Aziz Ansari shows that it’s hard to be funny these days
In the few days since Aziz Ansari’s new comedy special, Nightclub comedian (Netflix streams), is available, the most common adjective used in many reviews is “cynical”. The prevailing opinion is that Ansari is not very funny and the mood is depressed.
Not so. The special, which is only 30 minutes long, is invigorating in its skepticism and hard shell, comically morbid about the mess we all find ourselves in now. Recorded last month in New York, in front of an audience that had no idea Ansari would appear, it’s as topical as any late-night host’s monologues. It’s just that Ansari isn’t looking for belly laughs and there’s no teleprompter telling the audience when to clap and shout. For example, he has a very clear view of NFL player Aaron Rodgers’ refusal to get vaccinated.
Ansari now occupies an odd position in the comedy/television realm. A key element of Parks and Recreation, a hit comic and the creator, star and co-writer of the acclaimed series master of nothing, he has become prominent, and a rare example of a minority figure in such a position in American show business. Coming from an immigrant Muslim Tamil Indian family, he was representative of a changing America.
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In 2018, a woman using the pseudonym “Grace” accused Ansari of sexual misconduct. In an online outlet, she recounted a date with Ansari and said she felt pressured into having sex with him. The incident sparked a storm of debate. Some felt that Ansari’s explanation and attempted apologies were inadequate. Others felt the issue was opaque and trivialized of #MeToo issues. Still others felt that Ansari’s race was important. Writing in The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan wrote, “I thought it would take the hit squad of privileged young white women a little longer to open fire on brown-skinned men.
All of this put Ansari off the mainstream radar. He’s done two short stand-up tours and two TV specials since then, and he’s responded to the allegations against him, on stage. Here in Nightclub comedianhe seems more tired than cynical, more melancholy than defensive. But his target is real – a society trapped in inconsequential obsessions. His point is valid on online preoccupations and compulsions. “We only live in comment threads now,” he says at one point.
It largely focuses on vaccination and people who refuse vaccination. He asks for empathy for the refusals but berates people for paying attention to celebrities and sports personalities who refuse to get vaccinated. He finds it ridiculous that Rodgers is taken seriously. “I don’t think Rodgers, Nicki Minaj, any of those people are idiots. I’m not here to say that. I just think they’re trapped in a different algorithm than yours. You know what I mean If you call them idiots, you’re trapped in another algorithm.
It is strange that this special has been called “cynical”, since he says: “The flow of information has been completely corrupted”. And about Americans’ selfishness and disregard for other people’s opinions and other people’s pain, he says, “It’s pretty dark, if you just take a step back.”
These are facts, often laced with scathing humour, and Ansari is neither pessimistic nor killjoy-cynical. He is a hard-nosed, sometimes funny realist.
A whole other program should also be brought to your attention – Come clean up (It recently aired successfully on TV Ontario and is now streaming on TVO.org and TV Ontario’s YouTube channel.
It’s about addiction and a close-up of a program that aims to help addicts get sober. Filmmakers Derreck Roemer and Neil Graham got rare access to four drug addicts trying to recover at the Westover Treatment Center in Thamesville, Ontario.
The result is telling and deliberately meant to tell the viewer that not all drug addicts are out in the streets jostling for their next hit. The people featured here are ordinary, for the most part, and have held jobs or had families while slowly falling into addiction. As the program points out, in Canada, about 21% of the population will meet the criteria for addiction in their lifetime. Here we see how difficult the struggle is to overcome addiction over time and how the rehab program is the easy part.
It’s a powerful documentary and watching it, you feel the terrible tension that is involved in its four subjects trying to get back to normal life and put the past behind them.
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