Two comics walk into a bar, but it’s no joke.
This week, Goodnights in Raleigh hosts two comics who came under scrutiny during the revelations of #MeToo last year: T.J. Miller, who has been a known asshole and abuser for a long time, and Aziz Ansari, a man who seemed to think that wearing a #TimesUp pin, like lamb’s blood above his door, could absolve his conduct from the larger cultural conversation. Ansari performed a surprise set this past Tuesday night, while Miller performs three nights this weekend.
Miller was accused of sexual assault while at George Washington University in the early aughts, according to The Daily Beast. Miller, in a joint statement with his wife, Kate, claimed that the allegations were from a spiteful former member of his college comedy troupe. Miller and his wife expressed sadness, stating that they felt the woman was “using the current climate to bandwagon and launch these false accusations.” (Outside of run-of-the-mill misogyny, Miller has also called in a fake bomb threat on a female Amtrak passenger, assaulted an Uber driver, gotten kicked out of a casino for being “aggressive,” and was called “a bully and petulant brat” by a former coworker. Fun!)
As for Ansari, early last year, a website called babe.net published the account of a twenty-three-year-old photographer who had gone on a date with the comedian, in which she was repeatedly pressured into sexual intercourse. In a public statement, Ansari confirmed the encounter happened, though he said that he believed that it was “completely consensual.” He ended his statement saying, “I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.”
New York Times columnist Bari Weiss and Atlantic journalist Caitlin Flanagan rushed to Ansari’s defense. Weiss called the published account “arguably the worst thing that has happened to the #MeToo movement since it began in October.” And while it is true that the Babe account did not express the journalistic rigor of other #MeToo investigations, it’s also true that Ansari was hitting on a woman more than ten years younger than him, and the sexual encounter, even if technically consensual, involved pressure that was couched in very queasy power dynamics.
If you’re like me, you probably feel annoyed, confused, and a little perversely curious about what exactly these guys think they can joke about. Neither rank among the most egregious perpetrators of harassment, assault, and abuse in Hollywood. As far as we know, they didn’t stifle women’s careers (please see: Louis C.K., Harvey Weinstein), nor did they have a button under their desk to lock women in their offices (ahem, Matt Lauer). But the mental image of Ansari’s date expressing hesitation, followed by Ansari thrusting his fingers down her throat and then attempting to stick those damp talons up her vagina, will not soon leave my memory, no matter how many episodes of Parks and Recreation I watch.
Miller seems to be devil-may-care in his work; his routine has always teetered on the edge of the inflammatory. He falls into the category of comedians that clearly pursued comedy as an excuse to shock and titillate, no matter who it hurt in the process. Ansari, on the other hand, often used comedy as a way to advance nuanced conversations about racism and sexism. One would imagine that new material might attempt to tackle the accusations with nuance. By all accounts, though, his new sets include no mention of the allegations and make no attempts at rebuilding trust. [Update: Reports from the Goodnights set indicate that Ansari did briefly discuss and express regret over the allegations at the end of his set.]
Instead, according to The New Yorker’s Eren Orbey, Ansari’s new routine includes a joke about social-media commentators who called out a teenager for what they felt was a culturally appropriative prom dress. “Why is everyone weighing in on this shit?” he asked. “Everyone weighs in on everything. They don’t know anything. People don’t wanna just say, ‘I don’t know.’” According to other reports, his stand-up routine includes an extended riff on social media outrage, describing woke culture as progressive Candy Crush.
What is disappointing about Ansari, in particular, is not just that he fell short of the feminism that he folded into his brand, it’s that he has now walked back on his progressive image in the aftermath of the allegations, resorting to reactionary jokes that would not be out of place in the comment section of a Fox News article on Facebook. “Kids these days, am I right?”
We want feminism, these men seem to say, so long as we never have to be the bad guys. The bitter, defensive comedy of Ansari and Louis C.K., the former darlings of woke media, feels like a once-sweet boyfriend who turns swiftly sour after the breakup. The loose thesis of their new material runs along the lines of, “If I can’t have feminism, nobody can!” It’s a shame, because if they spent even half of that energy on reckoning with mistakes and attempting to make amends, I’d probably feel less disgusted about their respective returns to comedy. They don’t seem to get that it’s not outrage culture that put them out of our good graces; it’s disrespect of women and an unwillingness to acknowledge the heavy hand of power dynamics.
But they aren’t the only ones at fault here. Venues like DPAC and Goodnights and Raleigh Improv bring these men in and sell out theaters to audiences who seem eager to show their support for these “aggrieved” men who were exiled, for all of two minutes, from comedy.
Last year, a friend texted me that Ansari was lounging at Cocoa Cinnamon on Geer Street, where he was nonchalantly drinking a cappuccino. My first impulse was to head there straight away: I wanted to see him, and maybe even talk to him. I struggled to formulate words that could express the extent of my disappointment in him, a disappointment that didn’t quite rise to the threshold of anger. I texted my high school best friends, one of whom is a first-generation Indian immigrant and a former fan of his comedy specials, someone who owned a copy of Modern Romance and implored us all to watch Master of None. She advised me to spill hot coffee on him. Instead, I decided to stay home, satisfied with a non-interaction. Maybe he would go away. Or if he didn’t, maybe he would come back with something substantial to say.
A few months later, he was back. The Ansari surprise show at Goodnights, which was announced on Monday, just a day before his Tuesday night appearance, sold out in a minute flat.