Review: Aziz Ansari makes Abu Dhabi Comedy Week debut as a changed man

The award-winning Indian-American comedian kicked off the UAE capital's new comedy festival with a revealing insight into his new life

A handout photo of Aziz Ansari in Netflix's “Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive.” (Photo credit: Andrew Baasch for Netflix)
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Eight years ago, if millennials were pressed to choose a voice of their generation, Aziz Ansari would have been a contender. Now, it’s a bit more complicated.

The Indian American comedian, raised in a Muslim family in South Carolina, reached the rarified heights that few in his field ever hit in the 2010s. He starred in several hit television shows, becoming the first the first Asian-American actor to win a Golden Globe. He landed a $3.5 million book deal for Modern Romance, his dissection of dating in the smart phone era. In 2016, he was even named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People.

Ansari’s work resonated because he was both an exemplary follower and leader. He was pop culture obsessed, chronically online. You name it, Ansari was a poster boy for it – foodie, hipster, hype beast, male feminist. But his work particularly as a writer also consciously educated many about the perspectives of minority communities in America, just as the West finally began to grapple with everyday issues of racism and representation.

The series he created in which he dissected those issues, Netflix’s Master of None, has proven highly influential, laying the groundwork for shows such as Ramy and Mo. The book he wrote, Modern Romance, hasn’t aged as well.

That’s because, in January 2018, an article was released at the peak of the #MeToo movement that alleged sexual misconduct, and while the severity of its claims were hotly debated, Ansari’s reputation never fully recovered.

Watching his comedy ever since, it seems Ansari himself was forever changed by the event as well.

In his 2019 Netflix special Buried Alive, he discussed his feelings about what happened head on, grappling with not only his guilt, but his fears that his career may well have ended as a result.

“I saw the world where I don’t ever get to do this again,” he said in the special. “And it almost felt like I died. In a way, I did. That old Aziz, he’s dead.”

Ansari hasn’t been nearly as public as he once was in the years since. In 2021’s third season of Master of None, he relegated himself to a side character. His 2022 Netflix comedy special Nightclub Comedian documented a surprise performance at a small New York club, a far cry from his days selling out Madison Square Garden.

In Nightclub Comedian, the old Ansari was indeed dead. He had purposefully separated himself from the world in which he was once embedded. He moved from New York to London, and married a Danish forensic scientist with zero connection to American pop culture. He even got rid of his smart phone, swapping it for an old-school flip phone, and stopped using social media altogether.

If there is indeed a new Ansari on the other end of those changes, he was on stage for perhaps the first time last night at Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Arena, his first major show in years.

The show was, in several ways, not the polished product you might find in his Netflix specials. Ansari gave a reason for this early on – he’s been editing his new film Good Fortune starring Keanu Reeves, Seth Rogen and himself, and has not been focused on comedy. This was a one-off, and thus maintained a loose, conversational feel.

Ansari, now 41, discussed his life from the vantage point of a man who has consciously entered traditional adulthood. He’s now two years married, and his mind is focused on domestic concerns.

He still interacts with the audience as he did in his 2015 Madison Square Garden special, but he’s no longer calling young women on stage to discuss their online dating experiences. Now, he’s asking parents about baby names. That’s where his head is at, as he grapples with the possibility of fatherhood. He tells stories of fertility clinics, and wonders if his future children will look like him or his Scandinavian wife.

There was insularity to Ansari’s new comedy that is likely the result of his rejection of the algorithm. He can’t resist a bit of pop culture talk, touching upon Drake and Kendrick’s recent public feud and his once friendship with Kanye West, but it also seems like he now only catches cultural conversations in passing.

Perhaps because he was once so invested in his iPhone, the old Ansari always looked mostly at others. Now that he’s rejected the algorithm, he’s finally looking in.

Perhaps that will turn him into a different kind of comedian and writer, but based on what we saw at Abu Dhabi Comedy Week, the new Ansari is only in the rough stages. He’s still focused on racial issues, but it’s more about his own needs as he navigates a mixed-race relationship. Can he accept if he has a child of his own that appears Caucasian? Can he embrace a child with a European name? And most importantly, can he and his partner ever have the bond that his parents had without their shared traditions to connect them?

In the wake of his scandal, he likely knows that many will no longer embrace him as a leader. But without that pressure to guide others, Ansari seems relaxed rather than defeated. Now that he’s stopped finding answers for everyone else, he can now find them for himself.

Some of the answers he's found are very simple, as he revealed in one section that mocked other famous people on their elaborate self-discovery journeys: “Just to sleep early, and don’t drink that much. People want to over complicate it, but that’s the real way to improve your life.”

Abu Dhabi Comedy Week continues at Etihad Arena until May 26

Updated: May 19, 2024, 10:26 AM