Aziz Ansari, Variety’s Power of Comedy honoree of the year, fits the bill perfectly in both timeliness and social import, says Mike Schur, co-creator of “Parks and Recreation.” “There aren’t very many funny people like Aziz Ansari in the world,” Schur says. “His breadth and width of ideas — he’s one of the funniest people in the world today.”
Schur repeats a comment made by a fellow “Parks and Recreation” writer, Alan Yang, dubbing what Ansari does as comedy investigative journalism. “He has a killer instinct not just for comedy, but things he’s interested in.”
Ansari, who will receive his honor at the Power of Comedy event on Dec. 11, says he just likes to learn about the things he talks about. “I’m a curious person,” says the South Carolina native.
When he writes his standup routine, Ansari says, “I’ll sit and think about bullet points about jokes I want to work.” Then he drops in on comedy clubs in Los Angeles or New York and tries out the routine to brush up jokes that don’t work and improvise.
The 31-year-old NYU grad started doing standup in Gotham where he was studying in 2000. He joined the Upright Citizens Brigade where his future “Parks and Recreation” co-star Amy Poehler noticed that on the nights Ansari performed he drew in a lot of customers.
Schur and “Parks and Rec” co-creator Greg Daniels discovered Ansari on the cast of “The Human Giant” and he was the first supporting player to be cast on the sitcom. As Schur says, “Technically, Amy was the first person to be cast.”
“While Mike and I didn’t know what role he would play or even which idea we were going to pursue, we were both excited by Aziz and decided to commit to hiring him as our first cast member and making sure there was a good role for him in whatever the show would turn out to be,” Daniels says.
“Part of our idea for him was that his character is reinventing himself,” Schur says. “He’s a lot of other things: Indian guy from South Carolina — which is unusual — foodie, interested in fashion; the real Aziz is a lot of different things.”
From the beginning Aziz’s Indian heritage has been incidental to his comedy. “I don’t do a lot of ethnic jokes, they feel a little hacky to me,” Ansari says. “Sometimes, I do it in an interesting way, do a silly voice or whatever.” In this he points to another comedian of Indian origin, Mindy Kaling, whose ethnicity in “The Office” was also incidental to her character.
The writers allow Ansari and the rest of the cast a certain amount of leeway in improvising and then pick the best scenes while editing.
“Writing jokes for Aziz is like dealer’s choice,” Schur says. “Here’s the written joke, we think this joke is funny, but when you’re shooting say whatever is funny.”
Ansari says he doesn’t try to improvise too much because the lines are pretty funny to begin with. “You can look at the intent and line just as if you were a writer on the show,” he says. “You can try and beat the joke, it’s not super difficult so long as you make up stuff that works, driving the plot some way.”
Daniels says in season 1 of the NBC comedy, Ansari came in with the idea that his character Tom Haverford would be into “peacocking,” from “The Game.”
“We had the wardrobe department find a bunch of crazy old women’s hats for him to be wearing, which we had a lot of fun trying out. I feel like the joke of Tom being into the latest trendiest foolishness which became the mainstay of his character was born then.”
Besides “Parks and Rec,” which will air its final season next year, Ansari is now in the midst of a tour that started at 39 cities but has since added more locations.
“I tour a decent amount,” Ansari says. “When I have good material I tour a lot. I kind of have to do it inbetween filming shows.”
In 2012 he followed in Louis C.K.’s steps selling downloads of his special “Dangerously Delicious” for $5. Ansari recorded his “Modern Romance” show at Madison Square Garden in October which will also be available on his website as well as on Netflix. “I’m not reliant on the TV special thing,” he says.
And just last month Ansari started selling tickets for his shows on his website, again cutting out the middleman.
“I have known Aziz for a long time and I have always known him to be a step ahead of the curve when it comes to the business side and in his (on stage) act,” says Mike Berkowitz, agency partner and head of comedy at APA. “His growth is evident in everything that he does. He’s always trying to one-up the last thing that he did, whether it’s his performance or how he approaches his business, and that’s a very important piece to Aziz as an artist. The more that artists have access to their fans and vice versa the more the savvier ones are going to find ways to make it easier and more enjoyable for their fans to see them live. No one cares more about their fans than Aziz.”
Ansari also has a book coming out next year, “Modern Romance,” and is working on several different projects that he does not want to disclose just yet.
As Daniels says, “He doesn’t do stuff that other people are doing, he’s got strong comedy taste and his own point of view. He’s a great storyteller and I enjoy how his mind perceives the world.”