Aziz Ansari: Feeding the Comedy Beast Without Serving Leftovers
HALFWAY through a 90-minute set late on a recent Friday night at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater here, Aziz Ansari did something radical for a stand-up comedian: he sat down.
If Mr. Ansari, a 27-year-old performer with a bearded baby face, was irresistibly drawn to the plastic chair where he completed his routine between sips of tea, it was understandable. This was his third show of the evening, during a weeklong marathon in which he was refining material for a new tour and his hosting gig at the MTV Movie Awards (which will be shown live on Sunday night). All while, by day, he had been shooting episodes of “Parks and Recreation,” the NBC sitcom on which he is a co-star.
Mr. Ansari made no apologies to the crowd at the theater, where the $5 tickets were cheaper and the jokes more meandering than they would be at those future gigs. As he had said that afternoon over lunch at a vegan restaurant in the Silver Lake neighborhood, “I even tell the audience, ‘You’re getting an inferior version of the joke so, I can work on it myself.”
(PARKS AND RECREATION SEASON 2 EPISODE 24 AFTER THE JUMP)
“I know you’re thinking, ‘Man, this is going a little long,’ ” Mr. Ansari added with a confident, self-mocking click of his tongue. “I know it is. That’s the goal. So I can tighten it up and make it better later.”
Mr. Ansari does not mind portraying himself as arrogant: it is a defining quality of characters like Tom Haverford, his slick, self-defeating “Parks and Recreation” bureaucrat, or Randy, the self-promoting, maddeningly successful comedian he played in the Judd Apatow film “Funny People,” who has since become part of his act.
Just don’t think that he is ever idle. When Mr. Ansari asked an audience member at a previous evening’s performance at the Largo nightclub here to imagine how he spends his days, he was surprised by the response.
“He was like, ‘You probably wake up about 10 o’clock, and then you smoke some weed,’ ” Mr. Ansari said. “ ‘Then you play video games for a couple hours.’ ”
Recounting that exchange, Mr. Ansari said, “That sounds like a terrible existence.”
Before he had graduated from New York University, majoring in marketing, Mr. Ansari, who grew up in Columbia, S.C., was avidly performing comedy in New York clubs and became a fixture of the city’s alternative scene. In 2007 the video shorts he made with fellow comedians Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer and the director Jason Woliner landed them their own MTV sketch show, “Human Giant.”
That show, on which Mr. Ansari played everything from a hard-charging agent of child actors to a police officer who pursues criminals by hot-air balloon, caught the attention of the “Parks and Recreation” producers, who hired him before they had cast its star, Amy Poehler, or settled on a concept for the series.
“He defies categorization,” said Michael Schur, who created “Parks and Recreation” with Greg Daniels. “He’s really sarcastic but also kind of lovable.” He added, “There’s so much going on with him that we felt it would be funny just to have him and Amy Poehler in the same room.”
In his stand-up act Mr. Ansari can be just as far-flung, joking about his time-wasting Internet searches or his fixation with R&B and rap stars like R. Kelly or Kanye West. (Mr. West was sufficiently flattered that he invited Mr. Ansari to a party at his house, which in turn became the basis of another stand-up bit.)
Stephen Friedman, the general manager of MTV, said Mr. Ansari’s pop-cultural tastes made him an ideal embodiment of the millennial-generation viewers whom the channel wants to reach.
“He’s playing with music, our sweet spot, but doing it in a way that creates a visceral connection with everyone in our audience,” Mr. Friedman said. “This guy gets us in a much more immediate way than other comedians. He’s grown up with the audience.”
To Mr. Ansari, the musicians he satirizes are fascinating not for their over-the-top lifestyles but for their single-minded devotion to their craft. Citing a scene from “The Carter,” a documentary about the rapper Lil Wayne, Mr. Ansari said: “He says something that I thought was really funny. It’s like: ‘Repetition is the father of learning. I repeat, repetition is the father of learning.’ ”
“Not to compare myself to Lil Wayne,” Mr. Ansari said, “but that’s why I’m repeating my set three times tonight, to see if I can figure it out.”
Mr. Woliner, who has continued to direct Mr. Ansari on “Parks and Recreation” (and occasionally sleep on an air mattress in his house), said Mr. Ansari’s work ethic comes from emulating comedians like Chris Rock, Louis C. K. and Patton Oswalt, who are constantly rewriting their routines from scratch.
In the weeks ahead Mr. Ansari, who has a small part in the new comedy film “Get Him to the Greek,” is commencing his stand-up tour and performing at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. Then he’ll shoot a role in “30 Minutes or Less,” a movie directed by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”), playing the friend of a pizza deliveryman who is forced to rob a bank. Then it’s back to work on the new season of “Parks and Recreation.”
(“But touring is kind of a vacation,” Mr. Ansari said.)
More than burnout, the peril for Mr. Ansari is that, as his celebrity increases, his ability to comment on his unusual pop-culture adventures — like partying with Mr. West — from the position of an outsider diminishes.
“Hopefully he won’t lose that wonder at falling into these very strange situations,” Mr. Woliner said.
What Mr. Ansari won’t do is exploit his minority status for laughs, or make it the focus of his comedy. You won’t hear him opining about his parents’ background as Tamil Muslims from India, and he said he’s tired of people’s assumptions that he encountered rampant racism growing up in the South.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for Mr. Ansari is that to honor the values of the comedians he most admires, the ones who constantly refresh their acts, he will have to retire his best-known stand-up bits from only a few months ago. That includes his popular (and detailed) impression of an R. Kelly performance that was highly sexualized, even by the standards of that eccentric R&B musician.
But not to worry: Mr. Ansari said he’s got a completely original R. Kelly bit in his new routine.
“I was kind of like, ‘Aw, man, I shouldn’t do another thing about R. Kelly,’ but R. Kelly keeps doing amazing things,” he said, blowing out the word “amazing” as if it were a party horn. “I’d be failing at my job if I didn’t address them.”
In an earlier version of this article, Michael Schur, the co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” partly described Mr. Ansari as a Muslim. Mr. Ansari describes himself as an atheist.