In almost any other year of his career, comedian Aziz Ansari’s Saturday show at Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino would be just another stop on a long list of road gigs for the popular comic. Instead, this show is the largest local date for Ansari since he was accused of sexual misconduct this year.
It’s a big change for Ansari, who has largely been lying low since January, when in an interview with Babe.net, a woman accused him of pressuring her into sex when they were on a date in September 2017 . Under the pseudonym Grace, the woman claimed she “was taken advantage of by” Ansari, resulting in what she called “the worst night of my life.” Grace claimed Ansari ignored verbal and nonverbal cues that she was uncomfortable.
The piece was controversial: Some publications said the allegations existed in a “gray area” of sexual misconduct rooted in misunderstanding rather than malice; others faulted Babe.net for reporting an anonymous, single-source claim. Public sentiment for Ansari seemed to err on the side of cautious permission, rather than the outrage associated with other celebrities, such as Louis CK and Jeremy Piven. Diane Bones, adjunct professor of humor writing at Temple University, acknowledged that the Ansari situation was loaded.
Ansari apologized and received his fair share of criticism regarding issues of consent and communication. In a public response, he acknowledged going on a date with Grace, but indicated any sexual activity the pair engaged in appeared to be “completely consensual” to him at the time. He added that he was “surprised and concerned” about the allegations and had “responded privately” to Grace with an apology. “I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture,” Ansari said via a statement. “It is necessary and long overdue.”
Ansari then all but disappeared from the public eye, popping up intermittently through the summer to perform sporadic, little-advertised gigs, including a few at Punch Line Philly in August, in which he did not address the allegations.
Unlike other celebrity men accused of sexual misconduct, Ansari’s return has been relatively drama-free. Though neither his camp nor the Hard Rock responded to a request for comment, there appears to be little protest regarding Ansari’s taking the stage again.
Louis CK, on the other hand, faced protests and walkouts when he returned to performing this year after admitting to masturbating in front of women without their consent. Rumors about his misconduct persisted for years, and he acknowledged it only after the New York Times published an investigation.
Philadelphia-area comedians protested a performance by actor-turned-comic Jeremy Piven, who performed at Punch Line over the summer; he launched a comeback tour after denying in a statement that included the results of a polygraph test sexual assault allegations from eight women.
The difference, says Philly comic Erin Dohony, who was involved in protests against Piven, may come down to the nature of the allegations against Ansari, as well as his response.
“With Louis, I think he was using his power and influence to purposefully prey on women. With Aziz, it was a date that he brought back to his apartment. It was more of a private, personal interaction that went astray,” Dohony, who organizes the weekly Laughs on Philly open-mic night, says. “He immediately apologized and took responsibility. That doesn’t absolve him from his actions, but it was important that he acknowledged her feelings.”
There is a general expectation in pop culture that comedians will address personal scandals in their work, unlike actors accused of similar misconduct. Comedy is a more open, direct form of entertainment in which audiences seek authenticity from performers. Consider Richard Pryor, Paul Reubens, and Paula Poundstone, who addressed their own scandals on stage and maintained their careers.
“It may be ugly, but all the great comics have not been afraid to get ugly, especially when it came to the darker parts of their own psyches,” says Tom Fitzgerald, one half of Tom & Lorenzo, a Philadelphia website that analyzes fashion and celebrity culture. “They can’t be up there fronting their way through these sets that are just ignoring the elephant in the room.”
In his club dates this year, Ansari discussed internet culture, social media, and our obsession with being woke. Fitzgerald says not addressing the allegations does a disservice to Ansari’s established style. He has, after all, positioned himself as a millennial comic sensitive to issues of feminism and dating, thanks to his work on hit shows like Netflix’s well-received Master of None.
“That’s your job as a comic. You are supposed to comment on your personal life and society,” Fitzgerald says. “In this case, your personal life and society came crashing together in this explosive way. Ultimately, I think Aziz is going to ruin his brand if he doesn’t say something about this. Comedians aren’t politicians. They can’t just whistle their way past scandals and wait for the press to get over them.”
If he addressed the situation on stage, even obliquely, Fitzgerald says, the media — and the public — might move on. Ditto for CK and Piven, though with the caveat that they could have used a little more time out of the public eye. Dohony says comedians “have a right to tell jokes about what they want to talk about,” and Ansari may not yet have figured out a way to speak about the situation in a meaningful or effective way.
“I don’t think people should be expected to acknowledge it in their comedy,” Dohony says. “I could see how a comedian would want to ignore it and distract people with, ‘Here is this other material, please don’t just associate me with this misconduct.’ ”
But for Bones, the reason Ansari has not addressed the allegations on stage may come down to something more understandable than artistic license or cultural obligation.
“If Aziz talks about his conduct in his act, he’s damned; if he ignores his diminished reputation, he’s also damned,” Bones says. “I’m guessing that he probably won’t address the topic now for one simple reason: On the advice of his lawyer.”