Aziz Ansari: Nightclub Comedian review — Interesting cynical surprise set but ultimately fizzles out
This is not a bad show at all: it’s just hamstrung by its creator’s well-documented blind spots
About halfway into Aziz Ansari’s Nightclub Comedian (the comedian’s new half-hour special, shot during a surprise set at New York’s Comedy Cellar), he jokes about several of his colleagues (think Kevin Hart) going corporate — podcasts, sponsored live streams, media empires. Ansari reckons that if he truly wanted to, he could sell a bunch of things in America or the UK (he now lives in London). “I’m Indian, I’m gonna have great skin, I can easily fool white people!” Ansari jokes. “I’m an okay comedian but a terrible businessman. I’m doing this for free. Kevin Hart would never do this for free!”
This is what Twitter calls ‘a weird flex’, given that Ansari knew camerapersons hired by the world’s biggest streaming service (with about 250 million paid subscribers worldwide) were following his performance quite closely. Which is why I’m not really sure how Ansari sees himself and Hart as opposites: from where I’m looking, both comedians are firmly entrenched in corporate revenue streams. Hart just has more stuff that belongs solely to him, as opposed to billion-dollar media firms.
Nightclub Comedian is full of routines like this one: sequences that begin with an interesting, mildly contrarian thought or image before ultimately fizzling out, usually due to Ansari’s clumsy attempts at the ‘humblebrag’; appearing to be genuinely humble and self-deprecatory but really paying himself an oblique compliment. This is not a bad show at all: it’s just hamstrung by its creator’s well-documented blind spots. And it’s all the more frustrating because Ansari is and always has been one of the sharper writers working in comedy. Modern Love, the show he has co-written for Netflix, remains one of the funniest, most engaging depictions of modern-day dating mores.
Here, too, there are some very funny extended routines, like a bit where Ansari throws his weight behind unionising and striking workers in America right now. He notes that working-class Americans are quitting en masse, fed up with stagnant wages and punishing job conditions, and so, basically everything is understaffed. “Have you ever been to a Chipotle in Pennsylvania right now? It’s intense! It’s like the Chipotle’s got Covid. (…),” Ansari says, before launching into a hilarious parody of a hassled Chipotle manager. “We don’t have any guacamole! There’s an avocado shortage and our guacamole guy quit last week and now he makes $50,000 making guacamole videos on TikTok.”
Ansari is similarly astute about the alarmingly lethargic start to the Joe Biden presidency — most of Biden’s key legislative agendas have been blocked, and approval ratings are plummeting. Where’s the energy that America had when we had to get Trump out of office, Ansari wonders. He then does a remarkable caricature of a young liberal American, creating a word salad that includes a bunch of internet and social media buzzwords from the last few years.
“Maybe I should invest more in crypto? Matthias, are you going to the event tonight? There’s going to be, like, a new pop-up for this collaboration that Travis Scott is doing with, like, Citibank and Chips Ahoy and they’re selling these limited edition Chips Ahoy designed by, like, emerging artists and whenever you go you get this limited edition tote bag with this limited edition T-shirt designed by these, like, eco-friendly emerging streetwear brands and when you come home, the tote bag, like turns into an NFT and, like, the NFT starts deejaying and it’s all sustainable.”
This kind of a routine, I have to admit, was not possible with the Aziz Ansari of a few years ago; that dude had a far more congenial persona. Even the cynicism was cutesy, more Parks and Recreation than Seinfeld.
The criticism that he faced in the wake of that babe.net article, wherein a young woman alleged bad, sometimes coercive behaviour on Ansari’s part during and after a date, changed his comedy style. He is distinctly edgier now, and he likes to go for issues where there are very few good guys and almost everybody is morally compromised. “If you really take a step back and look at humanity… kind of a shitty group of people, right?” he says at one point here.
After an entertaining midsection, Ansari, predictably, falls back upon some defensive jokes about social media and disinformation towards the end of Nightclub Comedian. It’s a way of addressing his brief exile from comedy without actually addressing it. The ending is nice, though, as he tells the audience that he has reverted back to flip phones; no internet and if he has to text he has to “really want to say something specific”.
“Team Flip. It’s a bit extreme but I tell you what, man. You get your mind back. You see through the fog. You go where you wanna go,” Ansari says, before dropping the punch line. “You just gotta write down detailed instructions before you leave your house.”
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist, currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.
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