Aziz Ansari on Life Inside the Second Comedy Boom

Aziz Ansari. Photo: Mat Hayward/Getty Images

If the second comedy boom has a superstar, Aziz Ansari is it. With conversational routines filled with intimate examinations of love and loneliness, Ansari perfectly encapsulates what today's audiences are looking for in their comedy idols — and it's made him the rare comedian who's able to sell out Madison Square Garden, as he did for his recent Netflix special. We spoke to him about his time coming up in the comedy scene, and why he's currently worried about coasting on people's excitement.

What are your earliest comedy memories?
I liked comedy a lot when I was in high school, I’d seen all the Chris Rock specials. The idea of becoming a comedian didn’t really come into my head until I went to NYU, when I saw people live for the first time. It’s so different than it is watching on TV. I used to go to Comedy Cellar all the time, and I would go to places like Eating It at Luna Lounge or Invite Them Up — eventually I started performing at those places. I remember one of the first times I went to the Comedy Cellar, Rock dropped in and everyone went nuts. It was so crazy. I was just thinking about it the other day, like, Oh, I’m one of those guys now that I can drop in and people will go crazy. That’s a pretty insane thing that I never thought would ever happen.

You started out with a show, Crash Test, where you did stand-up every week with a new co-host.
That was great. It was a really great opportunity for me to get to host that show. It was also where I met a lot of people that I still work with now. What I liked about doing that show is, I said to them, I want to do this, but I don’t want to host it by myself every week, because I feel like that will get boring, so what if I have a new co-host each week and we come up with bits to do together? And that’s how I first worked with Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer and Seth Morris and all these people. Everyone that does little bit parts on Parks, those are all people that I met doing Crash Test stuff.

Has the scene changed since you were coming up?
I’m kind of out of touch with who the new people are in stand-up, but it’s the same thing. They write these articles every few years like, There’s people doing comedy in the East Village and Williamsburg! and it’s like, this is the same shit. Different people take over when other people graduate, and there’s a younger group of people now. I’m older, so I don’t know them as well, but that always happens. The big change has been TV. There’s so many outlets to produce stuff between Adult Swim, Hulu, or Netflix, all these new places that are looking for content, so you have more shots than you did in the past.

And the whole sensibility feels slightly slower now.
I mean, comedy sensibility always kind of changes as things move on. But in podcasts, you can get a little bit more engrossed in something. Shows that are on FX or HBO or Netflix, they don't have to be as punchy as a network sitcom. If you watch Parks and Recreation, its like joke-joke-joke-joke, scene, joke-joke-joke-joke-joke. It’s so fast, it doesn’t breathe as much as stuff that’s on cable. In outlets like Adult Swim, where you can do weirder stuff that you couldn’t do on mainstream — that weirder sensibility has a place now.

You focus so much on technology in your stand-up, I'm curious how you think it's affected the comedy scene.
Where my career is at now, it’s a great outlet to tell people you’re doing tour dates or whatever. I don’t really have any interest in writing funny tweets all the time. I’d rather focus my energy on scripts or stand-up. I feel like there is this weird focus on social-media stuff. This younger comic came up to me once and said, "I need to have more funny tweets," and I was just like, "Man, who cares? Just write a funny stand-up act, and other shit will fall in place." I have that Twitter following because I did stuff that was good, and people found me.

You have a long bit about your parents coming over from India in your Madison Square Garden special. The point of the joke, in part, was that we don’t struggle nearly as much as our parents do, which is totally true. But I write a lot about Asian-Americans in popular culture, and in the past couple years, maybe it’s changed a little bit, but it’s still not a huge sea change. And I must imagine it wasn’t easy for you, either.
It wasn’t as bad as you would think. I grew up in South Carolina, and that’s one of the more racist areas of the country. I’ve definitely heard horror stories from people that are Asian, or black people, and I didn’t have those horror stories. It wasn’t that bad. I had remarks here and there, but — and I’ve said this before — I had it about as bad as a fat kid may have had it, you know? Every so often people would take some sort of weird dig, but it wasn’t that bad. To me, the point of that bit is not necessarily that we have it so easy, but the point is like, Oh, our parents made this crazy journey, and we never really sit down and thank them for it, or acknowledge it.

Was it hard for you to come up through the comedy scene as an Asian-American male? 

No, I don’t think anything held me back because of my ethnicity, because my view was always, if I just do good shit, it’ll be fine. I remember early on, Eugene Mirman told me, "If you’re killing, people are gonna book you. That’s all that really matters." And that’s true. Sometimes I would get asked to do "Asian shows" where they would have certain themes, or there would be a "diversity showcase." And I’m like, whatever, man, put me up against the white people, I’ll destroy them. I don’t need to be separated. I’m not doing weird comedy, I’m just doing jokes like everyone else.

Did you purposely avoid those rooms? 

Those things can be a little cheesy. They’d be filled with people doing more hackier ethnic jokes. I mean, I’m sure there were people that were good on those shows, too, but I just didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an "ethnic comic" or an "Asian comic." I just wanted to be on the same playing field as everyone else.

Is there a difference in the way certain rooms treat you now?
Obviously, if you’re doing a place like UCB, one of those hipper rooms, you can get away with more. You can be a little bit looser and you have a little bit more room to stretch out, and people are a little more excited because they’re at this free show and someone that they’ve seen on TV shows up. At comedy clubs, that goes down a little bit and you have to be a little bit tighter. You get a better a gauge of what things are gonna work when you go on the road. What’s weird is, as you become someone famous and you drop in and people are excited, that thing kind of happens everywhere. You really have to police yourself and be like, What stuff is really, really hitting? You don’t want to coast on people’s excitement. But that kind of excitement winds down — if I drop in at the Comedy Cellar, people are pretty amped for the first couple of minutes, but then after that, you’ve gotta have jokes that hold up. I remember when I was first starting out, Todd Barry told me, "Do every kind of room. Do all the rooms." You don’t want to be a guy that just kills at Invite Them Up or UCB or Rififi. You want to be a guy that can kill anywhere. So if I have a bit that’s very loose, I’ll maybe try it at like UCB to see where it goes, and then I’ll condense it down when I go to like the Comedy Cellar, where I know I need to be a little bit more honed.

Do you think the way we talk about comedy has changed?

It’s weird when there’s people like reviewing podcasts and things like that.

Everyone’s a critic. That was always true, but now it seems really true. 

Yeah. But as far as how the people on [your] end talk about things … I don’t know, I think it’s cool that all these people are getting written about who maybe wouldn’t have gotten written about in the past.

Do you think your career would have been different if you had come up 20 years ago? 

If I had come up 20 years ago? I don’t know. I started the summer of freshman year at NYU. That was summer of 2001. I’ve been doing it for 14 years, so that wouldn’t have been too much further back. I think with stand-up it’s like, if you’re just doing good material and you’re pretty smart, things will work out. You’ll be fine.