All art, at some level, is manipulative. And skilled artists, to quote Sherlock Holmes talking about his great adversary Moriarty, are like “a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.” Every word in a short story has a purpose; every note in a symphony builds on the previous one. Thus our stories are built, brick by calculating brick. The trouble begins when the artist’s manipulations begin to service not Art, but the artist himself (this does appear to be an overwhelmingly male problem).
Where deception-as-Art ends, deception-as-PR begins — Aziz Ansari’s new standup show Road to Nowhere is a great example of this phenomenon. Here’s an obviously sharp comedian, someone who understands the subtle intersections of race and class particularly well, someone with an enviable track record of mining intelligent observational comedy from his own personal life. And yet, by the time the hour-long set ends, you’re left wondering whether you sat through a longwinded (if thoughtfully put together) campaign video.
Every word in a short story has a purpose; every note in a symphony builds on the previous one. Thus our stories are built, brick by calculating brick. The trouble begins when the artist’s manipulations begin to service not Art, but the artist himself (this does appear to be an overwhelmingly male problem).
To recap, in January, babe.net published an account by a woman (writing under the pseudonym “Grace”) who said that her date with Ansari went horribly wrong — she claimed that he repeatedly made advances after dinner, at his place, ignoring her verbal and non-verbal cues about not wanting to have sex. At various points in the evening, Ansari shoved his fingers inside Grace’s mouth, and insisted that she perform oral sex on him, despite her reluctance. In a text message she sent Ansari later, Grace said, “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you”. Ansari responded by saying that he was “truly sorry” she felt this way and attributed the incident to his “misreading signals in the moment”.
The backlash forced an year-long hiatus in Ansari’s career — until now, with Road to Nowhere. You can imagine this writer’s discomfort, then, when a major strand in the show turned out to be celebrity reputations, how quickly they can unravel in the social media era, and how people should be a little wary of “cancelling” an artist’s entire body of work based on what they did in their personal lives. Crucially, Ansari uses self-deprecation to put this point across — he refers to his own previous R. Kelly skits in previous shows and admits, “They’ve not aged well!” Or when he talks about Leaving Neverland, the recent Michael Jackson documentary which interviews Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men who’ve alleged they were sexually abused by the singer when they were children, an ordeal that lasted several years.
Jackson, of course, was, along with Prince, among the first African-American artists to be featured on MTV, back in the 80s. Do we simply turn our backs on all that history associated with Jackson, asks Ansari, because we think we know what we do? It doesn’t help here that Ansari chooses to add a little epilogue about how the internet is a large and confusing place, with hundreds of versions of the same story — in the era of ‘alternative facts’, can we ever truly be sure of something because we read it off our phones? The coup de grace — Ansari even jokes, “You know who the first brown person I saw on MTV was? Me!” That is a supremely weird flex, one that seeks to ‘flatten’ the grounds of argument in favour of Ansari’s broad-strokes, nothing-is-reliable-anymore dismissal of woke politics. “We’re all shitty people”, Ansari maintains throughout the show. Can we crowdsource guilt? Ansari certainly seems to think so.
Ansari thinks we’re all trying to “outwoke” each other, that we’re unfairly judging everything by 2019 standards of political correctness, that the horribly lopsided power equations of the world are somehow less egregious than young people’s responses to these equations. As flawed, scattered or occasionally over-the-top these responses may be, it takes a special kind of stupid to think that the real problem is people protesting a little too much.
“We’re all shitty people”, Ansari maintains throughout the show. Can we crowdsource guilt? Ansari certainly seems to think so.
Which is a crying shame, because when Ansari is not indulging in these guerrilla PR tactics, he’s a mighty fine comedian and a more than capable writer. His bits about wanting to pop acid with his Thoothukudi-dwelling grandma, about growing up in South Carolina, about introducing his Danish partner to his Tamil-speaking Indian family —these are enjoyable riffs, executed to perfection by a comedian in his prime. If only he stayed with these slightly surreal, unpredictable routines.
In his 2013 Netflix special Buried Alive (feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it?), Ansari had this simple but effective bit where he asked the women in the audience to clap. He then repeated the request, this time to women in the audience who’d ever received an unsolicited dick pic. The near-identical sounds were their own story. “The bar is that low!” Ansari almost squealed in righteous disbelief. And that’s really the hook for Road to Nowhere — the bar is that low. By invoking R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, Ansari is trying to build a straw man and then demolish it with practiced comedic strokes. His apology (which comes towards the end of the show, and sounds sincere for the most part) sounds loftier and more profound than it is precisely because we sat through its 40-minute comedic prologue.
In other words, we sat through a PR exercise disguised as high art — not the most optimistic of thoughts in Delhi’s 40-degree delirium.