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You already know Aziz Ansari from his huge standup career, and from shows like “Human Giant” and “Parks and Recreation” and the movie “30 Minutes or Less”. Aziz sat down with host Ron Bennington for an hour to talk about his career so far, in front of a live studio audience at the UCB Theater. A few excerpts from the interview appear below.
The interview will air in its entirety on SiriusXM satellite radio on the Opie and Anthony Channel (XM 105, Sirius 206) on Saturday July 14 at 4am, 11am and 6pm, on Sunday July 15 at 10am, on Stars Too (SiriusXM 104) on Sunday July 15 at 11pm and on the Opie and Anthony Channel on Sunday July 15 at midnight. Next weekend, Raw Dog Comedy (SiriusXM 99) will run the special on Saturday July 21 at 8pm and UCB Radio (Sirius XM 406) at 2am. All times are Eastern time.
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Ron Bennington: We are here at the UCB theater, where basically you got your start, right? In the early days.
Aziz Ansari: Kind of, yeah. I started out at some clubs, I was doing stand-up like open mics and things like that. And then I heard about the UCB and they were doing some standup shows and I started doing shows. But yeah but I didnt really do UCB until I had been doing standup for a couple of years.
Ron Bennington: From the outside, what’s happened with you seems like it’s just been a rocket. From when you were a kid to now, we’re not talking about that much time, you know?
Aziz Ansari: I dunno, I’ve been doing standup …I started comedy a little more than eleven years ago, so that’s a decent amount of time.
Ron Bennington: Well it is, but most of the comedians who do this show say it takes about ten years until you really kind of feel like you know who you are, and yet you jumped ahead of that curve.
Aziz Ansari: I do feel like, my most recent tour that I’m doing now, I wrote all that after I’d been doing it ten years and I feel like I’m a much better performer. I feel like I’ve heard people say the big marks are like seven years and ten years. I was at the comedy cellar, working on material– I just dropped in and Chris Rock had dropped in also, and he was working on stuff. And we were just talking about how we were both trying to work on new material, he was trying to put together a new hour and I was telling him the same thing. I was like, “Oh man this was when I finally hit ten years and I feel like I’ve definitely made a jump.” And he’s like, “oh, wait until you hit like twenty five years.” And I was like, oh fuck that’s so long from now! I’m going to be garabage till then.” You look at like him and Louie, and they’ve been doing standup as long as I’ve been a human being. I’ve been living life as long as they’ve been on stages trying to do standup, so you know, it’s kind of humbling.
Ron Bennington: That’s also the beauty of it that you’ve kind of made that move, because, well Chris hit pretty young but when Louie…you know, now is just becoming that household name and he’s been doing this twenty-some plus years. Was it intimidating to you when you first started to feel this thing taking off? Or were you comfortable with it?
Aziz Ansari: I dunno when does it start taking off? I have just always kind of felt– with standup especially it’s always kind of the same thing. You’re going to these comedy clubs or comedy rooms and you’re just trying to write jokes that work really well and try to get them as good as possible. And that process never ends. After you do a tour, you have to wipe the slate clean and start over and you start with nothing, just as if you’re doing open mic for the first time, only now you obviously have a lot of experience. But as far as stuff taking off, I don’t know, I don’t think about that.
Ron Bennington: I think it’s great that there’s some young comedian out there knowing right now that it never gets better. Basically what you’re saying…it’s still as hard as shit and it never really feels good.
Aziz Ansari: I was talking to this other comic– Hannibal– he’s a good friend of mine, and there’s such a small sweet spot of like….you know I’m doing this new tour now, I’m so excited. I feel like it’s my best hour, and I’m kind of like, hypothetically midway, three fourths of the way through touring it, and I was like, “oh fuck, it’s dead and I’ve got to start over again.” You only have one brief little moment where it’s like “I’m doing this in theaters! Everyone loves it! It’s awesome! ” and then nobody wants to hear it again. So what else do you have to say? And it’s very scary. It’s a scary thing to decide to do long term.
Ron Bennington: It’s so different for everybody else in show business. Like if you’re a musician and you get Sweet Home Alabama, you’re like, wait, and now we added Freebird? Boom, my life is done.
Aziz Ansari: I remember one time I went to this thing– it was some event where Sting was performing. And Sting came up there and I was like ‘Oh shit Sting!’ And Sting came up there and was like, Every Breath You Take. And I was like, “Fuck you Sting. Heard that song before, bro. It’s not new to me. What about the new ladies in your life. What do you think about life now that you’re a much older man? Now that you’re settled down do you have any new viewpoints on this woman? I’ve heard this take before. I know where this is going.” You start shouting out the lyrics. “Yeah…every move she makes. I know. I know. Let me guess…you’ll be watching her. You’ll be watching her? Yeah. That’s what I thought.”
Ron Bennington: But the thing is, for him, he can’t do any new material or people will be pissed. It’s like the exact opposite.
Aziz Ansari: To an extent though. When you go to comedy shows, people hear certain things you’ve done and they want to hear that again, kind of. People shout out bits that they’ve heard before at different comedian shows. (guy shouts from audience). Yes, this guy gave a perfect example shouting a character I did in a movie…four years ago. Patton. Patton Oswalt’s audience wants to hear him talk about KFC bowls. Louis C.K. you want to hear him talk about Bag of Dicks. So you still kind of have that.
That’s why in the second special I did, I kind of did like an update. Like, I did a bit about my cousin Harris in my first special and people liked that. In the second special I was like, well….I have this thing now about how I helped him write this college essay, I think that’s really funny, I’ll put that as an update. And then for the third one, I was like, no. I’m not going to do anything similar to what I’ve done in the past, I’ve gotta just move on. Cause I don’t know, you just don’t want people to be able to say “oh that’s the guy that talks about those things.” I don’t think you ever want to become that if you’re like a musician or a comedian or anything. I think it’s really important to kind of totally change people’s expectations about what you talk about. Even in the second special I did…like in the first special I never talked about dating or anything like that. In the second special, it starts off like, oh I’m going to do dating material. Which is something I didn’t think I would and then I did. And then the new one I’m touring I talk about things like babies and marriage and things like that, that I’ve never talked about before. I think that’s important to do if you’re a comedian.
Ron Bennington: Where did you get that from though. When did you decide? Cause you could have– you know this is true– you could have just toured as Randy and that would have been it and people would have been happy. You’re Randy the cable guy and people are just calling you Randy wherever you go. And you could have made a lot of money doing that.
Aziz Ansari: I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s as easy to do as you’d think. Writing the Randy stuff is hard. It sounds like it’s pretty easy. But to keep peopel’s attention…but if there’s no substance to it. If it’s just like…. “what’s uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuup” that will go for about a minute. But then it’s got to be that and clever. Those Randy Bits that are in the Funny People Extra– the one in the movie is a variation of a joke I wrote when I was just doing my regular stand up– that Cold Stone Bit. But the ones in the shorts, like the one about how he goes down on a woman in a hot tub and stuff..you could whisper those jokes and they work. They’re funny jokes. But when you say them with that absurd tone and add air horns and shit like that, it makes it sillier and funnier, but there is writing behind it. So if you did an hour of that you’d still have to write a whole act. And I don’t want to talk about getting my dick sucked for an hour. I don’t think anybody wants to hear any guy talk about that for an hour. If you can do that for an hour and make it interesting, go for it. I think it’d be really tough. So yeah. And whenever you come to see someone on tour, like you don’t know. You just see a poster for a tour– it says Buried Alive– you have no clue. It could be that. So people are coming and are like, “well I hope it’s funny, the other stuff was funny, I’m just judging by that.” You don’t know. You have no preview.
Ron Bennington: Do you ever think..I’ll pull something out from the old days? Or you just make sure you get rid of it. When you’re in trouble, I’m sure you know you can just say ‘Harris’ and have them back for at least a second.
Aziz Ansari: If I go on a tour, by then I have an hour and fifteen that I’m pretty sure is going to do really well or else I wouldn’t book the tour.
Ron Bennington: But you’re ready to walk into a club and go, we’ll see what happens…
Aziz Ansari: Oh in a club? I mean the whole beauty of that is you go in, especially in New York and L.A., if you drop in at UCB or you drop in at the Comedy Cellar, people are kind of used to this idea of oh, okay he’s here working stuff out and that’s the deal. So you don’t feel like a pressure of like, oh everything has to be that strong. But you still try to give people a show and maybe end strong. But I remember like one of the first things I saw, I came to New York and I’d never been to a comedy show before, like a live comedy show, and I went to the Comedy Cellar, and I was going there a lot just watching people and just trying to learn what I could from watching people like Attell and Giraldo, who are always at the Comedy Cellar. And Chris Rock dropped in and he just did 30 minutes and bombed and couldn’t care less. Just didn’t care. And it was the coolest thing to see– like he just doesn’t care. And he was like, “well that’s it, I’ll see you later.” And I was like, “oh shit, that was awesome! That was cooler than seeing him kill.” But it’s interesting cause, that whole witnessing people dropping in is such a fascinating thing. Cause at places like the Comedy Cellar, like Seinfeld will drop in, Chapelle, Chris Rock. And now I’ve become a dude that drops in, or Louie. And it’s interesting because people will go up and everyone’s so fucking psyched. They’re like “Oh shit it’s the dude from the TV thing yes!!!” And you’re like, “alright, calm down, it’s just me reading from a notebook. It’s going to be…lower the expectations. Let’s all dial down the excitement. You’re all going to leave and say I’m garbage. So don’t worry about it, it’s fine.” It’s fun cause, what happens is, you go up, and that kind of excitement carries you for a little bit, when people are like, “ha ha! Yes! The guy! Yeah!” and it doesn’t really matter what you’re saying for the first minute or so. But then they’re just like, “What? No. I’m not excited anymore. I’ve seen your face for a little while. I’m accustomed to now being in front of your face. You’ve got to have some substance here.” And that’s what makes it great. Eventually you’re brought down. At first you might start off with an advantage from people recognizing you from tv or movies or whatever. But after a few minutes, that goes away and you’re back to nothing and you have to earn your laughs, and make sure they work. Make sure the jokes actually do work everywhere.
Ron Bennington: So it’s really about material for you 100% of the time. You’ve got to have the material that you’re happy with.
Aziz Ansari: Yeah. If you’re going out to these theaters. And you’re performing for like two, three thousand people, it’s a dream. You’re performing in these beautiful venues, you want to bring it. You want to have a great show that people really like and leave and they’re like, “Wow that was even better than the last time I came to see him on tour.”
Ron Bennington: When you were a kid growing up in South Carolina, did you see standup on tv. Were there people that you dug?
Aziz Ansari: I remember always liking the idea of standup. Like if stand up was on tv, I’d watch it for a little while, I’d be interested in it. And I remember renting Delirious when I was really young. In High School, Bringing the Pain and Bigger and Blacker…those two Chris Rock Specials, I still know every single word to them. And I still listen to them every now and then just because I feel like they were so great. Those were like the biggest influence for me when I was in highschool and early college and everything.
Ron Bennington: And then that became weird because right away when you came to New York, it’s like, there’s the guy.
Aziz Ansari: It was the craziest thing. To see him…that was when I was like first going to the comedy clubs, just watching and trying to learn stuff. To see him standing out in the hallway, it was like “holy shit! This is nuts!”
Ron Bennington: And it wasn’t the kind of standup that kind of broke you through first, right? Getting to tv was more the Human Giant right?
Aziz Ansari: But that was a combination– I had been doing standup a bunch, and I kind of started getting some press. I got that– Rolling Stone picks a hot comic every year– I got that.
Ron Bennington: Was that weird to you though?
Aziz Ansari: Yeah. I mean it’s crazy. It doesn’t make sense. Again I was just doing it in this bubble and just trying to get good for my own competitive reasons of wanting to be good at something. I have a very obsessive personality. I remember in high school they got a foosball table and I was like, “I want to get really good at foosball.” I played it the first time, I didn’t know anything about it, I was horrible. And someone was telling me…there was this one kid that knew a little bit, he was like, “yeah you’re not supposed to like spin. You have to do this…” and I was like, “I’m going to make it my goal to beat everyone at foosball.” And then I did. But that gets you nowhere. So…
Ron Bennington: No one wants to sit around and talk about your foosball career with you.
Aziz Ansari: So I’d been doing standup for awhile, and then started getting some heat with the Rolling Stone thing. HBO had a comedy festival called Aspen Comedy Festival. I won some award there. And so that was like..the period where people were like, “what do you want to do, do you want to do some sort of tv thing?” And I had these short films that I’d made with these other guys, Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer and this director Jason Woliner. We’d made these short films and MTV saw the short films and they were like, “why don’t you guys do a pilot for a sketch show based on these.” We didn’t even pitch them, they just set a meeting with us, we want you guys to do a pilot for a sketch show, just make short films like this we think it’s great. And so we did, never thinking it would get picked up because it was MTV and they were– it’s still not their programming. And we did two seasons of it. And people were always asking why’d they cancel it. They didn’t cancel it. They asked us to do a third season but we said no because we wanted to work on different stuff but it was a really fun experience.
Ron Bennington: What does this look like to the people that you grew up with back in South Carolina.
Aziz Ansari: I know, I guess in South Carolina, you don’t think about the idea of like acting…that’s like Bruce Willis and his friends, I’m not involved. So to see someone on tv, I don’t know I guess it’s pretty crazy.
Ron Bennington: They don’t look like us, they don’t act like us…they’re different.
Aziz Ansari: And I did it in a way where I was in college….and I started doing standup while I was in college and then by the time I graduated, etc… I mean god I have so much respect for people who have the courage to be like, “I’M MOVING TO NEW YORK AND I’M GOING TO BECOME A COMEDIAN” Like, that sounds CRAZY! I don’t care if you’ve got the most talent in the world, you’re going to sound stupid saying that to people. They’re going to be like, sure you are, Seinfeld. Good luck. Or like, “I’M GOING TO GO TO HOLLYWOOD AND MAKE IT AS AN ACTOR!” That’s a crazy statement! Maybe you are, but probably not. That takes a lot of courage to be able to say that. To do that, God, I have so much respect. I want to be clear, I’m not making fun of people. I’m saying I have a tremendous amount of respect and courage cause I would be too scared to do that.
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Follow Aziz on Twitter @azizansari and visit his website to download Dangerously Delicious and get information on tour dates, specials and more.
These were just excerpts, you can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews at RonBenningtonInterviews.com.
aziz ansarichris rockComedy Festivalparks and recreationPatton OswaltRon Benningtonseinfeld
If you are a brown person in America with a funny name, people often ask you where you come from. Aziz Ansari, a comedian who is twenty-seven, has been fielding this question all his life, especially recently. The answer he usually gives is “South Carolina,” which is accurate, if unsatisfying. His parents are immigrants from southern India, but Ansari grew up in a town called Bennettsville, in the state’s northeast corner. He speaks with a faint but noticeable Southern accent, and the characters he plays are not exotic but gratingly familiar. On the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” Ansari is Tom Haverford, an inept ladies’ man, eternally in search of ladies to apostrophize and surreally confident of his position atop the social hierarchy. As one episode starts, he struts into the frame wearing a generic suit jacket. “Brooks Brothers—I bought it right off the mannequin,” he says, and walks out before anyone can respond. (In the second season, viewers learned that Tom had changed his name for political reasons; he was born Darwish Sabir Ishmael Gani.)
In January, Ansari starred in a stand-up special for Comedy Central, “Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening,” which showed him to be a vigorous and precise raconteur, more self-conscious than his characters. When he brings up his Indian heritage, it’s only to mock people who overestimate its importance:
I was doing this interview once, and this guy goes, “So, you must be pretty psyched about all this ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ stuff.”
And I was, like, “Ummm . . . Yeah! I am! I have no idea why, though—I had nothing to do with that movie. It’s just some people that kinda look like me are in this movie that everyone loves, and winning Oscars and stuff.”
And then I was, like, whoa, whoa, whoa. Are white people just psyched all the time? It’s, like, “‘Back to the Future’—that’s us! ‘The Godfather’—that’s us! ‘The Godfather Part II’—that’s us! ‘Departed’—that’s us! ‘Sunset Boulevard’—that’s us! ‘Citizen Kane’—that’s us! ‘Jaws’—that’s us! Every fuckin’ movie but ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘Boyz n the Hood’ is us!”
This is one of Ansari’s greatest assets: a counterintuitive ability to observe ridiculous behavior and react not with simple mockery or exasperation, as many comedians would, but with half-crazed wonder. Rather than fuming at the world’s stupidity, he delights in its endless absurdity. A few months ago, when he started feeling like the only person alive who hadn’t seen the movie “Twilight,” he decided to watch it in his “Parks and Recreation” trailer, using Twitter to broadcast his overly excited reactions. (“Dude is a vampire! Did NOT see this coming.”) He says, “It’s not fun to be, like, ‘Fuck “Twilight”!’ It’s more interesting to come at it from the viewpoint of ‘What? This is awesome!’—and embrace things.” Not long after the brainteasing blockbuster “Inception” arrived in theatres, he said that his favorite review of it was a Twitter post from the rapper Slim Thug: “It was too complicated for me it’s about having dreams while u are dreaming and I missed parts cause I was sleep so I was lost.” This is the kind of pop-culture pileup that Ansari loves—a comedian endorsing a rapper’s online review of a hit movie. Ansari’s miscellaneous sensibility echoes the miscellaneous nature of electronic communication, and it has made him a miscellaneous sort of star. In one standup routine, he imagines that his obsession with pop-culture minutiae might literally be the end of him. “Comedian Aziz Ansari was killed in a car accident today,” he said. “He was struck by another vehicle while using IMDB to see if Val Kilmer was, indeed, in the film ‘Willow.’ ”
Ansari’s defining role so far is also one of his smallest. In the 2009 Judd Apatow film “Funny People,” he played Randy, a salacious hip-hop comedian who is secure in his belief that profanity has rendered punch lines obsolete. Randy spends only a few minutes onscreen. Wearing a garish warmup jacket, he transports the audience with a crass, incoherent, and banal routine—a devolved version of Chris Rock—about how Cold Stone Creamery turns customers into junkies: “Put some ice cream in a cup with some sprinkles, put your dick in a Butterfinger and fuck it for me, please! Put it in the cup! I need it! I’m tweakin’! I’m tweakin’!” Watching in the wings, Jonah Hill’s character, Leo, looks on in horror with Seth Rogen’s character, Ira, both of whom are aspiring comedians. “I can’t believe this is what people like,” Leo says. When Randy bounds offstage, he exclaims, incandescent with pride, “That’s how it’s done, son. I killed it!”
Even though Randy was supposed to represent everything that was wrong with standup comedy, something about him—his cracked confidence, perhaps, or his salty joy—made him the film’s most enduring character. “Randy became my favorite thing, ever,” Rogen said, after filming was done. There was a Randy Web site, laughyourdickoff.com, and Apatow paid for Ansari to make a three-part Randy documentary, which revealed Randy as a cheerful (if foulmouthed) nerd; for fun, he digitally superimposes images of his head onto the bodies of pornographic actors. Somewhere along the way, Randy acquired a new spelling, one that better reflected the pronunciation of his name and the unlikely elongation of his career. And, even now, Ansari’s fans often hail him with a singsong greeting: “Raaaaaaaandy!”
Ansari is skinny, splayfooted, and slightly bowlegged. Depending on his mood and whether or not he’s onstage, his darting eyes can make him appear either wary or mischievous. He is pretty good at impersonating a laid-back guy (fans imagine that he spends his days in a mellow food-and-Internet-induced coma), but a close examination of his life would reveal nothing resembling free time. As a boy, he questioned why his father, a gastroenterologist, moved the family from northern New Jersey to small-town South Carolina. In one old routine, he talked about a doctor he knows who made a similar decision. “The government’s, like, ‘Oh yeah, you can come to the United States,’ ” he said. “ ‘But you’ve got to go to Alabama.’ It’s kind of like a girl going, ‘Yeah, you can see me naked.’ ” Pause. “ ‘But you can only look at my left elbow.’ ” Another pause. “ ‘And my left elbow is racist.’ ”
Even so, Ansari hastens to correct people who assume that his life in Bennettsville was some sort of trial. “Most of the time it was pretty fine,” he says. After a few months in first grade, he was promoted to second, and became a sort of local celebrity: “It was just, like, ‘Who is this little brown kid? He’s a genius!’ ” Similarly, he says, contrary to what people sometimes expect, his house wasn’t much different from other houses in the neighborhood. “It wasn’t like I would come home and my mom was, like, in a sari,” he says. Ansari left South Carolina in 2000, when he enrolled at New York University. He had long been an eager consumer of standup comedy, especially Chris Rock’s breakthrough HBO specials, and in New York he tried telling some of his own funny stories at open-mike nights and so-called “bringer” shows, during which comedians who bring a certain number of patrons are given a similar number of minutes. He never told his parents that he was going to become a comedian, but in 2004, when he earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, he was working regularly as a standup, which meant that he was already something of a success by the time they realized what was happening. Ansari found a congenial crowd at the UCB Theatre, on West Twenty-sixth Street, below a Gristedes supermarket, which was founded by the Upright Citizens Brigade, a sketch-comedy troupe. Amy Poehler, a founding member of the group, and now the star of “Parks and Recreation,” heard about Ansari before she saw him. She says, “I remember being, like, ‘Wow, this kid is filling the seats on Tuesday at midnight.’ ”
After graduation, Ansari joined a couple of established comedians, Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer, to host a comedy night at UCB called “Human Giant.” In 2005, they enlisted Jason Woliner, a fledgling director, and made a handful of short videos, including “Shutterbugs,” about a pair of child talent agents, Bill and Samir, endowed with a loopy, slightly demonic intensity. (Ansari played Bill—clients always assumed that he was Samir.) The videos reached Tony DiSanto, an MTV executive, who offered the group a pilot that became a variety show. The result, “Human Giant,” was broadcast on MTV, and it evolved, in its second and final season, into a high-spirited seminar on how to push a premise past its logical conclusion. (In one sketch, Ansari played a man who found himself possessed—that is, molested—by the ghost of a gay porn star.) After two seasons of “Human Giant,” Ansari and the others decided against a third, partly because each wanted to focus on his own work. Ansari had moved to Los Angeles, and, a few months later, he landed his fateful role in “Funny People.” He was also offered the part in “Parks and Recreation,” the new sitcom from Greg Daniels and Mike Schur, the creators of the American version of “The Office.” The show takes place in a fictional Indiana town called Pawnee. Poehler plays Leslie Knope, the Parks and Recreation Department’s idealistic, ambitious, and faintly delusional deputy director.
Tom Haverford’s exact responsibilities have never been delineated, and, to keep Ansari onscreen, the producers have concocted a series of extraneous plot lines. In the show’s second season, Tom became an investor in the Snakehole Lounge, “Pawnee’s hottest club.” And one day earlier this year Ansari was shooting a scene there in which Tom suffered yet another in a string of romantic rejections. Dean Holland, the director, instructed the camera operators, “Once Aziz starts going on all of his ad libs, stick with him.”
Ansari addressed a young woman whose interest was diminishing with each word. “I’ve got a bunch of Vin Diesel DVDs on Blu-ray,” he said, and her face went blank. A few minutes later, he tried a variation on the theme. “I bet you a kiss I can guess your favorite Vin Diesel movie,” he said, to a different woman, who turned and walked away. “Wow,” he said, to no one in particular. “That rejection was ‘2 Fast 2 Furious.’ ” He called after her, “I like ‘The Chronicles of Riddick’!” He tried again: “Have you seen ‘The Pacifier’?” He was addressing the whole bar now: “Anybody here like ‘Boiler Room’?”
“Parks and Recreation” has been renewed for another year, but it wasn’t included in NBC’s fall lineup. A spokeswoman says that it will return “midseason or sooner.” A few decades ago, a role on an NBC sitcom was the comedian’s version of a tenured position. These days, even a moderately successful NBC sitcom can seem as obscure as a viral video. Surely the borderline success of “Parks and Recreation” helped make Ansari a comedic headliner, but the fans who accost him before and after his shows often don’t mention Tom Haverford. Instead, they tend to praise him in precise terms, singling out the bit of his routine that they like best. After one show this summer, he was approached by a guy with a sweat-streaked face and a hand-rolled cigarette behind his ear. “Dude,” he said, gazing intently at Ansari. “Way to deconstruct shitty comedy.”
The idea that most standup comedy is, in fact, shitty is central to what Ansari does. “Most standup is pretty bad,” he says. “There’s only, like, a small sliver.” Comedians have long shadowboxed with the spectre of lameness; Steve Martin once described his standup act as a rebellion against “the comics of the fifties, the one-liner guys.” But what is shocking, in retrospect, about the most inventive comedians of the nineteen-seventies is their confidence in the form: they wanted to reform comedy by enlarging it, making room for eccentricity. After the comedy boom of the nineteen-eighties, which planted hundreds of dedicated comedy clubs across the country, standup itself came to seem like the enemy. Some self-conscious dissidents started calling their craft “alternative comedy,” to distinguish it from all the stuff they hated—familiar observations, mean-spirited rants, threadbare anecdotes. The name suggested a parallel with alternative rock, then ascendant, but it also suggested a certain pessimism: instead of aiming at reforming mainstream comedy, these performers offered their audiences—and each other—a refuge from it.
Many of the comedians Ansari cites as influences, like Patton Oswalt and Louis C.K., are linked to this amorphous movement, which has often been defined less by style than by venue. In Los Angeles in the nineties, alt comedy coagulated not in comedy clubs but in rock clubs, like LunaPark and Largo. (Judd Apatow, a former comedian, was a regular at a pioneering showcase called Un-Cabaret, which was, for a time, the heart of the Los Angeles alt-comedy scene.) In New York, oddball comedians realized that they could find, or create, gentler audiences by fleeing midtown for points south.
Alt comedy echoed the versatility of the spaces where it lived: its performers acknowledged debts to improvisational comedy, indie rock, spoken word, performance art, avant-garde film, and theatre; they delivered PowerPoint presentations, sang deadpan songs, argued with planted audience members, and told jokes about the nature of jokiness. “At its core, comedy is about recognizing ridiculousness,” Jason Woliner, who has remained Ansari’s closest collaborator, says. Alt comedy takes that recognition one step further. “Those people have absorbed enough comedy to also see the shortcomings of comedy, or even how futile it is—comedy, as a form of rebelling against being a person. Like, even that is ridiculous.” This free-floating conviction doesn’t quite translate into a genre, but it did help create a community of performers and a community of fans. If they were united, it was only in their disdain for the hacks who had (so they believed) taken over the big rooms.
Alt comedy created, or exacerbated, a generational split. “At comedy clubs, there was, like, bachelorette parties and older people,” Ansari says. “At these quote-unquote alternative rooms, there’d be kids my age, college kids, younger people.” This generational fault line is one of the implicit themes of “Funny People,” which stars Adam Sandler as an outmoded comedy star, ambivalently embracing the new wave. In one scene, Rogen wears a UCB T-shirt. In another, Sandler’s character tries an experimental approach: he sits at a piano, droning, “Leave me alone. Don’t visit my grave, cocksuckers.” The joke, if there is one, is the audience’s growing discomfort. In a sufficiently alternative room, that could probably kill.
Like most avowedly alternative cultural movements, alt comedy was also an expression of snobbery. Comedy clubs, with their raucous patrons and non-negotiable drink minimums, had come to be seen as tacky theme parks for the culturally clueless—like strip clubs, but less reputable. In alternative rooms, the environment was hipper and more collegiate. This was a more open-minded world, you might say, but also a more exclusive one. And so most alt-comedy stars, once they have broken in, start scheming ways to break out. Oswalt, despite decades of work onstage, might be best known as the voice of Remy the rat, from “Ratatouille.” Ansari has his NBC sitcom, a fledgling film career, and a standup-comedy act that has long since outgrown alt rooms: his next show in New York is at the Beacon Theatre, which has about twenty-eight hundred seats; it sold out within a day. In January, he is playing Carnegie Hall.
It was a hot summer day in Murfrees boro, Tennessee, and Ansari was squinting at the lanes of traffic on Old Fort Parkway. “I thought I was going to die crossing the street to go to Chick-fil-A,” he said. Ansari was in town to perform at Bonnaroo, the annual music-and-arts festival, which draws nearly a hundred thousand people to a square mile of farmland half an hour down the highway, in a town called Manchester. In “Observe and Report,” the film starring Seth Rogen, Ansari played a moisturizer salesman named Saddamn, who responds to an accusation of terrorism with a reasonable question: “Why the fuck would I blow up Chick-fil-A? It’s fucking delicious!” It turns out that Ansari agrees with this assessment (the line in the film was his idea), and so he was eager to grab a chicken sandwich before the artists’ shuttle left for the festival. He made it onto the van with a few minutes to spare, and unwrapped his sandwich, filling the van with savory steam.
Ansari has been appearing at Bonnaroo since 2006, and by this year he was a headliner, scheduled to perform four hour-long shows inside a tent that seats about fifteen hundred. The van pulled off the highway and drove past rows of R.V.s and tents. The landscape looked like some unsettling hybrid of amusement park and refugee camp. Ansari retreated to the comedy trailer, where he sat down on a blue floral couch and pulled out a digital recorder, an oversized pair of Bose headphones, and a Moleskine notebook—all part of his pre-show ritual. Ansari records each of his performances, and he usually listens to the last one right before the next one, taking note of which interjections are worth repeating.
When it was almost showtime, Ansari reached into a garment bag and retrieved a tailored silver shawl-collar jacket, with matching tuxedo pants, both products of the vintage-inspired label Band of Outsiders. As he graduated from clubs to theatres, he’d begun wearing suits when he performed. It might have been a lark at first, a way of looking anomalous in rooms full of T-shirts—a way, perhaps, to acknowledge the stereotype of the standup comedian as a sport-coated hack. But, just as his fond parody of hip-hop swagger has started to resemble the real thing, Ansari’s headliner’s wardrobe has come to feel natural. He said, “Now, when I don’t do it, it feels like I’m—not phoning it in, but it just feels more proper when I’m dressed up.”
Ansari was preceded by a couple of warmup acts and a stern announcement from an unseen “head of security,” who said, “Nobody look Aziz in the eye—if you look Aziz in the eye, you’re getting Tased.” Then Ansari loped onto the dusty stage, and, in his gleaming jacket, he certainly looked like a star.
During one of his sets at Bonnaroo, he spotted an interpreter in front of the stage, charged with translating his jokes into sign language. “Oh, man,” Ansari said. “I don’t even care about the show anymore—I am way more fascinated by this.” For the next forty-five minutes, he returned to her again and again, drawing an extra laugh whenever he made her translate a particularly complicated anatomical arrangement, which was often. At the end, he darted offstage, announced that he had a special guest, held his iPhone up to the microphone, and cued the sound of an air-raid siren—it was time for Randy to make his appearance. “If y’all are ready to laugh your dicks off, let me hear you say, ‘Yeah,’ ” he said, and the response was instant and exuberant. He said it again, hopping across the stage this time, and the response was the same, only louder.
Ansari’s fans may talk about deconstruction, and they may like his quirky Twitter messages, but when they go to see him they want to laugh. Part of what makes Randy so ridiculous is his guilelessness: he considers cheap laughs a good bargain, and he knows that catchphrases and curse words work. The sneaky thing about Randy, though, is that it’s hard to keep him confined to the encore. In “Funny People,” he signalled his sleaziness with that crude (and physiologically puzzling) joke about the Butterfinger. Ansari’s current act contains no fewer than four such jokes, all involving food.
These scenarios are skillfully integrated into the narrative through self-conscious references to comedic convention. At one point, Ansari does an impression of his teen-age cousin Harris enjoying a romantic interlude. Then he doubles back, as if responding to offended audience members, to assure them that, in the previous imitation, Harris wasn’t really having sex—he was penetrating a Cinnabon. But part of the laughter comes from something simpler: the thought of a man having sex with food, and the sheer idiot glee with which the couplings are described. Like his alter ego, Ansari knows that, even in a profane age, a well-placed expletive can help provide the little explosion that pushes a joke through to an applause break. In “Funny People,” it’s supposed to be obvious that Ansari’s character is a hack, but it’s just as obvious that the character is funny—and, if it’s possible for a comedian to be bad and funny at the same time, then who cares about badness? And if a hack comedian is a guy who will do anything for a laugh—well, what, exactly, is wrong with that?
Randy’s genius is that he allows his creator to fuse alt comedy with its opposite: in Ansari’s act, a stupid dick joke is also, sometimes implicitly, a joke about the stupidity of dick jokes, and a not quite rueful acknowledgment of their utility. Poehler compares Randy to Tony Clifton, who was the alter ego of Andy Kaufman, the Dada comedian. As Tony, disguised by sideburns and sunglasses, Kaufman was a tyrannical showbiz star, abusing audiences with insults, bad singing, and worse jokes. In fact, Kaufman was among the people Tony didn’t much like, and so it seems fitting that Tony, played (according to legend) by Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s writing partner, has kept performing long after Kaufman’s death, in 1984. Sometimes it seems possible, too, that Randy might outlive Ansari. Randy recently released a hip-hop single, “Aaaaaaaangry,” that contained—brilliantly—no rapping at all; instead, Randy complained, at great length, that various hip-hop luminaries were ignoring him. “He’s afraid it will eventually destroy him,” Poehler says, mostly kidding. “I think he fights to make sure that people don’t think that’s actually him. Which it certainly isn’t.”
At least, not entirely. Woliner says that at first many of Randy’s jokes were actually just Ansari’s jokes, punched up—“with more energy, or more swearing, or filthier.” He still marvels at the way a few minutes of Randy can whip an appreciative alt-comedy audience into a decidedly non-alt frenzy. “Even though you’ve said this is fake, this is a character, suddenly they’re, like, this rowdy crowd,” he says. “I think the line has been blurred often.”
As Ansari refines his standup act, his main task is to make sure that the rude vigor of Randy is ever present, but never dominant. Part of his job, as he sees it, is to keep audiences laughing at Randy’s imprecations, not with them; he says, “You never want the mouth-full-of-blood laugh.” During a recent performance, he responded to a request for Randy with a firm refusal in the form of a very short story: “Randy was getting a blow job near a volcano and he fell in and died.”
His current set is slightly more confrontational than “Intimate Moments.” There is a long disquisition, halfway through, about his favorite racial slurs. It starts with a sobering warning—he asks people not to moan in sympathy, or shout in approval, when he uses a forbidden term—but that isn’t always enough. “I kind of love racism, in a way, because I’m fascinated by it,” he said, during one performance, and someone shouted, “Whoo!” He deflated slightly. “Don’t do that shit,” he said.
Like many of his jokes, this one started online: he found Wikipedia’s list of racial slurs and decided to read all twenty-one pages. As he tells the story, he slowly gives the audience permission to laugh at his favorites, including “prairie nigger,” a derogatory term for American Indians, which he can scarcely bring himself to pronounce:
You could be talking to some Native American guy, and be, like, “Shut up, prairie N-word!”
And then some black guy is, like, “What’d you say?”
“Uh, sir, this does not concern you. I said ‘prairie,’ O.K.? Prairie N-word over here is causing trouble. We’re good.”
None of the slurs he talks about are aimed at Indian-Americans, and that’s by design. Russell Peters, a Canadian comedian of Anglo-Indian descent, has amassed a huge following, especially among other North Americans of Indian descent, by lampooning the various stereotypes and cultural barriers that characterize white-brown relations. (His most recent special was called “Red, White and Brown.”) Ansari, by contrast, has become one of this country’s most popular young comedians while generally declining to highlight his Indian-American identity. It can’t be a coincidence, though, that many of Ansari’s favorite subjects—his heroes, and, therefore, his targets—are African-American. His jokes and stories about black celebrities allow him to acknowledge his own status as an anomaly in the mainly white world of alt comedy. In this way, he can identify with the white people in the audience, chuckling at the excesses of African-American culture, while simultaneously allying himself with the ambition and eccentricity of these nonwhite performers.
Ansari likes to recall the time he went to see R. Kelly, the R. & B. auteur, with Woliner:
Jason looks over at me and goes, “Hey, Aziz, me and you are the only two white people at this concert.”
I was, like, “First of all, Jason, I’m not white. Second of all [he lowers his voice to a menacing whisper], you’re the only white guy at this concert. We might kill you, Jason!”
Similarly, his evocations of hip-hop royalty tend to be both affectionate and, you might say, disaffectionate. One of his most reliable new routines is a great story, possibly apocryphal, about overhearing the rapper 50 Cent ordering a grapefruit soda in a restaurant. When it arrives, 50 Cent says, “Why isn’t this purple?” And from this Ansari draws a conclusion—“50 Cent has no idea what a grapefruit is!”—upon which he expounds at length. “Man, that 50 Cent-grapefruit thing is a monster now,” Ansari said, one night, in a rare display of Randy-like swagger. So far, 50 Cent hasn’t confirmed or denied the truth of this story, but Ansari figures that he’ll probably respond eventually, even though they’ve never met. The electronic age has flattened the celebrity world, blurring the distinction between the big stars, who get talked about, and the smaller ones, who do the talking. “If you do anything about somebody, they will hear it and get back to you,” Ansari says, offering an observation whose utility probably isn’t limited to comedians.
Earlier this summer, the exceedingly unself-effacing rapper Kanye West joined Twitter. Ansari is awed and amused by West’s flair for self-presentation. And so, in tribute, he started writing Twitter messages in West’s voice, which is defined by a singular blend of ingenuousness and bravado. West apparently liked what he saw, because he reposted a handful of them, including “Hans Zimmer needs to write a score for whenever I eat a cookie. When I eat cookies shit is mad suspenseful.” West wrote, “It’s so funny how Aziz’s tweets really sound like me . . . am I that predictable?”
This kind of celebrity feedback loop represents a lot of what annoys some people about social-media culture, which celebrates solipsism and trivia, and refuses, on principle, to distinguish between small thoughts and big ones—or even between celebration and mockery. Twitter, in particular, creates a seductive illusion of intimacy: stars and fans exchanging public notes that resemble private text messages. It is the place where a hip-hop genius might go back and forth with a clever Indian-American guy from Bennettsville.
Actually, though, Ansari and West have more in common than you might think: two compulsive creators who seem not to have considered the possibility that people might not be interested in them. They are friends, online and offline. “From the beginning,” Woliner says, “I think Aziz had this fully formed persona—he knew who he was, and had this confidence, or swagger, that people really could latch on to.” The chances of an average blogger becoming the next Aziz Ansari are about the same as the chances of an average kid with a notebook full of lyrics becoming the next Kanye West.
Ansari’s first major film roles will come starting next year, in a pair of comedies: in one, called “30 Minutes or Less,” Ansari stars alongside Jesse Eisenberg in the story of a clumsy bank heist; the other, in which Ansari and a partner set out to ruin the life of a philandering athlete, is tentatively titled “Olympic Size Asshole.” In addition, Ansari and Woliner recently signed a production deal with Apatow for three films, including a Randy bio-pic. It’s time for him to try to close the gap between himself and the stars he tweets about—time, that is, for him to see if he can convert a newish form of success into an oldish one.
For now, Ansari remains somewhere in between: a minor celebrity whose minorness is underscored only by his occasional proximity to major ones; a cult favorite trying to figure out how, and how much, to act like a star. This process can be awkward to watch. Ansari’s standup show now begins on a slightly discordant note, when he asks audience members not to take his picture, because the flash distracts him. He follows this request with a brief grace period, during which he strikes a series of comedianly poses to sate the crowd’s photographic appetite, and although the poses always get a laugh, Ansari’s anti-photography policy is for real—and so is his irritation with “rude” people who flout it. Similarly, on his Twitter page, which has half a million followers, Ansari sometimes seems less like a giddy enthusiast than like a harried celebrity. A fan—female, as it turned out—recently sent him a playful warning: “Im going to see you on Nov 20th Dont tell the same jokes that I heard 4 times at the largo or you owe me a blow job. Thx.” Ansari’s response was brief, and decidedly unplayful: “Don’t come, you sound awful.” The fan was undeterred. Two days later, she wrote, “I am still going to see Aziz Ansari regardless of if he thinks I sound awful.”
Ansari got a chance to explore his complicated position in the celebrity hierarchy at Bonnaroo this year, where he was either a marquee attraction or an eager fan, depending on the time. One of the headliners was Jay-Z, and in the hours before the performance Ansari had only two objectives: to get the special laminated pass that would allow him to observe Jay-Z at close range, and to sample a sweet tea-flavored vodka drink, which tasted a bit like curdled Snapple. The pass arrived a few minutes after the concert started, and Ansari was directed—perhaps inadvertently—up a staircase and above the stage, to a low platform, which was occupied by a big man and two smallish women, one of whom was revealed, through repeated and not so furtive glances, to be Jay-Z’s wife, Beyoncé. During “99 Problems,” Ansari pumped his fist along with the guitar; during “Empire State of Mind,” he pogoed in time to the beat, laminate flapping against his chest. (“I don’t get lunatic like that very often,” he said, later. “That was my first night off in a long time.”) And at one point—having found the concoction to be both delicious and effective—he was brave enough to approach Beyoncé, who beamed and extended her arms, in a much practiced gesture of affection and self-defense. He went in for a hug, and she beamed wider and shook her head; the big man moved in, not beaming at all, and Ansari returned to his place on the other side of the balcony, unbowed. He said, “You realize we’re watching a Jay-Z concert from the same spot as Beyoncé?”
When the show was over, another round of negotiations began, as Ansari tried to get access to the ultra-exclusive compound behind the main stage. After some discussion and more than a few phone calls, he was ushered past a chain-link fence and into an ad-hoc courtyard, in the middle of a cluster of trailers, where Jay-Z was holding court. He greeted Ansari warmly, and introduced him to his wife. The three of them posed for an excellent snapshot: Jay-Z squinting, Beyoncé laughing with her hands over her face, and Ansari with his arms in the air and his mouth and eyes open wide. The photo soon appeared on his Tumblr page, above a caption that said, “Me, my mom, and my dad—Bonnaroo 2010.”
It was time for the convoy of black trucks to sweep the royal couple away, and everyone tried to play it cool: there were nods, smiles, attempts not to stare. Then Ansari broke the mood. “Bye, Beyoncé!” he yelled, waving frantically. Even her husband laughed, and Ansari saw his opening. He swooped in to get his hug, and there wasn’t much for Beyoncé to do except hug him back. ♦