INTERVIEW: Shooting the Breeze With Aziz Ansari

Comedian and actor Aziz Ansari returns to Philadelphia this week after filming his last special, Buried Alive,” at the Kimmel’s Merriam Theater in 2013. This time he’s moving to a much bigger venue, the Wells Fargo Center, on Friday, September 26th. We caught up with him this week via an email chat to see what to expect from this latest go round, titled simply Aziz Ansari: Live!

Photo by Lucas Michael

Photo by Lucas Michael

A couple years back, you added a few extra shows to the last leg of your tour—one of which was here in Philly, where you ended up filming your most recent special, “Buried Alive.” Anything particular about this city that drew you back, or was the Kimmel Center just really, really telegenic?

The first shows I did there were really fun. I loved the crowd, and the Kimmel Center is a really beautiful theater. As soon I as saw it, I knew it was a contender for a place to film a special. I knew if we could come back and do it again and film it, I’d be happy with the special. And I was.

Given your penchant for experiencing the hometown cuisine of every city you hit, where are you excited to eat once you cross to our side of the Ben Franklin Bridge? 

I honestly don’t want to say the places, because what if the Aziz murderer is reading this?!

There’s been a lot of talk of the thematic break between your first two specials and your most recent one. Where “Intimate Moments” and “Dangerously Delicious” favored more jovial, observational comedy, “Buried Alive” felt more personal, reflective and revealing. Why the sharp turn? Any sources of outward inspiration, or do you think of it as complementing a personal step in your own life?

I just grew older and also grew as a comedian. My first special was written between the ages of 23 and 26. Dangerously Delicious was written and filmed soon after. I didn’t have too much going on that was serious [at that time]. But during “Buried Alive,” I’m 29 and my life is changing. I see friends getting married and having children. You realize, “Holy shit, I’m an adult. I have to figure my life out.” It’s a strange moment that a lot of people have, and that special tries to live in that moment and in those fears and concerns.

This new special, I hope, goes even deeper. Not only about relationships, but new topics that I never hit before. At one point, the whole show was just about relationships and love—the whole hour-and-a-half. That was cool, but then I thought, “Maybe I should add some variety to the topics.” So I wrote 30 more minutes, and its some of my favorite stuff. I hit topics I never would have had the skill to handle a few years ago. And I personally think it’s my best set I’ve toured.

If your Instagram’s any indication, the new tour is upping the stakes in production value. What’s it like to do a comedy show like that? Is it refreshing having seemingly limitless resources in a large-scale tour after so many drop-in sets at the Comedy Cellar? Or is there something you lose out on in upgrading venues?

It’s strange going from such vastly different sized venues, but I really enjoy both. I did a run of shows for the Oddball Comedy Tour, where [I played to] almost 20,000 [some nights]. Then that next weekend I was doing shows at the Punchline in San Francisco, which is about 120. Both were a lot of fun for me, despite being so vastly different.

It’s really fun to have a blend of both. It’s one area where comedians win over musicians. Once you’re a huge musician you don’t get those tiny club gigs, but as a comic, if you hit a certain level, you can drop in at any small show anywhere and work.

The large shows are fun, because the scale of it is just insane. For arenas, I deliberately avoided them early on, because I thought arenas and comedy didn’t work well together. … But then, I really wanted to do Madison Square Garden. I just had to do it and didn’t know if I’d ever get the chance again.

So, I tried to figure out a way to make arenas fun. I thought about all the crazy arena tours I’d seen—from “Watch the Throne” to Beyoncé to Daft Punk—and I figured there must be a way to do something more interesting. So then I met with the people who worked on those shows, and I believe we figured out a way to make the experience—and the visuals—work in a way that makes it really cool and different.

As far as the drop-in sets, that’s always there and it’s always fun and less-stressful than worrying about the stuff in arenas. … Doing an insane arena show for 8,000 people with visuals and dropping in for 80 people in a basement in New York and seeing them go apeshit … they both are equally fun for me.

You released a special in 2012, 2013, and are obviously back on the road again this year. Between balancing your role in Parks and Recreation with a pretty steady career in movies, what’s driving you at this point to keep generating new material? Is there any one aspect of your career you wish you could downplay in favor of standup?

Standup is the most fun and it’s the most my voice. In Parks and movies, I’m just an actor playing a part. I’m not getting to talk about ideas that are interesting to me. Standup is my only forum for that and I wouldn’t want to give it up. I deliberately have downplayed movies in favor of standup because I realized I had no interest in wasting time shooting mediocre or bad movies when I could invest my time into writing and touring standup that I know I’ll be proud of. I’ve tried developing my own scripts and it’s such a slow, boring process. Next year, I’m 90-percent sure I’m filming a project that I’m as passionate about as my standup, but in the meantime, to me, selling out Madison Square Garden and doing an hour-and-a-half of standup there, is cooler than starring in any movies that I could have done in the past few years.

Aziz Ansari: Live! takes place Friday, September 26th, at 8 p.m. More information and tickets can be found here