On Saturday evening Aziz Ansari performed two back-to-back stand up sets to a sold out crowd in Bailey Hall. Thousands of Cornell students and Ithaca residents braved heavy snowfall and slippery roads to attend what was probably the biggest Cornell University Programming Board-organized event of the semester. As we waited for the start of the 7:00 p.m. show, the entire hall was abuzz with excitement about how funny this guy up on stage was going to be.
It’s not hard to see why, of course. Aziz Ansari is a comic who’s made it in the rapacious dog-eat-dog world of professional comedy. He’s the star of his very own NBC show — Parks and Recreation — as the show’s breakout character, the slacker bureaucrat Tom Haverford. He has had roles in well-received comedies like I Love You, Man and Judd Apatow’s Funny People. He hosted the 2010 MTV movie awards. He tours regularly on the comedy circuit and recently released his debut set Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening on Comedy Central. He’s established a distinctive comedic style of observational, anecdotal humor; one minute he could be talking about R. Kelly’s latest insane antics, the next minute he could be recounting the Facebook prank he played on his chubby cousin Harris.
Before Ansari’s grand entrance, however, there was an opening act by Dan Levy, a fellow Los Angeles-based comedian, whose routine was a mix of crass sex-obsessed and pot-fueled personal accounts and wry, irreverent observational humor. He regaled the audience with an anecdote of what happened to a friend after he ate 32 pot-filled cookies, described meeting Denzel Washington on the street and unwittingly spouting sexual innuendoes at him, recounted his various exploits surfing the web for porn and philosophized on why Radioshack was still in business when Circuit City (“A city! Of circuits! No more!”) had folded. It was about as crude and puerile as you could expect, with a little over-reliance on well-timed f-bombs to accentuate comic delivery, but it was funny, and provided a good lead into the night’s main act.
Ansari started the show with his own special method of ensuring no photography during the performance — he invited the audience to take as many pictures as they wanted of him pretending to be in the middle of telling a joke, so that they wouldn’t have to later. Sure enough, hundreds of cameras whipped up, mine included, and snapped away while Ansari stood there on the stage for a full thirty seconds, eyes bulging and mouth half-open, changing poses every ten seconds or so like some superstar before crowds of adoring paparazzi.
After that was done, Ansari began the routine proper with a few jokes about his relationship problems and failure to hit up girls at bars. “The girl’s going to be as mean as shit to me for no reason,” he bemoaned on the prospect, sounding like a whining teenager and lambasting the dumb jocks that manage to pick up girls like nothing. It’s the kind of self-deprecating narrative that you often hear repeated from the mouths of insecure men everywhere and was arguably the weakest part of the show.
Fortunately, the pace and energy of the show picked up as Ansari tread into more comfortable territory, spinning fresher jokes out of well-worn material. He hilariously described his propensity to go on hours-long Wikipedia reading sprees, which is something we’ve all experienced and joked about, but is here given a refreshing new spin with Ansari’s unique sarcastic delivery. He talked about racism and racial epithets and listed some of his favorite ones (which he uncovered after another one of his hours-long Wikipedia-reading sprees, probably) and joked about how, given the right delivery and intonation, you could make almost any word seem like a racial epithet, demonstrating this by calling an Indian fellow sitting at the front row a “Kit-Kat.” Ansari then segued into a discussion about the tours he does and recounted his worst experiences travelling, such as the rude Eastern European customs officer at the Toronto airport whom he called “the worst person he ever met,” and whose rude comments he lampooned with almost cruel relish by giving her a strong Arnold Schwarzenegger-like accent.
Following this, Ansari fell back to one of his most well-known and oft-heard jokes, which was to recount the antics of his weird cousin Harris. Ansari described to the audience how his once-chubby cousin, whose baby fat he had made fun of in previous shows, had finally grown and was about to enter college, after which he proceeded to read out loud his college entrance essay. It was side-splittingly funny. The beauty of such jokes is that it requires little embellishment; it basically involves Ansari reading straight off a page of what his weird cousin wrote. (Harris describing his experience volunteering in hospital: “I was a human wheelbarrow, and let me tell you, it sucked.”) Few comedians would be so blessed to have as rich a source of fodder for their material as Ansari does with Harris. Well, assuming Ansari isn’t lying his butt off, that is.
Ansari saved the best for last. His account of how he saw rapper 50 Cent order a grapefruit soda and asked the waiter when it came, “Why isn’t this purple?” was pure comedy gold, and his retelling of an online flame war with a disgruntled racist reader of his blog was absolute genius. Once again Ansari essentially tapped into everyday absurdities to deliver material that was, save for a few graphic re-depictions of the terrible fates that Ansari wished upon his opponent, essentially unembellished from the original.
Finally, Ansari left the stage and returned for an encore performance, where he once again relied on his tried-and-true brand of riffing on Kanye West and R. Kelly, two perfectly brilliant, yet astoundingly egotistical and slightly unbalanced celebrities whom Ansari relentlessly mines for new material show after show. This time he lampooned West’s new Rosewood Movement’s suit-wearing obsession and ended the set describing how R. Kelly put out a video about his new song “Echo” — defining the word ‘echo’ for ignorant fans (the video actually exists, by the way, Google it).
Ansari’s performance on Saturday contained relatively little in the way of original content, with most jokes recycled from previous performances, such as last year’s Pabst theatre performance in Milwaukee. Sadly, crowd favorite Randy was also not in attendance, reportedly having fallen into a volcano and died. However, the night’s performance was fresh enough to please fans of Ansari’s older, published content, as well as newcomers to his offbeat, anecdotal, high-energy brand of comedy.