Thursday 2 August 2012
NY Comedy Trip: Aziz Ansari, Aziz Ansari, Aziz Ansari
Filed under Comedy
Without trying, I’ve seen Aziz Ansari three times in three nights. Not once was he slated to appear at Monday night’s Whiplash, the 8pm Tuesday show at the Comedy Cellar, or last night’s Big Terrific, but each night there were promises of a special surprise guest and each night it was Aziz Ansari. When he came on the stage Monday I was all No way! Damn, I’m so lucky! When it happened Tuesday night I thought This is very funny. I wonder how the material’s changed. Last night when he took the stage I felt like Tig Notaro running into Taylor Dayne. Oh yeah, no of course he’s here.
But really I see it as a gift he’s unwittingly given me, because if I’m here to figure out how comedians do what they do, and how jokes operate among the vast kinds of audiences in New York, nothing’s been a better master class. And Ansari has a kind of mastery over his audience.[a] You could see it in the faces of the crowd when emcees announce his name—it’s like they just unwrapped a Red Ryder BB gun. They can’t resist pulling out their phones to snap a picture, post it to friends. The moment’s on such a wildest-dreams level of implausibility that they need Likes or retweets to verify it’s actually happening.
It’s endearing but strange, this behavior. Also: distracting. Ansari often called it out. “It’s so weird doing standup in these places for people with cameras,” he said. “You get scared. Anyone of you could Tosh me or Cook me. You could do it. Don’t take photos, just see things.” It’s a gentle rebuke, keeping the audience on his side, where he needs them. This post’s going to look at Ansari’s relationship to his audiences for two reasons:
- I don’t want to write much about his jokes because it’s increasingly feeling unfair to do this to/with material comics are still working out for larger, public audiences.
- What I’ve seen him do this week is work on building a greater intimacy with his audiences, moving (as I wrote before) away from his glitzy celeb image toward one as a more pure Louis-CK-type standup comic.
That latter reason has been exciting to watch, because Ansari is so huge and so beloved. But he’s so young (he’s 29). And if you’re a fan of standup he’s so huge and so beloved for all kinds of nontangential reasons. I’ll allow this is a taste issue: I like comics who sublimate their fame, however phony such sublimation might be, to connect with audiences as equals. I don’t want to see a comic talk about how great it is to be famous, which Ansari’s done in closing his last two standup specials with stories about partying with Jay Z and Kanye West.
But I also don’t want to see a comic talk about how hard it is to be famous. Ansari treads close to this territory with a bit he’s got on not being good at remembering people. “I hate it when I meet people sometimes and I’m like, ‘Hey, good to meet you, I’m Aziz, and they’re like: ‘I’ve met you ten times before’.” This number began at 15 Monday night, got lowered to 12 Tuesday night, and as of last night was down to 10. It’s not an irrelevant edit. Some numbers are inherently funnier than others, at least in certain contexts. “Twelve times” and “Ten times” have alliteration to help. There’s also exaggeration: the more outlandish the number the funnier the bit.
But there’s a risk. We’ll allow that his being bad at remembering names and faces can be the result of a mild handicap (a la the person in a leg cast being bad at walking quickly) and not some inherent “garbage” about his character. But even still: You really don’t remember a person after meeting her 15 times? Fifteen?
It’s a lot, so these nights it’s like Ansari’s been calibrating that sweet spot between comedy and plausibility. But also managing audience sympathies. “Is anyone bad at remembering faces and names?” he asked his audience for the first time last night, and it got him supportive claps and woos. It was a smart move, because who doesn’t? And with one question Ansari’s established himself as his audience’s representative. With that, we’ll much more willingly go where he needs to take us.
Friends of mine say they get turned off when comics do crowd work, and comedy critics call it lazy, but here Ansari shows how crowd work can be vital. Maybe my favorite bit Ansari does is about ghosts, which began each night simple enough. “Has anyone ever seen a ghost?” he asks. It’s a bit whose comedy is achieved by upending our shared notions about ghosts, and for it to work it helps if he can get the room to share a notion about ghosts.
Monday and Tuesday people had seen ghosts, and so Ansari could do a little Q&A crowd work with this person. Wednesday no one had seen a ghost. “For real? No one’s seen a ghost?” At first I got nervous. It was almost like watching a kid at the science fair demonstrate the vinegar-baking soda volcano for the judges and having it not work. But Ansari’s good: “Does anyone not believe in ghosts?” he asked, and this got him a skeptic from the audience. “If a ghost could pop up right beside me would you rather that happen or not happen?” She said not happen. “Really? But that could be a story you’d tell for generations!” he said, telling such a story on the spot at his trademark manic pace. It brought us back from our collective alienation (No, Aziz, we all have never seen a ghost, okay? Move on.), but also brought us toward the right image of a ghost he needed us to put in mind for his following bit to kill. Which it did.
Maybe this is all a factor of space. UCB, Comedy Cellar, and Cameo were all small enough to see the faces of your audience, making this kind of crowd work easier than connecting with people in a large theater. Maybe Ansari has always been this good at connecting with his audience, but these nights I’ve watched a humbler and more friendly comic get laughs, and it’s been a much better show.
It’s not to say that Ansari’s lost his swagger. No. His opening bit each night is quite literally about his swagger. And his closing bit is another one about navigating rudenesses. He accidentally opens the door of a cab which already has a passenger, and rather than politely inform him of his mistake she yells at him violently. In retaliation, Ansari tells the woman he hopes she has inconveniences in her day and shuts the car door.
Not very swaggering. But then this becomes fodder for a fantasy about having such a superpower, cursing people with inconvenience. Monday night, Tuesday night, it was a fantasy: Wouldn’t it be cool if…? Last night Ansari made a small revision. He realized aloud that he should just say that he’s cursing them. “I do that without an amount of conviction I think it’ll be pretty convincing.”
So what had originally been a fun little fantasy where people get cursed with inconvenience is turned into a reality where people’s inconveniences get tied to Ansari. In the first instance he plays at having some power, but in the second he’s granted himself that power. It’s both funnier and (or perhaps because?) more to character.
One final thing. Each night I watched Ansari get off stage and immediately start flipping through his iPhone. Really? I thought. You can’t wait to get off stage to check texts and Twitter? But after the Comedy Cellar set, where twenty minutes of UCB material had been tightened expertly into ten, I realized what he was doing: stopping tape, so to speak, on his audio recording.
“Why do people have to assume I’m garbage?” Ansari asks during his rudeness bit. I, too, have been at fault. With the iPhone he wasn’t garbage, he was diligent. A comic working his ass off.
- Not for nothing has he gone unannounced all week. Kids 18 to 30some adore Ansari the way those kids’ less hip older siblings loved Dane Cook about ten years ago—he’s hard to resist, a high-energy alpha type you just really want to hang out with. (How Ansari’s established and may now be sloughing off this persona is something I hope to get at supra.) To put him on a bill would be to turn an intimate venue perfect for working out new material into a sea of fanboy cell phones set on record video.↵
2012-08-02 :: dave