Spotlight on Aziz Ansari: Comedy for the Modern Era

Ansari appears on Jimmy Fallon.
Ansari appears on Jimmy Fallon.

Whether he’s playing Tom Haverford on the popular NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation or telling stories about his escapades with Hollywood’s rich and famous, rising comedy star Aziz Ansari seems to have everyone laughing these days. Currently, Ansari is in the midst of shooting the seventh and final season of Parks while wrapping up his Modern Romance standup tour. His particular brand of observational comedy touches on a wide range of topics, from chronicling a visit to Coldstone Creamery to discussing why street harassment is a serious issue. Ansari’s increasing popularity and critical acclaim are a result of his witty critiques of pop culture, his skillful crowd-work and interaction with fans, and his comedic explanations of social justice issues.

Ansari’s success comes after years of hard work. Born and raised in South Carolina, he began performing standup in Manhattan while attending New York University for marketing. He performed in many comedy clubs, including the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, and eventually collaborated with other comedians to create the sketch comedy series Human Giant, which premiered on MTV in 2007. In 2008, he was hired to play the lazy, scheming government employee Tom Haverford on Parks, with his portrayal earning him a spot on Entertainment Weekly’s 2009 list of “Breakout TV Stars.” His other notable television appearances include guest starring on Scrubs and Flight of the Concords, as well as hosting the 2010 MTV Movie Awards. He has also had roles in several films, including Get Him to the Greek, 30 Minutes or Less, and Funny People.

Ansari playing Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation.
Ansari playing Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation.

Despite these numerous acting commitments, Ansari has completed three well-received standup tours. In 2008 and 2009, he headlined his own tour, titled the Glow in the Dark Tour, which was filmed for the Comedy Central special Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening. From June 2010 to July 2011, he performed on his Dangerously Delicious tour, and spent summer 2012 on his Buried Alive tour. His current Modern Romance tour is near completion and has proved to be a hit, with Ansari joining the ranks of only a handful of standup comedians to perform at Madison Square Garden.

Poster for Ansari's summer 2012 tour, Buried Alive.
Poster for Ansari’s summer 2012 tour, Buried Alive.

Ansari’s stand up has certainly changed over the years. His earlier work had a huge focus on pop culture and featured stories of an unexpected night out with Jay-Z and Kanye West, diatribes against the MTV speed dating show Next, and references to controversial rapper R. Kelly. His more recent work still incorporates celebrities, with Modern Romance including nods to Ja Rule and Beyonce. Ansari has also traditionally targeted our society’s reliance on technology with self-deprecating jokes about using Craigslist, using his Blackberry while driving, wasting time looking up pointless information on the Internet, and harassing his cousin Harris on Facebook. This helped to create the character of Tom on Parks, who is a pop culture aficionado addicted to social media.

Ansari’s later work has a different angle on technology. He often brings up how technology has changed modern relationships, using both personal stories and examples from audience members. “I was in a relationship for a few years, and I think that in the time I was in that relationship, all dating communication went exclusively to text,” he notes in Dangerously Delicious. “You call someone nowadays and they’re like, ‘What? Are you on fire? Then quit wasting my time!’” In fact, relationships are a huge focus of his new material, hence the title of the Modern Romance tour. In Buried Alive, he discussed the “insane proposal” that marriage is by breaking it down to the bare bones: “You know how we’ve been hanging out together all the time, spending a lot of time together and everything?…I wanna keep doing that ‘til you’re dead.” He also reflects on the crazy coincidences that add up to meeting the person you spend the rest of your life with, noting, “Think of all the random factors that have to come together to make this one moment possible, this one moment that changes two people’s entire lives.” Buried Alive also included musings on the ways life must change after you have kids.

Modern Romance is Ansari’s most mature effort, and his growth as a comedian is exactly what’s kept him relevant and increased his popularity. His material for this tour is entirely in tune with current societal issues. Certain aspects make it stand out and cement Ansari significance as a comedian. For instance, his take on feminist issues is both witty and accurate. He isn’t shy about putting audience members on the spot about the topic, explaining to those who don’t identify as feminists: “You’re a feminist if you go to a Jay-Z and Beyonce concert, and you’re not like, ‘I feel like Beyonce should get 23% less money than Jay-Z. Also, I don’t think Beyonce should have the right to vote.” At his Madison Square Garden performance, he asked women to clap if they have ever been victims of street harassment, and when almost every woman in the arena responded, he asked the men in the audience if they realized what a common occurrence this was. The subsequent applause was practically equal, expanding this piece of crowd-work into a learning experience.

Ansari performing at Madison Square Garden on his Modern Romance tour.
Ansari performing at Madison Square Garden on his Modern Romance tour.

Modern Romance also tackled the ways in which this generation differs from their parents’. Ansari utilizes the example of his parents’ struggles as Indian immigrants, joking that his struggles could never compare and telling a dramatized account of his iPad dying on a flight and not being entertained for ten minutes. Jokes about this generation are rampant in the media, but Ansari skillfully manages to critique without condemning. The Madison Square Garden show was also heavily reliant on crowd-work, keeping the audience interaction lively. During a joke about meeting new people when single, Ansari even invited audience members up to the stage to share their first texts with someone who they had met recently.

At the moment, Ansari’s future looks bright, and his success shows no signs of stopping. His next project is a book on relationships with co-writer Eric Klinenberg, slated for release in September 2015. For anecdotes about how modern dating has been complicated by technology, he used a crowdsourcing method, inviting fans to act as focus groups by setting up a discussion forum on Reddit. With Parks coming to an end in spring 2015, Ansari will be free to pursue new ventures, and his career could go in any number of exciting directions. With another successful tour under his belt, he has established himself as a comedian to watch for years to come.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. He’s bringing something new and unique AND SMART to comedy. I kept watching P&R during the first season only because of him (first season was pretty dull except for Tom). And I’m so glad I continued to watch it because he’s amazing. He has range. Some parts where he’s depressed about Wendy are so touching in a strange way.

    I also love his standup and I traditionally HATE standup.

  2. Both his specials are on Netflix Canada and both were hilarious for me. I think he’s very funny!

  3. I’ve never laughed at anything this dude has said or done. Nothing personal, just doesn’t make me laugh.

  4. This guy is way funny. He was the best thing about Funny People. Which isn’t saying much, but still.

  5. I think Ansari is so funny. He carries himself well and makes humor out of sometimes dark things, but I think he’s fantastic just the same.

  6. Mo Sadek

    He is honestly one of my favorite comedians / actors. Most of his stories and jokes can even pull a laugh from my parents who aren’t prone to comedian. The fact that his humor can be understood and related to many people of varying age groups is what really makes his acts amazing, especially in this generation.

    • I agree- his brand of comedy can be widely appreciated because he keeps it relevant to his younger audience while bringing in references of how things used to be, in order to keep his older fans connected.

  7. Liz Kellam

    I have never seen him on anything other than Parks, but he is one of the main reasons I watch. He bring out that great nerdy comedy.

  8. Aziz is amazing, I watch P&R just because of him.

  9. I think he’s the best character on P&R. I can’t understand how people could not think he is funny. He plays the role perfectly as a guy who is happy and outgoing but inside he’s really sad and lonely.

  10. I saw him on Charlie Rose last year. I never heard of him before. He was a charming and sincere person to be interviewed, and I genuinely like the guy.

  11. Jacque Venus Tobias

    Jane, nice job on spotlighting Aziz. Thank you.

  12. Asha Taf

    His standup is some of the best around, and I love his work on Parks and Recreation.

  13. Vida Hong

    I love the guy. I think he’s pretty hilarious

  14. Probably one of the funnies comedians out there today.

  15. He was outstanding in Funny People and the main (only?) reason to watch Parks and Rec.

  16. While all three of Ansari’s albums are excellent, I think “Buried Alive” is the only one that approaches perfection. It is his most deeply-felt and personal album and a huge step forward for him. If he keeps up this kind of progression he’ll be the best in the biz.

    • I agree with you about “Buried Alive”. “Intimate Moments” was really funny but completely impersonal beyond some stories about his nephews. “Dangerously Delicious” seemed angry in tone – angry over dating, afraid of family obligations, etc. I think “Buried Alive” is a more personal and balanced performance and shows how much he’s maturing as a comedian.

  17. I love a good observational comic. Aziz does it flawlessly. He helps us to laugh at ourselves without feeling badly and that’s important as a viewer!

  18. I love him on Parks & Recreation.

  19. Aziz Ansari is a comedian that his really grown on me. When I first saw his stand-up, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that he was using a stage persona to really get at modern young-people culture. It wasn’t until I got to college and really started participating in the culture he critiques that I started to get his brand of humor. Now, for many of the reasons that you bring up, I think he is one of the smartest comedians out right now, along with Kyle Kinane and Louis C.K.

  20. Aziz Ansari is part of a new wave of comedians that are not only socially conscious, but cautiously optimistic in a way that the caustic funny people of the previous generation are not. Ansari is quick-witted, intelligent, and among my favorite comedians. Also, if you want a laugh, check out Nasim Pedrad from SNL imitating him. Its so spot on its kinda creepy.

  21. Great article! Speaking as a stand-up and sketch comedian, I am always glad to hear people express their enjoyment of how much Ansari has grown as an entertainer. In comedy, it is beyond critical to poke fun at social institutions and ideals without distorting the listener’s perspective with crudity and malice. Ansari, C.K. and other comedy giants of today and yesterday are obviously very in-tune with how to construct these “benign violations.”
    The “benign violation” theory of comedy is posited in Peter McGraw and Joel Warner’s book “The Humor Code” (2014) which I have read and would highly recommend to anyone with an interest in humor as an art form.

  22. Aziz Ansari definitely has a unique style of stand-up. It’s definitely nice to see him branching out and using his comedy to subtly send some really important messages. His growth as a comedian is undeniable. I can’t wait to see what he does in the future!

  23. It’s interesting–I’m 34 years old, and so considered to be at the upper end of the millenial generation. Yet in many important ways I don’t feel as though I’m a part of it. Comedians like Ansari certainly make me feel more connected to the millenial generation, because there is something timeless about his social critique.

  24. I like Aziz and this article is an interesting look on what he means to the greater culture of stand-up in his generation, but it would have been interesting if you discussed his unusually quick rise to fame in the stand-up world. Traditionally, it takes about 10 years of doing stand-up and headlining tours, while Aziz reached that level in only a few years. Maybe that is a result of how relevant his perspective is to the greater culture at large?

  25. In addition to his overall rising star, I feel as if Aziz brings a type of spitfire delivery and mania that helps stir the attention of the millenials that are his target audience. His jittery, fast-pace style seems reflective of the very subject matter he lampoons and targets, especially social media.

  26. It’s also interesting because, as a minority comedian, Ansaris stories come from a context that is familiar to many people who have been underrepresented in the media.

  27. As a fan of much of Ansari’s work, I’m intrigued by how his humor will come across in his book. Some comedians like Ellen Degeneres have their comedy come across strong in book format, however I’ve read a couple others and been disappointed with the results.

  28. I think he has a very distinct style, but still has a long way to go in terms of gaining a fan base that will say ‘I think he’s the funniest comedian out there’. Has a unique delivery, that’s for sure.

  29. He has so much appeal for me because he seems like a really genuine and together person. So many comedians are hilarious but super jaded. Its refreshing to see someone perform who isn’t trying to play up how weird or vulgar they can be. When so many people try that style of comedy, it stops being edgy or clever.

  30. Looking about eight years on, Ansari definitely doesn’t have the prevalence that he once did.

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