a date doesn’t belong in discussions of #MeToo.

Cell phone use was prohibited at Ansari’s March 5 show, and audience members had to lock their phones in special pouches
Cellphone use was prohibited at Ansari’s March 5 show, and audience members had to lock their phones in special pouches.
Anna North/Vox

More than perhaps any other allegation of the #MeToo era, the accusation against Ansari has struck a chord with men. Many are disturbed by the fact that the story is public at all — I know because I get emails about it all the time. For a few others, it has prompted a serious personal reckoning. Either way, I think a lot of men see something of themselves in Ansari. That makes the fact that he’s willing to stay in the #MeToo conversation incredibly valuable. It encourages ordinary men to stay in that conversation too.

After the allegation, Ansari complained about “wokeness” in his comedy

In January 2018, with the #MeToo movement gathering steam across the country, the website Babe.net published an article telling the story of a woman going by the pseudonym Grace. She said that during a September 2017 date that ended at Ansari’s apartment, the comedian pressured her to have sex with him, ignoring or missing many signals that she didn’t want to.

After the story was published, Ansari released a statement saying he had “engaged in sexual activity” with Grace, “which by all indications was completely consensual.” When he learned she had been uncomfortable, he wrote, “I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.”

After releasing the statement, he kept a lower public profile for several months. But in the fall of 2018, he reemerged with a low-key standup tour, “Working Out New Material.” The comedian’s “new material” displayed a “suspicion about wokeness and its excesses,” according to the New Yorker’s Eren Orbey. At one show, he poked fun at “zealous and performative leftists,” in Orbey’s words, and criticized Twitter users for calling out cultural appropriation.

“Everyone weighs in on everything,” he complained. “They don’t know anything. People don’t wanna just say, ‘I don’t know.’”

Ansari’s comedy has always had a fogeyish streak, as when he joked in his 2015 Live at Madison Square Garden special about the difficulty of making plans in the age of smartphones (“if you’re alive right now and you have a phone, you’re a rude, shitty person”). But in the wake of the allegation against him, his reactionary side seemed to expand.

I found this disappointing, in part because I believed Ansari could do better. He had shown, prior to the allegation, that he was aware of the harassment women face and was capable of addressing it, in an amusing and non-trivializing way, in his work. A retreat into lazy jokes about “woke” people — just one step away, to my mind, from time-worn clichés about “PC culture” — felt like a waste of his talent, as well as an immature response to a situation that demanded deeper consideration.

In early 2019, however, Ansari seemed to take a more contemplative turn. At a pop-up show in New York in February, he addressed Grace’s allegation directly for the first time since his initial statement, according to Jesse David Fox of Vulture.

“There were times I felt really upset and humiliated and embarrassed, and ultimately I just felt terrible this person felt this way,” he told the crowd. But, he said, “It made me think about a lot, and I hope I’ve become a better person.”

He added that a friend had told him that the allegation made him rethink every date he’d ever been on. If the story “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,” Ansari said.

After reading coverage of Ansari’s February set, I wanted to hear his comments about Grace’s allegation in their full context. More than anything, I was curious about whether Ansari, once a valuable and funny voice on relationships, gender, and social mores in America, could still be that kind of voice today — and what that would say about the role of accused people in the evolution of #MeToo.

Before the show, I talked with a number of attendees, nearly all of whom had heard about the allegation against Ansari, and most of whom hoped he’d address it.

“Society as a whole is figuring out how to talk about these issues on a spectrum,” Natasha Anand, who came to the show with three friends, told me. The allegation against Ansari “came at a time where people were very quick to say that everything is black and white, and there exists this gray area,” she added. “We have to be open to living in the gray.”

Ansari is making sexual misconduct a major topic of his latest tour

The set I saw in Chicago was both better and worse than I expected.

Dressed casually in a T-shirt and tight jeans, Ansari projected confidence as he strode up and down the stage. At one point, he pulled a stool close to the edge to grill an apparently white audience member on her opinion of Crazy Rich Asians. He was at ease enough to make his fans ill at ease.

The show covered much of the ground Orbey described from his fall set, but did so in a way that felt new. His focus was not internet outrage or “wokeness” writ large, but rather white people who are obsessed with seeming — as opposed to being — anti-racist.

“Say what you will about racists, they’re usually very brief,” Ansari said. “Newly woke white people are exhausting.” (Audience members were required to secure our phones in special Yondr pouches that prevented us from recording the performance. I took copious handwritten notes, but some transcription errors are possible.)

Some of his most compelling material was about sexual abuse. He asked the audience how many in attendance were “muting” R. Kelly, boycotting his music in the wake of a docuseries and social media campaign drawing attention to allegations of sexual abuse against the singer, a Chicago native. Many audience members clapped. A little later, though, he asked how many were muting Michael Jackson — also the subject of abuse allegations highlighted in a recent documentary — and noted the much sparser applause.

Ansari implied that some people might be willing to give Jackson a pass because they only knew of two allegations against him. Then the comedian singled out an audience member named Brian, asking if he would stop listening to Jackson’s music if Jackson were accused of abusing a thousand children. Five hundred? Two hundred and fifty?

“Brian has a certain number of kids he’ll let slide, and it’s between 250 and 500,” Ansari joked.

The framing of the question was over the top, of course. And Ansari wouldn’t be the first to draw the parallel between Kelly and Jackson. But to do so at a comedy show and force audience members to think about their own choices was a bold move — especially since Ansari must have known it would remind some at the theater of the allegation against him.

His efforts to address the allegation against him aren’t completely satisfying

Every time the issue of sexual misconduct came up, I felt a hush fall over the theater, as though the audience was waiting for Ansari to bring up the allegation. (It wasn’t just my imagination — “I really just spent the whole time wondering if he was ever going to mention it,” an audience member told Zach Freeman of the Chicago Tribune.)

Finally, at the very end of the set, Ansari addressed Grace’s story. His whole demeanor changed — his voice, which had easily filled the theater, grew smaller and faster. “I know people are curious how I feel,” he said. Then he made essentially the same statement he’d made in his pop-up show in February, saying he’d been scared, embarrassed, and humiliated, and felt bad that Grace (whom he didn’t name) felt the way she did. He also told the same anecdote about his friend rethinking his previous dates thanks to Ansari’s experience, and said that if other men learned from the allegation against him, “that’s a good thing.”

On the one hand, forcing oneself to bring up an allegation of sexual misconduct, again and again, throughout an international tour, is certainly a form of penance, perhaps one uniquely suited to a comedian. On the other, the statement felt less satisfying to me sitting in the Chicago Theatre than it had when I read about it in February.

Perhaps it was just the familiarity that allowed me to see its shortcomings more clearly — I wanted Ansari to focus less on how he felt and more on how Grace felt about the experience. Ansari also didn’t take direct responsibility or apologize to Grace as part of his comments — he may not feel he owes her an apology. (Ansari has not responded to my request for comment for this story.)

And as the set ended, I was reminded that throughout this year, as Ansari has had the opportunity to think through how to address the allegation in his act, Grace has had little opportunity to control the ways her motivations and decisions have been dissected — and often decried — in the media.

Ansari has always been a smart social critic, and his set in Chicago was strongest when he made us squirm in our seats. But he didn’t seem ready to turn quite as critical an eye on himself. He had moments, as when he noted that in his 2010 special, Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening, he praised Kelly’s music and said he “hopes he really is innocent of all those terrible things he’s accused of”:

That bit “has not aged well,” Ansari admitted.

But compared to his riff on “newly woke white people” or his questioning of Brian about Michael Jackson, Ansari’s approach to the allegation against him felt a bit half-baked, like he wasn’t quite ready to ask himself the kind of hard questions he asked the audience.

Men care a lot about the allegations against Ansari. That makes his response matter.

In the past year, I’ve probably gotten more messages from men — both friends and strangers on the internet — about Aziz Ansari than about anyone else accused as part of #MeToo.

“What about Grace?” one man wrote to me recently. “She mauled this man publicly for in essence being a bad lover.”

Typically, men argue that what Ansari is accused of isn’t severe enough to warrant discussion as part of this particular cultural moment. But a few men have said that Grace’s story caused them to reexamine some of their behavior. One wrote anonymously at Vox that after reading the Babe.net article, “I had a sickening moment of truth: I’ve done that.”

I think men’s interest is a reason we should be talking about Grace’s story, because it clearly strikes a nerve.

A lot of men can probably see themselves in the allegation against Ansari. That doesn’t mean they deserve to lose their jobs or face criminal prosecution, but it does mean they could benefit from some examination of gender, power, and consent.

Aziz Ansari dons a “Time’s Up” pin at The Golden Globe Awards on January 7, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California.
Aziz Ansari dons a “Time’s Up” pin at The Golden Globe Awards on January 7, 2018, in Beverly Hills, California.
Greg Doherty/Getty Images

From his set, it seems like Ansari agrees. He may not be quite ready to subject himself to the kind of funny, biting criticism he unleashed on Brian, and maybe he doesn’t feel his date with Grace warrants it. But he is willing to make his experience part of the #MeToo conversation and allow it to be a lesson for other men.

And some men may be more willing to listen to someone like Ansari — a male comedian who makes them laugh, who’s been through something they can probably relate to — than they are to women talking or writing about #MeToo, especially when the conversation turns to those “gray areas” Anand talked about. Most people agree that what Harvey Weinstein is accused of is heinous and wrong. But it might require somebody like Ansari, with whom many men feel comfortable, to get them to take a hard look at their own behavior and make changes.

Throughout the evening, Ansari returned to the intertwined themes of personal growth and political progress. “We’re all shitty people,” he said at one point, but “we become aware of our blind spots and we get better in time.”

Ansari’s words about Grace’s story weren’t necessarily as groundbreaking as they could have been, but they showed he’s open to having a conversation with his fans about what he’s been accused of. And if he’s serious about becoming aware of his weaknesses and getting better with time, maybe that conversation is just beginning.

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