The ABCD of Comedy: Aziz Ansari
The ‘hip-hop comic’ on the evolution of his stand-up, new material, early success, and drawing the more satisfying laugh out of audiences
The sky is overcast, and it is a rather chilly afternoon for a spring day in New York City. Waiting at the foot of the entrance — a few steps below street level — to The Smile, a restaurant on Bond Street, I spot Aziz Ansari coming in. A heavy, faux-fur hooded jacket and bulbous pair of headphones accentuate his small frame. Unfortunately, this is not a lunch appointment. If you read a story about Ansari wherein the interview takes place over a meal, you will find the narrative punctuated by his emphatic appreciation of the various courses of gastro delights.
We get a table at the far end of the small, rustically fashioned café, where the lunch service is in full swing. It’s noisy, at times almost clamorous. Ansari leans in towards the recorder on the table. “I’ll make an effort to be closer.” Our order is most customary: a cup of Earl Grey tea (with honey and lemon) for Ansari.
He is dressed in a flannel shirt and light beige pants. His boyish face is distinguished by a pair of black horn-rimmed glasses, which inspire an image that is a curious mix of comic book nerd and owlish intellectual, and a uniformly scant stubble. Ansari has this distracted alertness about him. Perhaps an odd tic spurred by restive energy, he occasionally pats the seat of an empty chair to his right during the course of the interview.
The finale of the fifth season of Parks and Recreation airs next week, but Ansari has not really been keeping track of the televised episodes. It was recently announced that NBC renewed the show for a sixth season, so we will be seeing more of Ansari as Tom Haverford, the most unreliable government employee in Pawnee’s parks and recreation department. After he wrapped shooting his parts for this season of the sitcom in Los Angeles a few months ago, he went back to touring for the second installment of his Buried Alive show, with which he first went on the road last year. On April 10, he taped his performance at the Merriam Theatre in Philadelphia for a special. Now, he is back home in New York City for a brief while, in between tour dates, editing the film for the Buried Alive special and workshopping new material at local comedy clubs for his next tour.
Ansari is a comedian of this generation (and maybe even the one kicking at its heels) not just by virtue of his age. He has maintained an au courant tenor from his days with the cult MTV sketch-show Human Giant (2007) and through his various characterisations on television and in film, such as the sex-obsessed, hip-hop alter ego Randy (popularised by Funny People), the sybaritic and flaky Tom Haverford (Parks and Recreation), the smug technophile Ed Dhandapani (Scrubs) and the relatively straight-laced Chet (30 Minutes or Less). Most of these characters possess the attitudes of a digitally wired millennial, cranked up to an obnoxious pitch for satirical effect. And all along Ansari’s stand-up material has lent to these fictional amplifications. His earlier specials [Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening (2010) and Dangerously Delicious (2012)] did have an element of randomness to them— Ansari riffed about everything from the thread-count of luxury linen and his Cinnabon-loving cousin Harris to R. Kelly’s testosterone-fuelled escapades and anecdotes from hanging out with hip-hop icons Kanye West and Jay-Z. But even in those specials Ansari had started to touch on the more pressing issues of a technology-addled generation and new-age relationships. Much like Lena Dunham (Girls), Ansari is also ‘a voice of a generation’.