Aziz Ansari on Selling Out Madison Square Garden and the Business Side of Comedy

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Aziz Ansari might be a TV star on NBC’s five-year favorite Parks and Recreation and soon-to-be published author, but performing live standup has always been his main love. Ansari recently finished up several dates on the Oddball tour and kicked off his own tour Aziz Ansari Live!, becoming only the seventh comedian to sell out New York City’s Madison Square Garden in the process. I recently got the chance to talk with Ansari all about his new tour as well as what it feels like to sell out the Garden, how he’s working to make buying tickets a stress-free experience, and what we can expect from next year’s series finale of Parks and Rec.

Before I ask you about the tour, congratulations on selling out Madison Square Garden. That must feel pretty great.

Yeah, it’s insane, I can’t believe that happened. I’m very excited.

It’s a huge accomplishment. Do you set specific goals for yourself and your comedy career, or are you more of a day-to-day type of person?

I’d say I’m more of a day-to-day person. I couldn’t imagine that I’d get to play the Garden or something like that when I started out doing comedy. I didn’t even think I’d get to do theaters or anything, so I feel fortunate enough to even have that experience. So to do the Garden is not something I had on a to-do list or anything. I could’ve done the Garden on my last tour because I ended up doing enough shows – I did a few shows at the Beacon, I did Carnegie Hall, I did Apollo – and when you added up all of those tickets it ended up being 10,000 or 12,000 so I knew I could’ve done at least one show. So I was thinking about whether I wanted to do it and I told a couple friends; I was like “I’m not sure if I want to do a run at the Beacon, or I could do the Garden…” and they were like “What!? You could do Madison Square Garden?” So every time I got that crazy reaction I was like you know what, I should do it – it would be such a crazy thing to get to do in my life. So I set it up, and then when I saw it sold out I was like “Holy shit.”

So we added a second one, and I think the plan is to probably film those shows for the next special. The only reason I’m doing those other arena dates is to kind of get ready for the Garden. When I first started thinking about it I wasn’t sure – it seemed like people were just going to be watching the screens on the side – but then you go to these concerts and see Beyoncé or Kanye or Drake and they have these crazy screens and stuff, and it’s like, is there a way to do some version of that for comedy where it’s like a cool way to use the screens and everything so it makes it a crazier experience and not like an annoying thing where it seems like you’re just watching someone on TV? And so I’ve been working with people to make something really cool like that, and hopefully we’ll be able to pull off what we have in mind and make it something where people feel like “Oh wow, that was way cooler and more interesting than I thought it was gonna be.”

So ticket sales were the main factor in deciding to do a show at the Garden?

Yeah, I mean, I know how much I sold for the Buried Alive tour – I know how many tickets I sold in New York, and then I saw that for this tour we were almost doubling the amount of tickets we were selling; it was crazy. So I probably could’ve done arenas in other cities, too. It just seemed like there was an opportunity to do it. And to me it’s like well, who knows if I’ll get to do the Garden again – people might hate me two years from now. [laughs] So might as well try to do it while I can.

That reminds me of something Michael Che said about wanting to make standup “glamorous” again.

Doing those Oddball shows has been amazing – that’s similar to arenas, like 15,000, 20,000 people at some of these shows in huge theaters, and it’s just comedians, there’s no bands or anything. So it’s been really fun; it’s definitely crazy doing shows for that many people. When I signed up for the Oddball thing I wasn’t sure if the shows would be really fun, but I talked to some people who did it last year like Hannibal and Mulaney and they were all like “Oh, it’s great, it’s so fun,” so I signed up to do them. But I’m still really surprised by how fun they were and how great the crowds were.

Is there any difference between the way you approach standup in a stadium versus smaller venues?

Hmm…no, not really, because all the material developed in really small rooms – places like the Comedy Cellar or UCB or even small bars and things where they do shows like Hot Tub or whatever, so I can’t really write a whole different act for arenas or anything like that. But there is a difference in the performance space, and when I started doing a lot of theaters, when you take your material out of clubs and start doing it in theaters you start to figure out different ways to perform and use the stage and everything, and it’s the same thing with these bigger venues. It’s just a different performance space, and I think the more you do it the more comfortable you become, and the more you adapt to what you’re doing. But the material itself doesn’t really change.

You’ve been experimenting with a new way to get tickets to your fans through your website and text messages. It’s pretty interesting considering so often when tickets go on sale, they’re gone before you have a chance to buy them. How’d that idea come together?

Well I was doing these smaller shows to work on material, and it’d be like a small 200-seat theater or something in New York, and like you said, you put the link up and it’s gone right away. I just thought that I don’t want the only people able to get tickets to these things to be people who are glued to Twitter or their computer; I want to give people who aren’t Twitter maniacs a chance. So we did the email lottery, and then we decided to try the text lottery. I think with Instagram and Twitter and all that stuff, there’s just so much noise, and it just seemed like texting might be a way to do something a little bit different. And it’s cool – if you sign up for those shows you can text back and forth with this thing – it was programmed with all these silly dumb responses – and it’s just like a fun thing. I saw that people would get the messages then take a screen cap and post it on Instagram, and that doesn’t really happen as much with emails or just tweeting that I’m doing a show, so it just seemed like something different and kind of interesting to try. We tried it in San Francisco and it was crazy – I did about six shows at the Punch Line which is a pretty small club, and we got like 35,000 people entered to get tickets for it. And then we did it again in Chicago and I think it was 25 or 35,000. So for Chicago I wanted to try a bigger venue, so we tried it at the Vic Theatre, which is like a 1,000-seat venue. We did two shows there and it was really cool; all these people entered and I feel like everyone had a fair shot to get tickets, and it seemed like a cool way to try to do things. I think that anytime you can do interesting things with ticketing and stuff is good, because I feel like people are so frustrated by that stuff with the fees and everything, and what Louis C.K. did was obviously so successful and interesting, so I’m just trying to figure out ways to do things in a way where people have a better chance to get tickets. And you can use all this technology to get your tickets out to people in a more efficient way, ideally.

It’s also a good way to keep the connection with your fans for bigger venues where you can lose the intimacy of a smaller venue.

Yeah, because I think people can realize like oh, Aziz is probably the one who came up with that joke, it wasn’t a dude at Ticketmaster or something like that. It’s the same with Louis C.K. and his emails – it’s like, Louie wrote that email, you know? So it is like a connection, and I think it’s a cool thing how anyone who is performing now is able to directly communicate with people who want to see their stuff. It’s just a cool advantage to have.

Some comedians might think of the business part of their jobs as more of a burden, but it seems like people like you and Louis C.K. are instead rising to the challenge and trying to find ways to make comedy easier and more accessible for fans.

I view all those things as just a tool to perform live. People like me and Louie never really tweet funny things or anything – we really just use Twitter to tell people things like “Hey, I’m performing here” or “Hey, you can buy tickets for this.” And to me that’s what’s cool about Twitter. I mean, I used to be into doing jokes and stuff on Twitter, but I think I just kind of got tired of that kind of twittering. But it’s also cool to use it in the other way, which is to facilitate what I really want to do – performing live.

Do you have any hopes that the lottery system might help evolve some of the bigger problems with fans’ ability to get tickets?

I really don’t know. When I did the thing where I sold my special for five dollars, there were all these articles and stuff saying “This is gonna change the game!!” [laughs] I think me and Louie, in every interview we did, we just said the same thing, which is “Well, if you already have the huge fan base it’s an amazing tool, but very few of us are lucky enough to have that crazy amount of following.” So I don’t know if what I’m doing will really change anything, and also, everything we’ve tried – like the recent thing with the texts – no one’s really done that before, so it’s all kind of a work in progress figuring out what we can do to minimize scalping opportunities. Every time we do it we change little things and tweak things to make it better, but it’s still evolving, and I don’t think we’ve really figured out the best version of it yet.

How do you measure success through the lottery approach?

I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I mean, it’s successful in that so many people signed up for it and wanted to do it and seemed interested in it. Eventually what’d be cool is, say I do a show in San Francisco or something, and then I can blast out a thing to like 30,000 people saying “Hey, I’m doing this venue, and since you’re on this list you get $10 off” or whatever. And then we’re maybe in a position to leverage those fees or whatever and make the ticket cheaper and make everything more efficient.

The problem I was trying to solve was how to do these small shows without it just being diehard Twitter people getting in, and the big thing is, if I do a show for $35 in Chicago where normally the ticket might be $50-60 with the fees and everything, that’s a huge scalping opportunity. For the shows we just did there was like zero scalping; there were no tickets on StubHub or anything like that. That was really cool, because I feel horrible when people tell me they spent like $120 on their ticket on StubHub. That’s a bummer to hear, especially if you’re a performer who is intentionally trying to keep your ticket prices low. I don’t ever want the tickets to be so expensive that only people who are super well-off are able to come, you know? I want to give everybody a chance to come. So doing those pop-up shows and then anything you can do to cut the scalpers out and keep the price low is good.

In other news, how’s your book going? What have you learned from working on it through your Modern Romantics subreddit?

The book is going really well. I’m almost done with a draft of it hopefully soon, and I think it’ll come out next year sometime. The whole point of the subreddit was that I’d done interviews for this book all over the world – in New York and LA obviously, but I also went to smaller towns when I was touring like Wichita, and then we went to Tokyo, Paris, and the sociologist I’m working with went to Buenos Aires to interview a bunch of people. So we were traveling around talking to all these different people, and then we realized we could do all that directly online through Reddit, and it’s kind of like a focus group on the internet. So you can ask people anything and they’ll post, plus you can ask them more sensitive things like about cheating or something someone might not normally want to talk about in person, but thanks to the anonymity of the internet they can post their experiences and we can use it in that way. So it’s been really cool – it’s been an interesting experience for me, because the guy I’m working with has written all these sociology books, so he’s shown me the whole process of interviewing a lot of people and gathering information. And it’s weird because it’s kind of like what I did in comedy as well; in Buried Alive when I did the thing about marriage proposals I talked to people about that stuff, and when I was working on material on online dating I’d talk to people about what their experiences were like using those sites and stuff. So it’s kind of the same thing.

Last but not least, I’ve got to ask you about the final season of Parks and Rec and how you feel about the show ending. Have you been filming lately?

Yeah, we’re filming right now and we’ll be finishing up around Christmas. I think I’m ready to move on to the next thing I want to do career-wise, but I’m super gonna miss everyone I work with. It’s starting to hit me that I’m not going to get to see these guys every day. I know it’s so cheesy to talk about how we’re all friends or whatever, but we really are. So it’ll be a bummer not to see those guys every day, because it’s such a fun group of people and I can’t imagine it getting any better than that. The cast and crew have gotten so close, but I think it’s cool we get to go out on our own terms and do this last season. I think the whole three-year thing is cool and gives a cool framework to end the show on; if we didn’t do this, I think you run the risk of people worrying that we’re running out of stories to tell, but when you do the three-year thing it’s like oh, their lives are totally different now. And it gives it a more interesting starting point too. What little I know about the ending…it’s really awesome. I think fans of the show would be thrilled to hear what they have planned for the ending.

For tour dates, ticket information, and updates regarding Ansari’s current tour, head over to his website azizansari.com.