Aziz Ansari is making a comeback.
Over the past month, the comedian has started hosting “pop-up shows” in cities across the country. They’re billed under the title “Working Out New Material,” with the intent of doing exactly that.
With only a few days’ notice, he’s sold out venues in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Madison, Bennettsville, South Carolina, and most recently, Knoxville, Tennessee. They’re some of the first advertised stand-up sets Ansari has done since sexual harassment allegations were made against him in January by an anonymous 23-year-old photographer in a Babe.net article, which added his name to a long list of powerful men swept up in the #MeToo movement. Ansari subsequently removed himself from the spotlight: no performances, no interviews, barely any paparazzi shots.
Ansari’s position in the constellation of Hollywood #MeToo stories is a complicated one. It happened on a date, while many of the other incidents happened under more professional guises. It’s one woman’s story, in contrast to the scores of victims who have shared stories about Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose. These details, however, don’t render Ansari’s accuser’s story or feelings any less valid. If anything, they warrant an even more nuanced conversation about enthusiastic consent and victim-blaming.
Watch fans' reaction to Ansari's set:
But so far, if anyone has gone to one of Ansari’s shows looking to gain clarity on his accusations, they haven’t found it.
Thursday night’s Knoxville show at the Tennessee Theatre was announced a week ago and just a few days after Louis C.K. made a surprise appearance at New York City’s Comedy Cellar. Tickets went for $42 and sold out quickly despite the short-notice. Par for Ansari’s previous “Working Out New Material” shows, the audience was warned that phones and smart watches would be locked away during the show. It’s a practice that’s become de rigueur at comedy shows to prevent jokes from hitting the internet and spoiling the experience of future audiences.
After brief sets from Wil Sylvince and Phil Hanley, Ansari made his way to the stage, wearing a T-shirt from Kanye West’s Yeezus tour, and was welcomed by roaring applause. A bit about staying off his own phone rolled seamlessly into jokes about how quickly and incisively the internet vilifies people — without leaving room for a nuanced conversation. He talked about Roseanne, the CEO of Starbucks, and the teen who was accused of cultural appropriation for wearing a Chinese qipao to prom.
At one point, he quizzed the audience on a new outrage he saw online: Pizza Hut is embroiled in scandal because some customers thought they were delivered a pizza with the pepperonis arranged in the shape of a swastika. But some people online think it looks more like a Star of David. Other people think it just looks like a regular pizza. He likens it to the Laurel/Yanny auditory illusion that went viral in May and encourages the audience to weigh in.
Then he directs the audience: Clap if you saw a swastika. Clap if you saw a Star of David. Clap if you just saw a pizza. (There are no visual aids. He’s operating on the assumption that you know what he’s talking about.) At the end of the poll, Ansari reveals he made the whole thing up — there was no Pizza Hut swastika scandal after all. But everyone who clapped chose to take a side anyway. It’s a believable premise, and the bit easily functions as an allegory for a variety of outrage greatest hits like The Dress, “fake news,” or even Ansari’s own experience with the Babe.net article.
To be clear, there is no mention of “Babe.net,” no “#MeToo,” no “Louis C.K.” no “Harvey Weinstein” in this show. The majority of Ansari’s Knoxville material meditated on race in America, especially his own experiences as an Indian actor in Hollywood — getting mistaken for Kumail Nanjiani, his take on The Problem With Apu, having difficulties casting a younger version of himself for Master Of None, and the realities of dating as part of a mixed race couple in the public eye.
Ansari goes on to explain that sometimes his girlfriend doesn’t pick up on racist microaggressions because she’s a white woman from Denmark. He had to explain to her why publications refer to her as “Becky.” When someone yells at them on the street that she probably gets a lot of free taxi rides with him as her boyfriend, she takes it to be a comment on her being perceived as a gold digger, only dating him for his wealth. But Ansari explains to her that the man is using the stereotype that Indian people are taxi drivers to make fun of him.
That taxi bit is the closest he gets to illustrating the gendered dynamics of his relationship. That said, it’s a comedy show, not a State of the Union.
Ansari closed his set with an extended criticism of how the burden of birth control doesn’t fall evenly between men and women. He chastised men who are unwilling to wear condoms, recalled the male birth control study that shuttered after subjects experienced the same side-effects women have endured for years, then topped it off by imagining what the procedure might look like for inserting a male IUD. The bit is inherently feminist and yields him some of his biggest laughs of the night.
But the conversation about safe sex also makes the lack of any #MeToo-related mention that much more conspicuous.
By all conventions, Ansari killed it at the Tennessee Theatre. His audience banter was quippy and even-keeled. His material seemed very buttoned-up for a show that was advertised as a comedy testing kitchen. And he’s always been a master of building intensity and momentum with his vocal and physical performance, using the entire length of the stage. The only evident hiccup was a microphone malfunction halfway through his set, but he still played that off successfully.
He even left the stage to a standing ovation. But for a show that starts by flaming internet outrage culture and ends with feminist critique, his choice to omit even a passing reference to his own infamous experience with both is hard to ignore.
Cover image: Aziz Ansari arrives at the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California U.S., September 18, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson.