March 26, 2005

His Own Playground

A Gelf Q&A with up-and-coming New York comedian Aziz Ansari.

Keith Huang

On a chilly night in February, 23-year-old standup comic Aziz Ansari is onstage at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, discussing his distaste for how President Bush sold the public on invading Iraq.

The topic is pretty dated and the audience's skepticism becomes palpable. But Ansari is working from a reservoir of goodwill, as his set has gone pretty well so far.

"You know, Bush said we were going to invade Iraq with this 'Coalition of the Willing'," he begins. "Bush said we had England with us, we had Poland, Latvia (a pause) ... we had Micronesia."

Keith Huang

Another pause.

"Micronesia? I mean, come on. That's, like, one one-millionth of a 'nesia."

The punchline passes muster with the hipster-comedy crowd, and the laughter is genuine—even Ansari is having trouble hiding his pleasure at the response. But he wastes no time in heightening the bit: "How about Milli-nesia?" he asks. "That's at least one one-thousandth of a 'nesia."

More laughs.

"Or how 'bout Polynesia? That's like a whole bunch of 'nesias." The audience of roughly 60 people award Ansari an applause break. Moments later, as the crowd simmers down, Ansari delivers a final jab: "Everybody's a sucker for my prefix material."

Perhaps the first thing you notice about the comic delivery of Ansari, who is Indian, is his accent—it's Southern.

Born and bred in Bennettsville, S.C. (pop. 9,254), Ansari's speech carries a subtle twang that's reminiscent of longtime comic Henry Cho, whose parents are Korean but who was raised in Knoxville, Tenn. (Here's a Cho bio.)

Although Ansari doesn't dwell too much on the juxtaposition of his Indian heritage and South Carolina—"It's too easy," he says—in one bit, he refers to the history of segregation in South Carolina and wishes that it would have survived for his elementary-school years: "Just think how great segregation would have been," he muses. "All the signs would've said 'Whites Only' ... and 'Aziz's.' Excuse me, y'all, but I think I have a private playground back here. See ya!"

Ansari, who has been performing standup since his freshman year at New York University, appears regularly at various alternative-comedy venues and blackbox theaters around New York. By day, he works for an Internet marketing company that he cofounded with a friend. Ansari graduated from NYU last spring with a degree in marketing.

This Thursday, Ansari will audition for a coveted spot on the next season of Premium Blend, a nationally televised show on Comedy Central that features four comedians performing before an audience of hundreds. Premium Blend is huge for comedians—it's the kind of opportunity that can lead to a paying gig.

Ansari recently spoke with Gelf about getting into comedy and how he's preparing for what may be his biggest show to date. Here's an edited transcript of the interview:

Gelf Magazine: How would you describe your material these days?

Aziz Ansari: This year I've been writing a lot of different stuff. Last year was more like I was making fun of politics, talking about social issues. This year, I've just been writing about stuff that's been going on in my life. But even last night I was still making fun of people like meatheads and frat-boy types, and talking about karaoke and poking fun at stuff like that. I guess overall there's a self-deprecating attitude. But you can see that in a lot of comedians. I mean, if you watch Demetri [Martin] (official site and Slate journal), he always talks about how he thinks what he's doing is retarded, but everybody in the crowd is sitting there laughing and thinking, "Wow, this is amazing."

GM: You seem to have a self-deprecating style, and I think a lot of comedians split right down the line on whether they're going to make fun of themselves or of other people. Do you agree?

AA: I think that the scene that I'm in—the comics that I hang out with are more self-deprecating. ... I just feel for me it's in my personality. I'm not this superconfident, swaggering guy.

GM: Were you a fan of Craig Kilborn or Conan O'Brien?

AA: I'm a Conan O'Brien kind of guy. That's a good litmus test, I guess.

GM: Who are your original influences, and who's at the top of the game in New York?

AA: When I first started, I liked Chris Rock a lot, and I've always liked Bill Hicks. But in New York, I'd say my favorites are Demetri Martin, Eugene Mirman, Todd Barry—those are probably my three favorites. When I was doing these club shows and I never wanted to watch the club comedians' sets anymore—I just didn't find it interesting. But whenever I'd see Demetri or Todd, they were always doing creative things, so I thought I should start getting into their scene.

GM: Would you say the comedy community is pretty supportive in terms of getting gigs and getting on a venue?

AA: Well, it's been real nice to me. I just think it's about finding your scene. I found my scene at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Eugene's show, and a couple of other shows—those are my favorite places to perform. They've been real nice to me. I think for any comedian that's trying to do stuff in New York, it's about finding out your scene is; what you really want to aspire to do. For me, it's doing creative things with guys like Demetri and Eugene.

GM: Tell me about when and where you first started?

AA: I started off at the Comedy Cellar—I'd never even been there before. I was doing Bringer Shows where they get comics who are just starting out to do a show at 7 o'clock and all the performers had to bring like four friends. So I started off doing those for a while, then I did these shows in Times Square at Ha! Comedy Club. You'd pass out fliers for a few hours for stage time. That was fucking awful, but it gave me a lot of stagetime, I'll give it that. But my first big break, I guess, was at a lottery audition at Comic Strip Live, a club on the Upper East Side. I did five minutes and the host passed me on to this other guy and he decided whether I'd be a regular at the comedy club, and I got it, and was so fired up, and I just started hanging out at the Comic Strip for a while.

GM: So how old were you when all that happened?

AA: I guess I was about 19. I hung out there for a while, then maybe about a year ago, I started performing at UCB a lot, and from there I started doing a lot of alternative venues, and I got people to recommend me for bigger rooms like Eugene's room, and I've been doing that for the past few months, and that's been awesome. There's always little rooms here and there that are always really good.

GM: Of the three or four times I've seen you perform, I haven't seen any of your jokes bomb. What's the deal?

AA: Everybody bombs, man. Everybody bombs. I remember when I started out, one night I saw Chris Rock—he popped in at the Comedy Cellar—and I saw him bomb, and was like, "Wow, if Chris Rock is bombing, it's not a big deal to bomb." Everybody has tricks, though, like you do some stuff that you know works in the beginning, to get the crowd on your side; then they'll listen to whatever new stuff you have.

GM: What's happening with the Premium Blend audition?

AA: There's seven of us doing this showcase for Premium Blend. I don't know how many of us will actually get on Premium Blend—hopefully a lot of us, they have like 48 slots or something. I feel like I got a good shot. I don't know.

GM: What's the format?

AA: We just perform and Comedy Central are there. They've seen some of us before; I think they've seen me before—well, they put me on the showcase, so I assume as much. But they just watch us and decide which of us they'd want on the show.

GM: How did you get contacted for this audition?

AA: Someone told me to email the person that was doing the showcase, and they told me to send a tape, but then I was told it was full. But I was told to email another person at Comedy Central and the next thing I know they're telling me they'll see me perform at the showcase on the 31st.

GM: How much time do you get at the showcase?

AA: Six minutes at the showcase, and I think you get like seven minutes for Premium Blend.

GM: What's the longest set you've performed?

AA: The longest I've ever gone is about 20-25 minutes.

GM: Out of a six-minute set, how much do you improvise?

AA: At Invite Them Up, I'll definitely talk about whatever's going on. But for the showcase, you don't mess around—they pretty much want to see what you're going to look like on Premium Blend. You just have to ignore whatever's going on. And if you're making a tape or something, you just have to ignore everything and keep going. It can get annoying because somebody will always yell something.

GM: Did you always want to get in comedy?

AA: I never really knew what I wanted to do professionally. Even my day job now, the Internet company thing, I just kind of fell into—I didn't pursue that or anything. The comedy stuff, well, I always liked making people laugh. I've just always tried to make stuff that was funny and would be like "You gotta come see this thing that I made!" And now I'm just basically doing that for large groups of people. I think that's how that part of my character has been fleshed out.

GM: As a Southeast Asian myself, I've felt there's always a stigma of having to become a doctor or a lawyer. How have your parents taken your decision to pursue comedy?

AA: My parents aren't like that, really. I guess they're pretty content with the Internet stuff, and I've been getting some little successes in the comedy stuff now, so I think they understand I'm doing it seriously. And I didn't drop out of school or anything like that. I was always able to get good grades—comedy didn't take up that much of my time. Now it's taking up a decent amount of time, but I have my job and I make some money and they don't have to pay for anything, so ...

GM: In your sets that I've seen, you don't reference your heritage that much.

AA: I have some jokes like that, but I hate them. I'm tired of 'em. I just feel like it's too easy, you know what I mean? Some of that stuff is way to easy to talk about—it's not challenging. I feel like the jokes that I do about that stuff aren't awful jokes—they're smart jokes—but I feel cheesy when I do 'em. But I'll probably do one or two of those for the Premium Blend thing. I've been watching a lot of Premium Blends to get an idea of what kind of material everybody does, and generally, everybody does one or two "Oh, well, here's my story" jokes. I guess I'll do it for Premium Blend because, you know, that kind of shit appeals to club audiences so you have to do that to tide them over.

Related on the Web

•See Aziz Ansari's blog:

•Just announced: Watch Aziz workshop his upcoming one-man show at the Upright Citizens Brigade on Monday, March 28.

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