I was nervous about seeing Aziz Ansari. Last year, I would have said he was one of my favourite celebs. His work tackled issues—like the portrayal of Indians on TV, our obsession with our phones and our treatment of seniors—in ways that made me think as much as it made me LOL. I even stood by him despite the questionable acting in Master of None Season 2.
Then, in January, the Babe.net piece came out.
The as-told-to article details the experience of a 23-year-old woman who went on a date with Ansari and who described feeling pressured into sexual activity with the comedian. The 3,000-word story, which quickly went viral, sparked debates about what *actually* constitutes sexual misconduct, different forms of consent and the journalistic ethics of reporting these types of allegations. It was a mess, but unlike Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey, many fans—myself included—felt conflicted. This was not a case of sexual assault. Ansari apologized to the woman immediately when she texted him after their date, and released a statement following the Babe.net story noting that he had already responded to the woman and that he continued to support the “movement that is happening in our culture.” But it did reflect larger issues with the power dynamic in dating and normalized expectation of sexual encounters. In conversations with my colleagues, friends and even strangers, the same phrase kept coming up: this isn’t black and white. For many, this case fell into a grey area.
After the Babe.net story was published, Ansari laid low for months, but in August, he kicked off his standup tour and the debate resurfaced among fans and those who were still on the fence. I was also on the fence, but when I saw that he’d be coming to Toronto, the first of three Canadian stops, I wondered whether I should go. I thought seeing him perform his new material would help me figure out my stance. I wasn’t the only one who bought tickets, though; the show was so popular that it sold out and a second show was added the day before the original date.
The closer we got to the Nov. 26 show, the weirder I felt. But that wasn’t true for everyone. Amanda, a 32-year-old Master of None fan who asked us not to use her last name, says the controversy originally made her question her support for Ansari—but she ultimately decided she would still support him. “It definitely made me think at the time and made me decide whether to still be a fan or not, but I made that decision before buying the ticket,” she says.
And Miya Strauss, a 21-year-old Ryerson student, felt that though the debate around Babe.net’s story started an important conversation, the accusations weren’t strong enough for her to stop supporting Ansari. “[I] definitely considered it because I have dropped support of many people who have been accused, but I’m very certain of my opinions on it,” she says.
I… wasn’t. Especially when, the day of the show, ticket-holders received an email saying all phones and smart watches would be locked in Yondr pouches for the duration of the show to create a “phone-free viewing experience.” This requirement isn’t unique to Ansari’s show, but given the allegations and the buzz around this so-called “comeback” tour, when I read these instructions, it immediately felt jarring. And when I got to Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, my seatmate, 28-year-old Veronica Curran, noted that on her way into the theatre, staff had been telling the crowd that any hecklers would be removed from the theatre. Perhaps a typical housekeeping item, but given the circumstances, she felt it was telling.
As I settled into my seat, I looked at the crowd around me. It was young, multicultural and buzzing with excitement. And yet, to me, the vibe seemed different than other big-name comedy shows—it wasn’t just anticipation for the show. There was also a sense of will he or won’t he talk about that story?
Curran agreed that the atmosphere felt different, and unlike the other women I spoke with, she noted that she too was conflicted about buying a ticket to the Toronto show. “I did not take it lightly, I knew it was a slightly controversial decision,” she says, adding that one of the friends she invited to join her declined because she no longer supported the comedian. Curran, a University of Toronto student, felt Ansari had paid the price by being publicly called out, but also hoped that he would address the allegations—which she considered “the elephant in the room”—in his set.
“I thought that he’d learned his lesson,” she told me before the show started. “And I guess I’m going to find that out tonight.”
It’s been widely reported that Ansari’s show, described by the New Yorker as “a cry against extreme wokeness,” does not address #MeToo or the allegations against him. Amanda says she wasn’t surprised that he didn’t talk about #MeToo or the Babe.net article, even though his jokes did touch on current events and racism.
“I’m not quite sure I expected him to do so,” she told me in an email after the show. “It’s not something he could have made funny and probably would have been awkward. He already said his piece about that when the news came out at the time.”
But much of Ansari’s material got real close to doing exactly that, and even appeared to wink at it—for example, when he pointed out our tendency to turn controversies into endless think pieces or how quickly we resort to calling people out on social media.
In fact, some of Ansari’s material, particularly his bits criticizing “wokeness,” felt like thinly veiled frustration at how the Babe.net controversy played out in the headlines and on social media. And yet, there were parts of his set, such as his bit about birth control, that reminded me why I became of fan in the first place: His comedy points out issues and perspectives that you may not have thought of before, tied together with a hilarious punchline. That’s why the way Ansari seemingly bounced and leaped around the allegations against him felt, at times, uncomfortable. After all, this is a comedian whose work—such as his book about the nuances of modern dating—could arguably be described by the very term he was slamming.
“I was disappointed that he did not address the scandal directly in his set, especially because he circled around media debates, issues with modern dating and the problematic decision of still liking Kanye, without acknowledging that his entire audience had to make a similar decision by going to the show, even if you might not think what he did was as bad,” my seatmate Curran told me via email after the show. “Overall, I am still a fan and enjoyed the show a lot, but I will keep an eye on how he handles this going forward.”
When Ansari finished his set, I applauded, but didn’t join the Toronto crowd as they gave him a standing ovation. And I was still in my feelings the next day, when he announced the “Road to Nowhere” tour, which starts in February and will take him all over North America, including stops in Vancouver, Calgary and Windsor. I had hoped that Ansari’s show would help me figure out if I could once again be a whole-hearted supporter or if it was time for me to personally cancel him—but honestly, I still don’t know. My fan status for Ansari used to be black and white, but for now, I’m still in the grey.
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