(Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers.)
“These are the special shows,” Aziz Ansari says slowly, addressing a tightly packed room of fans who’d bought tickets within 10 minutes of The Cuckoo Club (Bandra) announcing a secret set on Instagram earlier in the day. “These are the shows that will never—can never—happen in exactly the same way again. Ask this guy, he’s watched it twice!” Ansari points to a bespectacled kid in the front row, who he recognises from the previous set (the guy’s bought tickets to both shows and hasn’t budged from his seat).
The India leg of his Road to Nowhere tour hasn’t even officially started yet, but this is already the comedian’s third show in the city. He first performed an hour-long surprise set at Varun Thakur’s show at Todi Mill Social on Wednesday night.
On Thursday, Ansari went on twice at The Cuckoo Club, for close to two hours each. At Rs. 499 a pop, this felt like a steal, especially compared to his staggeringly priced tickets for the big auditorium shows in the city this weekend. There’s also nothing like the rush of being part of an impromptu intimate evening with any celebrity for fans; bragging rights are a whole mood.
After 45 minutes of waiting around—no easy feat in Mumbai’s sticky heat this time of year—Abish Mathew jumped (obviously) on stage for his opening act, followed by Raunaq Rajani (who we are watching very, very closely, BTW). Foreplay out of the way, Ansari finally sauntered on, to loud cheers from the audience.
This is a different reaction from last summer in New York, where I last saw him perform, at Comedy Cellar on MacDougal Street. The dimly lit low-ceiling, brick wall backdrop basement venue is a showcase club, where some of the best comedians and writers from Comedy Central and SNL do short sets. It’s always sold out. They’re most famous for their surprise closing acts—comedy A-listers including Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart and Chris Rock often drop in without warning to test their material.
The night I was there, Ansari was closing. He took stage, and the audience, usually primed to respond to the surprise act like crazed Salman Khan fans at this point, seemed deeply conflicted about how to react. The bad date vs sexual harassment debate following an anonymous woman’s account of what happened on her date with Ansari was still ongoing. Some weren’t sure how they felt yet, others were annoyed at not being given a choice about having to sit through it because Comedy Cellar had a minimum-bar tab rule (which was dropped a couple of months later, after Louis CK showed up unannounced in October 2018 to perform there and made everyone furious).
Most of all, they wanted to know what Ansari might have to say in his defense. Yes, some people were still open to talking about it before choosing a side, because the allegations against him weren’t as outright vile as Harvey Weinstein or Louis CK. But he didn’t address it at all, making the next 20 minutes uneasy as all hell.
The night I was there, Ansari was closing. He took stage and the audience, usually primed to respond to the surprise act like crazed Salman Khan fans at this point, seemed deeply conflicted about how to react.
A year later, Ansari’s slight figure is hunched on a black stool. He spends the entire evening mic in hand, working his way through an eager and willing crowd. He looks relaxed, maybe even tired, it’s hard to tell. He starts talking to some of the most obvious people in the audience. Besides the super-fan up front, there’s a “token white dude”, a couple that isn’t sure how long they’ve been dating, a dude who can’t stop talking about magic mushrooms, a guy who knows—without having to Google it—that gay marriage was legalised in the US in 2015, a girl who’s decided she’s going to be the comedian’s fact checker for the night… and Bunty, who hates his name, and becomes Ansari’s go-to callback for the rest of the evening.
With all the crowd work he was doing, the evening felt more casual than it was. But Ansari had a larger point to make and an even larger #MeToo-shaped black hole to address. When he starts talking about the world in 2019, living in a time where everyone seems offended by everything while simultaneously trying to “out-woke each other”, a time when “you can get on the internet and confirm whatever you want to believe”, two things are happening: a foundation is being laid for what is to come (we all know it’s coming), and the comedian is making sure you absorb how much worse everyone else is before he gets to himself.
He asks: Were we offended by the Apu (The Simpsons) controversy two years ago? Do we know/care about what happened? What about R Kelly? There’s a whole bit on R Kelly. Are we done with him yet? What about Michael Jackson? Are we absolutely sure we’ve watched the latest documentary?
It suddenly begins to feel a whole lot like he’s telling you stories about the more awful things other celebrities have done so we’ll be a little more forgiving about Ansari when he gets to it. “We’re all shitty people,” he offers, on multiple occasions, including a story about his friend’s grandmother with Alzheimer’s, who’s lost her filters and now just says horrible things to people, with no way of knowing she’s crossed the line. Because, again, at the core, we’re all shitty people—we’ve just built up more P.C. filters over the years.
Pop culture references start coming in—you think Jim and Pam’s story from The Office is kosher? In 2019, that’s a “landmark sexual harassment case.” In 2019, everyone’s very bitter, he implies, perhaps not realising how bitter the once-woke and progressive comedian himself now sounds to those listening closely.
“Now!” a girl hisses to her friend sitting next to me in the audience. People in the crowd are trying to guess the point at which Ansari is finally going to bring It up, convinced that he will.
But instead come anecdotal bits about his Danish girlfriend. Stories about visiting his grandmother in Thoothukudi, a recommendation to spend enough time with your parents to learn about who they were before you came along and fucked up their bikes and bling lifestyle. How difficult it is to find Indian actors back in New York—he’s had to change the little kid who plays Dev in his Netflix original series Master of None in every episode.
The audience is getting restless. It’s past midnight, closer to 1 am. When you’ve been in the game for 18 years, you’ve got enough craft and skill to ensure you’re not going to entirely lose your audience’s attention. But the tension is now palpable. “I have nothing else to do tonight, so I could go on,” he chuckles. “If anyone wants to leave, I won’t be offended.” No one moves. A large chunk of the crowd doesn’t want to miss out on anything crazy, in case it does happen, the rest haven’t read the article so they don’t know what they’re waiting for.
“Ok, so how did I feel about what happened?” he finally says. “I felt embarrassed, I felt angry, I felt humiliated. But ultimately, I felt terrible. That this is how I made someone feel.” There are no straightforward defenses, but he does make a show of digging deep to find a silver lining. He talks about a friend who said to him, “This has made me think about all the dates I’ve been on till now, and will make me think about all the dates I’m going to be on.” He seems to have made peace with the fact that some good may come of this conversation.
Then very, very slowly, Ansari dials everything down to make room for a moment of quiet sincerity. He tells us he’s grateful to be here. “Because I saw a world where I don’t get to do this,” he says. “And it was very scary. It was like I had died.”
Pin-drop silence. He looks up at the audience.
“And I did die. That Aziz is dead. I’m a different person now.”
Does his audience believe him? Do they want to? Is it enough? This wasn’t his main show; the public in Mumbai and New Delhi is still waiting. Watch this space for Dead Ant’s full review of Road to Nowhere.
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