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Aziz Ansari featured in Back Stage

Mar 2, 2015

Park' Life
 
Aziz Ansari's comedy and career developed organically.

Aziz Ansari doesn't know how to play it coy. Take his first meeting with Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, the successful sitcom masterminds behind the American version of The Office. The duo was looking to cast an upcoming NBC show and thought Ansari might be a good fit... even though they had no idea what form the concept, story line, or characters would take. "They were like, 'You're someone that we think might be cool to have in the mix,' " recalls Ansari. "I was like, 'I'll be honest with you: This is pretty much my dream job.'"

Thankfully, a show eventually took shape: Parks and Recreation, a blissfully absurdist look at small-time politicians in Pawnee, Ind. Ansari regularly steals scenes as Tom Haverford, a wily, self-centered government official who wears his underachiever persona like a badge of honor. Because the character was tailored for Ansari, he's had input into Tom's various quirks. In an upcoming story line, for instance, the actor suggested that the impressionable Tom might have a bit of a hero-worship thing going on with an ultra-cool character played by Justin Theroux. "I was like, 'Man, what if Tom just thinks Justin is the coolest guy ever?' " says Ansari with a chuckle. "So anytime Justin comes in the room, Tom just gets so excited...starts talking to him about clothes and stuff. The scripts we get are great, but sometimes when we're on set, we'll improvise, and some of that stuff makes it in."

Ansari first attracted Schur and Daniels' attention through his work on the MTV sketch show Human Giant, on which he played such characters as a Criss Angel-esque illusionist who raises the dead via the magic of card tricks. "That's what got me hired, I guess," says Ansari. Then, without missing a beat, he deadpans, "That and the fact that I bought them both speedboats."

True Stories

Ansari was born and raised in South Carolina and set out for New York City with a decidedly unflashy goal in mind: to major in marketing at NYU. But friends recognized something hilariously unique in his off-the-cuff way of relating mundane anecdotes, and they recommended he try standup comedy. "I always liked telling stories and making people laugh," he says. "I did the pretty standard trajectory: You start off doing open mikes and talent nights and work your way up."

In formulating his act, Ansari says he went through a lot of trial and error but ultimately decided not to mess with what made his friends laugh in the first place. "I kind of figured out, 'Okay, if I can talk about whatever's in my head, that'll be good,' "he says. "And it'll be unique to me; you can either do a joke about, like, Smart Cars, or you can talk about 'This is what I'm going through in my life right now and this is a funny thing.' I think if you go that latter route and talk about yourself, that's always more interesting than making observations about the kind of things that you could hear anyone make an observation about."

Since then, he has honed his voice, but the general feel of the act is the same: biting, whip-smart, occasionally perplexed riffs on his everyday experiences, such as the horrors of Cold Stone Creamery and the confusing nature of DVR technology. And this month, he'll go through a key standup rite of passage: a solo special for Comedy Central that will also be released on CD and DVD.

Even as his acting career is taking off -- in addition to Parks and Recreation, he has made memorable appearances in Funny People, Observe and Report, and Flight of the Conchords -- Ansari says he hopes he'll always be able to tour around with his standup act. "Standup's very much like throwing darts," he says. "Whenever you find a new joke that hits really well, that's the rewarding part of it. Some of my favorite stuff I've done in my career was Kimmel and Letterman. To just to go on there and do material and have it do well is really cool."

That said, Ansari recognizes the challenges inherent to maintaining a solid act... particularly with a day job as demanding as Parks and Recreation. "It's tough 'cause you have to keep writing new stuff," he says. "People hear your stuff, and they're like, 'All right, that's cool. What else you got?' It's not like music, where people want to hear the hits. People get pissed when you play the hits: 'I've heard that hit already!'"

Acting Out

Ansari transitioned into acting thanks to his work with Human Giant. He met fellow performers Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer through New York's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and the trio eventually hooked up with director Jason Woliner to capture some of their best ideas on film. MTV took note and gave the troupe its own show, which gained a rabid following during its two-season run, attracting attention from discerning TV fans and comedy-scene luminaries alike.

Since then, Ansari has probably garnered the most big-screen notice for his turn as brazen comedian Randy (or, as the character likes to say, "Raaaaaaandy!") in Judd Apatow's Funny People. Like Tom in Parks and Recreation, the character is a bit of a lovable jerk--a larger-than-life persona you can't help but root for. "The initial thing Judd told me is he wanted Randy to be really cocky, really into selling merch," remembers Ansari. "I just ran with it. I pitched Judd all these ideas, and a lot of stuff came up when we were improvising the first scene we shot with Adam , where I'm talking about all these ideas I have for when I do a big tour: how I want to have a DJ and pyrotechnics and a Randy dance."

The character grew so much, Ansari and Woliner ended up shooting a series of online shorts to promote the film. Now there's talk of a feature-length movie--perhaps the character's outlandish dreams of Randy-branded merch aren't so crazy after all? "It's such a high-energy character," says Ansari, laughing. "If you see a comedian like me when I'm myself, I'm like, 'Yeah, so I've been walking around...' With Randy, it's like, 'Y'all ready to laugh your dicks off?' Which guy are you gonna be more captivated by?"

The proposed Randy movie is part of an overall deal Ansari and Woliner now have with Apatow and Universal Pictures; they're currently hard at work on several script ideas. Between this, Parks and Recreation, and standup gigs, Ansari has a pretty full plate. "But I enjoy all of it," he says. "If I can get those three things done, I will be ecstatic. That and if I can get an Old Spice commercial. If I can get those four things done, I'll be thrilled."

Outtakes

-Was named Hot Standup in a 2005 issue of Rolling Stone; won the Jury Award for best standup at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen in 2006

-Cites Patton Oswalt and Louis C.K. as comedy heroes, saying "I like jokes that come from autobiographical elements. Like, Louis C.K.'s stuff is about a guy in his 40s that's raising kids. Mine's about being a 20-something dude who's just dickin' around all the time."

-His standup special, Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening, airs Jan. 17 on Comedy Central; the CD and DVD will be released Jan. 19: "At the end, there's a 10-minute Randy mini-special. It's my first standup record, so I hope people like it."
LA General

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DC Pierson's novel "The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To" available for pre-order

Mar 2, 2015

An Interview with DC Pierson 

Q: Before you wrote The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To (BWCS) you were an active blogger, comic and short story writer. Why did you decide to write a novel?


DC Pierson: I had just graduated from college. I was living in Astoria, Queens, and I boarded the N train one day. My friend and fellow comedian Eliza Skinner turned out to also be on the train. In the course of conversation, she mentioned that she liked my writing, and she asked if I'd ever thought about writing a novel. I told her I had, and it was something that I'd definitely like to try my hand at one day. Eliza said something along the lines of, "A lot of people say that, and a lot of them never do it." This was precisely the right thing to say to trigger my competitive spirit.

That day, at my temp job, I somehow got around the firewall that was supposed to prevent staffers from sending personal e-mails, and sent Eliza an e-mail telling her that she had really gotten under my skin with her "a lot of people say that" remark, and that I would write a novel if she would be my "novel sponsor" by bothering me constantly and guilt-tripping me until I actually had a finished product. She agreed. I respond best to guilt and haranguing, so this arrangement ended up working out really well.

That night, I called my temp agency and told them I could not go back to that job the next day. I called when I knew my temping rep would have already gone home for the day, because I am a coward. Then I took a nap.

Q: How long did it take you to write BWCS?

A:
I started writing in the fall of 2007, and completed the first draft in the first part of 2008. I finished the second draft in the fall of 2008.

It's shocking the degree to which you are writing a first draft, thinking "just get to the end, just get to the end, just actually have written something today so you won't feel entirely worthless, and you can go out tonight and get drunk and make fun of bad movies with your friends with a clear conscience," so you put in lines and moments and plot turns that at the time you find to be terrible, and when you go back and re-read them, you actually end up leaving them in. I could not tell you now what stuff I wrote in haste while squinting in pain at how bad I thought it was, and what stuff I pored over and really felt like I was consciously crafting with a firm authorial hand. It all ends up mattering less than actually producing something, by any means necessary.

Q: You seem to be able to seamlessly move between "traditional media" and "new media" can you comment on the role of tech and new technology on your process as a writer?

A: Mostly new technology is terrible for me as a writer. My laptop has my word processing program on it, and it has my novel on it, but it also has the Internet, and the Internet means e-mail, and the Internet means funny videos of cats waking up in the morning, and the Internet means pornography. I wrote a great deal of the book at the New York Public Library for this very reason. At the time, the branch I would go to didn't have wireless. This was brilliant for productivity. I could go in and write uninterrupted, knowing that I could not check my sweet, sweet e-mail until I wrote an amount I found satisfactory and actually left the library and went some place with internet access. I went away for a couple of months, and when I returned, the library had gotten wireless. My Eden of productivity had burned to the ground. I kept going back to the library, but it wasn't the same. I was kidding myself. I wasn't strong enough. I admitted the demons of e-mail and funny cat videos into my workday. (I still resisted looking at pornography while at the library. I consider this a small act of heroism on my part.)

Q: Your comedy group has recently released a feature length film, Mystery Team. Can you tell us a bit about the project?

A:
So my comedy group DERRICK is me and two other writer/performers, Dominic Dierkes and Donald Glover, our director/editor Dan Eckman, and our producer Meggie McFadden. We've been making sketch comedy videos for the Internet since 2005, and in 2008, we co-wrote and independently produced this movie Mystery Team. It went to Sundance in 2009 and has been rolling out to various theaters throughout the fall of 2009, and will be continuing to do so in early 2010, with a DVD release to follow this summer. We've been touring with it, promoting it in a grassroots way, and meeting kids. It's been a thoroughly amazing experience. See it when it's in your town!

Q: What has it been like to be simultaneously publishing your debut novel and promoting your first film?

A:
Thrilling and exhausting. When DERRICK was in college, doing monthly sketch shows, it was kind of always my secret dream that someday, we could be this kind of cultural factory, like cool local music/art scenes you sometimes read about, and someone could subsist culturally on the weird things we make for fun. We've got a movie for you, I've got a book for you, you can go jogging and listen to one of Donald's albums, you know? I like that idea. It pleases me greatly as a narcissist.

Q: How does writing comedy compare with writing a book?

A:
I studied comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, and their philosophy of comedy (in which I am a hardcore believer) is all predicated on what's called "the game of the scene": finding the "game" (or central idea) of a improv scene or sketch and building off of that, omitting everything else. It's a pleasingly empirical way to approach something very subjective and nebulous. It really changed my approach to short story writing: you have your central idea, which may be as small as an assumption at the top of the story, and you build out from there, thinking, "if that central assumption is true, then what else is true?" It was super-helpful in organizing my thoughts for the novel. Start with the central assumption of a kid who can't sleep and his friend, growing up in the real world, and build out from there.

Q: Who are your biggest inspirations?

A:
Bradbury had this wonderful thing about you rip off your two or three favorite authors until that becomes your own style, and if that's true (and I think it is for me) I'm a rip-off compilation of Chuck Palahniuk, Amy Hempel, and Junot Diaz.

I also credit the motivational themes in the music of Kanye West, the fearless weirdness of Lil' Wayne, and everything Joe Strummer ever said, did, or coughed.

Q: If there was one book you could make everyone read, what would it be?

A:
Ask The Dust by John Fante. I don't think any book has better captured the oscillation between thinking you're the greatest person alive and the absolute scum of the earth on a moment-to-moment basis that I pretty much always experience, and I suspect we all experience, better.

Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World is such a funny, imaginative, heartbreaking, lush sci-fi book that it's pretty much its own genre. Love that dude.

Q: There's a definite science fiction angle to BWCS. Are you a big sci-fi reader? What pointed you in this direction for your own writing?

A:
I was a huge Star Wars kid, and I was very much into classic sci-fi like Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. In this book, the sci-fi stuff was thematically convenient to make this big over-arching point/hang-up I have that we should try to find the adventure and dignity in our mundane everyday lives, that none of us are necessarily average and boring and therefore undeserving of fun rich rewarding lives. I also thought it was neat. It was fun to try and justify it in a real-world context. I like realism, but I like the kind of realism where it's like, hey, a dinosaur could burst in at any point.

Q: Who do you see as your audience?

A:
I'd like to write things that feel true while still being exciting, things that are funny without being too ironically detached, and hopefully aren't a chore to read. I'd like to build an audience of people to whom that sounds appealing. People who went to high school once. People who would like to be reminded to look for the funny weird amazing adventures in their lives, and who are into reminding me to do the same, until hopefully we make a habit out of it.

Q: What are you working on next?

A:
Another novel. I have fake joke titles for everything I write and this one is currently called The Long And Pudding Road.
LA General

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Ben Schwartz joins JJ Abrams pilot for NBC

Mar 2, 2015

J.J. Abrams casts another 'Undercovers' actor 

Upright Citizens Brigade's Ben Schwartz joins NBC pilot


Actor-writer Ben Schwartz is the latest addition to the cast of J.J. Abrams' NBC pilot Undercovers. Undercovers, which Abrams co-wrote with Josh Reims, revolves around Steven (Boris Kodjoe) and Samantha (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a domesticated husband and wife who are re-activated as CIA agents after years of retirement.

Schwartz will play a young CIA agent who is wildly respectful of Steve's career as an agent.

Abrams is directing the Warner Bros. TV-produced pilot, which he co-wrote with Josh Reims.

Schwartz, a sketch performer for the Upright Citizens Brigade, was a member of the team that won an Emmy for writing Hugh Jackman's opening number at the Oscars last year.

As an actor, he recently wrapped the feature comedy The Other Guys.
LA General

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