Review: Aziz Ansari Live at Madison Square Garden

Aziz Ansari Aziz Ansari Live at Madison Square Garden
(Netflix – March 6th, 2015)
(Filmed October 9th, 2014)
(Stand Up Comedy)

12874863Clad in a bespoke suit with leather lapels, Aziz Ansari takes the stage in front of a projection of a setting sun to music that bites Morricone’s style—sartorially- and aesthetically-speaking, it’s a bold way to start a show, but one that underlines how Ansari’s frontloaded all of the set’s impact into the initial crowd-buoyed rush, without anything to back it up.

Even in front of an audience of 12,000 people, Aziz Ansari’s crowd control is unparalleled—within the first five minutes of his set, he drops his frenetic stage-pacing and animated voice to talk about his parents’ immigration to South Carolina from India and his mother’s intense trepidation and loneliness. He holds the thoughtful tone for half a minute, then shatters it with a big grin and a triumphant “No!”—a “no” of affirmation, of recognition for his own blithe privilege compared to his family’s struggles. It’s a carefully-calculated moment, but in delivery, it’s a small catharsis, a moment he repeats—to even greater effect—to end the bit, stating “That’s what you gotta do, when you’re an immigrant—handle your shit. Kill some racist motherfuckers if you need to!” Immediately after this barnstorming opening, though, Ansari ramps up the energy but drops the relevancy, spending the bulk of his victory-lap set hitting the major topics of mainstream comedy: relationships, gender roles, technology, modern disaffection, etc. It’s not that his comedy is toothless; it just doesn’t seem to feel the need to bite.

Ansari stumbles when he goes general—he’s at his best when he’s spinning stories from his own life, as when he uses a Valentine’s gift to be both thoughtful and passive-aggressive, but when aiming for universal relevancy, his material sags. His bits about the difficulty of going vegetarian and connecting with people online, for example, feel hackneyed and weightless. There’s some internal tension, though, in that stagnancy; to wit, he laughs about an extended in-character diatribe as Ja Rule, pointing out that he was worried no one would recall Ja Rule. It’s that brief behind-the-scenes expository moment that shows how much value Ansari’s brand of comfortable comedy can have, so it’s all the more disappointing to see him return to stand-up tropes. That said, it is fascinating to see the cadence of ‘90’s stand-up—men and women are different, food is crazy when you think about it—updated for a more self-aware age. An extensive bit about how rape culture would operate were the genders reversed draws laughs and cheers, then segues into how the Internet fosters and encourages “creepiness.” It’s a humorous thought experiment that was recorded at the first stirrings of the so-called “Gamergate” tempest-in-a-cesspool—one of the clearest examples of the Internet’s ability to breed and disseminate wholesale aggression in the last decade. Other segues are less effective—at times, the show grinds a bit between topics, giving Ansari’s set a segmented, bullet-point vibe.

The bulk of Live at Madison Square Garden is given over to a superficial, retrogressive kind of observational comedy—talking about the frustration of new technology and navigating relationships in an increasingly digital culture—with no attempts at larger socio-cultural insight. Ansari, importantly, doesn’t exclude himself from judgment, as when he calls the entire crowd, self-inclusive, “shitty people” during a bit about responding to texts, but a blanket judgment of “shitty” is just another way to point out foibles without doing anything to analyze their causes. That’s not Ansari’s job, of course, but since he spends twelve minutes of a fifty-eight minute set discussing social media and text etiquette, it’s clearly something on his mind. That repetition to the point of obsession is a common theme for the evening: a final bit about the difference between “passionate love” and “companion love” hinges entirely on repeating key phrases over and over again, trying to build humor through familiarity—it’s a weak way to close the show, but it does sum up the entirety of Ansari’s set in miniature. There’s a certain kind of appeal in shifting the narrative from “kids these days” to “us these days,” but as a whole, Aziz Ansari’s latest is high-energy but curiously inert.

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