60 | Aziz Ansari's Right Now and Your Parents
There are parts of Aziz Ansari’s Right Now Netflix comedy special that stick with me much more for the setup of the jokes than their punchlines. There’s a good bit about how many of us consume documentaries chronicling alleged horrific crimes like 2019’s Surviving R. Kelly with the same excitement and vigor that we attach to getting out to see blockbuster films.
There’s another bit he has about how the barometer for what’s politically incorrect is shifting as time and culture move forward, citing how actor Bradley Cooper’s Phil character in The Hangover was yelling a homophobic slur to great audience laughter just 10 years ago. That probably wouldn’t go down if the movie was shot in our current climate.
But what’s crept its way into my thoughts the most since watching Right Now is the time Aziz spent talking about how we interact with our parents in adulthood. He asked the audience to close their eyes and think back to a moment during their last visit to see their parents and to raise their hand when a truly heartwarming memory between them and mom or dad came to mind. As seconds ticked away, only a handful of arms rose skyward.
As Ansari said, that’s because we’re horrible. He laid out the harsh reality of the time we have left to spend with the people who raised us. If you’re like me and live so far from your folks that a plane is required to see them, chances are that it’s going to take a major holiday or occasion to take make trip. Weeks ago in June my dad had a retirement party in Maryland. I, my wife and daughter visited for that. My next trip back likely won’t be until Thanksgiving in November or Christmas break in December.
“I don’t call them enough,” Ansari says in Right Now. “I don’t see them enough. You see your folks enough?”
Now let’s do some math using the basic equation Aziz provided during his hour-long set: If that two-times-a-year average holds true for the future (which it likely will) and my parents are in their mid-lives (they are) with—Lord willing—30 healthy years ahead of them, sound mind and vital organs intact, that means I have roughly 60 windows left open to spend quality time with them.
“60 more times,” Aziz says. “60 more hangs. Are you making the most of these hangs?” 60 is not a lot.
For all the good intentions I had, my last trip home was like many others: I spent a good chunk of it working on my MacBook. I plucked through magazine pages and sank in a wormhole of photos, tweets, and songs via apps on my phone. I tended to my 10-month-old daughter and ran some errands. During a four-day trip, I was probably only truly present with my parents for a three or four hours aside from the night of the party.
“[We’ll] do this song and dance 59 more times,” Aziz says. “And then they’re dead.”
He mentioned that he watched his grandmother’s health deteriorate as Alzheimer’s took its toll on her. On one visit with his current girlfriend, his grandmother asked him who she was a dozen times, repeatedly forgetting his response.
I remember one summer home from college when my grandmother's dementia became unfortunately apparent. There’d be afternoons when she’d walk outside to the center of our cul-de-sac and yell at people who’d been dead for decades. It’s a wild thing to witness.
Entering my 30s has been a sobering experience. In the last few years, I’ve seen several loved elders begin their battles with degenerative diseases that I won’t go into detail about here yet. All that is to say: I’m well aware that there’s a finish line that all of us are headed towards. God may vary its pace, but the end is always coming. We have to make the most of our time with our folks.
At my parents' house in Maryland, I went into our garage to take out the trash and got distracted by a dusty stack of vinyl records. Back in the day, my dad would buy albums and sign his name on the cover of them, adding the state he bought them. I flipped through the tower of music and took crap-quality iPhone pictures of them.
The prog-rock band Yes’ 1977 album cover for Going for the One has “Justin Wete, Texas” scribbled in cursive on it. Paul McCartney and Wings’ London Town from 1978 is signed “Justin Wete, New York.” Jermaine Jackson, Donna Summer, and more records from legendary and since forgotten artists followed. I’m sure there are dozens of stories attached to those times that haven’t been shared yet.
It has also become a tradition for me to rifle through his closet to find pieces I can take home. Last time I was invited to a section of his things, I left with a Brioni suit. I just picked it up from my tailor here in L.A.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d see my dad come downstairs on a Saturday morning for breakfast in a button-down shirt, crisp slacks and wonder aloud, “Where are you going after?” Nowhere. He stays fly. It’s about time I sat him down to ask him where he got his style from. It’s about time I ask him about those records and what this Cameroonian immigrant was doing while bumping Yes in Texas.
In the early ‘80s, my mom left Cameroon and spent time in London with her sister Lydia. I know very little about her life before she had me at 21. Towards the end of 2018, my mom came to Los Angeles to see my daughter and on a Sunday afternoon, the two of us went to see Bohemian Rhapsody. The film on screen was awesome, but what was happening next to me was even more fun at times. I'd look over to my right in the theater and see her smiling super hard, as if she was reliving some of her U.K. days as someone who was there while Queen was in their prime.
My parents got married in court in June ’85, soon after she came to the U.S. I was born Dec. ’85. I was conceived at the top of the year, right? What’s that story? I want to know. I don’t even know if she ever had a boyfriend before getting pregnant and marrying Dad.
“When [our parents] pass, we're the ones to tell their story,” Ansari says of our roles. “We're their biographers… Go big. You look [your mother] in the eye and you ask her stuff… [Like] ‘So, Ma’, did you ever fuck a Black guy?” I doubled over laughing.
I doubt I'll get that candid with my parents, but Aziz is on to something. As are his comedian peers. Jerrod Carmichael quietly released documentary shorts Home Videos and Sermon on the Mount via HBO on Mother’s Day and days removed from Father’s Day. On the former, he interviews his mom about how she’s able to forgive his dad for not only cheating on her but hiding a four-child family from her the family he was a part of. In disbelief that her love of Christ and appreciation of the Bible enables her to do so, he admits that he’s mad on her behalf and asks if she ever wanted revenge.
On Sermon, he asks his father if his cheating was limited to the other woman he had a family with. When his dad says Yes, Jerrod challenges how unlikely and convenient a “truth” that is, never getting the answer he believes. It's a difficult conversation to watch.
On Amazon Prime dramedy Ramy, the season wraps with the lead character leaving his New Jersey home on a pilgrimage to Egypt, where his parents are from in hopes of connecting with his roots and gaining wisdom from his grandfather. Instead of receiving the tutelage and quality time he wanted, Ramy sadly arrives just in time to find his granddad’s corpse and attend his funeral. It’s a massive gut punch. You can make time now or roll the dice and do things later. Ideally, such a morose idea wouldn’t be a source of motivation. But here I am.
As far as I know, my family doesn’t have any smoking gun for me to unearth. But I’m looking forward to finding out things that are just below the surface. The “Parents” episode of Aziz’s Netflix series Master of None (which stars his real-life mother and father) is about just that.
I’m not sure if noticing that men are talking about the relationships with their parents is me trend-spotting or that I’m just witnessing people I’m a fan of in my age range (Ansari is 36, Carmichael 32, and Youssef 28. I’m 33.) deal with issues that come with getting older. Probably the latter.
Life is realer in your 30s. A decade ago I still lived in a bubble where time was both generous and endless. Now I see it reaching towards people I care about with a caustic stare. I’m a bit frightened of it, but also excited about freezing it by shooting my loved ones with my Canon cams and battling it with good one-on-one conversations that I’ll record so that they live on hard drives for me and my family to watch ages from now.
Both of my parents’ birthdays are in mid-July.
My dad when I wished him a happy day on the 9th: “I think you guys make a bigger deal about it than I do.”
Mom on the 15th: “I feel the same as I did yesterday.”
Clearly, they’re not doing cartwheels for reaching a new year. Though I’m certainly happy they’ve made it this far—literally and figuratively. In this day and age where the U.S. president defies the Land of Opportunity ideal the country was founded on, my parents should be celebrated. Two Cameroonians came to America and:
got college degrees
worked for the U.S. government (Dad retired a Budget Analyst for the Department of Justice)
became business owners
raised three children (my younger sister is a lawyer, my brother will be a freshman football player on full scholarship at the University of Oklahoma this fall.)
I may have wasted some time on my last trip home, but I did make a few good moves with my fam'. A year ago I bought a light and backdrop kit for the Maryland house. The intention was to sit my parents down and do the type of interviews Aziz is encouraging us to do. But I always let opportunities slip away. I’d be working or dadding or just being plain ol’ lazy. This trip I almost did the same. My mom was under the weather, my wife was writing a script, so we were taking care of the baby in shifts. I took my parents’ BMW to the dealership for repairs. I hung out at my aunt's house. I wanted to watch the World Cup. Excuses!
Hours before the night we were supposed to go back to Los Angeles, I finally set up the kit in the living room and called my mom over. With no prep, I put her in front of the lights and I got behind my camera to snap some pics. Done. Time running low, I scrambled to the deck, where my dad was in the middle of a phone call. Instead of interrupting, I shot him while he chatted. Those are the pictures I used here for this note.
I started! And I can’t wait to do more. I didn’t know my mom had two siblings who died before she was born until I called her days ago to verify that she is the youngest of eight. No, her parents had 10 kids. This is why we need to talk! Sometimes things will get deep, like when I ask her what impact she thinks that had on her family.
And other times not so much. There will be laughs when I ask my dad how he kept his ‘fro so tight way back when. Let the games begin.