Warning: Audio and video contains profanity and coarse humor.
Like a lot of people who grew up in places where there was nothing to do, Aziz Ansari left for New York City as soon as possible. And like a lot of people who don’t really know what they want from their lives, he ended up majoring in business. It wasn’t really for him. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I thought about maybe trying to open my own business, be an entrepreneur or something. So I went to the business school, Stern. But it was such a weird culture,” he says over cappuccino at an eatery a few blocks away from his Alma Matter, New York University. “I wasn’t aware of that whole finance culture of kids who wanna work at Goldman Sachs and all that stuff and blah blah blah. It was just…not interesting me.”
What was interesting to him was comedy. As a teenager, he was obsessed with Chris Rock—still has a few of the albums memorized to this day. As a college student, he was the type to talk your ear off at a party with some crazy story he had. He didn’t come to New York with the ambition to be a stand up, but his other ambitions were vague and unfulfilling anyway, so he was in the market for something new. “I was at the end of my freshman year and some people were like, ‘Oh, you’re funny when you tell stories and stuff. You ever think about doing a new talent night at a comedy club?’ And, you know, that happened a couple of times and I was like, ‘You know, I am gonna try it. Why not?’ And I really enjoyed it, so I just kept doing it.” He thought about switching to the film and TV department or NYU’s “make your own major” Gallatin department, but it quickly became apparent to Ansari that classes were all beside the point, as his real education was happening at New York’s comedy clubs like the Upright Citizens Brigade, the Comedy Cellar and Rififi. “After I had been doing stand up, in my sophomore year I remember sitting in class and thinking, ‘I’ll be able to do something with stand up. At the least I can be a touring comedian at a comedy club, and I’d rather do that than be at an office. I can make a living at least as touring as a comedian.”
Dropping out was out of the question. (“It seemed like it would just be a big argument with my parents, and why argue that? I still get to go to NYU and just hang out and go to class or whatever.”) He ended up getting a marketing degree “because that was really easy and I was just able to coast by and work on stand up.”
Cheery and talkative, if a bit exhausted, Ansari shrugs off any suggestion that his diploma proved useful in spite of his disinterest. (“I didn’t really learn anything super special with a marketing degree. A lot of marketing is just common sense with made up jargon to make it sound more intellectual.”) But it’s hard to deny that the man has Brand Awareness down. Aziz Ansari™ is currently achieving high levels of cultural saturation, and shows no signs of peaking any time soon. Ansari stars in Parks And Recreation, one of the funniest, warmest and most cultishly adored comedies on television. He’s had distinctive turns in films like Funny People, 30 Minutes or Less and Observe and Report, and he’s working with uber-producer Judd Apatow on a few more. He uses social media more skillfully (and often) than nearly any high-profile comedian, and he has knack for notable how-did-he-get-here pop culture cameos, such as his amusingly inexplicable turn in Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Otis” video. (In one of those too-perfect moments that sometime actually happens, Ansari showed up to coffee with comedian Nick Kroll, and then immediately said hello to photographer and sleaze-specialist Terry Richardson as soon as we sat down.)
To paraphrase some of that intellectual jargon, Ansari has spread his brand across different platforms and benefited from positive associations with well-known entities, and audiences are aware of Ansari and the qualities he represents: cocksure swagger and closely observed ridiculousness, fueled by a boyish enthusiasm and a notable sense that he’s thrilled that he still gets to do so much cool stuff.
A few weeks before our interview, Ansari offered his new comedy special Dangerously Delicious directly through his website. For $5, fans could download a video file or stream the hour-long special without edits for commercials or profanity, which there’s a fair share off. (He does love his semen jokes.)
Ansari shot the special last summer with his own money, but was unsure what to do with the footage until he was inspired by his friend Louis C.K., who self-released his special Live at the Beacon through his website last year. “I took a look at how many DVD sales I had, and I looked at how many views I had on YouTube and it was, like, clearly people are watching this stuff online as opposed to buying physical DVDs,” he says. “And I was meeting with all these different people to try to figure out some new model and while I was doing that, I was hanging out with Louis when he was editing his special and he told me what he was going to do. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder if that’s going to work.’ And it clearly did. So, I was like, ‘You know what? Why don’t I do the same thing? People seem to want me to do it anyway, people seem to like the simplicity of it, let’s do it.’”
He declines to give exact numbers (“I don’t think people have the right to know how much money you make, you know what I mean? It’s like saying, ‘How much money did you make on Parks?’”). But based on the blend of relief and pride in his voice when talking about the special, he’s clearly both made good on his $250,000 investment and is enjoying the sort of side-benefits of ownership you can’t put a price tag on, like buying lunch for the first 10 New York fans that proved to him they bought the special, or sending flowers to supporters that tweeted about their purchase. “I tried to work with all these people on trying to put the special out, and you always have to make some compromise or you have to go through…there’s so much bureaucracy and shit,” he says. “This, it’s just me! It’s a much more personal, interesting thing and I just like having all the control to do whatever I want.”
No one ever played South Carolina when Ansari was growing up, so one of the first things the rabid music fan did when he moved to New York in 2000 was to catch Radiohead’s legendary show at Roseland Ballroom in support of the just-released Kid A. He’s aware of the parallels between two high-profile comedians routing around the traditional cable channel outlets to take the work directly to their fans and Radiohead self-releasing In Rainbows after the band’s major label contract was up. In both instances, there’s an undeniable sense that the game is changing, and the old gatekeepers don’t hold as many cards as they once did.
But just as much of the music-industry-as-we-know-it-is-done-forever talk came more from Radiohead’s fans and media supporters rather than from the actual band, Ansari is cautious when discussing What This All Means In The Greater Picture, and is aware of how much the old guard helped get him to where he is. His first stand-up special, Intimate Moments For A Sensual Evening, was released on DVD and was heavily promoted by Comedy Central, and Louis C.K. also made his name in part through high-profile cable specials. “People said the same thing about that as people did about me and Louis releasing our specials, like, ‘Oh, you guys can do it,’ Well, yeah, that’s true. We never said everything’s changed,” he says, acknowledging that many comedians will lack the resources to self-fund a special or the sizable fanbase to make the investment seem viable. “I think there is more power to the artist in some sense, but you still have to go through people. With my tour…you can’t get around these ticket fees and things like that. I can tweet out a tour date, and it can sell out, and they don’t have to buy traditional advertising and things like that. But I can’t get around those fees because these venues have deals with people. But with a stand-up special you can do it and say ‘five dollars’ or whatever.
“But the question is, and you don’t really have an answer to this, ‘Are me and Louis just preaching to the converted? Are we reaching new people?’ There’s not a traditional marketing blast, there aren’t posters everywhere on the street and shit. The worry is like, are you really building more onto your fanbase or just getting the people who already like you?”
Aziz Ansari seemed to appear fully formed and dapperly dressed in 2009, with Parks and Recreation and Funny People premiering within months of each other, and Sensual dropping shortly after. But he’s been slowly working since 2001, hitting every venue with a microphone and an audience inclined towards comedy that he could. He became a regular at The Comedy Cellar’s new talent night and New York comedy overlord Eugene Mirman’s talent breeding ground Invite Them Up (which also featured Mike Bribiglia and Demetri Martin), and eventually began hosting a night at UCB. “I wasn’t like [adopts a gravely, ambitious voice], ‘I wanna be on TV and movies.’ It was very…humble aspirations of trying to be a better stand-up comedian,” he says. “That’s still what I’m trying to do.”
When he got the gig hosting on Monday nights at UCB, he decided it would be more fun to host with a different person each week and come up with new material. This eventually led him to working with fellow UCB regulars Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer. Around this time (roughly the summer of 2005 or so), Ansari made a few music-centric comedy videos that caught the attention of the indie-rock blogosphere. In one, he had to walk around New York blaring the shittest mixtape ever (he looks particularly anguished during Crazy Town’s “Butterfly”) and in another attempts to fix the broken computer of his crush M.I.A., with the part of M.I.A. played by Mirman. He doesn’t think these did much for his career (“back then, something like “Ask a Ninja” had, like, three million views and shit.”), but it did help cement his image as a music-inclined comedian, and an award at the Aspen Comedy Festival cemented his image as an up-and-coming comedian, no modifier needed.
The trio eventually landed a short-lived sketch series called Human Giant on MTV; a 24-hour marathon in which the three took over MTV studios and brought along friends like The National, Ted Leo, Mastodon, Michael Cera and Bob Odenkirk in an attempt to get enough web hits to ensure a second season. It’s without question the best thing to air on MTV in at least a decade. “MTV was super cool. We had so much creative control in the second season. They didn’t give us any notes hardly or anything,” he says. “And then we were going to do the third season and we just kind of decided we wanted to work on some other stuff, so we decided to move on. It’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of time. And we felt that we did two seasons and it was good, so…we just wanted to get out.” (Ansari says the three all still friends, and Giant director Jason Woliner shot the Dangerous special.)
After Giant, Ansari debuted his two biggest roles to date, raunchy loudmouth comedian Raaaaaaaandy on Funny People and Parks and Recreation’s wannabe playa Tom Haverford, both worthy additions to the canon of the most dominant theme in dramatic storytelling—especially in comedy—in recent years: the blinkered pomposity of American manhood.
Both characters are rooted in the smooth-operator confidence of Ansari’s stand-up act, but tweaked and exaggerated in different directions. “With Randy, the whole idea was that whenever I went to comedy clubs there would always be a comedian that was killing that all the other comedians hated,” he says. “Like, ‘What? Everyone’s laughing at this garbage? This is what’s entertaining people?’ So Randy was kind of taking that notion to an extreme, like talking about the dumbest, most base stuff and just killing, but in a way that would, like, infuriate anyone.
“I don’t know if there’s a type of guy I’m trying to make fun of with Tom. I think he kind of has become this very specific type of guy now,” he says. “We just kind of discovered it as we made more episodes and then keyed into this idea of, ‘Oh, he’s this guy who wants to be Russell Simmons or Damon Dash or whatever, but he’s too scared to leave this small town.”
Much of Ansari’s fashion choices for Haverford come from Getty-Image searches for what Simmons or Kanye West were seen wearing recently, especially if they wore something that no one else should attempt. “His whole thing is that he’s very confident about…like he’ll walk into that Parks department wearing the most stupid leopard slippers and no one could come up and be like, ‘You look stupid.’ He’s like, ‘No I don’t. I look awesome. These slippers are leopards.’”
Under most circumstances, there wouldn’t be enough leopard slippers in the world to get Ansari to visit the type of bottle-service and VIP rooms clubs that Tom haunts. “I’ve seen enough for my research purposes, but that’s not my ideal Saturday.”
Ansari’s public image is that of a suit-clad insider who pals around with Kanye West and takes time on tour to hit each town’s best gastronomy gems. So what’s remarkable about his Dangerous material and the bits he’s currently workshopping in New York’s clubs before his next tour is that it sees him peel away at the boisterous confidence we’ve become accustomed to and revealing his insecurities and neurosis; we’re getting to see a bit more of the man that doesn’t feel like the coolest guy in the club. In Dangerous, he talks about getting shot down while talking to women at bars, and he’s currently developing a set devoted to his conflicted feelings about watching his friends getting married and having kids while he still can’t figure out how to meet anyone. That he keeps a schedule of three weeks in Los Angeles, one week in New York to work on stand-up material probably doesn’t help in this regard. “No one wants to hear a comedian come up and say, ‘Oh, I saw this girl at the bar, she was really hot, I talked to her, she liked me, we went out, we’re in a relationship now, it’s fantastic!” he says. “That would be the most awful thing to hear a comedian say. It’s much more interesting to hear about people’s failures and frustrations that everyone can relate to. It’s hard to find someone that you really like.”
Ansari has still not heard whether the modestly-rated-but-critically-beloved Parks and Recreation will get renewed for another season, but describes himself as “cautiously optimistic” about the odds. “This year I felt the most safe. There’s definitely weird stuff. One season we got pushed mid-season, but, I think that ultimately…the show got a huge following this year and got nominated for an Emmy and [star Amy Poehler] got nominated,” he says. “I just think it’s a good show and I think you just have faith in a good show.”
In addition to his new stand-up set and the show, he’s also working on a number of movie projects with Apatow. There’s talk of doing a Randy movie, and he’s pitched an idea called Let’s Do This about motivational speakers that’s on the backburner, but he’s currently developing a script called Spacemen about a pair of disgraced astronauts who have to return to the moon to clear their name. “And the way we’re trying to get back to the moon is we find out that we can become counselors at space camp,” he says. “And there’s a test launch, like the initial-phase launch, but we figure out a way to jigger it to make it a full launch so we can get back to the moon. But it would be, like, with the kids from space camp.”
He’s also working on a movie with Woliner and Parks writer Harris Wittels about “these two losers, we haven’t done anything with our lives,” he says. “And one day we see this burning building and there’s, like, these kids inside. So we run in and save these six little black kids from this burning building and someone gets a video and puts it on YouTube and it becomes this huge viral video and we become, like, national heroes like Sully Sullenberger or someone like that and it’s just about us dealing with our 15 minutes of fame.”
Ansari has been talking about the Spacemen and Randy films for a couple of years now. He still sounds enthusiastic when describing them, but there’s an unmistakably sense that for a guy that loves the immediacy of stand up, had little interest in learning about the intricacies of business, and relishes the control he has in self-releasing his new stand up, the slow churn of the film business is a frustrating lesson in patience and accepting that he can’t control everything. “I’m gonna try to shoot one of them the next hiatus. But movie stuff is just so slow. People ask me about these in interviews like, ‘Oh! What happened to that thing? Are you guys still shooting it next week?’ and it’s like [adopts exasperated voice] ‘No, man. Movie shit is so slow!” Like, Bridesmaids was in development for, like, five years before they actually got to make it and do it. Pineapple Express was, like, seven years,” he says. “It just takes a long time to get all the pieces together for movies. There’s stuff in those movies that I think is so funny and it’s, like, just sitting on this page and no one…I don’t know if anyone will ever hear it. I mean, hopefully. Fingers crossed. But you don’t know.
“Which is kind of why I like stand up so much,” he adds, demonstrating the knowledge that he picked up in his NYU days. “Because I can think of a joke and tell it and get a response right away.”