Sunday, June 7, 2015

Nosheen Iqbal interviews Aziz Ansari: ‘I’ve always been a feminist. There wasn’t a period when I was against women and then started dating one’

You can count on two hands the number of comedians who have sold out Madison Square Garden. Eddie Murphy is one. George Carlin is another. Last October, Aziz Ansari did it twice in a single night, performing his fourth standup special in four years to 40,000 people. Five years ago, Ansari was the hipster’s comedian-in-chief; his material skewered pop culture and was built on anecdotes about celebrity parties and the daily absurdities of his own life. Now, Ansari has emerged as one of the most original voices on the circuit, a social chronicler of his age talking about immigration, factory-farming and relationships. He has crossed into the mainstream with his credibility intact.

To TV audiences, he is probably best-known for playing scene-stealing, smooth-talking, woman-repellent government worker Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation – a part written for him. (Sample line: “Yes, I’m married. But my wife understands that a good politician has to be appealing to the ladies. The fact that I haven’t even gotten close to cheating on her is a disappointment to us both.”) The show, created in 2009 by the team behind the US remake of The Office, was a critical hit in the States until it wrapped after six years last February; in time-honoured British broadcasting tradition, it was farted out haphazardly at odd times and random days for three seasons before coming off air.

But it’s in his standup specials that he has picked up most of his fans: by and large, left-leaning city-living millennials whose lives and neuroses are refracted by this second-generation Tamil Indian American who grew up in a town of 8,000 people in South Carolina. (“I’m always psyched when I see older people in the audience,” he says. “If I see people that look like us, young people of every race and ethnicity, that doesn’t surprise me.”)

Now, he’s written a book for those fans. Unlike the sortabiographies of his peers, or the cash-in Christmas toilet books so big with British comedians, Ansari has gone academic: having talked about the dating game at length in his standup, he scored a $3.5m book deal in 2012 and, over the course of 18 months, interviewed thousands of people from all over the US while he toured his shows. Still curious to find out how love and sexuality operate across cultures, he workshopped the book’s themes with focus groups in Tokyo, Paris, South America and the UAE. The result, Modern Romance, written with sociologist Eric Klinenberg, is published in the UK next week by Allen Lane.

We meet today in the courtyard of Robert De Niro’s New York hotel. “I had to go to a friend’s wedding, I just got back today,” he says. “After this I’m gonna go see Mad Max, so this is a little hour of work and then I’ll see a movie and have a rest.” It’s small talk deployed as a subtle power move; a sneaky way to set the tone for brisk efficiency.

Ansari’s energy onstage is huge: boggle-eyed and fast-talking, every joke and routine is rattled out in a buzzy Southern twang that has a nasal cadence elasticated and amplified by several notches when he’s performing. Real-life Aziz is far more quiet and closed off. Dressed preppy-casual style in a navy blazer, striped polo and khakis, he cups his ear and leans forward when I speak, then often sits back and offers polite, but clipped responses. 

Occasionally, he clucks: a teeth-kissing Ansari-ism that he uses, I think, when he’s humouring a question he’s already bored by. Take this, on his formative years, as a way to explain how he graduated from NYU in 2004 and landed his first lauded show – Human Giant – on MTV, within a year: “There was no theatre department, nothing to foster that interest in my town.” He wasn’t ambitious. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be but I remember a specific moment, as a kid, thinking: ‘Every adult has a job. What am I going to be?’ And nothing appealed.” He says he enjoyed public speaking – “I don’t know, I enjoyed making people laugh. Which is a bozo answer” – and was curious and clever in school. “People think I’m reserved but I would hate to interview someone like that where the person is AHAHAHA, all the time,” he says. “It would be insufferable.”

Ansari’s prolific career is probably best viewed in two halves, with the first two recorded sets (2010’s Sensual Moments for an Intimate Evening and 2012’s Dangerously Delicious) all about the goofy sketch comedian, brash and wide-eyed about hanging out with Kanye and Jay Z, meeting women in bars or his fat little cousin Harris. The latter two – 2013’s Buried Alive and this year’s Live at Madison Square Garden – are more thoughtful, built around themes rather than scattergun comedy bits. Now he does topical riffs on the way humans deal with one another, how technology enabled Ansari’s generation “to be the rudest, flakiest people ever” and how it changed sex and relationships more dramatically and quickly than any time before it… read more: