Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix special, Nightclub Comedian, teems with cynical energy. The comedian hits timely topics like the pandemic, anti-vaxxers, and elections in his tame jokes, dunking on the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Nicki Minaj (the latter for her viral tweet about her cousin). He casts a wary eye on the current state of affairs, especially addiction to celebrity gossip and social media—he even pulls out his flip phone for effect to show he doesn’t indulge.
Of course, Ansari may have other reasons for a social media blackout: The Parks And Recreation actor was accused of sexual misconduct in an article posted on the now-defunct Babe.net in 2018, for which he issued a public apology. He retreated from the public eye in the aftermath, then returned in 2019 with the stand-up tour and a Netflix special, Right Now, in which he somberly addressed the allegations. For Master Of None’s third season, Lena Waithe took center stage as Denise, while Ansari focused on writing and directing the series.
On January 25th, Ansari makes a relatively straightforward return to the televised stage with the half-hour Nightclub Comedian. The special was filmed in December 2021 at The Comedy Cellar in New York City in front of a small audience who didn’t know he was performing. Ansari relies on tepid humor to please the limited crowd. There’s a successful bit about how Ansari, unlike other celebrities, doesn’t own any beverage or skincare companies, and a forgettable one in which the comedian muses on what would happen if Timothée Chalamet accidentally enraged Asians by throwing away his boba tea.
As with Right Now, Ansari forgoes a suit in favor of casual clothing. His (smartly cultivated) easygoing appearance and demeanor add to Nightclub Comedian’s relaxed appeal. He uses his time to try and incisively examine the country’s political divide. It’s an unusual approach for Ansari, who sits here in close proximity to his audience, but doesn’t rope them into his act as he usually does—his comedy is often all about the swag.
The actor makes a plea for empathy for anti-vaxxers because “shaming them clearly isn’t working.” It might seem like a bold stance, but he launches into a story about his own uncle dying due to COVID because he wouldn’t take the vaccine. It’s a brief but solid moment. The set feels far more intimate than his past works; it even kicks off with old footage of him as an NYU student performing at the same venue for the first time. Nightclub Comedian isn’t as much a comedic endeavor as it feels like an effort to poignantly reclaim his footing in the industry.
Ansari laments the lack of political energy in the present day that was seen in 2020 to oust Donald Trump. He gets laughs when he compares the former president’s seemingly entertaining speeches to Joe Biden’s. He also takes a jab at Vice President Kamala Harris, saying she’s essentially vanished after her “We did it, Joe” moment that’s since been memed to death. Ansari claims that at least Trump gave everyone content, which has become the most important thing today. In his latest attempt to hold a mirror up to society, he tells his audience that none of them will probably offer the unhoused man outside a dollar because it wouldn’t create content.
The irony, of course, is that Nightclub Comedian is exactly that: content. The half-hour passes quickly because Ansari is still affable as a comedian, but the humor is bland and empty. He wants to connect with viewers on a more emotional level, but the transparent attempt to rebuild his image feels too measured and staged, taking precedence over the performance itself.