Can You Laugh at Aziz Ansari’s Jokes and Not Feel Guilty in a Post-#MeToo World?

Pop Culture

Can You Laugh at Aziz Ansari’s Jokes and Not Feel Guilty in a Post-#MeToo World?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Do the men who have been outed as harassers over the last year ever wish that people would magically forget about their accusations or confuse them with someone who hasn’t been accused of inappropriate behaviour? It’s this escapist and peculiar thought that is the starting point of actor-writer-comedian Aziz Ansari’s comeback stand-up tour, “Road to Nowhere”. There’s an especially striking bit in the show’s final minutes when Ansari talks about being mistaken for Hasan Minhaj by a random fan. The arc of that joke – a parody of celebrity negotiations with starstruck fans – is fairly familiar and forgettable. But Ansari mines tragicomedy in a tale of mistaken identities with a curious pièce de résistance: his personal shame.

It starts off with the comedian animatedly recollecting how the fan overcompensated for confusing him with another brown comedian by rattling off his claims to fame: “Parks and Recreation?“Master of None?” the man prods, and then almost without warning, “Sexual misconduct..?” At that point, Ansari, reduced to a mixture of embarrassment and humiliation, suddenly embraces the comfort of the mistaken identity he was mocking seconds ago, and goes, “No No No. That wasn’t me. That was Hasan.”

Ansari’s playful delivery unpacks the double-standards of his default response – wanting to distance a serious accusation of personal misconduct with his public reputation. When he performed the joke in Mumbai this weekend, the 1000-strong crowd comprising a fascinating hybrid of Bollywood royalty, ardent fans, and unsurprisingly, a few men outed over the last year, unanimously erupted in laughter. I did too, while simultaneously wondering, “Is he really allowed to crack that joke?”

The problem wasn’t that in an hyper-outraged world that has come to fetishise political correctness, Ansari’s punchline was bereft of any. Instead, it was that Ansari – the man who was accused of pressurising his date to have sex – was the one uttering it; he was the difference between that joke being labelled as harmless or harmful. Yet even then, it also felt like the evening’s most definitive moment, one that spiritedly encapsulated – and acknowledged – the predominant concerns of a post-Me Too world: Are you trivialising the transgressions of outed men if you’re willing to renegotiate with their art? More specifically, does forgiving Aziz Ansari mean that we’re mandated to forgive all sexual offenders? And most importantly, do we get to decide which jokes outed comedians can crack?

Ansari’s playful delivery unpacks the double-standards of his default response – wanting to distance a serious accusation of personal misconduct with his public reputation.

These are questions that Ansari’s sly, cynical, and contemplative new set – one of the first glimpses of a society rethinking the cancel culture and re-negotiating with tainted artists – intends for its audience to ask themselves. Throughout the two hours that the comedian is on stage, he frequently uses the audience as guinea pigs, needling them into confronting the evolving parameters of cultural forgiveness. Much of his set – largely riffed on the allegations against R Kelly, Michael Jackson, universal shittiness of people, and the intolerance of extreme wokeness – is geared toward underlining that forgiveness might be optional but it is also subjective. Shouldn’t everyone then, be able to make up their own minds about how they feel about a Aziz Ansari or Quentin Tarantino? And can they also have the luxury of arriving at two different conclusions for a similar violation?

Ansari’s set is in essence, a tightly contained, often hilarious and sometimes defensive exploration of the grey areas that our cancel culture often misses. By basing his new material as an apparent response to the allegations against him, (he leaves it up to the audience to make up their mind about this as well), Ansari seemed to be guaranteeing that his audience is incapable of separating the art from the artist. To respond to the ideas the comedian kept throwing at them also meant contending with the ruins of his reputation and not ignoring it.

It a move that can easily be read as both emotionally manipulative and self-aware. The Hasan Minhaj joke for instance, was followed by Ansari somewhat sincerely addressing the allegations against him, admitting his lapse in judgement, freely revealing the shame that his own actions brought him, and acknowledging the unjust weight thrust upon his audience to rehabilitate him. But it was also preceded by another bit that ruminated on the futility of cancelling Michael Jackson now when his music is already imprinted in our minds as memory. It’s a bit whose punchline arrives only as a question in the audience’s head: Are you a bad person if you play “Thriller” at your wedding or hum an R Kelly song without realising it?

Processing most of Ansari’s set is naturally, a frustratingly complicated exercise that is exacerbated by the fact that his standing in contemporary culture hinged on the tenets of political correctness and wokeness. The divided public reaction on the “validity” of his misconduct last year only revealed a cultural dissonance that is yet to have a singular resolution. An outcome that stemmed not just from the fact that Ansari’s missteps existed in a grey area but also because it involved a “lesser” – woefully common even – variant of non-consensual behaviour. A year on, the comedian capitalises on that same dissonance and ambitiously goes all out in revealing the chinks in the armour of the extreme woke. It’s precisely the kind of thing we demand from compelling art.