A Dangerous Mind
By David Jenison
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the median marrying age for American men recently rose to 28. Parks and Recreation star Aziz Ansari has an empty ring finger at age 30, meaning he is already two years behind the curve, but don’t expect an eHarmony profile any time soon. While the government apparently associates marriage with disease control, Ansari equates getting married to a little something Edgar Allan Poe called a “premature burial.”
“It is such an intense step,” says Ansari, whose Buried Alive tour was inspired by a slate of friends starting families. “Where I am from in South Carolina, your life is like, ‘I’m done with school so I am going to get a job, get married, raise some kids and then die.’ That is the accepted thing. This idea of rushing to get married just to hit that step in the chain seems weird to me. It takes a while to figure yourself out and see what kind of person you are, so the idea of getting married at 23 or 24 is crazy to me.”
Ansari, who appeared at Cal State San Bernardino last November, returns to the Inland Empire on Thursday to perform his Buried Alive show at the San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino in Highland. This will likely be the final chance to see Buried Alive in person since he recently filmed a Philadelphia show for commercial release.
“Once you put out a special, you can’t really do that material anymore,” says Ansari. “I already started working on the next show, and I feel pretty good about it. The new show is coming along well.”
Buried Alive offers a bachelor’s perspective on the perceived insanity of marriage, but the next tour will go even deeper with a look at dating in the digital age.
Ansari continues, “It will be about technology changing the early stages of courtship. Having a phone in your pocket and being accessible all the time is something that never happened to any other generation. You can be out on a date and go to the bathroom, and there are texts from other people who are interested in you. When you really look into it, technology has changed everything in such a weird way. I come at it from the point that I am interested-slash-confused-slash-frustrated-slash-fascinated.”
This material has already worked its way into Buried Alive because he uses the tour to gather information. For example, he asked a young man for his cell phone at a NYC show and read his text messages aloud to the audience. According to the phone log, the young Romeo attempted to flirt with a girl by sending texts like, “That was a crazy biology test, right?” During the show, Ansari helped him construct a text inviting the girl on a date to a Central Park restaurant. An hour later, the young man started waving the phone in the air. Ansari briefly stopped the show to find out the girl accepted the invitation.
“If you are single right now,” he explains, “it is about texting all these different people and becoming frustrated with all the subtle psychological behaviors. You start thinking, ‘I wish I could just see this person in real life and not as a thing on my phone.’ That is how you engage with people now, and it is such a different form of communication for dating. It is interesting to talk about and see how people react.”
Ansari led his previous tour routines, Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening and Dangerously Delicious (both available online), with observational riffs on Craigslist perverts, thread-count controversies and his favorite entries in a 21-page list of racial slurs. He even recounts how the members of Mötley Crüe hid the groupie scent from their girlfriends by sticking their penises into breakfast burritos (yep, true story).
The Buried Alive set retains the humorous anecdotes but forges a deeper connection with the audience through common romantic anxieties. He even researches topics by reading heady books like The Myths of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky and The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz.
“For the Buried Alive show, I read a lot of stuff about arranged marriage,” says Ansari, whose parents were married in this tradition. “I found out they did a study that measured people’s happiness levels in both arranged and non-arranged marriages. In the first few years, the non-arranged couples are happier, but when they looked 20 years down the line, the arranged couples are happier. People immediately assume that people are miserable in an arranged marriage, but they are actually happier. If you are exposed to interesting ideas, it gives you a better base to draw from when writing comedy. It gives you a viewpoint that is well informed.”
Similar research went into digital courtship.
“One of the books I mention is Alone Together by Sherry Turkle,” Ansari continues. “It is about how young people get so used to texting back and forth that they are very bad at conversation. They are used to having a few minutes to gather their thoughts, so having a conversation on the fly is very scary to them, and they just aren’t good at it. Something like that is very interesting to me, and that is something I can interpret in a more comedic fashion or use to highlight a different point.”
Ansari is, by many accounts, a reflection of the Millennial Generation. He is a post-racial comedian who defends South Carolina against its racist stereotype, resists using his Indian heritage for cheap jokes and admits to being an atheist. He also knows how to optimize social media. Within hours of this interview, NBA player Jason Collins publically came out as gay, and Ansari immediately turned to Twitter to mock PR agents begging their sports clients not to post homophobic replies. Accepted by the hip-hop elite, Ansari appeared in the Hova-Yeezy video “Otis,” engaged Diddy in a “smooth off” for a Ciroc commercial and had his face humorously transposed onto several iconic rap albums. Google “Emceez Ansari” to enjoy an excellent Wiz Khalifa cover, but nothing tops seeing Ansari as Nicki Minaj on Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded.
Ansari’s “day job,” playing Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, is also next generation. Using a mockumentary style, the NBC series tackles small-town politics with relevant takes on budget battles, rigid ideology and the filibuster. This season alone included cameos by Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. senators Barbara Boxer, John McCain and Olympia Snowe. Art also imitates life with Ansari’s character, a South Carolina native who explores courtship methods, online dating and even arranged marriage. Unfortunately, the Emmy-nominated series airs on a struggling network at a time when vampires, reality shows and long-arc narratives dominate the small screen. A season of failed new sitcoms and the end of 30 Rock and The Office recently led BuddyTV.com to call 2012-2013 “The Year the Sitcom Died.” CBS’ decision to let Fred Durst develop and star in a new show is unlikely to change this trajectory.
“Goofy f#@kin‘ move”
“Making a new sitcom is so hard because the [networks] want results so fast,” Ansari remarks. “With the sitcom format, it takes time to get into a groove. Look at something like Parks. We really got into our groove in the second season. The reason the show stayed on the air is because we had the pedigree of Greg Daniels and Mike Schur, who did The Office, and we had Amy [Poehler] in the lead. If we didn’t have that stuff, who is to say they wouldn’t have pulled the plug the first season. The show would never have developed into what it is now. If you are doing a new sitcom, so many things are stacked against you. Good luck to anyone doing a network sitcom. That seems like a very hard thing that has just gotten harder.”
Parks and Recreation will likely shoot a sixth season, but there is no guarantee. The ratings do not reflect the critical acclaim. However, Ansari does seem guaranteed a film career. He segued a breakout part in Judd Apatow’s Funny People into several more roles, including the upcoming apocalyptic comedy This is the End with James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Danny McBride.
Whatever the case, the comedian is a long way from his Southern hometown with a population south of 10,000. Ansari was the only Indian-American in his high school, and next to his yearbook photo, he declared, “Don’t gain the world and lose your soul cause wisdom is better than silver and gold.” Was that from the Vedas or Quran? No, he’s quoting Bob Marley.
“I don’t know, man,” laughs Ansari with obvious embarrassment. “I do a joke in Buried Alive about all the dumb decisions you make when you are a young kid. Think about all the things you firmly believed, and then you get older and think, ‘Oh, that was dumb.’ This is a perfect example. Back then I was like, ‘Oh yeah, a Bob Marley quote!’ Now I think that was a goofy f#@kin‘ move.”