In the new 20th Anniversary Issue of Dazed & Confused, the comic chats about the evolution of his craft, plus the impact of goths, R Kelly, Nirvana, and, er, Jason Statham, on his career
The day we spoke to one of America’s funniest comedians, Aziz Ansari, he topped one million followers on Twitter. In the style of his gangsta rap alter ego Raaaaaaaandy, we were ready to crack open the Cristal, get a gang of strippers, jump in the jacuzzi and shoot semi-automatic weapons at the moon in celebration. But no, the 28-year-old star of Parks and Recreation was feeling more reserved and fancied a chat about how he’s gone from doing open mics in New York to selling out Carnegie Hall and hosting the MTV Awards in less than five years.
He also wanted to intellectually marinate on his new bank heist flick with Jesse Eisenberg and Danny McBride called 30 Minutes Or Less. Luckily we managed to squeeze in some hot talk about R.Kelly, Waka Flocka Flame, Justin Bieber, Jason Statham and, err, Ellen DeGeneres...
Dazed & Confused: How has your comedy evolved? Did you suck at the beginning?
Aziz Anzari: Yeah, I think everyone is terrible for the first few years, but I was comfortable on stage and had a good stage presence. I just hit ten years and I feel like I’m way better than I’ve been before.
D&C: What subjects were you talking about when you first came out?
Aziz Anzari: Random things, like I did one about gay marriage – about how this guy who was a senator somewhere said something like, ‘If your neighbour marries a box turtle that doesn’t affect your everyday life, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.’ I thought it was so weird that he would use this image of a box turtle for his analogy, and what that says about him and his own personal sexual preferences. The stuff I’m writing now is like how a lot of my friends are having babies, and why that’s terrifying to me. I couldn’t imagine having a baby in my life right now! I’m also terrified of marriage.
D&C: Talking of marriage, traditionally a lot of your comedy has been about your inability to score. Surely fame has helped on that front?
Aziz Anzari: I’m not going to be like, ‘Oh man, I’m getting laid all the time!’ because I’d sound like a douchebag. In my stand-up, I focus on the negatives but that doesn’t mean I’m like this sad, lonely guy or something. I’m doing fine. I’m fine. But stand-up is much more interesting to talk about when things don’t go well.
D&C: A critic once called you ruthlessly efficient. Have you always taken a nerd’s approach to comedy?
Aziz Anzari: I don’t think it’s a nerd’s approach, anyone I know that’s successful in their field is a workaholic, they love what they do and they do it all the time. You can be a stand-up and do stand-up twice a week, and you could be fine, or you could be out there doing several sets a night and you’re going to be better if you do that. I don’t see any reason to be lazy about it if it’s something I enjoy doing.
D&C: You’re very serious about comedy. Do you see comedy as pure business? Has that taken the joy out of it for you?
Aziz Anzari: No, because I still drop into comedy clubs. I don’t do any of the business end. I’ll go to a comedy club and it’s an audience of 800 or so and then I tour theatres with 2000 or so people and that’s so much fun. It’s a great luxury to be able to tour in that way now. When I did my last tour I got to do Carnegie Hall – that was pretty amazing. I started off doing stand-up at open mics in New York and all these terrible things, and then one day you sell out Carnegie Hall. It felt amazing to be able to do that. I could really feel a sense of progress in what I’d done. It meant a lot to me.
D&C: Surely appearing on Ellen’s chat show was also a real high point for you?
Aziz Ansari: I don’t know if that was a high point but she’s nice. Being on Letterman was another high point. I watched him as a kid, so being on his show definitely meant a lot to me.
D&C: Have you ever gone on a chat show and felt like not talking?
Aziz Anzari: If you do that, you don’t get booked again. You’ll have failed as a comedian. It’s not that much of a reserve, it’d be pretty lazy to go, ‘Thanks for having me on David Letterman but I’m kinda tired and don’t wanna talk right now.’ If you don’t have that much discipline, then I don’t know if you should be in the business.
D&C: A lot of people call you the ‘hipster’s comedian.’ Is that good or bad?
Aziz Anzari: I don’t really think that means anything. I do my shows and I don’t see just a bunch of kids with glasses and Belle And Sebastian CDs. I’d rather just be thought of as a good, smart comedian rather than something like a hipster comedian.
D&C: Shows like Parks And Recreation and Eastbound And Down came out of the leftfield. Do you think American comedy has gone through a resurgence in the last few years?
Aziz Anzari: I think it’s kind of amazing that shows like Parks, Eastbound, Tim And Eric and 30 Rock are able to exist. I think people’s immediate reaction is, ‘It’s garbage, it’s not good!’ I would say the fact that shows like Parks and 30 Rock are popular is testament to the fact that people like smart comedy. I don’t think it’s that people are opening up to it more but there’s a big difference between there being three major networks and 300 channels – there’s way more content.
D&C: 30 Minutes Or Less is your first starring role. Out of all the stories that you could have chosen, what was it about this one that really grabbed your goat?
Aziz Anzari: When you get all these comedy scripts, most of them are pretty terrible. This was one of the few I read that I thought was really funny. I thought that the director, Ruben Fleischer, the guy who did Zombieland was good. All the factors that you can control when you’re doing a movie were in a good spot for this, so I felt pretty good about it and that’s why I did it.
D&C: I love that Danny’s McBride’s ringtone in the film is Slayer’s ‘Angel of Death’. What’s your ringtone of choice?
Aziz Anzari: Anything by Waka Flocka Flame.
D&C: Waka! You’re also a massive fan of R Kelly. Is ‘Real Talk’ the best song ever?
Aziz Anzari: That’s a pretty amazing song. Number One: John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. Number Two: R Kelly’s ‘Real Talk’.
D&C: This issue is part of our 20th birthday celebrations. I’m going to read out a few names from the last 20 years and you’ve got to describe how they make you feel. First up, Nirvana.
Aziz Anzari: Love Nirvana. My favourite band ever. My favourite Nirvana song is probably ‘Drain You’.
D&C: Jason Statham.
Aziz Anzari: Jason Statham! I was meeting with some writers the other day and they said, ‘What kind of movie do you want to do?’ I was like, ‘Come up with an idea for me and Statham. That’s what I want to do. Let’s do a Statham movie right now!’ He’s probably got to drive somewhere really fast and beat someone up, and I’m driving with him for some reason and annoying him. That would probably be the movie.
D&C: Justin Bieber.
Aziz Anzari: Whenever I think about him, I think about riots and things like that. I just think about kids jumping on him and beating him up because they’re going so crazy with excitement. It’s scary to think about Bieber and what he has to go through every day.
Aziz Anzari: Probably my favourite band when I was in my early teens. I used to play the guitar all the time. The albums I listened to most were Ride The Lightning, Master of Puppets and ... And Justice For All. I can still play some of those guitar solos now. I can play the solo to ‘One’.
D&C: If you were at a party and you had to impress someone and there’s a guitar lying there, would you do ‘Nothing Else Matters’?
Aziz Anzari: I could do that, but I think the only people I would impress would be some weird 23-year-old kid wearing black who has smelly hair.
D&C: They’re pretty hard to impress.
Aziz Anzari: True.
D&C: What were you doing in 1991?
Aziz Anzari: In 1991 I was eight years old and I was living in South Carolina. I was probably dancing around to ‘Beat It’ by Michael Jackson.
D&C: You just had a cameo in Jay-Z and Kanye’s video for “Otis”. Do you ever feel star struck?
Aziz Anzari: Every now and then you meet someone like Jay-Z and you can’t help but freak out a little bit. But eventually you realise he’s just a guy.
D&C: What do you think the folks back in South Carolina make of your success?
Aziz Anzari: I don’t know what anyone else makes of it but I guess you don’t expect someone from a small town in South Carolina to do those things. I guess it’s kind of surprising in that regard. I’m just happy that I’ve been able to maintain a career that I really enjoy and hope I can continue to maintain it.
TIM NOAKES is deputy editor of DAZED & CONFUSED. He also edits the website SOCIAL STEREOTYPE
Dazed & Confused's October issue, 'Come Together: 20th Anniversary Special', is out now. Click HERE to check out the other, already published, Q&As celebrating the issue
Photography MICHAEL HAUPTMAN