Aziz Ansari is a dozen years into his stand-up career and five years into his role as technophile and wannabe-entrepreneur Tom Haverford on NBC’s Parks and Recreation.
Even though he just turned 30, he still has a kid-like vibe about him. He’s small and spry, about 5-and-a-half-feet tall, with the kind of face a grandma would grab in both hands and squeeze. His voice is just-so-nasal, with a slight Southern twang, and he has a cadence to his speech that simply makes everything sound funnier when he says it. Funnier than it would be if you repeated his jokes word for word. And he knows exactly how funny he is. He is on the road with his Buried Alive stand-up tour.
If I do the show and it tanks horribly, I can confidently say there’s something really weird about that audience, he said recently on the phone from Los Angeles.
Last year, Ansari performed at Carnegie Hall, a pretty great whoa-look-at-me-now moment for a guy from Bennettsville, S.C. – where the idea of saying you wanted to be an actor or something would be so ludicrous, he says – who got his start doing open-mike nights at almost-empty clubs. Those gigs helped him escape his wealth-chasing classmates at New York University’s Stern School of Business. All the kids were horrible people who were obsessed with working at Goldman Sachs, Ansari says.
Soon he was co-writing and co-starring on the cult-favorite MTV sketch show, Human Giant, and he recently found himself on Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 list, a roster of rising talent that can often double as a who’s who of the next decade’s superstars.
But there are still some things that scare Aziz Ansari. Like, really, really scare him. Which is exactly where Buried Alive came from: The idea that people I know are getting married and having babies and how scared I would be to have a baby, (and) I’m not ready to get married, either. I guess because I’m 30, I have to pick one person to stay with for the rest of my life?
Turns out he’s not alone. I just started talking about that, and it seemed to strike a chord with people, Ansari says.
There are two kinds of laughs, he says. One is that funny ha-ha’ laugh. But there’s another kind of laugh (from) talking about these deeper things: getting scared of getting married or having kids, where someone will laugh and they’ll also be like: Oh my God, thank you for saying that! I went through the same thing.’ It seems like you hit people on a deeper level.
So here we are, the most advanced humans in the history of mankind, and we are panicked to the point of paralysis at the mere thought of Grown-Up Things. Marriage makes us shudder; babies send us into spasms. We can barely craft a text message without consulting every friend in spitting distance.
We have never had so much and known so little. It’s kind of a tragedy – or, more accurately, it’s a kind of tragedy from which a person could mine a great deal of comedy.
I’ve never really done a show like that, with three big themes, such as dating, marriage and kids, Ansari says. My other shows were more haphazard jokes. Now, when he gets that second kind of laugh, I feel more successful as a comedian.
Buried Alive ends where we all must start: dating.
The last chunk of the show is kind of, where do you meet someone now that you really form this deep connection with? Ansari says. And the frustration that the place we’ve designated in our culture to meet people is bars. And how weird that is.
Ansari connected with Sherry Turkle, a psychology professor at MIT whose book Alone Together analyzes how young people have come to rely so heavily on texting that they’re losing the ability to communicate in person. He loved her book so much that he blogged about it, and Turkle’s students, along with her 21-year-old daughter, insisted she contact him. Turkle and Ansari wound up speaking by phone and meeting in Los Angeles, where Ansari set up a special performance of his act so she could see his work in action.
He was spot-on, Turkle says. He is a student of online communication. And what I really like about what he does is that he doesn’t do something very different than what I do he interviews people, and, in his act, he asks them for their phones and actually looks at what their text conversations are. Turkle feels a methodological kinship with what he’s doing.
When Turkle left the show in L.A., the response to him was that he was on to something really true I think he’s capturing the kind of paradoxes and difficulties of modern love and modern life.
Ansari’s parents had an arranged marriage, something he says (I) personally don’t think I could do. But the idea of it – of saying to someone, I will deeply invest in you and see if we can make things work forever, as opposed to casually dating around and seeing what sticks to the wall of your love life – is intriguing to him.
Ansari says he records all of his performances and will, in an almost Beyoncé-like way, listen to shows to see if there’s any changes I want to make. The show he’s preparing now, which will be his fourth stand-up special, has him doing even more research into relationships and adulthood.
He’s obviously a very smart man, Turkle says. And comedy isn’t funny if it doesn’t reflect something profound about the human condition.