Aziz Ansari on Playing Madison Square Garden and the Last Season of Parks and Recreation

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Tomorrow night, Aziz Ansari will perform two stand-up comedy shows at Madison Square Garden in front of more than 10,000 people, a truly impressive feat. (One could count the number of stand-up comedians who have played MSG on two hands.) Vulture spoke with Ansari about the immensity of the task and the last season of Parks and Recreation.

I’ve heard that you really responded to our Sarah Silverman–Whitney Cummings interview, in which Whitney talked about how people always ask her if she’s working on a movie, like that’s the be-all, end-all.
I just remembered that chunk when they were talking about doing stand-up versus movies. It was just an interesting perspective that you don’t hear as much. It’s kind of how I feel about movies. Whenever I have a hiatus from Parks, I usually face this option of, “Okay, well here’s a couple movies you can maybe do.” And I’m always like, “I don’t really wanna do this movie. That movie doesn’t look that great to me.” I’d rather stay in New York and write stand-up or tour, and it’s way more fun. 

Madison Square Garden! Can you tell me about the moment when you pulled the trigger and said, “Yeah, let’s do Madison Square Garden”?
Well, I was thinking about a few different things to do with this tour. And one thing I thought was, Oh, maybe I’ll do a run on Broadway. And then I was like, Or I could just do the Garden. I was telling some friends, “Yeah, I’m thinking about maybe doing the Garden.” And they’d be like, “What? The Garden! That’d be fucking insane!” And every person had that crazy reaction. And I was like, “I guess that would be pretty crazy.” 

Then I had to figure out, “Well, if I’m going to do the Garden, I need to do a few others to get good at doing arenas. And I got to figure out how to do the show in a way that’s interesting.” The problem with doing comedy in arenas is a lot of times it’s a boring setup. I didn’t want to do that, so I started thinking about what I could do to make the arena show cool. I met with these guys that did the screens and lighting for the Watch the Throne tour. They did the Daft Punk pyramid. I found those guys, and I was like, “How do we do this?”

Do you think that level of production is as natural a fit for comedy?
Yeah, you have to do something that’s interesting but not distracting. I can’t have crazy spectacles of lights or lasers shooting out during my jokes. But the way we did the screen is different. I spent the money to have a giant screen above me. So wherever I’m walking, there’s a guy shooting me head-to-toe, and it never cuts. Wherever I walk, there’s a giant Aziz above me. Then people are actually looking at me, at my eyeline, and I can feel them looking at me. I’ve done other shows — like the Oddball Comedy Festival — and on those, they just have two screens on the right and left, and everybody is watching the screen. Nobody’s looking at the performer. It basically was like you have an arena full of people watching a stand-up special. 

Did you speak to Kevin Hart and Chris Rock about making a jump to arenas?
Yeah, there aren’t too many guys you can talk to about that stuff. They were really cool about any tips. Rock was the one who told me to film the special at the Garden. I was gonna film it in some theater in Toronto, and he was like, “What? You’re filming in a theater in Toronto? No, no. Film it at the Garden. You gotta let motherfuckers know. Nobody cares if you’re doing your special in Toronto. Shoot it in the Garden.” 

Have you had time to sit down and think about the fact that you’re playing the Garden?
Yeah, I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet how crazy it is. I did a show in D.C. that was about 10,000 people, pretty similar size [to] the Garden. It was one of the funniest shows I’ve ever done. It was really insane. I mean, we’re doing these places where I’m like, “Who’s coming next week? Oh, Enrique Iglesias and Pitbull.” What? I’m playing Pitbull-size venues? 

It’s been about five years since Intimate Moments was recorded—
Whoa, Intimate Moments was recorded five years ago? 

It was July 2009.
Damn, that’s so crazy. That feels like so long ago to me. But sorry, what were you saying? 

Do you think there’s anything that has changed that has allowed you to play arenas?
There are a couple things. One, I’ve just been doing comedy for way longer, and I’m a better comedian than I was. And I’ve had more life experiences to use. When you first start, your mindset is, Alright, what’s something funny I can talk about? I need to make all these people laugh. Then, as you get older, you think, What’s an interesting area I can try to tackle? What’s something I really want to talk about onstage? You go deeper and more personal. You hit areas that, when you were younger, you were too scared or nervous to talk about, because you think no one’s gonna laugh. But I think there’s a phrase, “most personal is the most universal,” and I find that to be totally true. If you look at Buried Alive, my last special, it’s totally different than Intimate Moments. Buried Alive is like, “Oh, my life is different. I’m almost 30 years old. I’m seeing friends getting married and having children.” And I was having this realization that everybody has at some point, which is like, “Oh, this is my life. I’m an adult now. Whatever it is.” That’s a weird realization to have. I couldn’t have written that when I did Intimate Moments. 

Parks and Rec is wrapping up its final season. What do you think needs to happen with Tom for it to feel like a fulfilling story?
Well, as the last season was ending, you got the sense that he was finally figuring things out. Tom’s bistro seemed to be going well. He’s always been a clown with big dreams, but through all his foibles, he actually has learned some stuff, and now he hopefully can be successful. I know a little bit about what they’re planning for the last episode, and it’s really awesome. I don’t know what they’re planning for Tom, but I know the idea of the whole thing, and it sounds really cool.

Do you plan on taking anything from the set?
Because in the season finale they jumped three years ahead, a lot of the stuff is gone. Now it’s three years ahead, so everything’s changed. I should’ve taken stuff last year, so it’s a bummer. Now it’s just stuff that doesn’t have as much sentimental value, because it’s like, oh, this thing that was there for two months. I read the interview where you asked Aubrey [Plaza] and she said she was going to take the “April Ludgate, Office Assistant” nameplate — the thing that goes on the desk. I should try to find the Tom one. That’s a pretty good idea. 

If you go on the set of Parks, there’s all this random stuff from throughout the history of the show, like the Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness, or the painting from the episode where we all did that mural did together. There are Duke Silver posters. I’ve got to start laying claim to a few things. Thanks for reminding me.

Do you have plans on how you’ll celebrate the Madison Square Garden performance?
I’m really excited. A lot of my family is coming down. There will be people coming — like kids from NYU — that went to my first stand-up show ever. All my friends I’ve made in New York are coming. I mean, hopefully the show goes well, because if it doesn’t, I’ll be in a bad mood. But I think it’s gonna go well. 

You’re throwing a party afterward?
Yeah, I’ll probably do something with my friends. I’ve got to figure it out. Yeah, I guess I should jump on that. 

I got to worry about the jokes, man. I can’t worry about the party-planning.

Aziz Ansari on Playing Madison Square Garden