Aziz Ansari’s new standup tour explores what comes after being woke

Aziz Ansari’s new standup tour explores what comes after being woke
Image: Netflix
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This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here

After a few months out of the public eye, comedian Aziz Ansari is back with a new standup comedy tour. In his act, he tries out new material—and a new persona, one that eschews the “wokeness” that once helped him rise to prominence.

Ansari has done a lot to earn himself the title of “certified woke bae.” In the years since the end of the successful sitcom Parks and Recreation, on which he played public-servant-turned-entrepreneur Tom Haverford, he co-authored a book about the complexities of dating on the internet, with special attention paid to women’s challenges online. His Netflix comedy series Master of None earned him accolades and a Golden Globe. (When people call for representation of minorities and LGBTQ characters on TV, this was what they meant.) In an industry crowded with bros, cads, and self-effacing douchebags, Ansari emerged bearing the standard of wokeness, using his act to call out racist tropes instead of perpetuating them, unabashedly called himself a feminist.

Then in January 2018, just a few months after the flurry of allegations against Harvey Weinstein, feminist news outlet Babe.net published an anonymous woman’s account of a hookup with Ansari in which he showed aggressive and problematic behavior. Ansari said in a statement to E! Online that he was “surprised and concerned” by her story and noted that he continued to support “the movement that is happening in our culture.” He stayed out of the spotlight for a while, doing a smattering of surprise sets; in November, he announced his new standup tour, called “The road to nowhere,” that would kick off in February 2019.

I caught Ansari’s act at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. The casino’s 4,000-seat Grand Theater was sold out, an usher told me. Every audience member had to seal their phone in cloth pouches so that they couldn’t record what they saw. I paid special attention to the crowd—it was a good mix of men and women and largely white. Some seemed like they had come specifically for Ansari’s show; others seemed to be there because they were already at the casino and, well, why not take in a show?

Ansari’s new vibe is noticeably more jaded and bitter, in contrast to the more upbeat persona preserved in the amber of numerous appearances on late-night talk shows and his two Netflix standup specials. In one bit, Ansari talks about a recent incident in which a customer had ordered a pizza from Pizza Hut only to find that an employee had arranged the pepperoni in the shape of a swastika. He polled the audience: who thought the pepperonis looked like a swastika, and who didn’t? The joke was on those who answered—Ansari said he made the whole thing up (though an incident like this one did happen in 2015), then excoriated the respondents for being “the problem.” He defended (but also mocked?) Senator Sherrod Brown’s use of the word “niggardly.” He said two of the most vocal factions—gung-ho Trump supporters and the hyper-woke social justice warriors—drive the vitriolic online dialogues, while most of us (Ansari includes himself here) are just out there quietly trying to do the right thing.

But this feels slightly disingenuous coming from someone who seemed to be firmly in that second camp. In 2016, he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled “Why Trump Makes Me Scared for My Family.” But indeed, through much of his act, Ansari’s identity seemed to be in flux. Being the standard bearer of an identity as complex and multi-pronged as “woke” leaves a person vulnerable, at risk for the fast fall of call-out culture. If Ansari hadn’t been that person, it’s likely that the blowback of his alleged sexual misconduct wouldn’t have been as intense.

Now on the other side, Ansari is no longer the poster boy for wokeness. But who should he be instead?

Maybe he could be “un-woke.” In another bit, Ansari recounts an incident in which a white teen wore a Chinese-inspired cheongsam dress to prom. Another student snapped a photo and put it online. Did those teens have a valuable conversation about culture and appropriation? Of course not—they took to the internet to lambast each other. What a shame. Except that Ansari admitted he read (and clearly enjoyed) all the comments (wrong again, audience, because he said he made the whole incident up anyhow, though an incident exactly like this one happened last year). He told a story in which he fretted that a person he just greeted as 2 Chainz may not be the rapper at all, but instead may just be “some black guy.”

He also tried on a pedantic tone. He implored the audience to slow down its news metabolism after railing against our compulsion to keep up with the news cycle’s churn. He admitted that he didn’t want to spend time with his senile grandmother on a recent visit to India, then encouraged the audience to get to know their parents while they’re still around. Hard to disagree with that, though most of the audience likely wasn’t looking for a guilt trip at the casino that evening.

Unsurprisingly, Ansari didn’t address the allegations of sexual misconduct against him. But he did talk about Michael Jackson’s murky legacy, and the public’s recent turn against R. Kelly (who, Ansari admitted with chagrin, he’d gushed about in his acts for years).

He bordered on repentant without quite apologizing. “We’re all just shitty people, but we keep trying to do better,” was a sentiment he repeated a few times.

And he did talk about sex, specifically about the woman he’s dating now (the phrase “penile bruising” horrifyingly did come up). For other comedians, the girlfriend is a classic vehicle to portray themselves as the golden child or, more often, ne’er-do-well who doesn’t deserve her. In Ansari’s act, the girlfriend yielded a story about racial slurs and a lament that there wasn’t an IUD for men. Maybe Ansari hasn’t changed that much, after all?

Were all the jokes funny? No. His new material, and his new persona, are a work in progress. But there’s little doubt that Ansari is back. During the show, he noted that he may record these jokes in the future. If he does, even larger audiences might be forced to reckon with a new, post-woke Aziz.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Ansari had made up the story about the cheongsam prom dress and didn’t acknowledge that an incident like the pizza swastika had also occurred.