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Aziz Ansari, wired to joke

The excitable and enthusiastic comedian riffs on the 'Parks and Recreation' set, his favorite restaurants, Twitter and the stand-up stage.

September 11, 2012|By Deborah Vankin
  • Aziz Ansari is a seriously busy funnyman, with a television series, a stand-up tour, several movie projects and his Food Club.
Aziz Ansari is a seriously busy funnyman, with a television series, a stand-up… (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.

"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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