In 2008, I was lucky enough to catch Dave Chappelle at a small comedy club in Greenwich Village. At the time, Chappelle was saying little about why he walked away from Chappelle’s Show, and a multimillion-dollar deal with Viacom three years earlier.
That night, however, Chappelle laid bare his greatest public failure, which had left his personal and professional reputations in ruins. Over the course of nearly two hours, his time on stage was unscripted, intimate, honest, and collectively healing in a way that only great comedy can be.
Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix comedy special "Right Now" isn't quite that, but it does resemble Chappelle's honesty in key ways.
Like Chappelle, Ansari, famed for his role in NBC's "Parks and Recreation," uses the stage to process his own public humiliations, including allegations of sexual misconduct in early 2018, and his fawning admiration for the since-disgraced R. Kelly.
Those expecting overt apologies will be disappointed, while critics will surely call Ansari’s special a calculated exercise in career salvaging. Yet, the man does engage in some self-reflection, and what appears to all but the most hardened cynics, real humility.
As with post-controversy Chappelle, it’s also interesting to observe the ways in which Ansari’s presentation has changed since his public flogging. Ditching his old act of yelling catchphrases like a hip-hop hype man, Ansari literally whispers half of his latest special. Rather than wide-angle pans of stadium-sized audiences, Ansari has director Spike Jonze capture his every awkward expression with a handheld camera.
Relative to his earlier shows, Ansari also leaves more empty space for contemplation -- his own, and that of his theater audience and viewers at home.
As with Chappelle -- who would eventually host his own self-examining Netflix comedy special -- Ansari challenges his audience to suspend their judgement long enough to consider the role their flogging of public figures serves in their own lives.
Critics will call it deflecting, and perhaps even a perversion of a noted adage: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” For other viewers, speculating about Ansari’s intentions and personal character will simply make for more intriguing TV.