It’s Funny Because It’s True: Death, Resurrection, and Aziz Ansari

It’s been said before that standup comedians are the revered preachers of our day. They’re […]

Sam Bush / 7.29.19

It’s been said before that standup comedians are the revered preachers of our day. They’re the ones who tell it like it is, who speak with authority; the ones who aren’t afraid to call us out for our collective wrongs, but who do so with such wit and humor that they somehow cut through our defenses. An actual preacher’s call to confess one’s sins may fall on dead ears, but with comedians we freely admit our guilt and then have a good laugh at ourselves. It’s no surprise that people often feel a little bit lighter after a standup show. A mirror is held up to our nature; we are convicted, but not condemned.

Aziz Ansari’s latest Netflix original Right Now is out and, as to be expected, has garnered lots of different reactions. Having been mostly silent since facing sexual misconduct allegations in January 2018, Ansari broached the subject within the first few minutes of his routine. Some say his response was contrived, some say it was sincere. I’m not here to share my opinion on the man’s past or his interior life. What I do know is that the best parts of his comedy routine that followed (much of it felt inspired) were when Ansari sat me in the hot seat and let me squirm a little bit, only to then splash some cold water on my face. I recommend watching it, but here’s a recap:

For the first third of his act, Ansari critiques white people’s tendency to outwoke each other as a way to justify themselves (#rhymeswithvelocity). “Say what you will about racist people, but they’re usually very brief,” he says. “Newly woke white people are exhausting!” He presses further, saying, “Doesn’t it seem a little strange, almost like some people are playing a game where they’re tallying up points for doing nice stuff? Is there some sort of secret progressive Candy Crush that we don’t know about?” He imitates a group of self-justifying white people (guilty as charged!) saying, “Alright, let’s tally up our scores. What did you do for equality today?” and then lists several scenarios of virtue-signaling (Black Panther gets a mention). He asks people to clap if they’re done with R. Kelly (everybody claps) but then asks people to do the same with Michael Jackson (noticeably fewer people clap) and then calls the audience out for being more lenient just because MJ’s tunes are more timeless. In a “Sermon on the Mount” fashion, Ansari shows us the law in its fullest sense so that no one escapes. We’re all guilty. And, as you can tell from the audience’s reaction, it feels pretty good to admit it.

I can’t quote him directly here, but Ansari’s bottom line is that we’re all sinners — people bent in on ourselves with plenty of blind-spots to go around — and if there’s anyone out there who tries to deny it then there’s only added guilt on the account of arrogance. Just to make sure that no one is left out, he talks about how in fifty years we’re probably all going to look back and realize that our entire society, in all of its self-righteousness, was guilty for a number of collective blind spots (homelessness, for instance). Ansari takes no prisoners as if to say, truly, if we live by the law, we die by the law (“The law brings death,” 2 Cor. 3:6).

And yet, he only throws us under the bus after he’s been there himself. Call me credulous, but it feels like he can do this so effectively because he’s experienced an inner death firsthand. Towards the end of his act, he thanks the audience for coming as if they’re giving him a second chance, saying, I saw the world where I don’t ever get to do this again… It almost felt like I died. And in a way, I did. That old Aziz…he’s dead.” He doesn’t say he’s an improved version of himself. He says that his former self is dead. This is not too strong a statement. In fact, it is right out of the Christian experience. Throughout scripture we find that God is not in the business of self-betterment, but of death and resurrection. As Paul writes in Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live.”

As for the part of us that doesn’t find any of this very funny, or is suspicious, or that doesn’t want Ansari to move on so easily, an excerpt of PZ’s Panopticon comes to mind. In what follows, Paul Zahl writes about the offensiveness of forgiveness according to those of us who are still living:

“Drawing a line through the past” — it is not only closure”, it’s erasure — is exactly what a man or woman in near-death encounter desires to hear: You can go now. That’s all forgiven and forgotten. It’s all right.” By this is meant, your past is taken care of and doesn’t have to be in front of you any more as you look ahead to what’s next. All is forgiven. Begin the beguine. People get nervous about this, or at least people who are not in the middle of near death. It sounds from the vantage point of the other self, the person on the operating table, or rather, the patient in pre-op, like a blessing on bad behavior. You say to yourself, How can that bad person get off the hook just because God chooses to disregard the things he or she has done and says, ‘Poof! All better now.’ When it’s all not better now.” I don’t know the answer to this question. It bothers me, too. But it doesn’t bother me much…

“Comedy is tragedy plus time” is how the old quip goes. But I’d like to think a worthy alternative is “Comedy is tragedy plus God.” While both tragedy and comedy hold the mirror up to nature, they reveal to us that, when left to our own devices, we’re all dead in our trespasses. But, if we can just wait a moment, if we can just allow the Spirit enough time to reveal the gospel of God’s grace to us, we will find that we have been crucified in Christ and we no longer live, but Christ lives in us.

Cambridge University professor Jono Linebaugh once said that faith is a double laughter; that faith laughs at itself and says, “I can’t,” and it laughs with joy and says, “He can.” Faith is the laughter at man’s impossibility, and then the laughter of surprise of what has been made possible with God. In the story of Abraham, Genesis 17 says, “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” To jump ahead a chapter, when Isaac is finally born (his name meaning “he will laugh”), it says, “Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?” Laughter in this story is the appropriate response, for, by the grace of God, the impossible has come true.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


5 responses to “It’s Funny Because It’s True: Death, Resurrection, and Aziz Ansari”

  1. Pierre says:

    Thanks for this. That exact intuition about Ansari’s old self “dying” hit me as well when I watched it… probably an effect of reading this site a lot! I see a lot of that “offense-taking” on the internet at the notion that we should ever forgive anyone. People are so desperate to claim the moral high ground, they’ll do anything to shame and shut down a perceived sinner. Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt were right: call-out culture is an inevitable byproduct of the Great Untruth that life is a battle between “good” people and “evil” people, and it allows no room for nuance, inquiry, or good-faith argumentation.

  2. Carrie Willard says:

    Thank you for this!

  3. Sarah Condon says:


  4. Bryant Trinh says:


  5. John Asirvatham says:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *