Before Aziz Ansari believed he could be a stand-up comic, let alone have his own TV show, Master of None, he was obsessed with Chris Rock. “Those two Chris Rock specials, Bring the Pain and Bigger and Blacker, in high school I knew every single word,” Ansari says. He still can’t remember how he became friends with his idol; it’s just so unfathomable. “At a certain point, someone like Rock comes over and is like, ‘Hey, you’re funny,’ and it’s a gradual thing, but you realize, ‘Holy shit! This is someone I’ve looked up to for a long period of my life and now we’re friends and I can call him for advice.’ It’s a very cool, very surreal thing.”
Ansari has turned to Rock for support in stand-up milestones few people have ever achieved, such as performing to a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden or what to say in a Saturday Night Live monologue the night after Trump’s inauguration. And he says Rock is encouraging him to help young Indian-American comics move up through the biz, “because if I don’t do it, who will?” What’s even cooler, though, is when a reporter can call up your idol and find out that the admiration is mutual. Here’s my conversation with Rock for New York Magazine’s cover story on Ansari, in which he revealed what advice he gave Ansari about his SNL monologue, how Aziz is like Leonardo DiCaprio, and the importance of taste in comedy.
Aziz talks about you as a major mentor to him. How did that happen? Who started the relationship?
[Already laughing.] Aziz approached me. The thing about Aziz is Aziz gets what he wants, man! He goes after it, you know what I mean? My man, just goes for it.
What is Aziz? He’s got an Ari Gold streak in him, you know, the guy from Entourage. And I mean all the good parts, because Ari Gold ultimately loves his family and all that stuff, and Aziz loves his friends and his family. But he’s a barracuda!
Aziz sought me out and was like, “Let’s have dinner, man.” I gravitate to young guys that are doing it because I know that’s the only way to keep it going, and Aziz gravitates to old guys that have done it because he knows that’s the secret to the future.
What did you see in him as a young guy who’s doing it?
He’s funny, let’s never discount that. It’s just, like most successful people, the thing they do is like third or fourth on the reasons why they’re successful. Yes, he’s funny. But the guy is a worker. He’s a ridiculous worker. I don’t know many guys who work this hard.
The thing, too, about Aziz is he’s got great taste. And taste and choice is the most overlooked part of being an artist. Like, if you can sing really great, but you pick shitty songs, it kind of means you can’t sing. It’s the same as not being able to sing. And if you’re a really funny guy and you pick bad jokes and all your shows are tacky and bad, or you have a sitcom and you don’t know how to cast, or whatever, you’re not funny! But Aziz has great taste. Comedy’s No. 1 aspect in life is taste.
His comedy has taste or he personally does?
It’s kind of across the board. People that tell tacky jokes are usually tacky! [Laughs]. They usually want to go to shitty restaurants and they usually listen to bad music. There is no one better in the world to recommend a restaurant, no matter where I’m at. I love that he never gets annoyed. I’m like, “Aziz, I’m in Afghanistan. Where can I get Thai food?” And he always has an answer no matter where I’m at, and it’s always amazing.
When he asked you to go to dinner, did you go because you knew he was great at picking restaurants, or were you just recognizing the game of him asking you to dinner?
He’s actually funny. He’s really funny. But I’m sure other people have told you this — he’s a character. There’s a part of him that’s like Leo DiCaprio [who played 19 year-old con man Frank Abagnale Jr.] in Catch Me If You Can. He can talk his way into anything, but he actually has talent. The guy is kind of a great director, kind of a great writer, kind of a really great stand-up. He’s not a punk, you know.
I remember when he was getting ready for SNL this last time. So Dave [Chappelle] did it after Election Day. Aziz did it right after the inauguration, and I remember he was running his set by me and he was going to do all this relationship stuff and I was like, “Dude, you’re insane. You can’t be on Saturday Night Live the day after the inauguration and talk about getting a girlfriend. Tonight, you gotta be George Carlin. You gotta be political.”
And, you know, most people would say, “Get the hell out of here. I’m going to do what I always do.” My man went and wrote a set that was just genius. He just shifted into another gear. He’s got a discipline very few have.
Do you think Lorne Michaels picked him to host that episode because he knew he’d have this moment, as an Indian-American from a Muslim family?
No one’s hiring Aziz because he’s going to be political. You hire him because he’s just great and funny. He’s a young, hip, funny guy. But what he did was he did a little [Jon] Stewart, a little [Bill] Maher, a little what Dave did. He got out of his comfort zone a little bit.
But it was weird. I watched it that night and he just kind of grew. You ever watch somebody, like, get more famous right in front of your eyes? It’s like, “Oh wow, you’re a bigger star right now than you were five minutes ago.”
He told me he did 100 stand-up shows, at least, to get ready for those nine minutes. Were you around for that?
I was around. I watched him a few times, I listened to a couple. He sent me a couple to tell him what I think. Sometimes he listens, sometimes he doesn’t. He’s always right.
Yeah, he knew he had to do it 100 times. Anybody that’s really good over-prepares, and he’s got no problem. He kind of embraces it. You go to the Comedy Cellar any night and Aziz is in the booth and he’s got his headphones on and he’s listening to his set from the night before. He’s not listening to the new Kendrick. [Laughs.] He’s going over his set.
Did it take a lot for him to get political? It’s not his normal thing.
It’s not his normal thing, but he’s a guy that’s aware of what’s going on. He’s a guy that definitely seized the opportunity and took advantage of it and he kind of knew that was how to, I guess, best take advantage of SNL at this point. Which is talking about what everybody is talking about. And he actually rose to the occasion.
Did it weigh on him, given his background and the need to say something?
Hey, we’re comedians. You know what weighs on us? It’s not being funny. Have you ever seen a comedian bomb? I’m sure it weighed on him to do newer jokes, to not do jokes he’d tested out 80 times before. Yeah, he did 100 sets, but he probably only did those jokes 20 times, because he was prepared for something else, and the whole inauguration and the Women’s March totally threw him for a loop.
Did he talk to you about that?
It’s not like I’m his shrink or anything. I was at the Comedy Cellar. If we’re all cowboys, the Comedy Cellar is like the general store and we meet up with the other cowboys at the Comedy Cellar. So I told him a couple of things, Louis [C.K.] told him a couple of things. He spoke to Dave [Chappelle], he spoke to Amy [Schumer]. We’re all there, we’re all hanging around, and we’ve all hosted. So we all had notes for him. I don’t know if mine were better than anyone else’s.
That’s great comedy company to keep.
It is great comedy company to keep! But you know what? A lot of people have too much ego to ask. And Aziz has no ego. Not in that setting. Not with us, anyway. A lot of guys are so insulated and have their little posse and they don’t want to ask anybody for any advice, or what is your perspective on this. But Aziz has no problem calling you and asking you anything.
Was it surprising for you to see him blow up as much as he has in stand-up or with Master of None?
Not surprising. Surprise would mean I didn’t think he had it in him. I mean, Master of None is so good. It’s like, “Wow, I know this guy!” It’s really, really good, it’s really, really different. And it’s amazingly warm. Maybe that’s the parents stuff, but I find a lot of comedy just cold these days. A lot of shows are cold and just live from joke to joke. There’s something really warm about Master of None, especially when you think it’s about a young guy who’s dating. Those shows are usually robotic and cold, but there’s something really wholesome about that show.
You feel like that about Aziz? Is he wholesome?
The show is more wholesome than him! But let’s put it this way, it’s all him. That’s just another side of him. When people go, “I love the Seinfeld show, but he’s not the funniest guy on it.” No, he’s ALL the guys on it. They’re all him. It all comes through him. When George is being funny, that’s him. When Kramer is being funny, that’s him. Master of None, it’s the same thing. It’s all Aziz. So it allows you to see a part of him that — I don’t know that he’s got there in his stand-up yet. But he’s on his way.
You mean he’s not as forthcoming or personal in his stand-up?
Not necessarily forthcoming. Stand-up doesn’t always allow for that a lot of times. You’ve got to earn it. I mean, there are definitely things that I can say to an audience in my 40s that they were not buying in my 20s and 30s. They were like, “Get out of here!” You get a little older, you get a little weight, as they say, and people accept it a little more.
What do you hope he can move into with his stand-up?
It’ll grow. But who knows how long he’ll do it. Have you seen these shows? He’s a really good director. I could see him going the Woody Allen route. I could see him just directing. We’ll see where he goes.
He told me he’s temporarily quit stand-up.
[Makes a sound like rolling his eyes over the phone.] You know, I talked to him a week ago, ten days ago, and he was talking about getting onstage. He hasn’t been on in a while, but he was talking about me and Dave getting onstage together and he was like, “Hmmmm. I’ve got some time. Maybe I could do some of those shows.”
He’s not as cold turkey about quitting stand-up as he makes it out to be?
Nah, nah, but you get to a point — the thing about stand-up, especially when you do a lot of specials, is things have to happen in your life. You need things to happen or else it gets really stale and you just have jokes about hotels and planes and just the road. When you hear too many road jokes, you know a guy’s been on the road too long.
He mentioned being inspired by the stuff you’ve done to help out Leslie Jones and W. Kamau Bell, and how it’s made him work harder to boost young Indian-American talent in comedy. Is that something you specifically encouraged?
Hey, you’ve got to look out for people that aren’t normally looked out for. And that doesn’t mean embracing anybody that’s inferior, but that does mean — what am I trying to say tastefully? — I’ve learned, when you’re performing to an audience that looks like you and is from a place like you, you have an advantage. You just do. And when you’re dealing with networks and studios, some people have an advantage. Aziz does not have an advantage.
I’ve been in Hollywood a long time and I’ve never had a meeting with an Indian person. Maybe one. Not that white people get hired because of that. I’m not saying that at all. But what I’m saying is that when you and the person you’re selling something to are not from the same place, there’s a translation going on to make whatever you’re selling or saying, for them to understand it. So Aziz, being that he’s Indian, can cut through the red tape for some other Indian guys, I believe.
Think about it, he doesn’t fall into any clique. There’s no precursor to Aziz. I guess you could say Russell Peters a little bit, but Russell really made his bones on the road. He’s one of the great road guys of our time. Aziz is in this whole other world — there’s just him.
Where does that put Aziz in the world of top-tier stand-ups?
He’s one of the best. He’s one of the best there is. You know, he’s at the big boy and big girl table. He’s right there. Aziz is as good as anybody. I mean, with us stand-ups — I don’t want to act like we’re perfect and we don’t look at color. We do. But it’s all about funny, man. It really is.
I’m not going to say this guy’s name, but I’m sitting there the other night — me, Arsenio [Hall], and Chappelle, talking about this white comic we love who we know is racist, but we’re like, “This guy is so funny!” [Laughs.] Like, we know he’s racist. He makes no qualms of his racism and his ultraconservatism, and all three of us are like, “That motherfucker’s funny!” That’s just how stand-ups are. Aziz is one of the best. He’s as good as they are.
Still, it’s impressive to come up from where he did and not have a predecessor.
It’s hard for anybody. There’s no easy path to stand-up. But Indian kid from South Carolina? That is some journey. That is like, ‘Okay.” He had to be really funny. He wasn’t going to get where he is being in the pack. He had to be ahead of the pack.
Any other fun facts I should know about him, other than his uncanny ability to pick restaurants?
He is really good with the restaurants. We are both obsessed with Kanye. We could literally talk Kanye for hours. It’s the closest we come to religion, is Kanye. We really love Kanye. It’s sad!
As both a friend and a figure?
As both a friend and a figure! I’m scared Kanye’s going to read this, but we just love Kanye! I could defend Kanye against anything. No matter what he does, if you put me and Aziz in a room — if Kanye ever has to go to trial, he should put us on his legal team, honestly. Because we know how to defend Kanye.