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Aziz Ansari’s Romantic Period: The Comedian on Relationships, Maturity, and His New Stand-Up Special

Aziz Ansari, photographed by Lucas Michael

Like seemingly everyone below 14th Street, the guy at Turntable Lab in the East Village knows Aziz Ansari. So does the barista at Abraço Espresso, the manager at the Bowery Hotel, the bartender at Parm, and at least a dozen people on the sidewalk, all of whom he’ll run into over the course of a Saturday afternoon in October. But right now it’s the record-store clerk, who knows Ansari because the comedian drops by to shop whenever he’s in New York, and who is offering him a few recommendations: a local disco group, a singer who sounds like Grimes, a compilation of Italian New Wave. Somebody mentions the new Drake album, which Ansari hasn’t heard yet, even though one of the songs samples dialogue from Randy, his character in Judd Apatow’s 2009 comedy Funny People. Finally, the clerk leads us to a stack of “unofficial pressings” near the back. He flips to a rec­ord in the middle, certain he’s got a winner: an R. Kelly bootleg that Ansari has never seen.

This is where things become complicated, though forgive the Turntable guy; he’s just doing his job. To him, probably, and to the people on the street, and to most of his fans, Ansari is the goofy, swag-obsessed Tom Haverford from Parks and Recreation. Or he’s the short (but not as short as you’ve heard), sharply dressed stand-up who tells stories about Kanye West (a friend) and Chick-fil-A. Or he’s Randy (with eight a’s), Ansari’s ­fouler-mouthed alter ego who took on a life of his own after Funny People. He’s the guy who tweets nonstop about snacks and has not one but two different bits about R. Kelly in his repertoire. (One is an anecdote about a lascivious R. Kelly after-party that Ansari attended; the other involves an imagined R. Kelly song called “Fucking by the ATM,” which makes the predictable double entendres out of depositing and withdrawing.) The trouble is, Ansari wrote all that material years ago, and now he’s mostly outgrown it. So when the well-meaning clerk suggests the R. Kelly record, enticing though it may be, Ansari is a little conflicted. “I almost don’t want to buy it,” he tells me. “It’s too perfect for your article”—by which he means it would have made easy fodder for a piece about his old career. He would much rather talk about his new one, as a touring relationship coach.

“Has anyone here ever been divorced?” The applause is scattered; most of the audience at the Comedy Cellar on Saturday night is too young to have hit this particular milestone. A few speak up, though. One man is volunteered by his second wife, who informs Ansari—a little too eagerly—that her husband married his previous wife twice. Ansari, playing the part of Really Hyper Sociologist, fires off a string of deeply personal questions. The bit takes a dark turn: The man admits that his first marriage was a mistake, and that he knew it going in, but drugs clouded his judgment. Then she had a kid. And then he took a paternity test. “Holy shit! This is my worst fear!” Ansari yells in disbelief. (Volume is important to Ansari’s comedy, and he yells to communicate a wide range of feelings: Awe! Indignation! Tacos!) “I can’t even perform anymore!” Then he keeps going, prodding the couple to give as much information as they can about being married and middle-aged.

This is Ansari’s second audience tonight; he’ll wind up doing three surprise drop-ins at the Comedy Cellar before a longer, preannounced headlining show at the Barrow Street Theatre. Ansari is promoting both his new comedy special, Buried Alive, which debuts on Netflix on November 1, and even-newer material, which he says is “pretty close” to being finished (if he had to take it on the road tomorrow, he’d be fine). But Ansari doesn’t do “pretty close,” and since he seems to prefer work to ­everything but eating, he’s using his time in New York (he mostly lives in L.A.) to do some polishing.

Buried Alive and his new act revolve around relationships: how to get into them and how to maintain them, from the first text all the way through divorce and death. Ansari first started thinking about these things a few years ago, when his friends began having kids and he got a little freaked out about his own impending adulthood. “The baby stuff was the first thing that came up. It was just that fear,” Ansari says. “And once I started talking about it, I had this exciting moment of like, Oh, shit. Other people feel that.” He started writing fewer jokes about R. Kelly and the adventures of his teenage cousin Harris, and more about universal topics, like marriage proposals and dick pics (they’re really common, he’s found). “I realized that in Buried Alive, I’m really only talking about three things: babies, marriage, and a little bit of How do you meet someone?” This is not strictly true; there are still some jokes about ghosts, and an encore involving President Obama and Seal (the singer). But Ansari says he tried to stick to the theme, and that he almost cut that last part: “I didn’t want to have to do random bits. It would be like, Hold on a second … I know I’m talking about all this stuff about marriage, but let me take a breather to tell you this funny story about what happened when I went to Trader Joe’s.

About that marriage stuff: Buried Alive is partly about how insane he thinks it is, the idea that you could meet someone in a parking lot and agree to spend the rest of your lives together. The science is a problem, he tells me: “We’re wired to want more variety. I don’t know if having these long, committed relationships is what we’re served for psychologically.” He realizes that people get tired of dating—“That makes the option of being with one person more attractive”—but finds the either-or proposition daunting. Until society embraces polyamory, he jokes, we’re all better off following two pieces of advice: “Keep getting divorced all the time. Don’t have kids. We’ll be real happy.”

Ansari has become a little more comfortable with the concept of marriage since Buried Alive, and now he’s trying to figure out how it actually happens. “The scary thing to me is: Where do you find that ­person? What happens if you never meet that person?” he asks. This question is at the heart of a long, less jokey part of his new set about having too many options. It is “statistically impossible to find happiness,” he offers at one point. A few weeks ago, he went to a friend’s wedding and found himself unexpectedly moved by the vows. “If I felt that about someone,” he says, “I wouldn’t think twice about getting married.”

Photos: Lucas Michael

Though he regularly interrogates audience members about their romantic lives, Ansari masterfully deflects any specific questions about his own. He’ll allow that he’s never lived with a significant other or used an online dating site. (His fame probably makes OkCupid impossible; he uses a pseudonym for most things, even the cab-hailing app Uber.) I ask whether his new material makes his own relationships more awkward, and he says yes—vaguely. “There are people that have seen the show, and then I’ve texted with them and had to deal with them, and I’m sure it’s kind of weird to know how I think about all that stuff.” Parks and Recreation co-star Nick Offerman has his own theories about his co-star’s personal life: “It must have been a great deal of fun to be at that young age and to be handed the success of something like Parks. So I would hope that he sowed some wild oats about the country, enjoying the relatively unattached status that he boasted.”

Now, though, at 30, Ansari seems to be settling down. He just bought a house in L.A. (“The way my friend feels about his wife, I feel about my house,” he jokes.) He’s concerned about his health enough to own a juicer. His friend Chelsea Peretti (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) says that Ansari has recently begun to host dinner parties. “I think he’s learning to enjoy life a little more. You know, the non-stand-up stuff.”

His maturity is reflected in his work, though he is still exacting about the process. Ansari records all of his shows and often reviews one before the next. When he forgets to tape his second drop-in on Saturday—the one with the divorced guy—he spends the whole walk to the next theater trying to reconstruct it in his head. In addition to his new material, which he hopes to eventually perform on Broadway, Ansari is planning to write a book about modern dating, working with academics to answer some of his questions with actual numbers. This thoroughness is not unusual, says Offerman. “Once he gets a bone, he is very much like an avid dog, chewing it and gleaning every bit of flavor he can from it.”

When he picks me up at his regular coffee place on Saturday, Ansari mentions an Atlantic essay about breakups that he’d just been reading. Later, we’re walking past the Village restaurant Lupa, and in a particularly Ansarian aside, he remembers a recent GQ article about cheating involving another Mario Batali outpost. “One lady said some guy took her to Babbo for lunch and fingered her under the table. I was like, At Babbo? Come on. Maybe at Lupa … just do that at Otto.”

Over lunch at Parm—Ansari asks the staff alert him every time they’re serving the seafood po’boy—we return to the subject of marriage, and when someone would finally decide to do it. I remind Ansari that children are a biological factor for women, and the clock starts at 30. “I read in The Atlantic that that was a false age,” he says. “I should look that up.” A few days later, Ansari e-mails me the fertility article in question with the relevant sections highlighted. Turns out I was citing a widely reported study using French birth records from 1670 to 1830, and the modern drop-off is closer to 40. He was right.

At some point on Saturday afternoon—after we’ve stopped at the Bowery Hotel to ask about a credit card he was pretty sure he’d forgotten there, and run into his Parks and Recreation co-star Aubrey Plaza—Ansari reveals that he’s left his phone at home on purpose. He’s trying to do this more often, because he’s worried about what constant screen time is doing to his brain. He uses porn-blocking software to cut off his access to non-pornographic sites like news blogs and Reddit. And since he does nothing halfway, Ansari recently visited a hypnotist for help. “It’s like quitting smoking,” he says. “But you always have a lit cigarette, and you have to smoke for work, and you have to do it to have a social life.”  

Ansari’s worries about electronic communication have already made their way into his new material. In one bit, he asks for a volunteer who’s in the painful early stages of romance and persuades her to relinquish her phone. Then he reads her text messages, analyzing the timing and punctuation. At the Barrow Street Theatre, Ansari’s victim is a sweet twentysomething-looking guy who met a woman at shul that morning. He hasn’t actually contacted her yet, so Ansari coaches him through the Facebook message he’s planning to send. They debate the number of question marks, and how many y’s should go into the “hey.” The man hovers nervously in front of the stage and looks relieved when he can finally reclaim his phone and return to his seat.

Ansari is adamant about his lack of matchmaking credentials: “I’m just a confused bozo, not Hitch,” he says, referring to the dating guru in the 2005 Will Smith comedy Hitch (a character that has recurred in his comedy as many times as R. Kelly). But occasionally technology—or the universe, if you want to take a more romantic view—conspires to prove him wrong. On Sunday, Ansari texts me a Twitter link from a new account. The update reads: “First tweet! Hey @azizansari! Synagogue girl said yes! Only 2 question marks!! Thanks for the advice!!!”         

*This article originally appeared in the October 28, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Lucas Michael/New York Magazine; Lucas Michael/New York Magazine; Lucas Michael/New York Magazine