• Aziz Ansari: Downtown comedy for the masses

    photo by Seth Olenick
    photo by Seth Olenick

    In the past few years, Aziz Ansari has gone from well-respected downtown New York City comedian to high-profile star of MTVs Human Giant, NBC’s Parks and Recreation, and now one of the star’s of Adam Sandler’s upcoming flick Funny People— not to mention a guy that has the blessing of Kanye West.

    For such a likable guy, Aziz Ansari has become pretty masterful at playing the douchebag. Leapfrogging the success of his MTV sketch show Human Giant, Ansari carved out memorable roles as a racist fruit vendor on Flight of the Conchords, a vapid, manic stand-up comic named Randy in Adam Sandler’s upcoming film Funny People and now, in NBC’s Parks and Recreation, the delightfully machiavellian bureaucrat Tom Haverford, a guy who throws Scrabble games to butter up his boss and wears an Aretha Franklin-worthy hat to stand out at a singles bar.

    Ansari, the South Carolina native who won over the New York City underground crowd by his early 20s, still loves the stand-up stage. He recently completed his cross-country Glow In The Dark Tour (the same name of Kanye West’s most recent tour) – he got permission to borrow the name from Kanye himself – and will soon record a full-length album. He talks with Punchline Magazine about his REAL reason for touring and other hopes for the future.

    How did the Parks and Recreation role come together?
    I met with Greg Daniels and Mike Schur, who are the two executive producers of The Office, in probably May of last year. They said, ‘NBC wants us to do a second show that’s either going to be a spinoff of The Office or an entirely different thing, but we’d love for you to be part of it.’ Before they even had a premise or anything, I said yes because I love The Office – it’s my favorite show, and I really respect those guys. They could have been like, ‘We decided to do a show about you and Soulja Boy and you guys running a lemonade stand together – a lot like The Office!’ And I would have had to do it because of the contract.

    It was pretty cool. The role was kind of written for me, what my strengths are as a performer. Seeing it come to life has been really fun. With a show like that, you’re really kind of figuring it out the first few episodes. If you watch the first season of The Office or 30 Rock and watch it now, it definitely takes a little bit for shows like that to really kind of get in a groove. We’re still in that phase a little bit. I still think it’s really funny, but I feel like with each episode, it’s really coming into its own.

    I’ve heard there’s a lot of improv on that set. How much of it makes it in the final cut?
    Those guys really know what they’re doing. The scripts are written great, but they’ll write chunks for me where it just says, ‘OK, and then Aziz is just going to riff on different things and we’ll pick one.’ It’s been cool that they really kind of embrace that aspect of my performing. That’s also fun for me watching. Like that scene last night where I’m wearing a crazy orange hat in the bar and saying it’s peacocking, trying to pick up girls. That wasn’t in the script. Greg was there, and I mentioned that Tom would probably be really into The Game by Neil Strauss, the whole pickup artist culture. So we asked the wardrobe people for something really silly to give me to use to pick up girls. We had five or six different other things we tried, and I got to do whatever I wanted and say whatever I wanted to these girls, like, ‘Has anyone ever told you you look like an African-American version of Jennifer Aniston?’

    Aziz Ansari – Red State Thinking

    What was your first time on stage like?
    My friends were like, ‘Hey, you should try to do stand-up!’ So I went to a new talent night at some comedy club, and there was nothing really interesting about it. I get a lot of e-mails from comics who want do stand-up and they’re like, ‘I’m really nervous I’m going to do bad!’ I was talking to some comedian friends of mine recently about this. Your first show really doesn’t matter at all. It’s the least important you’ll ever do. Just keep doing it.

    There’s a quote from Leno that your first 500 shows don’t matter. I don’t know if it’s that many, but it’s definitely a lot. No one’s good their first time. You don’t talk to any comic that says, ‘Oh, my first time was classic! It’s stuff I still use today!’ I was terrible. I didn’t know what stand-up was. I was doing what I thought stand-up was. I wrote stuff in a notebook, practiced on friends and went from there. I don’t practice on friends anymore.

    When did you start to feel like shows mattered?
    Around my fourth or fifth year, I felt pretty confident doing an hour. I was pretty proud of all the material I’d do in an hour set.

    Where were you performing at first?
    I started off in New York at open mic, new talent things, and I did stuff at a new club called the Comic Strip. But the scene I got into was the scene of like UCB, and a place called Rififi with my friend Eugene Mirman. I worked my way up in those kind of rooms, and then when I’d do the road I’d do colleges and stuff like that. Stand-up was my main thing. I took improv classes at UCB, but I was always doing stand-up.

    How did the Glow In The Dark Tour come together?
    Amy Poehler was pregnant, so the show got moved back a few months. I always wanted to do a good tour, but I couldn’t because of filming TV and stuff, so I decided to do a tour and record a CD at the end of it. I called it the Glow In The Dark Tour because I like Kanye and couldn’t think of a name myself. I spoke with him on the phone and told him I was a fan and he was cool with it. He was funny, he even posted my poster on his website and came to a show in L.A. I didn’t know him before then, but we exchanged info. He came through with his entourage. He was rolling deep that night. Maybe six, seven people.

    What was the inspiration for Randy? (See Aziz in character as Randy below)
    Randy was really just an idea of, what if someone like Soulja Boy did stand-up? The first scene I shot in Funny People was a scene with Adam where I was just talking to Adam about Randy. I just started improvising all this stuff about him, how he’d want to try out some new dance onstage. I went through all that stuff and just tried to push that and make Randy as crazy as possible. It’s not really based on any particular comedian or anything. It’s just kind of an idea I had of a guy audiences would love but every other comedian hates.

    What else have you seen from stand-ups that bothers you?
    I’ve seen a bunch of comics do things like have sex with a stool. That’s a cringe thing for comedians. So I thought, “Oh man, Randy’s going to have sex with a ton of stools!” Always in interviews, people are like, ‘You’re definitely trying to make fun of this person or that person.’ It’s no one person. I’m not making fun of this person, but I like Katt Williams, and he’s so physical in his bits. What if some guy tried to do that with no substance to his jokes– physicality with no jokes? If you took out all of Katt Williams’ running and jumping, he’d still be funny. Randy’s jokes, I don’t know if they’d still be funny.

    How did audiences respond to Randy?
    The response was probably too good. (laugh) People liked Randy more than Aziz, unfortunately.

    You’re a pretty religious Twitterer (@azizansari). Why is that becoming more common among people in the public eye?
    I guess for a comedian, it’s just kind of a fun way to write dumb funny jokes and have a bunch of people read them. If you’re a comedian, you just like writing jokes and making people laugh, and this is another outlet to get that fix.

    You’re known for some hilariously ridiculous scenarios in your updates, like challenging John Cena to a push-up contest or the recent one about NBC not picking up your script for a Bobby Jindal biopic. Who’d play John McCain in that?
    That’d have to be John McCain himself. Some people really think all that stuff is real. That’s always entertaining to me.

    You often profess your love for Chick-Fil-A. What other culinary treasures have you found on the road?
    I kind of go to local places, like in Athens a place called Weaver D’s, a local fried chicken place. My primary reason for touring is just to eat food. I take it pretty seriously. Probably a little too serious.

    Do you like to eat before or after a show?
    I usually prefer to eat afterward, but sometimes I get in a jam and places are closed after the show, so I’m like, well, I have to eat before because I really want to eat that chicken.

    Have you had any surreal ‘I’m on network TV’ moments?
    I think people have a different perception of what all the TV stuff is like, like you get a show on TV and then you get a Ferrari pulling up at your house. I’m a pretty modest dude. I’m not blowing it out or anything, no million dollar cars. All the stuff that’s happened in my career has been a pretty gradual build. I’ve been doing it a while, so I’ve kind of grown into everything I’ve had to do. Doing a network show wasn’t a huge leap for me since I did my own show on cable for two seasons and did everything. It wasn’t sudden. I was familiar with the process to a certain level.

    How would fame affect Randy?
    Randy would be the idiot version of all this. He’d just start printing every joke he’s got on a jar of candy. As far as that stuff, the things that were cool to me were getting the respect of people I look up to. Like, when someone like Patton Oswalt would come to my show and say he liked my stand-up, that was really cool to me. We shot Human Giant and David Cross said it was funny. That would mean more to me than all that other shit.

    What would you like to do next?
    My goal is to hopefully write a movie project for myself and to reverse Chick-Fil-A’s policy of closing on Sunday. Those are the only two things on my to do list.

    For info, check out azizisbored.com.

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