Only five years ago, all of 22 and still a fresh graduate from New York University, all Aziz Ansari had to help launch him into his comic career was a marketing degree and an occasional gig at the Upright Citizens Theater Brigade comedy club in New York.
Today, the 27-year-old Ansari is nothing short of a comic sensation. He recently hosted the MTV Movie Awards, is a frontline cast member in an NBC show, Parks and Recreation, has a three movie deal with high profile producer Judd Apatow and was recently profiled by The New York Times. His stratospheric rise has astounded critics — both because of its breakneck speed, and because he has managed to transcend racial boundaries in a country where the color of your skin forces you into neat little stereotyped boxes.
By contrast, Ansari rarely uses his South Asian background — his parents are Tamil Muslims from India — for comedic material, preferring instead to base his comedy around American pop culture. This is a radical departure from other stand-up comics with sub continental backgrounds who’ve made it big in the United States — like Hari Kondabolu, for instance, who has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, or Canadian comic Russell Peters — whose acts are almost entirely centered around the experiences of being brown.
Ansari, on the other hand, often seems almost reluctant to talk about his childhood and says he is tired of people assuming he encountered racism while growing up in the American south.
“It seems to me that when you corner yourself into any specific type of comedy whether it is ethnicity, weight, sexuality — you pretty much are dredging a shallow well,” said Ansari's longtime collaborator and Human Giant co-star Paul Scheer. “Aziz’s comedy comes from this perspective and he’ll always be known as a comedian first, which is how the best comedians are remembered,” he says.
Ansari’s repertoire, then, is varied and wide-ranging from playing a stupendously popular, hyper-energetic comic called Randy in the Judd Apatow movie Funny People to doing sketches on musicians like R Kelly and Kanye West in his stand-up routine. The common theme running through all his material, though, is that it is based on Ansari’s ability to pick up on the pop-cultural zeitgeist and poke fun at it. His current routine — he’s touring the country right now — is peppered with sketches about oil giant BP and teen sensation Justin Beiber.
At the MTV Movie awards, Ansari sang a parody of the film Avatar, spoofed the Oscar-winning The Blind Side and made a short film about Hollywood talent agents.
It’s these mainstream references that give his material such a wide-ranging appeal, that make every 20-something across the US nod and roar with laughter each time Ansari takes the stage. In an interview with The New York Times, MTV’s general manager Stephen Friedman said that Ansari’s pop-cultural tastes “made him the ideal embodiment of the millennial-generation viewers whom the channel wants to reach”.
Ansari’s also well known among his co-workers for his ability to ad-lib and improvise on the spot. “With Aziz, you really get a sense that he’s just coming up with this crazy, random stuff off the top of his mind,” said actor Zach Braff, who briefly worked with Ansari on the TV show Scrubs, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. Ansari’s Twitter feed (he has 260,000 followers) is an up-close view of the genesis of some of his more outrageous sketches. He recently tweeted about a fake Sex and The City movie shot in Afghanistan, said that he was out with legendary R&B producer Montell Jordan (untrue) and that Liam Neeson was in the bathroom stall next to his (also untrue).
Ansari, as many have pointed out, stubbornly defies all labels. He is boldly original, irrepressibly inventive and absolutely unlike any other comedian in the US right now. “Aziz’s greatest talent is staying true to himself. He’s really not copying anyone else. He has a strong belief in what he finds funny and he follows it,” says Scheer.
Riddhi Shah studies cultural reporting and criticism at New York University