In Aziz Ansari’s most recent stand-up special Live At Madison Square Garden, the observational comic mined such heavy topics as the meat industry, love and dating, and immigrant parents—and managed to get all the laughs. His timely takes on everyday things in an ever-maddening world has since led to an academic-lite—though humorous—relationship book, Modern Romance, that Penguin released earlier this month. Next up is his untitled comedy series, also for Netflix, which he’s co-executive producing with Parks And Recreation veterans Alan Yang, Michael Schur and David Miner. Things have been so busy for Ansari, who in February ended a seven-season stint as a regular on Parks And Rec, that he almost missed out on casting his Emmy nomination ballot this week. We caught up with the actor-comedian as he was driving around Nashville just after he finished shooting the last of his 10-episode series order.
You’ve had a good run with your stand-up shows on Netflix. How did the plans for filming one at Madison Square Garden come about?
I had a good experience doing Buried Alive. For my next tour I was getting to the point where I could do arenas, and I booked the tour at the Garden. As I was trying to figure out where I was going to film (the special) I thought I would do it at a theater again, like in Toronto or something. And then I was talking to Chris Rock and he was like, “You’re an idiot. Film your special at the Garden.” And I was like, “Oh, OK. That makes sense.” So I switched it. It’s the first special I directed. I did the editing on Buried Alive; I worked a lot on that one. So I think that’s a great help when you’re trying to figure out how to direct these specials, you know what shots you like and stuff. When I performed it, I did two shows at the Garden. It was a crazy night. I was really happy with the special. After I had it in order, we put it on Netflix.
So you did the show first and then brought it to Netflix?
Well, I had pretty much known I was going to do it for Netflix, but yeah, with all these specials I kind of do them and give them to whomever.
Did you adjust the writing, directing and performing aspects of Live to accommodate the differences in scale, venue-wise?
For the writing it’s pretty much the same process. You write your bits in small rooms, dropping them in comedy clubs, working on stuff. And then you start taking it out to theaters, getting it to be like a show. And on this tour, I did a few arenas (before filming at MSG), and it’s definitely different than doing stand-up in theaters. There’s a little bit of a learning curve to figure out how to properly do an arena. Any time stand-ups get to that level, it’s pretty insane. All these people are coming just to see one person speak on a stage.
At what point did you realize you had enough material about dating and relationships—stuff you knew was resonating with audiences—that it would work for a serious book? You hung out with Sherry Turkle, director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self—that’s pretty legit.
She was in L.A. and she came to a show and saw me do the (bit) where I read people’s text messages. And then the next day, we hung out all day in L.A. and just talked about this stuff for such a long time. And it was such an interesting conversation. I was like, “Oh, man, it’s really fun to talk to academics about the kind of issues and ideas I’m exploring about how we communicate and how courtship has changed with technology.” Later I booked a small show and I invited all these book publishers and did a show that was really heavy on the romance stuff. After the show I met with all the publishers and I was like, “You know, I want to do this as a book, and I want to write it with a sociologist.” The people at Penguin really got it and the editor there, Scott Moyers, really seemed to get what I was trying to do and really believed in the idea. And he linked me up with Eric Klinenberg, who is my co‑author on the book. It was little bit of a gamble on Penguin’s part but I think they saw my show and could tell I was able to connect with people on this issue, and that I would figure it out. And it worked. I think the book came out really well and I’m really proud of it.
Are you going to keep evolving this modern dating material or have you moved on?
Creatively, I like to keep moving and work on the next thing that I’m excited about. So right now my head’s all up in the TV show, which has some of that stuff but it’s really about a bunch of other things as well.
What can you tell us about your new series?
We’re about to go into editing. I just finished shooting today, 10 episodes. We didn’t announce (anything about the show) for a long time because we didn’t have a title. And then it kind of just got out. But we still don’t have a title. (Laughs.) It’s so weird. It will come together. The show’s turning out really good, so that’s the important part. We can title it something later.
Where are you positioning it in the TV comedy landscape?
I think, tonally, what we’re going for is more like 1970s comedies that are kind of grounded, really funny, but talk about real things—The Heartbreak Kid, the Elaine May version, and Tootsie, Manhattan, Annie Hall, Hal Ashby stuff like Shampoo. Even in the way we’re shooting it we’re trying to have a different tone than most of the single-camera comedies—it’s not like Parks, documentary style—but we’re trying to make it a little more naturalistic in feel. But the way we wrote it is, we started writing like a group, like an ensemble, and then we were like, “You know what? It’s hard.” On Parks there were so many characters. So for this we were like, “Let’s focus on my guy, and we’ll bring in all the people as we need them.” There’s kind of a repertory group of people that come in and out, but it’s not like an ensemble show. Now it’s just me and Noel [Wells]—who plays my love interest—for a whole episode. Or there’s an episode about my parents and it’s a lot of me and my dad. And my real dad plays my dad. (Laughs.) He’s really good… That’s the thing about this show—it’s deeply personal. I treated it like the way I would treat stand-up. Like, what are things that I really want to talk about and figure out? And me and Alan Yang, the person who’s showrunning with me and created it with me, we really wanted to make it something personal and not just something that was just funny but really said stuff that was interesting and explored ideas that we were passionate about.
What is it like working in the Netflix model?
It’s great. We didn’t even pitch this to any traditional networks. I kind of refused to do it. I don’t want to work in that environment. So many friends of mine have done that stuff and it just seems like a process that’s not fun. And I think people are able to do it and some people make good shows. But I’m so used to working from a mode of stand-up where it’s like, I write something. I work on it. Audiences think it’s funny. I film it. And then I give it to Netflix, and they put it on. That’s why I was excited to partner with Netflix because they seemed like they were creative and friendly. There are little things you don’t even think about—there’s no commercials. You don’t have to get an episode to exactly 30 minutes. In editing it’s so much help. When you’re editing a Parks episode, it will be like, “Well, we have a commercial break here so we’ve got to find 40 seconds to cut.” Weird, little tasks like that are just kind of gone. And so this feels like 10 little movies that have different lengths, there’s a through line, there is a serialization, and there’s a payoff.
You were the first actor cast on Parks And Rec. How do you feel about how it ended and when it ended?
When I first started I really was just banking on Mike Schur and Greg Daniels. That was a pretty safe bet to make. What was interesting about that show was seeing how it evolved from how it started out as a spinoff of The Office. It kind of evolved into its own thing by Season 2 as all the actors grew into their roles. That ensemble was just… everyone was a killer. It was pretty crazy. I just loved that cast and I would watch the show with any one of those people as the main character. Everyone always was fun energy to have on set. Something that we try to take to our new show is just that positive atmosphere, which, I think, makes a big difference. When people enjoy working on a show they do better work. As far as how (Parks) ended, I think it ended at a good time. It was smart to only do 13 episodes the last season. You don’t want to drag these things out too much because it’s so hard to keep coming up with sh*t for these people to do. I mean, what other combination, what else can these people go through?
This has been a busy year, with the end of Parks, you directing your first stand-up special, writing the book and now showrunning your new series. Is that all flexing the same muscles, are you on a steep learning curve now?
What I realized is that stand-up is a good fuel for everything. The TV show, I think what’s helpful when you’re writing these kinds of things is having a point of view and having a take on certain experiences from your life. And stand-up, especially if you’re doing a style that’s autobiographical, you’re mining your personal experience to find out what kind of observations and experience resonate with people. And it’s really easy to take that and transfer it into a narrative. And I’m not talking about: my character pauses and does one of my bits from my stand-up. That was something we were very aware of and didn’t want to do, but more the ideas. Like, we talk about my parents. We did a whole episode about my parents and you see flashbacks to my dad in India. And we talk about Alan’s parents and his dad in Taiwan as a kid. But the seed of that was me kind of doing that bit and realizing, “Oh, this idea of how kids of immigrants are totally unaware of these incredible journeys their parents take to give them a great life”—that started there, but to take that and put it into a narrative, it’s very helpful to know that that idea resonates, and it’s a good starting point.
With your stand-up you’re able to test bits in comedy clubs with real audiences. What’s the equivalent when you’re writing the series?
With a narrative show, the only kind of equivalent you have is your table reads. And then you kind of go with your gut. And you can screen stuff the way you test-screen movies. I think you just have to work with the tools you have. And it’s definitely a totally different thing than doing stand-up and knowing, “Boom, boom, boom, boom.” But you can kind of feel it when you’re blocking. But it’s tough. You get to the performance and you’re like, “Am I just tired of this because I’ve seen it and heard it so many times, or is it really not funny? I don’t know.” That’s definitely a challenge that I hadn’t encountered.
To see more of Ansari in Live At Madison Square Garden, which is competing in the Outstanding Variety Special Emmy category, click play below: