By Cody Worsham
On stage, Aziz Ansari is a whirlwind of comedy, a hilarious hurricane of gale force tangents and bring-down-the-house punch lines. On Thursday, Ansari – perhaps best known for his role as Tom Haverford on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and also seen in films like Funny People, 30 Minutes or Less, and This is the End – heads to the Baton Rouge River Center to do what he loves best: standup.
“To me, my standup is my main thing,” Ansari said in an exclusive interview with DIG. “That’s the thing I do that’s the most mine. ‘Parks,’ I’m an actor on this other show. Movies, I feel like I’m an actor in other people’s movies. Standup is where I get to talk about what I want to talk about and get across my comedic voice, so that’s going to be the most important thing in the world to me.”
“We All Work a Shit Ton”
The only thing more impressive than Ansari’s ability to elicit laughter is his work ethic. Despite his place among comedy’s elite – earlier this year, he sold out Madison Square Garden in a matter of minutes – Ansari remains dedicated to his craft. If he’s not touring or filming “Parks,” he’s often doing as many as four or five pop-up shows a night in New York City, honing his next routine in smaller settings. On tour, he’ll do an hour to an hour-and-a-half of jokes, but it takes far more than 60 or 90 minutes to write his final material.
“As far as how many hours I put into it, I wouldn’t be able to say, but I work tremendously hard,” Ansari said. “Any comedian that’s really good, they work a shit ton. You look at all the people doing theaters – me, Louis C.K., Amy Schumer – we all work a shit ton. All the people that are younger people coming up – guys like Hannibal Buress or this guy Jerrod Carmichael – those are the dudes I see at every show I do. They’re always doing sets. Everyone that’s doing well is doing a lot of work and putting in a lot of time. It definitely doesn’t come together if you’re not doing shows all the time.”
That’s particularly true for Ansari, whose writing routine is less pencil and paper and more spotlight and spitballing. Known for his quirky bursts of energy and loose delivery, Ansari uses a trial and error process to craft his comedy, going as far to record himself during smaller shows and listening to the recording while riding to the next one.
“So much of the writing for me is I’ll have a concept, I’ll work it out, I’ll try it on stage, and it’ll work,” he said. “A lot of it is trial and error. The more shows you do, the more you can tinker things and fix them. If every show, you make one little thing better – you do 20 shows a week versus three shows a week, you’re going to be way better. And if I didn’t record it, I wouldn’t be able to remember it. That’s my writing process. It’s very much done on stage. I don’t ever sit in a room and scribble stuff down. For some reason, I’m only able to do it on stage.”
Which is why Ansari added this latest batch of dates – Baton Rouge included – so soon after wrapping up his spring/summer “Modern Romance” tour, which focused on the funny frustrations faced by contemporary seekers of love. He’s booked for the Garden in October, so he’s using this additional leg – now dubbed “Aziz Ansari” live to reflect about 30 minutes of additional material – to “to do a few other arena shows to get ready and get in that mode.”
“I took a breather from touring,” Ansari said, “and I was in New York for a while, and I was like, I need to write some stuff that’s not about relationships and dating and stuff. I spent a couple weeks doing that, and I wrote some stuff I was really into, some stuff I was really interested in, and I thought, Maybe this can be the basis for the next tour. And then I thought about it, and I was like, I’m really excited about this stuff. I think I’m going to put it into the current tour.”
The Paradox of Choice
Ansari’s “Modern Romance” tour was met with rave reviews. A natural follow up to his third special, Buried Alive – available on Netflix and at AzizAnsari.com for $5 – “Modern Romance” is Ansari’s reflection on the present-day pursuit of love. The child of an arranged marriage, Ansari said one of the major themes of the tour is today’s courting surplus.
“If you think about 100 years ago, you’re pretty much going to marry someone you lived around,” Ansari said. “There was no going to college and moving to different towns and starting jobs everywhere. All the data on that shows people used to marry people who lived close to them. Now, we have all these options and different stages of life where we meet different people in college and in different parts of the country and world. And we have online dating, this tremendous tool to meet all these different people. It seems like the biggest change is we have so many more options.”
Which would seem like a good thing – except when it’s not. Ansari points to psychologist Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice as evidence that more options isn’t always a better alternative.
“The more options you have – you would think, Oh, that’s better, more options – but in practice, whenever you give someone more options, it’s harder for them to make a choice,” he said. “And when they do make a choice, they’re less satisfied. When I saw that, I thought, Oh, that’s a crazy idea, and it totally relates to relationships. It’s so hard to settle down, and I feel like people are looking for this perfect thing that may not even exist.”
The Maturation of Mr. Ansari
In fact, Ansari is so enraptured with these ideas and others like it that he’s working on a book about modern romance. He’s soon to wrap up the writing process for a 2015 release, and he said that interacting with academics like Schwartz and NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg was influential on his comedy.
“When you get to talk to these incredibly smart people, you’re able to steal a little bit of their wisdom and integrate all of it together,” he said. “If you talk to all of these smart people, you get a little bit smarter from each of them. It gives you a more informed perspective.”
If all this academic talk sounds like a departure from Ansari’s past comedy, well, that’s because it is. Though his rise to fame was partially on the back of jokes about pestering his teenage cousin Harris on Facebook or parodying vulgar comedians through his alter-ego Raaaaaaaandy, Ansari’s attacking more mature material these days – in his own unique and hilarious way, of course – because that’s what’s important to him these days.
“Any good performer ideally will evolve and keep changing what they do while maintaining an essence of what makes you unique,” Ansari said. “I think you need to grow as a performer. If every special was stuff about Harris, people would get tired of it. Also, you change so much as a person. That first special, the one with the Harris stuff and when I did all the Raaaaaaaandy bits – how old was I? – some of the material was written when I was 23, 24, 25 years old. Now, as a 31-year-old dude, my life is totally different. The things I think about and deal with are so different than the things that other guy dealt with.
“You just change as a person. You change what you’re thinking about, what you care about, and with the amount of time you spend doing standup, you become a better comedian. You’re able to talk about more difficult topics. I think you just evolve as a performer. I like all that old stuff, but I think it’s cool to change what you do.”
And so Ansari heads to Baton Rouge for a day to reflect on love in the modern world – and to refine some new material, of course. But the essence of the show is still the same, and it’s what makes Ansari’s comedy work in his post-Harris stages of evolution: he speaks to universal themes. Ansari’s jokes are personal, not just to him, but to the audience. Even in a packed house – for Ansari, they’re all packed these days – it’s really like he’s talking to you, and only you.
“My whole thing is not to give advice [on love] or anything,” he said. “It’s more just observations and sharing in our frustrations. The biggest thing you realize – and this is what I want people to feel when they finish seeing the show – is we’re all in the same boat together. We’re going through the same shit. Everyone’s sitting there staring at their phone or computer or whatever and looking at these different dilemmas, but in a way, we’re all looking at the same screen. We’re all trapped in the same nonsense.”