Your favorite rapper’s favorite comedian is a scene-stealing Southern boy who somehow became the funniest man on TV. With one foot in Hollywood and one on the stand-up stage, Aziz Ansari is ready to craft a masterpiece.
This feature appears in Complex's August/September 2011 issue.
We’re pretty sure it’s not totally racist to confuse Aziz Ansari with Tom Haverford, his hilariously cocky character from NBC’s Parks and Recreation. In our defense, they are both Indian guys from South Carolina. They both love Waka Flocka and Soulja Boy. They both wear sharp suits (although Aziz’s don’t appear to be from Brooks Brothers Boys). And come on, this guy just plays the hyperactive dickhead so well in movies and on TV (Funny People, Human Giant, Get Him to the Greek), you wanna believe he’s that guy for realsies.
Alas, Aziz is actually a pretty humble, self-effacing 28-year-old, even if he has a lot to feel cocky about right now. His new movie, 30 Minutes or Less, has the summer comedy game on lock, his Dangerously Delicious stand-up tour (filmed for DVD release, of course) just wrapped up, and he’s even voicing a rabbit in the next Ice Age movie. Oh, and in his spare time he’s been kicking it with Kanye in the studio and soaking up game from Judd Apatow. Basically, Aziz is the man Tom Haverford wishes he were. Can you blame him?
Thank you for helping us get Beyoncé on the cover. Word is that since she’s no longer being managed by her father she likes to clear all her major career decisions with you.
Yeah, I replaced Mathew Knowles. It’s kind of supposed to be under wraps.
Sorry, I had to put it out there. That’s a serious power move.
There’s a lot of heat between me and Mathew Knowles. [Laughs.]
You recently moved back to New York after being in L.A. for a few years. Do you still take the subway or are you “cabs only” famous now?
I still take the subway. I haven’t been stabbed or anything yet.
If you had never come to New York—
—I was lying about the subway thing. I travel by helicopter when I’m in Manhattan. It’s really tough, because there aren’t a lot of helipads in New York City. So, a lot of times I just have to ladder down to where I’m going.
[Laughs.] If you had stayed in South Carolina and not gone to school at NYU, would you still be living large?
I owe a lot to being in New York. That’s where I started doing stand-up. Those kinds of opportunities aren’t even there in most places. I remember when I started in comedy, I told a friend of mine who’s pretty funny too that he should start doing stand-up—“It’s pretty fun, just go to a comedy club.” He was like, “What comedy club? I’m in North Carolina, there is no comedy club here.”
When you were growing up, what posters did you have hanging on your bedroom wall?
In high school I had a big Metallica Master of Puppets poster. I was really into playing guitar.
Were you a metal head?
Yeah, I liked Nirvana and alternative rock stuff too. But for guitar playing, if you really wanna go at it with the solos, you eventually end up listening to Megadeth. [Laughs.]
Did you play in a band?
Again, South Carolina let me down there. There was no one else who really played instruments, or was into the same music. It was kind of tough, I would just play along with the records.
Did you have a childhood crush? Janet Jackson? Topanga?
I’m trying to think of what female celebrity I would have liked at that age... Oh, Martina Navratilova. [Laughs.] I was disappointed to find out she’s not into dudes.
Damn, sorry, man. Were you surprised to see your home state elect a Punjabi woman, Nikki Haley, as the governor?
They probably just thought she was white—the tone on the TV wasn’t quite right. “Nikki Haley! Yeah, sure! She sounds great!” [Laughs.] But no, that’s good to hear. I don’t think everyone there is racist. I encounter many nice, open-minded people from South Carolina.
It’s interesting that Tom Haverford is also from South Carolina. How similar are you to the character?
The only similarities are we’re both from South Carolina, we both like really silly hip-hop like Soulja Boy and Waka Flocka, and we both like suits. But he has slightly different taste. I try to make sure Tom dresses a little bit different from Aziz. Sometimes they’ll show me suits on Parks and I’ll be like, “That looks like an Aziz suit, not a Tom suit.” I’m usually like, “Give it a purple tie and that’ll make it a Tom suit.”
It seems like you only recently started wearing suits in real life. Is that Tom’s influence?
I like wearing suits when I perform. The last tour I did was in smaller rock clubs, and this time it was a theater tour, so it seems like I should be wearing a suit instead of just some jeans. But I do think Tom has a unique sense of style and it’s always fun to dress as that character. Early on, when they started talking about my character, I was like, “I think this guy should be really into his suits, because no one else in a small town like that would be into those brands.”
Do you feel like you have a Southern accent?
I used to have a super-strong Southern accent, but I’ve lost it over time. When I say certain words, it’ll come out. I remember watching a video of me in a spelling bee when I was in the third grade, and the guy tells me, “All right, come up here and tell me your name, what school you’re from, and what city you’re from.” And then you see me walk up, I’m this tiny little brown kid—way smaller than everybody else—and I’m like [speaks quickly with a Southern accent] “My name’s Aziz Ansari from Marlboro Academy in Bennettsville, South Carolina.” It was that strong, I’m not exaggerating.
And now you hang out with the biggest rappers in the world. I heard you were in the house when Kanye and Jay were recording Watch the Throne.
Yeah, a couple of times when they’ve been in New York, I’ve just stopped by to say hello and hear them record—that album’s gonna be amazing. I’m such a huge fan of those guys, I definitely feel lucky to see stuff like that every now and then.
Do you remember what they were recording?
Some stuff with Swizz, and it was so funny just hearing him do the Swizz Beatz ad-libs. Just like, [imitates Swizz] “Uh-huh, Goddamnit! 1-2, 1-2. Vroooom!” I was just sitting there dying, I thought that was the funniest thing in the world. I wanna be Swizz Beatz. I don’t want to do comedy anymore, I just want to do ad-libs. Just make noises before rappers start rapping. [Laughs.] That would be a great job.
When you’re around rappers like that, do you ever try to swag it out extra hard?
No, I just try to stay quiet and stand in the corner. Just be thankful I’m there and listen to the music. I’m not sitting there poppin’ bottles and dancing. [Laughs.]
So Kanye hasn’t given you any style advice?
No, he usually just makes fun of whatever I’m wearing. [Laughs.] One time I saw him and I had on a brown leather jacket. He was like, “Ha-ha—you look like a regular dude!” I was like, “Well, not everyone can wear a purple sequin jacket and have people not laugh at him.” He’s like, “Yeah, I know I look ridiculous, but I can pull it off.”
Kanye’s been known to surround himself with beautiful models. Have you had a chance to scoop up any of his leftovers?
Theoretically, if there’s a situation where there’s a bunch of models, me, Jay-Z, and Kanye, what model is gonna come up to me? [Laughs.] I think they would probably talk to their bodyguards before they come talk to me.
Bummer. It seems like you kind of created a monster with your character from Funny People. Do fans still come up to you and scream “RAAAAAAAANDY!!”?
In my experience, any time people see anyone they know from TV, they’ll just yell things at them. So, for me, whether it’s Randy or something I said on Parks and Rec, it’s just something that comes with the territory. It doesn’t bother me at all. Sure, I’d prefer that people didn’t yell stuff at me, but what are you gonna to do?
When we were doing Funny People, they were like, “You know, if you say ‘Randy’ like that, people are going to yell it at you.” So I asked Adam Sandler, “What do people yell at you? You must have done 100 movies, there must be a billion things.” He said “You know what people yell the most? ‘You can do eeeet!’ [from The Waterboy.]” And I was like, “You don’t even say that in the movie!” He’s like, “I know.” [Laughs.] With comedians, people just want to yell the thing that made them laugh.
In your new movie, 30 Minutes or Less, you help Jesse Eisenberg rob a bank. Is this the best bank robbery comedy since Bill Murray’s Quick Change?
You know, I’ve never seen Quick Change, but I’ve heard it was great. I have to see that. But there’s been a lot of great bank robbery movies—I like Heat and I like this Stanley Kubrick movie called The Killing. It has one of the coolest endings of any movie.
You spent three months in Grand Rapids with Jesse Eisenberg while shooting. Is he as much of a neurotic weirdo as people make him out to be?
He can be, but he has a shell that you can break through. He’s always a super-nice guy. Tremendously talented, just a little shy and a little nervous.
You’re also voicing a character in the next Ice Age movie?
Yeah, that’s so fun. I think he’s a prehistoric rabbit, and he’s a pirate, one of the bad guys. I’d never done a voice for animation before. I did one session where I did voice and then I went a second time and they showed me some animation and it was so cool. I think it’s cool to be able to do a kids’ movie, ’cause it’s nice to do things that aren’t 100% filthy that only people over 18 can enjoy. It’s fun to do stuff that anyone can watch. That’s why I like doing Parks, because it’s a show that my parents can watch, and I don’t have to worry about them being offended by graphic language or anything. The same with the Ice Age movie. They’ve got a lot of cool people in it.
Drake is also in this one, right?
Yeah, that’s pretty funny. I wish Drake was one of the pirates and he was just crooning, and they just gave him that Drake voice...I don’t know what the filter is he always puts on his voice, but it’s in like every Drake song, at some point the beat just drops out—
—You mean the “underwater” voice?
Yeah! The underwater voice! They should have just made him a fish, and had him sing his lines [imitates Drake] “What am I supposed to do, all of my friends are gone.”
[Laughs.] Are you still writing a script for Judd Apatow?
Yeah, me and my friend Jason Woliner—who’s a director that I worked with on Human Giant and have collaborated with since I started—we’re writing a script called Space Men for Judd. It’s about me and another guy—it hasn’t been cast yet—playing disgraced astronauts who have to go back to the moon to clear their names. It’s really funny, and we’ve just been developing it with Judd. He’s such a genius. We had a meeting with him the other day. You try to absorb as much knowledge as you can when you’re with him. It’s so hard to make one good movie or TV show, and he’s made dozens of amazing things. Clearly he knows what he’s doing.
How important is it for you to write and develop your own projects?
Super-important, because most things out there aren’t that funny. I have a pretty particular taste, I say no to a lot of stuff. I’m really picky about what I do and I wanna do stuff that I’m excited about. And if you don’t develop stuff yourself, it’s not always gonna be great. No one knows how to write for your voice better than you.
(PROP STYLING) Brian Bryne. (GROOMING) Amy Komorowski. OPENING SPREAD: Shirt by G-Star / Pants by Dockers / Sneakers by Converse John Varvatos. THIS SPREAD: Jacket by Theory / Shirt, Tie, and Pants by Band of Outsiders / Shoes by Cole Haan / Watch by IWC.