Spotlight on Aziz Ansari: Comedy for the Modern Era
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.
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.
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.
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.
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