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Television

Aziz Ansari, wired to joke

Aziz Ansari is a seriously busy funnyman, with a television series, a stand-up tour, several movie projects and his Food Club.
(Al Seib, Los Angeles Times)

It’s early morning on set at NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” as a bleary-eyed crew adjusts the sound and lighting in a faux courtroom on a Burbank soundstage. Aziz Ansari, who plays the fashion-savvy, ladies-man wannabe Tom Haverford, stands on the sidelines intently reviewing the script on his smartphone. Which is funny because in the scene Ansari is about to do, his character is charged with “driving while tweeting” and sentenced by a judge to “a week without screens.”

“Wait … nooo!” Ansari pleads in character at the scene’s end. He fidgets on the witness stand like a drug addict in withdrawal and maniacally attempts to maneuver one last tweet before his phone is confiscated. “Hit send, bailiff! Send!”

Alan Yang, who wrote the episode for the show’s fifth season, chuckles from behind the director’s monitor each time Ansari delivers the line. He and the show’s other writers often mine Ansari’s life for material and know that the comedian, who regularly tweets about his pop-culture obsessions (he has more than 2 million Twitter followers), would recoil at even a day without screens.

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Between takes, Ansari suggests jokes to Yang and at one point asks Craig Zisk, the episode’s director, “Can we try it with me saying, ‘Please, your honor, tonight’s the season finale of “Suits” on USA!’”

There’s a collective burst of laughter; the idea flies.

Ansari, the first person cast for “Parks” by creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur — even before Amy Poehler — is a writerly comedian, rooted in stand-up. He is at home performing in tiny alternative rooms like the Meltdown, in the back of an L.A. comic-book shop, on television and in major amphitheaters nationwide. On Thursday and Friday night he brings his third stand-up tour, “Buried Alive,” to Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theatre

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His sensibility is hip yet inclusive, pointed but not mean. And he’s become something of a “Where’s Waldo” of the digital zeitgeist, riffing on and appearing in pop-cultural currents gone viral. Recently, his face has been Photoshopped onto several classic hip-hop album covers that are being passed around the Internet, and there’s still talk about his appearance in last year’s Jay-Z and Kanye West video for their song “Otis.”

The man also likes to eat. But don’t call him a “foodie.”

“That just sounds weird,” Ansari says. “I prefer plain old, general man of good taste.”

And enthusiasm. When he confirms dinner plans, he emails, “Rice balls, here we come!”

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Several hours later, Ansari settles into a corner table at Little Dom’s in Los Feliz, deftly navigating three fully loaded plates: a kale salad, a tuna melt with fries and, yes, those long awaited, mozzarella-stuffed rice balls. He talks animatedly, fork and knife cutting the air as he gestures, moving between the plates like a seasoned, late-night DJ spinning multiple turntables.

But there are none of Haverford’s eye-rolling, schmoozy ticks. Instead, dressed in a basic striped polo shirt, Ansari is surprisingly humble kicking back at his favorite neighborhood haunt.

The humor flows — all night, in fact — but it’s less yanked from a reservoir of trusty one-liners and more in the form of observations, curiosities and insights. There’s much on Ansari’s mind these days, like romance, marriage and babies — or a lack thereof. At 29, the still-single Ansari — a self-described “indecisive commitment-phobe” — finds domestic responsibility terrifying, if hilarious. In fact, it’s the focus of his “Buried Alive” show.

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“It’s about being scared of hitting that point in life where you’re settling down and the feeling is almost like being buried alive. I couldn’t imagine having a baby … or getting married now,” he says. “But I love hearing about other peoples’ lives, their relationship stories. That stuff is always super fascinating to me.”

His inherent curiosity drives much of his joke-writing. Ansari is a funny urban anthropologist, a writer-performer who scribbles observations in a pocket-sized Moleskine notebook (classic black, lined) and has been influenced by the autobiographical humor of Louis C.K. and Patton Oswalt.

“Patton writes about what it’s like to be a new father, Louis writes about what it’s like to be newly divorced and raising kids,” he says with the faintest hint of a Southern accent. “My stuff is, like: the guy who’s not married and has no kids and is kinda scared and bewildered by it all.”

Ansari regularly peppers people around him with relationship questions, this reporter not excluded. Suddenly, the tables are turned and he’s the one firing off the questions. “How old were you when you got married? How long did you date beforehand?” He is particularly fascinated with how people meet in the modern world — “just the randomness of it all,” he says.

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His parents — his father is a gastroenterologist and his mother manages the medical office — came together in an arranged marriage in southern India before immigrating to rural Bennettsville, S.C. (population 8,949), where Ansari grew up.

“My dad says they talked for 30 minutes and a week later got married,” Ansari says. “People hear that and it’s like” — he leans in and widens his eyes — “‘Oh my God! Are they OK?! Do they hate each other?!’ But their marriage is great.”

Ansari researched marriage and divorce statistics for “Buried Alive,” and during the show he chats up audience members in the front rows, asking them personal questions, and then riffs on their answers. The crowd work, whether in 3,700-seat theaters or intimate clubs, gives each show a unique touch, city to city, he says.

One thing Ansari avoids onstage are easy jokes about being Indian. Talking about ethnicity in his stand-up is important to him, he says, “Just in ways I think are more interesting than, like, doing an accent of a guy who works in a gas station.”

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This spring, for example, he sent an Ansari look-alike to be interviewed in his place on Anderson Cooper’s talk show. It took a minute before Cooper caught on to the prank. The clip has gotten more than 180,000 hits on YouTube.

Misrepresentations of the American South irk him as well. On growing up as the only person of color in elementary and middle school, he says he experienced no racism. “People hear [how I grew up] and think: ‘Oh my God! Are you OK?!’ But it wasn’t bad. There’s plenty of ignorant, dumb people everywhere, and there’s plenty of thoughtful, super-nice people everywhere.”

As a kid, Ansari loved Chris Rock’s HBO specials, but he was far from a myopic comedy nerd. Tiny Bennettsville didn’t even have a movie theater to nurture any far-flung aspirations of comic fame. Instead, Ansari pursued a marketing major at New York University. He tried his hand at stand-up the summer of his freshman year, at the urging of friends who thought he was funny. His debut at Greenwich Village’s Comedy Cellar, during a new talent night, felt completely natural, he says. No nerves. No looking back.

“The joke-writing ability wasn’t there yet, but I was really comfortable onstage,” he says. “I never had any aspirations of putting out big specials or being an actor. It was more like: ‘Lemme just keep writing good jokes.’ I started going to open mikes … I’ve never taken a long break from stand-up since.”

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Daniels first spotted Ansari on his MTV show “Human Giant,” which ran for two seasons starting in 2007. “Around the time I was making a deal to do a new show for NBC, I saw the ‘Viral Video’ sketch from ‘Human Giant’ in the writers room at ‘The Office’ and thought it was the funniest thing I had seen in years,” Daniels says. “Mike [Schur] and I … met with Aziz and decided he was too good to pass up.”

Ansari turned down a third season on MTV to take a chance on “Parks.”

In another risky move, Ansari famously released his last comedy special, “Dangerously Delicious,” in March directly to his fans online as a $5 download. The move was partly inspired by C.K., who did the same thing a few months earlier, but Ansari says he was also simply embracing the future.

“I saw how many YouTube views I had versus how many DVDs I sold,” says Ansari of his 2010 Comedy Central special, “Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening.” “That’s how people want to consume that kind of media now.”

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Ansari estimates YouTube clips from “Intimate Moments” received around 150,000 to 200,000 views apiece. DVD sales figures aren’t available, but “Intimate Moments,” the audio album, has sold nearly 61,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

He plans to release his next special, from the “Buried Alive” tour, in cutting-edge digital fashion as well, though he’s not sure what shape that will take. He might put it out as a movie first, he says, then release it online a few months later.

Now Ansari, who last year costarred with Jesse Eisenberg in the action comedy “30 Minutes or Less,” is currently developing one of three pitches he sold to Judd Apatow. The script, which he’s co-writing with former “Human Giant” director Jason Woliner, is about two disgraced astronauts who travel back to the moon to clear their names. He also has a small part in the Seth Rogen comedy “The End of the World,” about the apocalypse hitting during a party at James Franco’s house. And he’ll costar with Danny McBride in a Mandate Pictures release about seeking revenge on a Michael Phelps-like athlete who has a three-way with Ansari and McBride’s girlfriends.

As Ansari cleans off his Little Dom’s plate, he jokes about his latest food crush, a doughnut shop in Glendora called the Donut Man. “Yeah,” he says, “plaque-worthy.” He and Woliner have a food club (called, not surprisingly, Food Club) with friends like Eric Wareheim of Tim and Eric. They don captains hats and show up at restaurants, announcing their presence.

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The rating system is simple: If the food is deemed worthy — as it has been at L.A.'s Animal and Ink — the restaurant gets a plaque featuring Ansari et al in their hats, staring authoritatively into the distance.

“We thought it would be funny to treat it super-serious. ‘Oh, hi, we’re here for the Food Club dinner?’” Ansari says. “It’s so absurd, it’s all done in jest.”

And how do people respond?

He shrugs, then laughs: “Always fascinating.”

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deborah.vankin@latimes.com


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