Did you hear the one about the swastika?
You must have! Aziz Ansari has told it hundreds of times.
After all, he needed material for his comeback.
In January 2018, Ansari was enjoying exceptional success. After starring in a cult-hit sitcom, writing a bestseller, and developing broad appeal as a standup, he was showered with accolades and heralded as an auteur for his Netflix show “Master Of None.” But after an anonymous woman told a blog, just after the advent of the #MeToo movement, that she felt “uncomfortable,” “pressured,” and even “forced” during a sexual encounter with the comedian, Ansari’s status changed.
Many defended Ansari, saying that far from constituting anything illegal, his described behavior was normal for a man on a date. Some labled Ansari’s alleged actions assault. Still others said that the behavior was common but creepy, and called for a larger social reckoning around sexual communication. Some deem Ansari “canceled,” while others consider him yet another sacrifice to the supposed overreach of the #MeToo movement.
Every third day this last year, Aziz Ansari did a standup show, on his international “Right Now” tour, culminating in the release of a Netflix special. The sixty-minute set begins with him reflecting on the controversy, ultimately deciding that despite the pain to him and the woman in question, the collective conversation around it was a “good thing.” Ansari spends the rest of the evening meditating on why social mores change so drastically, and whether anyone can ever be pinned to the concept of right or wrong, considering this. The audience, he suggests cooly, is, for better or for worse, just like him.
Last August, when the “Right Now” tour had just begun, the Forward reported that Ansari’s new standup show included a lengthy joke about self-righteous anger, with swastikas as the example. On Tuesday, Ansari’s full-length special was released on Netflix, containing the same joke.
The joke goes like this: Ansari asks the audience if they remember a recent Pizza Hut controversy, in which a man shared pictures of a pizza he received covered in pepperoni that he claimed was in the shape of a swastika. Ansari asks the audience to clap if they thought it looked like a swastika, and then clap if they didn’t. In the special, each option receives a smattering of applause. He even asks a man where he remembers seeing the picture of the pizza — the Post, or the Times? After the man answers, (“the Post!”) Ansari reveals that the pizza scandal never happened. He made it up.
It’s a very clever joke, and it has a profound effect on Ansari’s audience, more social experiment than comedy bit. “You think your opinion is so valuable you need to chime in on s**t that doesn’t even exist?” Ansari roars at the crowd. Everyone who clapped — whether claiming to see a swastika or accusing others of imagining one — is “the same,” he says. “Cause they don’t really care about learning, exploring, and discussing. They just want to chime in with their little programmed reactions.”
As the crowd recovers, Ansari crows that he tells the swastika joke “every night.” And every night, he says, he gets the same reaction.
141 times, Ansari used a made up story about swastikas to prove that people are overly sensitive, and to call moral outrage into question. He started saying it shortly after the events in the summer of 2017 in Charlottesville, and went on to say it after the murder of 11 Jews during shabbat services in Pittsburgh. He said it as Orthodox Jews were beaten in Brooklyn, and after German officials told Jewish people that it was no longer safe to wear kippot in public. As he travelled the nation and then the world, refining his jokes, finessing a set about how people and social norms change, he kept the swastika joke the same.
Swastikas represent the Nazi movement. A swastika is a seriously painful symbol, but not so painful that it could never find a place in a joke. It’s a little odd, however, to use swastikas as an abstract idea of something that could offend people when swastikas are being used to threaten and offend now more than they ever have in Ansari’s lifetime.
Like the swastika joke, much of Ansari’s set skewers white liberals and activists — “newly woke white people” who are critical of the stereotypical character Apu on “The Simpsons,” 30 years after the fact. After every jab, Ansari implies that those examples of liberalism are empty, whereas his less-sensitive but deeper felt version is the one that should be adopted. “We put every single black guy in jail, for like — a little bit of weed — then we made weed legal and we just left them in there!” he says. It’s these injustices, not trivial debates over imagined swastikas, that need to be addressed.
He’s right, of course. But why does outrage over Jewish oppression have to be the punching bag? Faux-outrage is a tool popular among liberals who self-serve by performing social awareness, sure. But overreaction to anti-Semitism hardly feels like America’s biggest problem. In fact, parsing actual anti-Semitism is notoriously difficult — so, despite the strange reality that the broad strokes of the Holocaust are much more a focus of American discourse than those, for example, of slavery, it’s an odd time to suggest that there is a public panic over anti-Semitism.
Underscoring the joke — the thing that makes it palatable to Ansari’s young-ish, woke-ish audience — is Ansari’s implication that he saves his fantasy-swastika energy for real evil, real injustice. But in an evening of identifying real marginalized groups — people of color, women, children, incarcerated people — Jews are never named. The only exception being when the symbol of our genocide is used in a joke.
Ansari clearly cares about real oppression. And there’s no reason to think he’s an anti-Semite. But his set, and its painfully clever joke that hinges on hysteria over an anti-Semitic symbol, represents something much bigger: the refusal of people on both the right and the left to see Jews, as white and wealthy as we often are, as a group that could be under attack in America.
And it’s too bad — we could always use another funny guy on our side.
Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny