Last year, Aziz Ansari was caught up in #metoo when a young woman published a story on a now-shuttered website about a bad date with the comedian. It became a scandal, and production halted on season three of Ansari’s Netflix show “Master of None.” But now Ansari is back on Netflix, with a new special, “Right Now.” The meaning of the title, as you may surmise, is: enjoy life now, be a good person now, because it can all go away in an Internet second.
The scandal itself was funny because Ansari is the most woke comedian to make it to fame—his specials constantly assess in what ways white American men are racist, sexist, and homophobic. For all his progressivist cred, he learned that comedians cannot be arbiters of woke.
Ansari talks about this scandal in his new special and cautiously declines the opportunity to stand on his dignity or defend himself. The appropriately woke answer is: regardless of the truth of the matter, it’s good that it started a conversation. It got many people to think about their bad dates and how they should be better people. This is a very pious hope, of course, but it is nothing to do with comedy. It is in fact the opposite of comedy—it is moralism.
Indeed, that’s why there’s less comedy going around these days. Liberals have a near monopoly on stand-up comedy and even sit-coms, but the political mood has gotten progressively darker, so that everyone has to find something else to do: political hackery is popular, complaining about Trump and racism all the time, but that doesn’t help comedians who want to distinguish themselves by talent, not compete in the nationwide hysterias.
Ansari has decided instead that comedy is overdone anyway, so the future is therapy instead. Unlike his previous specials or the various roles he’s played on TV and in films, “Right Now” is to a large extent a camp revival meeting for liberals. His various witticisms mostly adorn the interstices of a more serious ritual. He testifies to his suffering and his own failures; he apologizes for the bad things he’s said in previous specials, which were not sufficiently woke; he asks forgiveness from the crowd; and he reflects on the suffering of this world, which requires that he and we become better people, listen more, judge less, and be good.
It’s religion for atheists. The promise that our celebrities will become progressive moral crusaders comes down to saying that anyone who is sufficiently politically correct will be saved in some way. As soon as we stop discriminating, we can all come together in one great undifferentiated unity of mankind. We can be the same, the famous millionaires and the anonymous paying audiences alike. And this seems in a strange way to be what Ansari, and perhaps others like him, really and truly believe. They want to lead people to the progressive Promised Land.
Now, if we stopped with the sentimental rapprochement for a second and spoke like Aristotle, we’d have to say comedy is some kind of poetry, an imitation that’s specifically bound by the rule of ridicule and laughter. It’s a making, since it makes stories, not a doing—it does not have the status of moral or political action. But at some level, Progress requires that comedy become a form of moral reeducation, and a hip way of advertising Progress.
This is unlikely to work for the very reason progressives believe it to be necessary: the way we react to modern life, as Ansari learned when he was publicly humiliated, is often quite ugly. We do not wish to be reconciled to each other quite as urgently as we wish to take out our anger on other people, presumably those whom we blame for how bad things are. Turning comedy into moralism is not going to make audiences less angry or less inclined to tear down the idols that Hollywood and TV have set up for them to worship.
Until recently, we were told that comedy, as indeed all art, should be transgressive, challenging audiences and making them uncomfortable. That, too, was an attempt to advertise something—radical individualism, becoming yourself by attacking social rules that seem obsolete, unjust, or which stifle individuality. Now, transgression is out and conformism is back in—the best comedian now is the man or, likely, the woman who complains most plausibly about injustice and shames the people who do not sufficiently conform to whichever moral crusade is popular or prestigious at any moment.
Ansari is wittier and more charming than most people who talk social justice, and he constantly tries to rein in the excesses of woke. But he doesn’t seem to understand woke itself is a problem for comedy, since it denies the comedian any independent standpoint from which to comment on the foibles of mankind. Comedy means to some extent bringing down the false idols people worship—not doing custodial duty polishing them. Does anyone dare do that anymore?
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