Maturity and kindness may seem like the sorts of things that would disqualify you from a career in comedy, but this 29-year-old doctor's son has proven otherwise—with a hit show, a booming standup career and one very weird episode involving Cuba Gooding Jr.
Author DAVID CARR
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFFREY DECOSTER
AT THE SUNDANCE Film Festival last winter, Aziz Ansari, the veteran standup comedian who plays Tom Haverford on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” was in a tough spot. A crowd at the popular Bing Bar was waiting for the rapper-singer Drake. And waiting. Drake, as it turned out, was delayed three hours by a snowstorm. And it fell to Ansari to soothe the packed room.
Ansari, the 29-year-old son of a South Carolina gastroenterologist, knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. But he’s a pro, so he leaned into the headwind and did a few short bits. “You’re not going to believe this, but the rapper was late,” he began. “Unbelievable. I expected to find him in the green room at 11:15 eating carrots and hummus.” The scenesters were not having it. As the minutes ticked by, some started booing Ansari. Just then, the crew setting up for Drake hit the wrong knob and Ansari was sandblasted by an incredible screeching noise. “This is the best venue for standup comedy ever,” he deadpanned.
Enter Cuba Gooding Jr., who happened to be in the audience. He got up and suggested in fairly emphatic language that the crowd needed to pipe down and show some respect for Ansari. He added that black people needed to stick together. This brought a smile from Ansari, who is of Indian descent. He gave Gooding a back pat, to calm him a bit. “I’m not that upset, Cuba Gooding Jr.”
So there he was: Aziz Ansari, well-known funnyman and reputed good guy, acting all adult and classy in a room brimming with chaos. Throw in his swaggering, clueless midlevel-bureaucrat playa on “Parks and Recreation” and, well, how can you not love this guy?
HEMISPHERES: I was in the room for your set in front of the Drake audience at Sundance. You were remarkably composed.
ANSARI: I just kind of powered through. The people that listened, listened, and the people that didn’t, didn’t. Afterward, some were telling me I should have tried this or that. That’s like trying to give someone advice on jet-skiing in a volcano. You’re set up to fail. It doesn’t matter—you have to do it and be done.
HEMISPHERES: What do people not understand about the standup business?
ANSARI: I don’t think they realize how it’s kind of like a play. You write this one-hour piece, perform it around different cities, put out a special and then write a whole new play. Some people still think it’s like a guy just gets up there and starts talking off the top of his head.
HEMISPHERES: I love your character on “Parks and Rec.” How do you think of him?
ANSARI: In my head he’s a guy who wants to be an impresario like Russell Simmons or Sean Combs or someone like that, but he’s too afraid to move to a big city like New York or L.A., so he tries to make Pawnee his own little kingdom and does what he can to hold it down there.
HEMISPHERES: You made that move, though. You came to New York to go to school, ended up with a degree in marketing and then started doing comedy in 2001. Where did you first go up?
ANSARI: I went up at a new-talent night at this club called the Comedy Cellar. Obviously it was my first time doing it, so my material was horrible. But I was at least comfortable onstage.
HEMISPHERES: Early on, you worked at the Upright Citizens Brigade, which your co-star Amy Poehler helped start. Was that an important place for you?
ANSARI: Yes, definitely. In New York there are two types of venues for doing comedy. When I was coming up, there was the comedy-club route and then there were these smaller, alternative rooms that generally were run by performers. I did a lot of material and grew a lot as a performer working on stuff at the UCB Theatre. If you were a younger guy working the comedy clubs, there was more of an established hierarchy that was hard to break through. But at Upright Citizens Brigade, if they thought you were funny they’d bring you back.
HEMISPHERES: You’re from the South. How do you find living in New York?
ANSARI: I love it there. It’s my favorite place to live. I love everything about it.
HEMISPHERES: You were in Funny People, a serious movie about the comedy business. How was it working with Judd Apatow?
ANSARI: It was great. He had an idea for this character who would just destroy with audiences, but who all the other comedians despised because they thought he was the worst. I think it worked really well. Judd’s a tremendous, wise talent. Any chance you get to work with him, you steal all the wisdom that you can.
HEMISPHERES: Part of the reason that the movie worked is that that jerky comedian exists. Comedians don’t laugh easily at one another’s jokes.
ANSARI: Yeah, it’s tough. It’s tough to pitch a joke in a writers’ room on a TV show, too. You’re really putting yourself out there.
HEMISPHERES: Even if it’s good, you hear nothing but crickets. They’re trained not to laugh.
ANSARI: They just nod.
HEMISPHERES: What comedians or performers do you admire?
ANSARI: Louis C.K., obviously. I saw Chris Rock at the Comedy Cellar in New York a few weeks ago, and he’s still so good. He’s been doing it for so long and he’s still up there working on new material. You could already see the seeds of amazing, insightful comedy.
HEMISPHERES: You don’t traffic in stereotypes of Indian people. You’re not up there as “the Indian guy.”
ANSARI: People used to send me scripts where I would have to do an accent, but I feel like as soon as you start doing that, you’ll get only those kinds of roles. So I immediately put a blanket “no” on that stuff. To me, it’s more interesting to analyze something like that, rather than saying, “Blah, blah, blah … and then I slipped on curry,” or whatever the hacky Indian joke would be.
HEMISPHERES: Still, a lot of Indian-Americans are excited to see you prospering.
ANSARI: Yeah, I get people coming up to me all the time to say they’re glad I don’t do any Indian-voice jokes, and that my characters are funny because they’re funny, not because they’re caricatures. I think Indian people do respect that a lot.
HEMISPHERES: Lightning round. Never tell a joke about …
ANSARI: Something that doesn’t make you laugh. There’s a certain kind of joke people do because they know it will get a laugh from an audience, but in their heart they don’t think it’s funny.
HEMISPHERES: Favorite TV shows?
ANSARI: Adult Swim’s “Delocated” is really funny. The creator, John Glaser, used to be a writer on “Conan” and he wrote on “Human Giant.” He’s one of the very, very funny guys out there. I watch Louis’ show, I watch a little bit of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” And I really like “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” as well.
HEMISPHERES: “I can’t stand people who …”
ANSARI: I don’t appreciate any kind of rudeness in general, so I guess I’d say that. Rudeness or meanness.
HEMISPHERES: Isn’t that a handicap for a comedian?
ANSARI: I don’t think so. That’s what they write about “Parks and Recreation” all the time. They say it’s a very positive show. And my standup isn’t very mean.
HEMISPHERES: “People would be surprised that I’m good at …”
ANSARI: Foosball. I’m really good at foosball.
HEMISPHERES: That doesn’t surprise me for some reason.
ANSARI: It’s a sad commentary on me that it’s not surprising I’m good at foosball.
DAVID CARR, a columnist and reporter for the New York Times, wishes Cuba Gooding Jr. would come to his defense more often.