There is a long tradition of comedians and sitcom stars writing books about relationships. Paul Reiser’s first book (of three books, Paul Reiser wrote three books!) was called Couplehood. Steve Harvey wrote Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, which is a hilarious joke book full of jokes. And a famous TV father and husband even took it upon himself to write a book called Love and Marriage: Bill Cosby. You’re welcome for that fact, I am sure the chapters on wooing women are highly informative. And now, Aziz Ansari has added his name this list of funny people turned sitcom stars turned professional havers of thoughts on love.
But unlike Reiser and Cosby’s standup-style essays or Harvey’s book of satirically cutting, slyly feminist faux-advice that no self-respecting woman would ever take, Ansari is pretty serious about the subject. So serious that he went out and got himself a sociologist co-author, Eric Klinenberg, and the two of them have filled this book with (mostly) fact-filled charts and 98% real focus group research and plenty of humorous foot and sober endnotes. Ansari’s name and likeness might be on the cover, but this is no comic vanity book, it is a book of often-not-serious, serious academic work.
In many ways, Modern Romance is the book that some people assumed that Dataclysm, by OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder would be. Sold off the popularity of the OKTrends blog, which reported back interesting and often-horrifying stats about Internet daters, Dataclysm focused not on OKCupid’s base but just about everything else on all of the Internet. Rudder is still an expert on the topic, however, and quotes him at length in Chapter 3: Online Dating. At 54 pages, the Internet dating chapter is by far the longest section in the book. Ansari covers online dating with devotion, but he doesn’t benefit from the surprising insights that Rudder has. This is for good reason, and this is a problem.
You might imagine that in a book like this one, where a sociologist pairs up to do his sociology with a comedian, that the comedian might be sort of our man on the ground. He’d be our guide, our Virgil, leading us through the ins and outs of a given world like a personal expert. That’s not the case here, because Aziz Ansari, co-author and cover model of a book called Modern Romance, has never Internet dated.
It’s difficult to pick a metric by which to judge this work – as a comedy book, as a sociology book, as an oddly light-colored square that measures how dirty the inside of your purse is – but mine might be experience. Why did Aziz Ansari want to write about the way we love each other today, when he’s never experienced the phenomenon that his own book, like any given Match.com ad, stresses so heavily is now the main mechanism by which people today meet their partners?
I don’t mean to be totally dismissive – as though by never having Internet dated, Ansari can’t be clever or incisive about modern romance as a whole, or even about Internet dating in particular. But he’s not, really. And to have never been immersed in the very particular fears and excitements that make up Internet dating just makes you wonder why he thought he was the person to write it.
I want to stop and say that I generally think Aziz is really funny, and there are places in this book where, if I did not laugh, I did smile in a large-ish way. But generally, if I did, dating wasn’t the joke. The joke was like, Scottie Pippen, or the way we try the get the world’s best Christmas ornaments. Mostly, Modern Romance suffers on the is-it-funny? scale because Ansari’s voice can’t translate to the page when it’s being employed to explain legitimate facts or give background. This could have been finessed; it’s often not. This never feels truer than when he asks the reader to read things in a “funny Aziz voice,” which come on man, I did it, and I used this at :46 as inspiration, but that’s literally your job here.
The main book’s lack of laughs might be most frustrating because the introduction is what some people would think and even hope an Aziz Ansari book about Love in 2015 might be like: an extended and personal meditation on the extreme frustration that can result from texting. Don’t you hate when you text someone and you’re waiting and you’re waiting and you see their little bubbles and you’re waiting and you’re waiting and those little bubbles disappear? This isn’t exactly what it says but it’s that kind of thing and yes, I do hate that! You get me, Aziz Ansari! And then, you’re gone.
The reason he’s never Internet dated isn’t that it’s weird or taboo or because he’s been in his relationship so long that he missed out on the game: it’s that he’s too famous. Which is a strange happening; Ansari seems to have always been famous, like most of the time you’ve been aware of him, he’s been talking about being friends with Kanye and R. Kelly. It’s funny, but it’s definitely not relatable. In this book, he’s not one of us, but he’s not a sociologist either. He’s a guy trying to meld two disparate voices, neither of which are saying much that really resonates, on a highly resonant topic.
Does Modern Romance work as a compendium scholarly understanding about our current mating patterns, chock full of research and data? From the publisher’s decision to put Ansari on the cover, leave off his co-author, and skip the explanatory subtitle that would highlight this as a work of study (“A Sociological Understanding of How and Why We Bone Today,” maybe), it seems that they are banking on the book to live and die by the man and not the research. Fairly little of the information felt truly new or insightful. The idea to pair a comedian and a sociologist isn’t a bad one, but undertaking a large sociological study risks not coming up with any new information. And if that’s the case, then the jokes had better be pretty fucking on point.
The reason Ansari is so effective in the introduction is because he’s talking about his iPhone, the same iPhone we basically all have. Technology is a big equalizer, and a particular sweet spot for the real Mr. Tom Haverford. He’s positioned himself over the years as a leading funny person on the topic of always having a phone in your face. Like all of us, he’s consumed by his technology.
So, why not tackle a topic he knows so much about? Much of Ansari’s funniest and most relatable moments are about technology, from his constant Yelping to his fears about text message lag times. Modern Romance rings hollow and half-baked, but it isn’t the melding of forms that’s the problem: it’s the topic. I would happily read a similarly-compiled book from Ansari and Klinenberg about our addiction to technology, but dating is different for normals.