Aziz Ansari is a rare breed. I don’t mean it in the way it sounds—plenty of comedians do what he does, perhaps better. Rather, Ansari has an acute ability to bring what might border on a shrill and potentially annoying demeanor together with layered, smart humor for an end product that is equal parts wacky and contemplative.
I’ve watched Ansari perfect the shallow yet endearing Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation, and have seen some of his earlier stand-up, Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening and Buried Alive. Never not funny, Ansari’s material elicits genuine laughs, and his character on Parks and Rec is integral to the show’s overall cast chemistry. But, he’s not always my cup of tea—a little too manic, a little too excitable.
Earlier this month, I saw Aziz Ansari at the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego, courtesy of my friend’s entertainment industry boss. The room was huge, and almost every seat was full—even Ansari was impressed by the sheer volume of bodies. But he’s been around the block, and the maturation was apparent during this tour.
While the subject matter bounced around wildly, Ansari was confident in the presentation of his material. His set touched on a variety of different concepts, from the benefits and drawbacks of modern love to the moral evils of factory farming (which included an impressively sculpted Ja Rule reference, something I’m convinced every stand-up comic needs for a perfect set). The style is still hyper, but in a controlled way; Ansari knows how to get the audience to match his level of excitement without whipping them into a frenzy or putting them off. His rhythm was on-point—even when the material wasn’t killing it, the energy he brought to the show was at such a level that everyone in the audience remained entertained.
His comedy is also confrontational; it’s a shift from longwinded stories about meeting Kanye West at a party and the foibles of his 12-year-old cousin. A more approachable Richard Pryor, and perhaps a more pointed Dave Chapelle, Ansari demands his audience (mostly white, mostly male, in this case) to recognize social and cultural failings in a breezy but firm way.
Ansari spent a particularly long time on a bit about his observations on being a woman in the public sphere. Smartly framed in the context of, “what if women did the things men do?” the bit is incredibly funny, exploring the idea of what a woman sexually harassing a man might sound like. It was self-deprecating and absurd enough to appeal to both men and women, but Ansari went further—the ultimate message was a callback to men who don’t necessarily realize the bizarre and often threatening perils women face every day.
“Ladies, I want you to clap if you’ve ever seen a man masturbating in public,” he requested. The feedback was thunderous. He issued a similar appeal to men—clap if you’re surprised by how many women just clapped. Predictably, most were.
Ansari’s engagement seems to be a new, more conscious type of comedy, asking the audience to recognize social and cultural failings while still managing to be funny as hell and relatively light. That said, there was a definite severity behind the jokes; a look that followed every punch line that seemed to say, “but this isn’t the way things should be, now is it?”
In the good company of comics like Louis CK and W. Kamau Bell, amongst others, Ansari seems to join the ranks of entertainers who strive to effect change. During the show, he touched on his Twitter tête-à-tête with Rupert Murdoch regarding some particularly generalizing remarks Murdoch had made following the Charlie Hebdo killings. “I wanna be the Al Sharpton for brown people!” he exclaimed to raucous laughter.
But the increasing blend of entertainment and activism may see that wish through. Now that Ansari’s run with Parks and Rec is through, it will be exciting to see where he goes next. His development as a comic has been impressive; I expect nothing but good (while probably still incredibly goofy) things from Aziz Ansari.