Aziz Ansari is a dozen years into his stand-up career and five years into his role as technophile and wannabe-entrepreneur Tom Haverford on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Even though he just turned 30, he still has a kid-like vibe about him. He’s small and spry, about 5 and a half feet tall, with the kind of face a grandma would grab in both hands and squeeze.
His voice is just-so-nasal, with a slight Southern twang, and he has a cadence to his speech that simply makes everything sound funnier when he says it. Funnier than it would be if you repeated his jokes word for word.
And he knows exactly how funny he is. His Buried Alive stand-up tour comes to Washington next week, and tickets for two shows sold out almost immediately, so he added a third, then a fourth.
“If I do the show and it tanks horribly, I can confidently say there’s something really weird about that audience,” he said recently on the phone from Los Angeles.
Last year, Ansari performed at Carnegie Hall, a pretty great whoa-look-at-me-now moment for a guy from Bennettsville, S.C. — “where the idea of saying you wanted to be an actor or something would be so ludicrous,” he says — who got his start doing open-mike nights at almost-empty clubs. Those gigs helped him escape his wealth-chasing classmates at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “All the kids were horrible people who were obsessed with working at Goldman Sachs,” Ansari says.
Soon he was co-writing and co-starring on the cult-favorite MTV sketch show, Human Giant, and he recently found himself on Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” list, a roster of rising talent that can often double as a who’s who of the next decade’s superstars.
But there are still some things that scare Aziz Ansari. Like, really, really scare him. Which is exactly where Buried Alive came from: “The idea that people I know are getting married and having babies and how scared I would be to have a baby . . . [and] I’m not ready to get married, either. I guess because I’m 30, I have to pick one person to stay with for the rest of my life?”
Turns out he’s not alone. “I just started talking about that, and it seemed to strike a chord with people,” Ansari says.
There are “two kinds of laughs,” he says. “One is that funny ‘ha-ha’ laugh. But there’s another kind of laugh [from] talking about these deeper things: getting scared of getting married or having kids, where someone will laugh and they’ll also be like: ‘Oh my God, thank you for saying that! I went through the same thing.’ It seems like you hit people on a deeper level.”
So here we are, the most advanced humans in the history of mankind, and we are panicked to the point of paralysis at the mere thought of Grown-Up Things. Marriage makes us shudder; babies send us into spasms. We can barely craft a text message without consulting every friend in spitting distance.
We have never had so much and known so little. It’s kind of a tragedy — or, more accurately, it’s a kind of tragedy from which a person could mine a great deal of comedy.
“I’ve never really done a show like that, with three big themes,” such as dating, marriage and kids, Ansari says. “My other shows were more haphazard jokes.” Now, when he gets that second kind of laugh, “I feel more successful as a comedian.”
Nick Offerman, who plays mustachioed government-hating-government employee Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation, was a fan of Ansari’s before they even met, when he caught Human Giant on MTV. Offerman didn’t seem too surprised that Ansari is filling his routine with ruminations on holy matrimony instead of, say, bits about 50 Cent ordering a grapefruit soda and asking the waiter, “Why isn’t this purple?”
“I think when you achieve success, you’re sort of faced with a choice,” Offerman says. “So I think, faced with the opportunity to become one of the leading comedians of our day, that seems to have made him say, ‘I’d like to talk about something a little more real and give my show a little more weight.’ Which I think will serve him well in the long run.”
Buried Alive ends where we all must start: dating.
“The last chunk of the show is kind of, where do you meet someone now that you really form this deep connection with?” Ansari says.
“And the frustration that the place we’ve designated in our culture to meet people is bars. And how weird that is.”
Ansari described a segment in Buried Alive in which he asks, by show of applause, how many people have tried online dating. “In an audience of thousands of people, 30 people are clapping. . . . But if you ask how many people go to bars and meet people, no one is shy about answering that.”
Imagine, Ansari says, describing a bar to someone who’d never heard of one before. “There’s this place where they serve this liquid that poisons you and lowers your inhibitions and makes it easier to talk to people, and they play loud music, and there’s a lot of [annoying] people there, and then they play this Bon Jovi song called Livin’ on a Prayer. And I meet people at that place. That’s a lot crazier than, ‘I just go on this website.’”
Yet, Ansari says, there’s still a “stigma” associated with online dating, as if meeting your match on Match is proof that “you’ve failed at real-life dating. But I think that tide is slowly turning.”
He’s never tried online dating (“because I’m a public person or whatever”) but has plenty of personal material to inform his riffs on text messaging, yet another confounding aspect of modern romance.
“No other generation of people has used texting so much in courtship,” he says.
“And maybe it’s not the ideal medium for getting to know people in the initial stages of courtship.”
Ansari connected with Sherry Turkle, a psychology professor at MIT whose book “Alone Together” analyzes how young people have come to rely so heavily on texting that they’re losing the ability to communicate in person. He loved her book so much that he blogged about it, and Turkle’s students, along with her 21-year-old daughter, insisted she contact him. Turkle and Ansari wound up speaking by phone and meeting in Los Angeles, where Ansari set up a special performance of his act so she could see his work in action.
“He was spot-on,” Turkle says. “He is a student of online communication. And what I really like about what he does is that he doesn’t do something very different than what I do. . . he interviews people, and, in his act, he asks them for their phones and actually looks at what their text conversations are.” Turkle feels “a methodological kinship with what he’s doing.”
“In one of the shows I did,” Ansari says, “I just saw how one wrong text can really sour someone on a person. This girl said that she met this guy at a bar, had a lot of fun, and the next day he called her and left a voicemail. Then he texted her and said, ‘Hey, did you get my voicemail?’ And that immediately turned her off. And there’s no equivalent of that in a real conversation. You’d have to say something really racist or offensive to get someone to shut down. . . . But for that guy, it was like, BOOM. He was overeager; it’s done.”
“Texting that’s supposed to be about logistics is really about trying to find an emotional connection,” Turkle says. “And texting that’s supposed to be about finding an emotional connection is about logistics. That’s exactly what I learned from watching Aziz.”
When Turkle left the show in L.A., “the response to him was that he was on to something really true. . . . I think he’s capturing the kind of paradoxes and difficulties of modern love and modern life.”
Ansari’s parents had an arranged marriage, something he says “[I] personally don’t think I could do.” But the idea of it — of saying to someone, “I will deeply invest in you and see if we can make things work forever,” as opposed to casually dating around and seeing what sticks to the wall of your love life — is intriguing to him.
It’s an old-soul perspective for a young guy to have, but Offerman says that’s how Ansari has been for years. When Offerman met Ansari, “I found his dapper demeanor and his maturity to be rather irksome because he’s so young,” Offerman says. “You want your 26 year old to be a little more of a clown, a little more of a bum, so they require your advice and guidance. Then instead, I almost immediately started asking Aziz for advice on everything from career choices to barbecue restaurants. For the funniest guy around, he’s all business when it comes time to work.”
Ansari says he records all of his performances and will, “in an almost Beyoncé-like way, listen to shows to see if there’s any changes I want to make.” The show he’s preparing now, which will be his fourth stand-up special, has him doing even more research into relationships and adulthood.
“He’s obviously a very smart man,” Turkle says. “And comedy isn’t funny if it doesn’t reflect something profound about the human condition.”
Ansari adds, “It is weird to be in this time where you have so many choices because all the studies they do about choice show that when you have more choices, you’re less satisfied.
“When you’re walking around now, and you’re a girl, you have a cellphone — any guy in the world that you’ve met can interact with you!” he says. “You can be on a date and get a flirty text from some guy [when] you go to the bathroom, and then go back to the date. That’s never happened before! It’s not like you could be on a date and some guy would sneak around and stick a note in your pocket.”
He gets fired up talking about this stuff, even though he can’t use it in “Buried Alive.” “That definitely is a temptation,” he says. “I think when you’re a comedian, you’re really excited about your latest joke. That’s the one [you] want to share. But I have to show some restraint.”
Touring, researching and working on Parks and Rec keep him busy, but not too busy — he still has time to be, as Offerman describes, “an excellent gift-giver.” In a very Leslie Knope manner, Ansari “ends up getting really stylish, thoughtful gifts suited to each individual person” when the Parks cast exchanges presents for the holidays.
As far as Offerman is concerned, Ansari is even more mature than his married-with-children peers. “When you achieve success in this business, you can’t help but go through a life change of some kind. And I’m pleased to say Aziz has not become the kind of guy to throw his TV set out the hotel window.”
On the contrary. “I’ve watched him turn into an even classier grown-up.”