During a recent stand-up tour, the comedian and star of Parks and Recreation, Aziz Ansari riffed on what he calls the "fears of adulthood."
You know, babies. Marriage. That kind of stuff.
"I see a lot of my friends are kind of entering serious stages of their lives where they're getting married and having children, and I'm getting to the age where that stuff is getting expected of me," Ansari tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And it's all very terrifying to me. It still feels like it's so far away."
Ansari certainly has a lot on his plate at the moment. He plays a low-level administrator on the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, and recently released a new comedy special, called Dangerously Delicious, online. He got the idea partially from Louis C.K., who released his own $5 comedy special on the Web last year.
"Obviously, it was a tremendous success when [Louis C.K.] released it that way, and I started getting tweets and things saying, 'Can you release your stand-up special this way? I think it'd be great if you did it,' " Ansari says. "I thought, 'Well, if that really worked and people are really behind it, why try to fight that trend?' [Louis C.K.] clearly hit a nerve with that release strategy. So I did it and as soon as I did it, the overwhelming response was, 'I'm so glad you did it, too. I hope more comedians do this.'"
Ansari has been involved in the comedy world for a long time. He acted in MTV's sketch series Human Giant, and he played the part of a xenophobic fruit vendor in HBO's Flight of the Conchords. Now, on Parks and Recreation, his character, Tom, dreams of becoming a mogul like Russell Simmons or Sean "P. Diddy" Combs.
"But he's in this really small town, and he's too scared to go to New York or L.A. to try and make that happen, so he really tries to live those dreams in the confines of this very small town," says Ansari.
A Childhood Filled With Boredom
Ansari himself grew up in a small town in South Carolina, where he says there was frequently nothing to do.
"Nothing cool was going on, and I just wanted to leave," he says. "And I think now, with the Internet and everything, you have more glimpses into the cool world. I think when I was younger, you were exposed to whatever cool things [people] in your class were familiar with, but now I feel like with the Internet, you're exposed to everything cool."
He remembers playing guitar and losing himself in bands like Led Zeppelin and Metallica during the first part of high school, when he was the only nonwhite student in the entire school. But after 10th grade, Ansari transferred to a different school — a public magnet school for students across the state interested in math and science.
"Even just meeting kids from different parts of South Carolina kind of expanded my exposure to different cultural things," he says. "So that increased my interest in different things, and then I went to New York and NYU because that of course is where everything is."
Ansari started performing stand-up while he was still a student at NYU. Rolling Stone named him as a "Hot Stand Up" choice in 2005, and then came an invitation to perform at the 2006 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., where he received an award for best stand-up. Much of his humor is self-deprecating.
"I play up the underconfidence ... a little bit," he says. "With stand-up, it's more interesting to hear about people's failures than their successes. You don't want to hear a story, like, 'I went up to this hot girl and everything worked out fantastic. We're dating. Everything worked out great. Good night!' ... People would be like, 'I hate that guy.' It's much more endearing to hear someone going through the same struggles we've all gone through."
It's kind of the flip side of what his rapper friends do with their personas.
"Being a rapper is about being cool, but being a comedian, you're not supposed to be the coolest guy," he says. "They understand it's a different type of thing. And those guys are super funny. They have a great sense of humor. I don't think they're like, 'Aziz isn't cool.' There's just not a self-deprecating rapper; that wouldn't work. If you're a rapper and you're like, 'I saw this girl, but I was too scared' — that doesn't work for a rapper."
On Indian role models he had while growing up
"I never saw an Indian person on TV unless it was like Gandhi or a James Bond movie where he goes to India or they're showing the Kwik-E-Mart guy. There was no one Indian on TV. When I did the MTV sketch show called Human Giant around 2007, I joked around and said, 'I think I might be the first Indian person you've ever had on MTV.' And I was half-joking, but I think it may be true. I can't think of ever seeing an Indian person on MTV."
On what his parents think of his comedy
"My parents have seen me do stand-up. I did Carnegie Hall January of last year. And a few days before, I thought, 'I have to fly my parents in to see this.' ... I was a little worried that they would be offended by some of the bits. There's some pretty harsh stuff. But the positives outweigh the negatives. And after the show, they didn't say anything about the language. Someone was sitting next to my parents and saying they were laughing the whole time. They weren't getting offended. Maybe every now and then my mom put her hands in her face, but I think any mom would do that with some of the stuff I say. Stand-up comedy is a raunchy profession."
On his comedy idols
"The most influential thing was the two Chris Rock specials that came out when I was in high school. I was obsessed with that stuff. ... And then what else? Eddie Murphy's Delirious. Coming to America is still one of my favorite movies. TV shows? I feel like I didn't watch any good sitcoms until I was older. I loved Seinfeld, but I don't think I watched really good stuff till I got older. ... I have a friend Jason, and he talks about growing up and watching Freaks and Geeks and Mr. Show and Chris Eliott stuff, and that stuff just wasn't on anyone's radar in Bennettsville, S.C."
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we start a holiday week series featuring a few of our favorite interviews of the year. Comic and actor Aziz Ansari was on our show in April, after he released a new stand-up special on his website. He co-stars on the NBC series "Parks and Recreation" as Tom Haverford, who works in the parks and rec office in Pawnee, Indiana.
Here's a scene from season three with his then-boss Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
AMY POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) Do you want to go to lunch?
AZIZ ANSARI: (as Tom Haverford) No, I don't really feel like going to J.J.'s.
POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) We can go anywhere. Your choice. I'm, I'm buying.
ANSARI: (as Tom Haverford) Can I get apps and serts? Serts are what I call desserts. Trey-treys are entrees. I call sandwiches Sammies, Sandosals or Adam Sandlers. Air conditioners are Cool Blazters with a Z. I don't know where that came from. I call cakes big ol' cookies. I call noodles long-ass rice, fried chicken is Fry-fry Chickie Chick. Chicken parm is Chickie-chickie Parm-parm. Chicken cacciatore, Chickie Catch. I call eggs pre-birds or future birds. Root beer is super water. Tortillas are bean blankies. And I call forks food rakes.
POEHLER: (as Leslie Knope) Yeah. You can get as many 'serts as you want.
ANSARI: (as Tom Haverford) Well, let's get in my Go-Go mobile - car.
GROSS: Like the character he plays in "Parks and Rec," Ansari's parents emigrated from India. He's from South Carolina. Although his character sees himself as a ladies' man and is always bragging, Ansari's standup act is more self-deprecating.
So your humor onstage is self-deprecating, and I'm thinking like you're good friends with like, you know - good friends, I don't know, but you're friends with Jay-Z. You love hip-hop. And, you know, the - hip-hop is so much about confidence and swagger and feeling like you can go up to that beautiful woman, and she's just going to just - she's going to be really happy that you went up to her because you're the best when it comes to making love or standing up to the cops or looking good or, you know, whatever needs to be done.
GROSS: And I'm wondering, like, how your self-deprecating humor goes over with your hip-hop friends, because the sensibility in some ways seems pretty different.
ANSARI: Well, being a rapper is, like, about being cool and things like that. And being a comedian, you're not really supposed to be the coolest guy. So I think, you know, they understand it's a different type of thing, you know?
And, you know, those guys are super-funny. They have a really great sense of humor, and when I do hang out with them, like, we will laugh hard at things we all say, and they have a great sense of humor. So they understand it's a different thing. I don't think they're, like, oh man, Aziz isn't cool. You know what I mean?
ANSARI: It's just a different thing to be a comedian. There's not a self-deprecating rapper. That wouldn't work. If you were a rapper that was like: I saw this girl, but I was too scared, like...
ANSARI: Like that doesn't work for a rapper. You can't be like: And then I took her back to my place, and she said she had a boyfriend. Like that doesn't - that rapper wouldn't go very far because in a rap song you want to live vicariously through them. You want to be on the jet or whatever, you know what I mean?
ANSARI: (Rapping) And then I drove my mom's car 'cuz I can't afford my own.
ANSARI: Terry, I think we've got to do a self-deprecating rapper album. Do you make beats on the side?
GROSS: Absolutely. That is what I do in the evenings.
ANSARI: Or maybe you can sing the hooks.
GROSS: I do that too. It's really funny you should bring it up, absolutely.
ANSARI: (Singing) He can't afford a car.
GROSS: So you're of Indian - the country of India - ancestry.
GROSS: And when you were growing up, there were probably not a lot of comics of South Asian ancestry to look to as role models. Did that matter to you?
ANSARI: I never saw an Indian person on TV unless it was like Gandhi or there was like a James Bond movie where he goes to India or like there was some show where they happened to go to India, or they're showing a Quik-E-Mart guy.
There was no one Indian on TV, like no one. When I did this sketch on MTV called "Human Giant" around 2007, I joked around with the people at MTV. I was like: Wow, it's pretty cool, I think I might be the first Indian person you've ever had on MTV. And I was half-joking, but I think it may be true. Like, I can't think of ever seeing an Indian person on MTV.
And I think it's really cool now, you can't avoid Indian people on TV. There's like one Indian person minimum on every, like, sitcom or drama. There's like some Indian guy in the office. It's really funny to me that that's the case. And even when I was coming up, even seeing like Mindy Kaling on "The Office," it was great because you could point to her and be like: See, like she's a really funny character on that show, and there's no jokes about her having an Indian accent or anything.
It's just about her character and her personality. Even having that was, like, a great thing to point to, and I think now with me and Danny Pudi on "Community" and, you know, a myriad of other people, I think it must be a little different to be a kid growing up that's Indian and seeing all these Indian people in the culture.
GROSS: Somebody who knows your name now is President Obama, and he mentioned you at a fundraising event in New York in early March. He mentioned that you were there. He mentioned that you were backstage and that this was a particularly big deal because his daughter Malia is a huge fan of "Parks and Recreation."
So how did you end up being at that event with him, and how did he end up mentioning you?
ANSARI: As with a lot of things with me, it all goes back to food. I eat at that restaurant, ABC Kitchen, a lot. It's a restaurant in New York. And that's where this event was. And they came up to me, and they're like: Hey, we're doing this event with President Obama. He's going to speak here, and we were wondering if you would want to host it or something.
And I was like yeah, sure, because you guys are going to be catering and your food is delicious. And the Obama people contacted me, and they're like: Would you want to do this? We think it's a great idea. You could speak. And I did it, and it was really fun. And I wrote this little speech for the event and made the speech.
And then eventually the president spoke, and he mentioned me in the speech, and it just blew me away. Like I still haven't quite comprehended how crazy it is that the president mentioned me in a speech. I still don't believe it. It's still crazy to me. And he came backstage afterwards, and he talked to me for a while, and he mentioned that his daughter really loved "Parks and Recreation," and he was just super-nice and very cool.
GROSS: There's a good deed that you did that I think few people know about. There was an article in Rolling Stone about violence against gay teenagers, and after you read it, you got in touch with the person who wrote the article and offered to do a fundraiser to raise money for an organization that works with gay teens. And you hosted a comedy benefit in L.A. on behalf of a Minnesota LGBT group. Why did you decide to do that?
ANSARI: I heard a YouTube clip from Howard Stern, where he was talking about this article, and if you haven't read the article, you should really read it. It's about bullying and particularly about this school in Minnesota where it was just - it was just really such a sad article.
And I just read it, and I was like, man, is there - you know, it really affected me, and it really, really made me sad, like just thinking about these kids who were - these kids were just, like, getting put down by all these other kids in their school, and they seem like such brilliant kids. And it just really bummed me out that those kids, the other kids, the bully kids were winning, that they were letting them ruin what was special about them.
And it just didn't seem fair. It seemed like these kids were...
GROSS: Were you bullied as a kid?
ANSARI: I wasn't. You know, I think - you would think I would be. It seems like I would be a really easy bully target. But, you know, obviously I was made fun of here and there, but I've said this, I think I even said it to you last time I talked to you, like, you know, it was probably on par with what a fat kid dealt with. It was not, like, serious racism where like kids were throwing rocks at me and harsh stuff like that, or you know, or - you know, you see, like you read these stories and stuff, and you read about, like, real torment, you know, like real - kids getting really tormented.
I did not have that at all. But I guess I can relate to the idea of being different from everyone else, and I can relate to people telling you you can't do something or people making fun of you because you're different. Or I've seen other kids make fun of other kids for having different interests or whatever.
And when I read that story, it just, it really ticked me off that the school allowed that to happen. Basically the school district wasn't taking a stand. It really got bad, and several kids ended up taking their own lives. It was that bad.
And one kid's mom started an organization called Justin's Gift, and the writer of the Rolling Stone article - I just emailed her, and I was like: Hey, I read this article and it's really affected me. I just feel like I want to do something. I'll gladly do a benefit, like it's really easy for me to, like, put on a show and raise some money. Like, who could I raise money for? What would be the best organization?
And she referred me to Justin's Gift, and so I was doing a show that weekend, and it sold out, and we gave that money, and then I put together another show with some other comedians that I'm friends with, and we charged more for that, and it sold out, and we raised like $15,000 like just doing those two shows, and we gave it to them.
And, you know, I was glad we were able to do those shows and do that, and I hope it helps those kids even a little bit because, you know, it just really bummed me out hearing about what happened to those kids.
GROSS: Well, I think it's great that you did that. So you do a lot of tweeting, have a lot of followers. And after the Trayvon Martin story, when Geraldo made his comment about how, you know, he shouldn't have been wearing a hoodie...
GROSS: You replied with a barbed tweet, and I'll ask you to tell us the radio-friendly version of what you said.
ANSARI: I think what I said was: It's really appropriate to say this any day, but today in particular: F-you, Geraldo. And I tweeted that, and what I failed to realize is that now whenever there's a big news story, news outlets will take things that people tweet and quote them as if that's, like, their statement on something.
Obviously if I was talking to, like, the Washington Post, that would not be my analysis of the event, no. I would have said something a little bit more nuanced. However, there was an article somewhere, I have it on my phone, I'll read to you what they wrote. They wrote - the headline said something like - sorry, give me a second, I'll put it up - it said: Geraldo Rivera says Trayvon Martin's hoodie made him a target receives major backlash.
The Fox News commentator says Martin's killer should be prosecuted, but the victim's attire put him at fault too. Aziz Ansari responds: F-you, Geraldo.
ANSARI: I love that that was in the sub-headline for that article. In that case, you know, I don't like people quoting me, you know, from my Twitter in like a serious news article. But in that case, it was so funny to me that I approve.
GROSS: Aziz Ansari, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
ANSARI: It's always a pleasure, thank you so much.
GROSS: Aziz Ansari, recorded last April, after he released his stand-up comedy special Dangerously Delicious" on his website. He co-stars on "Parks and Recreation." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.