Standing at a microphone in a house high in the Hollywood Hills are the 130 pounds of comic genius known as Aziz Ansari. He’s wearing khakis and a blue check shirt. An R&B slow jam plays. Ansari holds his hands out, fingers splayed like he’s throwing gang signs, and croons, “She’s looking oh so fine.” Unfortunately, he misses the note. Badly.
Ansari winces. “Would it be funnier if we Auto-Tuned it?” he asks.
Today, Ansari’s working as his alter ego Randy (aka Raaaaaaaandy), a walking paragon of hack comedy: a Randy set has a DJ, money thrown into the crowd, and lots of blowjob jokes. If Ansari wanted Dane Cook’s career, he could just do Randy full-time. He doesn’t–but for his own amusement, he’s been collaborating on a Randy hip-hop mixtape with producer Dave Sitek (of TV on the Radio). Sitek will provide the beats, guest rappers will contribute verses, and Ansari-as-Randy will make jokes about oral sex, Trader Joe’s, and the Kia Sportage.
Ansari’s in Sitek’s home studio, a room roughly ten feet square overlooking a vineyard; it’s crammed full of equipment and decorated with a message reading “HOOFPRINTS ON THE CEILING OF YOUR MIND.” Sitek walks in–he’s been listening in the next room so he won’t ruin a take with a laughing fit. “I want to add little vocal flourishes,” Ansari tells him.
“I think if you overdo it,” Sitek says, “it’ll turn out great.”
After a few more takes, they put the track aside; Sitek says that he’ll try running the vocals through a vintage vocoder. The conversation turns to Motley Crue: specifically, how its members masked the aroma of groupie sex by fucking a burrito before going home to their girlfriends. Ansari’s never heard this story, and his eyes light up when he realizes its comic potential. Soon he’s spitting out punchlines:
“Does your dick smell like pico de gallo?”
“My dick was hard and this burrito fell on it!”
Ansari tours as much as many rock bands, but comics don’t achieve the same level of debauchery. Or as he puts it, “A comedian on tour–they’d just fuck the burrito.”
At age 27, Aziz Ansari is the comic of the moment, and not just because he’s the funniest guy in the room. He’s the first comedian who feels like he couldn’t be happening any time but the twenty-first century: he’s multicultural, multilingual, and multiplatform. He’s a Pitchfork-approved hipster, he’s as relentless as a spambot, and he jokes about Internet culture like a guy who checks his iPhone at every red light. “Clap if you use Craigslist,” he tells audiences. “Hold on a second–I’m not talking about, ‘Hey, I’m looking for an apartment. I’m talking about, ‘Give me a hand job, I’ll give you my coffee table.’.”
If you don’t know Ansari now, you will soon: he stars in Parks and Recreation on NBC, he has a three-movie deal with Judd Apatow, he’s hosting this year’s MTV Movie Awards on June 6, and he’s filmed an ad for Ciroc vodka with P. Diddy. Standing in a crowded Hollywood bar next door to Largo, L.A.’s alternative comedy hotspot, an astonished Ansari says, “I know Diddy now.” He’s even spent enough time with Mr. Combs to have an opinion on his ten-man entourage. “There’s one skinny white guy in a sailor suit. How did that happen? Diddy saw him walking down Melrose and said, ‘Hey, you want to hang out with me and weird people out?’”
“The joke world and the real world are coming together,” Ansari says, shaking his head. He orders another drink, as if that’ll help keep them apart.
The joke world is purer: Ansari paces around the stage, telling true stories from his life, repeating them night after night until he’s polished them and added an absurd twist. In his hands, a trip to Bed Bath & Beyond becomes an epic betrayal when he discovers that the thread count on his new sheets are not as high as advertised: “If that was a drug deal, I would have shot Hotel Luxury Linens in the face!”
Jason Woliner, Ansari’s friend, frequent collaborator, and director of his recent stand-up special Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening, says, “Aziz’s onstage persona is who he is at a heightened level–it’s not manufactured. He doesn’t speak at that volume, but he does have that exuberance.”
Some of Ansari’s funniest moments onstage come when he rages against the world–for example, recounting when an interviewer asked him, “So, you must be pretty psyched about all this Slumdog Millionaire stuff?” Ansari, an Indian-American who grew up in South Carolina, points out, “I had nothing to do with that movie–it’s just that some people who look like me are in this movie that everybody loves.” But then his volume steadily rises and he considers the implications of the question. “Are white people just psyched all the time? Back to the Future, that’s us! Godfather, that’s us! Godfather Part II, that’s us! The Departed, that’s us!” He starts punching the air. “Every fucking movie but Slumdog Millionaire and Boyz N the Hood is us!” Ansari jumps two feet in the air. “We are white people, suck our dicks!”
But when I suggest to Ansari that anger helps fuel his stand-up comedy, he bridles; he thinks of stand-up as a conversational outlet, and his high volume as “enthusiasm.” It’s just that he can take delight in violently flipping a metaphor, such as protesting hate speech with a stabbing, or stripping down anti-gay marriage campaigns to their hateful core by saying that “guys who wear tight t-shirts and get bottle service at nightclubs” shouldn’t be allowed to own property.
Ansari swallows his drink and blinks sleepily. Offstage, he’s much mellower–either because he dials up the hip-hop swagger in front of a crowd, or because he’s starting to fray under his workload. Right now, he’s gearing up for a summer standup tour (which requires an hour of brand-new material), working on those screenplays for Apatow with Woliner, shooting Parks and Recreation, and prepping for his high-profile stint hosting the MTV Movie Awards. He’ll appear in Get Him to the Greek in June; this summer, he’s shooting 30 Minutes or Less, costarring with Danny McBride. As soon as Ansari finishes one project, the next three start. He says, “If this is the amount of work that leads you to run around on the interstate in your diaper, I’m right there.” He considers this image. “Just below that.”
“Let’s go out and get arrested tonight,” Ansari suggests, sitting in his favorite sushi restaurant in Tarzana. “That’d be a great slant for the story–Aziz jumped up on the table and said, ‘Let’s get arrested!’” Ansari mulls over the idea and orders some more fish instead, saying, “I’d rather commit crimes and not get caught.”
Ansari takes his food very seriously, from high-end gastronomy to taco trucks and Chick-Fil-A. After he swallows each morsel of sushi, he rests his forehead on his hand and falls silent, taking a moment to recover from the sensory experience. Last year, he started a group called Food Club with Woliner and comic Eric Wareheim: they eat in fancy restaurants wearing captain’s hats, and then later send the restaurant a commemorative plaque.
Ansari grew up in Bennettsville, South Carolina, the elder son of two Indian immigrants. He explains: “My dad was a doctor and he was doing his residency in New Jersey, and then somehow, he wound up in South Carolina–a state with really poor public education, where racial tension would be high. Perfect!” Ansari pauses, savoring a piece of red snapper. “I need to talk to him about it. Did he slowly realize that people of color were not well-accepted there?”
There were no other Indian families in town. “But we always ate Indian food at home,” Ansari says. He stops. “Man, all I talk about is food.” He shrugs, and continues with the culinary metaphor for assimilation: “I ate a lot of southern food too–fried chicken and biscuits.”
He wants to be clear: “You read that I was the only minority in school, you envision this little brown boy sitting in a corner by himself. It wasn’t like that–the level of teasing I got was on par with what a fat white kid would go through.” He pauses, and then calibrates that sentence, both for accuracy and comedy. “Sixty-five percent of what a fat white kid would go through.”
Ansari attended the elite Governor’s School his last two years of high school, finding his social niche as the funny guy. “I did well in school,” Ansari says. “But I wouldn’t put in the time to get an A. I would rather put in less time and get an A-minus.” In class, sometimes he would write “Aziz is bored” over and over in his notebook, filling up entire sheets of paper; years later, that mantra became the name of his blog.
He also played a lot of guitar–he started as a metalhead, with Metallica and Zeppelin posters on his wall, but by the time he graduated from high school in 2000, he was more into Radiohead. Despite his chops, he never started a band: “In South Carolina, nobody played instruments.”
Ansari went to NYU, attending the Stern School of Business. He had a double major in business and biology, but soon switched to marketing. “What was I going to do with business and biology?” he asks. “Start a business where I sold organs, I guess.”
He started doing standup comedy after two different groups of friends told him he should find an open-mike night. He was soon doing whatever it took to get a few minutes onstage, like passing out comedy-club flyers in Times Square for three hours on a Saturday night. By the time he graduated, Ansari was touring colleges and playing “alternative comedy” spaces. At age 22, he had a weekly slot at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre and began winning awards. Harris Wittels, a Parks and Recreation writer, says, “Aziz made a lot of comics angry at how successful he is. I was jealous, but when I heard his box-turtle joke, that converted me.”
The box-turtle joke: “Texas senator John Cornyn’s argument against gay marriage is, ‘If your neighbor marries a box turtle, it doesn’t affect your everyday life. But that doesn’t make it right.’ I myself was not a psychology major, but I think it’s safe to assume that at one point or another, Senator Cornyn has thought about making love to a box turtle.”
In 2005, Ansari started the comedy group Human Giant with Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer, and director Jason Woliner. They did two seasons of sketch comedy on MTV, which gave them near-total artistic freedom (aside from odd brushes with standards and practices, as when they were told they couldn’t say a character was “raped by a dinosaur”). The disadvantage was that the Human Giant show didn’t really fit into the MTV lineup. Or as Ansari puts it, “Some of the shows on the network are not my cup of tea, mainly because I don’t like huge pieces of shit in my tea.”
Meanwhile, Ansari started appearing on shows like Scrubs and Flight of the Conchords. Once he got cast on Parks and Recreation, he made nice with his new boss. Greg Daniels, the show’s cocreator, says, “Aziz texted me early on, asking me to come hang out with him and Kanye.” Daniels didn’t show up–he assumed Ansari was pranking him.
He wasn’t. Ansari does occasionally hang with the likes of Kanye West and Jay-Z, always feeling like he doesn’t belong. But he doesn’t hit nightclubs unless somebody else drags him there. “I’m the guy that’s ironically in the club,” he says. When his cousin took him to a Hollywood club for her birthday, Ansari entertained himself by trying to recruit girls for a nonexistent video shoot for Nelly on a boat. “And I learned that Nelly’s cachet has gone down quite a bit,” he reports.
Ansari is friendly, unflaggingly polite, and generous with his time–reporting this article over the course of a month, I meet him for drinks, lunch, two dinners, three set visits, and one pit stop at his house. (It’s a neat but sparsely decorated rental with two guitars in the bedroom.) But the further our conversation gets away from comedy, the more uncomfortable Ansari gets; when that happens, he dodges questions or talks in vague platitudes.
“Aziz is a comedy machine,” says Nick Offerman, who plays the boss, Ron Swanson, on Parks and Recreation. He obviously means this as a compliment, but the Azizinator 3000 metaphor is apt: Ansari squeezes in time for food and music, but what occupies most of his time and brain cells is comedy. He doesn’t spend much time shining light on the darker corners of his interior life. His standup is autobiographical, and revealing of his pop-culture obsessions without being particularly confessional.
“I’ve always had an obsessive personality, whether it’s playing guitar or playing foosball,” Ansari says. “You have to be obsessed to do standup–when you start, it’s really hard.” So he works all day on Parks and Recreation, and then does standup at night. In his spare time, he works on screenplays. At a certain point, comedic productivity becomes a compulsion. Recently, Ansari opened up a fake Twitter account for the Chinese restaurant chain P.F. Chang’s, and sent out messages such as “Dangerous kung pao toxins have leaked in location #238 in Greer, MI. Unfortunately, we must seal in the patrons & close it down” and “Even if you are from a broken home, at PF Chang’s we STILL require that you eat family style.”
“There’s no reason to do that,” Ansari says. “It’s not productive, and I’m not getting paid. But ultimately, if you do comedy, you have to have the desire to do something really dumb.”
When he’s acting, Ansari has a special talent for playing assholes, either because he went to college with too many of them, because he’s in touch with his inner jerk, or because we live in an era of douchebaggery and he embodies it. Alan M. Yang, a writer on Parks and Recreation, says, “Aziz is able to play the most horrible human being on the earth, and give him a weird charming innocence.”
On a Friday morning, Ansari strolls onto the set of Parks and Recreation–a cavernous soundstage on a North Hollywood lot with various sets representing locations in Pawnee, Indiana–wearing slippers and silk pajamas. “This isn’t wardrobe,” he announces. “This is just how I dress.”
Amy Poehler and Ansari were the first two people cast for the show, says Parks cocreator Michael Schur. They were enlisted before Schur and Greg Daniels (both veterans of The Office) had even decided what the show would be. “Aziz is funny in a way that you don’t see very often,” Schur says. “He’s a small, scrappy guy, but he’s got an incredible confidence. He’s weirdly ageless, and he’s got swagger, but he can also play super-low status. We felt like whatever we do, there’ll be a way to make that guy funny.”
After a flat first season, Parks and Recreation hit its stride this year, becoming the most reliably funny show on TV. Employing the deadpan reality-show style of The Office, the program constantly exploits the chasm between the characters’ aspirations and their reality. That gap is funniest with Ansari’s character, Tom Haverford, who fantasizes about being a Jay-Z-style player. All Tom wants is a nightclub on every continent, a line of designer sweatsuits, and his own cologne called Tommy Fresh–but he’s a low-level government bureaucrat in Indiana. So he lives as large as a small town will allow: he hits on the contestants at local beauty pageants, tries to become an impresario by buying a share in the local Snakehole Lounge, and kits out his vacuum cleaner with an iPod, naming it DJ Roomba.
Today, Ansari and Poehler are filming a scene where she comes to his apartment on park business, which dismays him because he’s about to have sex with his new girlfriend. After they’ve nailed the scene as written, the pair bat improvised ideas back and forth like two Wimbledon champions volleying.
“I’m picturing you having sex and I can’t stop,” Poehler complains.
“Think about cheese,” Ansari suggests.
They run through the scene a few more times, changing the reference to Ansari’s outfit from “sexy clothes” to “sexy pajamas” to “sexy jim-jams.”
A final take: “I’m watching Die Hard and having sex at the same time,” Ansari tells Poehler. “It’s my ultimate fantasy.” Poehler nods as if this were totally reasonable.
“Aziz brings the funny,” Poehler says afterwards. “He has a distinctive point of view and he knows what he can do well.”
“There’s a rule in comedy that your third idea is usually your best one,” Ansari explains. “You get to the point where you don’t even think of your first idea–you just go straight to your third idea.”
Ansari rarely tackles race in his comedy. He’s not oblivious to ethnic identity, but he’s never wanted his comedy to be defined by his skin color. “From the get-go, I’ve said I’m not the guy who’s going to do Indian voices in my standup. I’m not going to take movie parts where the primary funny thing about my character is his ethnicity. I said that even when I had no measurable success.”
Ansari says that he’s experienced very little racism in show business, but that “the goal when you’re a minority in comedy is to get people to treat you like a white person”–meaning, cast you in roles that were originally intended for a Caucasian. One unexpected consequence of succeeding: “In 30 Minutes or Less, there’s a part for my twin sister, and she can’t be a white girl anymore. That’s my acting goal: crushing the dreams of white girls.”
Ansari is summoned to the set–it looks like a New York City street, but he’s on the Paramount lot, filming promo spots for the MTV Movie Awards. This one shows Ansari going to the movies by heading to his apartment, where he downloads a film and then has a SWAT copyright-enforcement team crash through his windows.
His frequent collaborator Jason Woliner, who wrote the promo with him, is on the set. Between takes, Woliner and Ansari marvel at the dozens of extras that Human Giant could never afford. When the crew takes a break to set up a new location, Ansari and Woliner relocate to Ansari’s trailer and work on the posters that will be promoting the awards show: Ansari starring in parody movies like Puppy Dentist, Kung Food, and Oops, I Married an Elephant. Ansari sits in a large leather recliner, pulls out his laptop and asks, “What about a Blind Side movie called I’m a Good Person Because I Adopted a Poor Black Kid?”
They fall silent. Then Ansari tells Woliner, “We should go to Coachella tonight. We’re not going to regret it.” He touts the performances by LCD Soundsystem and Jay-Z, but Woliner tries to beg off, saying he has too much work. “What are you going to remember in five years?” Ansari demands. “Getting a little work done, which you’re not going to do anyway?”
It takes Woliner about half an hour to convince Ansari that he won’t be going. Ansari then considers his other options for making the two-hour trip into the desert for a rock festival–is it rude to ask a friend to drive if you plan to sleep in the car the whole way?
“Tom at Parks and Rec has a helicopter,” Ansari tells Woliner. “Well, he doesn’t have a helicopter–he’s not the black dude in Magnum, PI–but he has his license.” After a few phone calls, it turns out that the helicopter fuel alone will cost $500, and that getting to the Long Beach airport in rush hour will take almost as long as driving to the show.
Ansari ponders who might want to go with him. One option isn’t available; he doesn’t have a girlfriend right now. “I would be the worst boyfriend ever,” he confesses. “I work all the time and constantly take phone calls–girls love that, right?”
There’s a knock on the trailer door. A crew shooting behind-the-scenes footage of the promos wants to interview Ansari. He consents–if Woliner can have a camera and shoot a behind-the-scenes look at the behind-the-scene crew. So while Ansari tells lies about the awards (“What’s great is Justin Bieber is doing all the catering backstage”), Woliner interrupts with questions like, “How’d you get interested in behind-the-scenes work?”
Eventually, everyone tires of the meta-joke, and the crew asks Ansari to read some promos, including one for international MTV. Ansari isn’t well-known overseas, so the scripted line is, “Hi, I’m Aziz. You probably don’t know me, and that’s okay.” But Ansari didn’t become the future of twenty-first-century comedy by being modest. What he says instead: “International people, if you’re not familiar with me, I’m like an Indian Eric Bana.”
By Gavin Edwards. Originally scheduled for spring 2010 and published (in a significantly shorter version) in Rolling Stone 1108/1109 (July 8-22, 2010).