Unmasked with Aziz Ansari
You already know Aziz Ansari from his huge standup career, and from shows like “Human Giant” and “Parks and Recreation” and the movie “30 Minutes or Less”. Aziz sat down with host Ron Bennington for an hour to talk about his career so far, in front of a live studio audience at the UCB Theater. A few excerpts from the interview appear below.
The interview will air in its entirety on SiriusXM satellite radio on the Opie and Anthony Channel (XM 105, Sirius 206) on Saturday July 14 at 4am, 11am and 6pm, on Sunday July 15 at 10am, on Stars Too (SiriusXM 104) on Sunday July 15 at 11pm and on the Opie and Anthony Channel on Sunday July 15 at midnight. Next weekend, Raw Dog Comedy (SiriusXM 99) will run the special on Saturday July 21 at 8pm and UCB Radio (Sirius XM 406) at 2am. All times are Eastern time.
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Ron Bennington: We are here at the UCB theater, where basically you got your start, right? In the early days.
Aziz Ansari: Kind of, yeah. I started out at some clubs, I was doing stand-up like open mics and things like that. And then I heard about the UCB and they were doing some standup shows and I started doing shows. But yeah but I didnt really do UCB until I had been doing standup for a couple of years.
Ron Bennington: From the outside, what’s happened with you seems like it’s just been a rocket. From when you were a kid to now, we’re not talking about that much time, you know?
Aziz Ansari: I dunno, I’ve been doing standup …I started comedy a little more than eleven years ago, so that’s a decent amount of time.
Ron Bennington: Well it is, but most of the comedians who do this show say it takes about ten years until you really kind of feel like you know who you are, and yet you jumped ahead of that curve.
Aziz Ansari: I do feel like, my most recent tour that I’m doing now, I wrote all that after I’d been doing it ten years and I feel like I’m a much better performer. I feel like I’ve heard people say the big marks are like seven years and ten years. I was at the comedy cellar, working on material– I just dropped in and Chris Rock had dropped in also, and he was working on stuff. And we were just talking about how we were both trying to work on new material, he was trying to put together a new hour and I was telling him the same thing. I was like, “Oh man this was when I finally hit ten years and I feel like I’ve definitely made a jump.” And he’s like, “oh, wait until you hit like twenty five years.” And I was like, oh fuck that’s so long from now! I’m going to be garabage till then.” You look at like him and Louie, and they’ve been doing standup as long as I’ve been a human being. I’ve been living life as long as they’ve been on stages trying to do standup, so you know, it’s kind of humbling.
Ron Bennington: That’s also the beauty of it that you’ve kind of made that move, because, well Chris hit pretty young but when Louie…you know, now is just becoming that household name and he’s been doing this twenty-some plus years. Was it intimidating to you when you first started to feel this thing taking off? Or were you comfortable with it?
Aziz Ansari: I dunno when does it start taking off? I have just always kind of felt– with standup especially it’s always kind of the same thing. You’re going to these comedy clubs or comedy rooms and you’re just trying to write jokes that work really well and try to get them as good as possible. And that process never ends. After you do a tour, you have to wipe the slate clean and start over and you start with nothing, just as if you’re doing open mic for the first time, only now you obviously have a lot of experience. But as far as stuff taking off, I don’t know, I don’t think about that.
Ron Bennington: I think it’s great that there’s some young comedian out there knowing right now that it never gets better. Basically what you’re saying…it’s still as hard as shit and it never really feels good.
Aziz Ansari: I was talking to this other comic– Hannibal– he’s a good friend of mine, and there’s such a small sweet spot of like….you know I’m doing this new tour now, I’m so excited. I feel like it’s my best hour, and I’m kind of like, hypothetically midway, three fourths of the way through touring it, and I was like, “oh fuck, it’s dead and I’ve got to start over again.” You only have one brief little moment where it’s like “I’m doing this in theaters! Everyone loves it! It’s awesome! ” and then nobody wants to hear it again. So what else do you have to say? And it’s very scary. It’s a scary thing to decide to do long term.
Ron Bennington: It’s so different for everybody else in show business. Like if you’re a musician and you get Sweet Home Alabama, you’re like, wait, and now we added Freebird? Boom, my life is done.
Aziz Ansari: I remember one time I went to this thing– it was some event where Sting was performing. And Sting came up there and I was like ‘Oh shit Sting!’ And Sting came up there and was like, Every Breath You Take. And I was like, “Fuck you Sting. Heard that song before, bro. It’s not new to me. What about the new ladies in your life. What do you think about life now that you’re a much older man? Now that you’re settled down do you have any new viewpoints on this woman? I’ve heard this take before. I know where this is going.” You start shouting out the lyrics. “Yeah…every move she makes. I know. I know. Let me guess…you’ll be watching her. You’ll be watching her? Yeah. That’s what I thought.”
Ron Bennington: But the thing is, for him, he can’t do any new material or people will be pissed. It’s like the exact opposite.
Aziz Ansari: To an extent though. When you go to comedy shows, people hear certain things you’ve done and they want to hear that again, kind of. People shout out bits that they’ve heard before at different comedian shows. (guy shouts from audience). Yes, this guy gave a perfect example shouting a character I did in a movie…four years ago. Patton. Patton Oswalt’s audience wants to hear him talk about KFC bowls. Louis C.K. you want to hear him talk about Bag of Dicks. So you still kind of have that.
That’s why in the second special I did, I kind of did like an update. Like, I did a bit about my cousin Harris in my first special and people liked that. In the second special I was like, well….I have this thing now about how I helped him write this college essay, I think that’s really funny, I’ll put that as an update. And then for the third one, I was like, no. I’m not going to do anything similar to what I’ve done in the past, I’ve gotta just move on. Cause I don’t know, you just don’t want people to be able to say “oh that’s the guy that talks about those things.” I don’t think you ever want to become that if you’re like a musician or a comedian or anything. I think it’s really important to kind of totally change people’s expectations about what you talk about. Even in the second special I did…like in the first special I never talked about dating or anything like that. In the second special, it starts off like, oh I’m going to do dating material. Which is something I didn’t think I would and then I did. And then the new one I’m touring I talk about things like babies and marriage and things like that, that I’ve never talked about before. I think that’s important to do if you’re a comedian.
Ron Bennington: Where did you get that from though. When did you decide? Cause you could have– you know this is true– you could have just toured as Randy and that would have been it and people would have been happy. You’re Randy the cable guy and people are just calling you Randy wherever you go. And you could have made a lot of money doing that.
Aziz Ansari: I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s as easy to do as you’d think. Writing the Randy stuff is hard. It sounds like it’s pretty easy. But to keep peopel’s attention…but if there’s no substance to it. If it’s just like…. “what’s uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuup” that will go for about a minute. But then it’s got to be that and clever. Those Randy Bits that are in the Funny People Extra– the one in the movie is a variation of a joke I wrote when I was just doing my regular stand up– that Cold Stone Bit. But the ones in the shorts, like the one about how he goes down on a woman in a hot tub and stuff..you could whisper those jokes and they work. They’re funny jokes. But when you say them with that absurd tone and add air horns and shit like that, it makes it sillier and funnier, but there is writing behind it. So if you did an hour of that you’d still have to write a whole act. And I don’t want to talk about getting my dick sucked for an hour. I don’t think anybody wants to hear any guy talk about that for an hour. If you can do that for an hour and make it interesting, go for it. I think it’d be really tough. So yeah. And whenever you come to see someone on tour, like you don’t know. You just see a poster for a tour– it says Buried Alive– you have no clue. It could be that. So people are coming and are like, “well I hope it’s funny, the other stuff was funny, I’m just judging by that.” You don’t know. You have no preview.
Ron Bennington: Do you ever think..I’ll pull something out from the old days? Or you just make sure you get rid of it. When you’re in trouble, I’m sure you know you can just say ‘Harris’ and have them back for at least a second.
Aziz Ansari: If I go on a tour, by then I have an hour and fifteen that I’m pretty sure is going to do really well or else I wouldn’t book the tour.
Ron Bennington: But you’re ready to walk into a club and go, we’ll see what happens…
Aziz Ansari: Oh in a club? I mean the whole beauty of that is you go in, especially in New York and L.A., if you drop in at UCB or you drop in at the Comedy Cellar, people are kind of used to this idea of oh, okay he’s here working stuff out and that’s the deal. So you don’t feel like a pressure of like, oh everything has to be that strong. But you still try to give people a show and maybe end strong. But I remember like one of the first things I saw, I came to New York and I’d never been to a comedy show before, like a live comedy show, and I went to the Comedy Cellar, and I was going there a lot just watching people and just trying to learn what I could from watching people like Attell and Giraldo, who are always at the Comedy Cellar. And Chris Rock dropped in and he just did 30 minutes and bombed and couldn’t care less. Just didn’t care. And it was the coolest thing to see– like he just doesn’t care. And he was like, “well that’s it, I’ll see you later.” And I was like, “oh shit, that was awesome! That was cooler than seeing him kill.” But it’s interesting cause, that whole witnessing people dropping in is such a fascinating thing. Cause at places like the Comedy Cellar, like Seinfeld will drop in, Chapelle, Chris Rock. And now I’ve become a dude that drops in, or Louie. And it’s interesting because people will go up and everyone’s so fucking psyched. They’re like “Oh shit it’s the dude from the TV thing yes!!!” And you’re like, “alright, calm down, it’s just me reading from a notebook. It’s going to be…lower the expectations. Let’s all dial down the excitement. You’re all going to leave and say I’m garbage. So don’t worry about it, it’s fine.” It’s fun cause, what happens is, you go up, and that kind of excitement carries you for a little bit, when people are like, “ha ha! Yes! The guy! Yeah!” and it doesn’t really matter what you’re saying for the first minute or so. But then they’re just like, “What? No. I’m not excited anymore. I’ve seen your face for a little while. I’m accustomed to now being in front of your face. You’ve got to have some substance here.” And that’s what makes it great. Eventually you’re brought down. At first you might start off with an advantage from people recognizing you from tv or movies or whatever. But after a few minutes, that goes away and you’re back to nothing and you have to earn your laughs, and make sure they work. Make sure the jokes actually do work everywhere.
Ron Bennington: So it’s really about material for you 100% of the time. You’ve got to have the material that you’re happy with.
Aziz Ansari: Yeah. If you’re going out to these theaters. And you’re performing for like two, three thousand people, it’s a dream. You’re performing in these beautiful venues, you want to bring it. You want to have a great show that people really like and leave and they’re like, “Wow that was even better than the last time I came to see him on tour.”
Ron Bennington: When you were a kid growing up in South Carolina, did you see standup on tv. Were there people that you dug?
Aziz Ansari: I remember always liking the idea of standup. Like if stand up was on tv, I’d watch it for a little while, I’d be interested in it. And I remember renting Delirious when I was really young. In High School, Bringing the Pain and Bigger and Blacker…those two Chris Rock Specials, I still know every single word to them. And I still listen to them every now and then just because I feel like they were so great. Those were like the biggest influence for me when I was in highschool and early college and everything.
Ron Bennington: And then that became weird because right away when you came to New York, it’s like, there’s the guy.
Aziz Ansari: It was the craziest thing. To see him…that was when I was like first going to the comedy clubs, just watching and trying to learn stuff. To see him standing out in the hallway, it was like “holy shit! This is nuts!”
Ron Bennington: And it wasn’t the kind of standup that kind of broke you through first, right? Getting to tv was more the Human Giant right?
Aziz Ansari: But that was a combination– I had been doing standup a bunch, and I kind of started getting some press. I got that– Rolling Stone picks a hot comic every year– I got that.
Ron Bennington: Was that weird to you though?
Aziz Ansari: Yeah. I mean it’s crazy. It doesn’t make sense. Again I was just doing it in this bubble and just trying to get good for my own competitive reasons of wanting to be good at something. I have a very obsessive personality. I remember in high school they got a foosball table and I was like, “I want to get really good at foosball.” I played it the first time, I didn’t know anything about it, I was horrible. And someone was telling me…there was this one kid that knew a little bit, he was like, “yeah you’re not supposed to like spin. You have to do this…” and I was like, “I’m going to make it my goal to beat everyone at foosball.” And then I did. But that gets you nowhere. So…
Ron Bennington: No one wants to sit around and talk about your foosball career with you.
Aziz Ansari: So I’d been doing standup for awhile, and then started getting some heat with the Rolling Stone thing. HBO had a comedy festival called Aspen Comedy Festival. I won some award there. And so that was like..the period where people were like, “what do you want to do, do you want to do some sort of tv thing?” And I had these short films that I’d made with these other guys, Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer and this director Jason Woliner. We’d made these short films and MTV saw the short films and they were like, “why don’t you guys do a pilot for a sketch show based on these.” We didn’t even pitch them, they just set a meeting with us, we want you guys to do a pilot for a sketch show, just make short films like this we think it’s great. And so we did, never thinking it would get picked up because it was MTV and they were– it’s still not their programming. And we did two seasons of it. And people were always asking why’d they cancel it. They didn’t cancel it. They asked us to do a third season but we said no because we wanted to work on different stuff but it was a really fun experience.
Ron Bennington: What does this look like to the people that you grew up with back in South Carolina.
Aziz Ansari: I know, I guess in South Carolina, you don’t think about the idea of like acting…that’s like Bruce Willis and his friends, I’m not involved. So to see someone on tv, I don’t know I guess it’s pretty crazy.
Ron Bennington: They don’t look like us, they don’t act like us…they’re different.
Aziz Ansari: And I did it in a way where I was in college….and I started doing standup while I was in college and then by the time I graduated, etc… I mean god I have so much respect for people who have the courage to be like, “I’M MOVING TO NEW YORK AND I’M GOING TO BECOME A COMEDIAN” Like, that sounds CRAZY! I don’t care if you’ve got the most talent in the world, you’re going to sound stupid saying that to people. They’re going to be like, sure you are, Seinfeld. Good luck. Or like, “I’M GOING TO GO TO HOLLYWOOD AND MAKE IT AS AN ACTOR!” That’s a crazy statement! Maybe you are, but probably not. That takes a lot of courage to be able to say that. To do that, God, I have so much respect. I want to be clear, I’m not making fun of people. I’m saying I have a tremendous amount of respect and courage cause I would be too scared to do that.
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These were just excerpts, you can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.