UCBT's Aziz Ansari Profiled in the New York TimesFeb 26, 2015
Feeding the Comedy Beast Without Serving Leftovers
HALFWAY through a 90-minute set late on a recent Friday night at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater here, Aziz Ansari did something radical for a stand-up comedian: he sat down.
If Mr. Ansari, a 27-year-old performer with a bearded baby face, was irresistibly drawn to the plastic chair where he completed his routine between sips of tea, it was understandable. This was his third show of the evening, during a weeklong marathon in which he was refining material for a new tour and his hosting gig at the MTV Movie Awards (which will be shown live on Sunday night). All while, by day, he had been shooting episodes of Parks and Recreation, the NBC sitcom on which he is a co-star.
Mr. Ansari made no apologies to the crowd at the theater, where the $5 tickets were cheaper and the jokes more meandering than they would be at those future gigs. As he had said that afternoon over lunch at a vegan restaurant in the Silver Lake neighborhood, "I even tell the audience, 'You're getting an inferior version of the joke so, I can work on it myself." "I know you're thinking, 'Man, this is going a little long,' "Mr. Ansari added with a confident, self-mocking click of his tongue. "I know it is. That's the goal. So I can tighten it up and make it better later." Mr. Ansari does not mind portraying himself as arrogant: it is a defining quality of characters like Tom Haverford, his slick, self-defeating Parks and Recreation bureaucrat, or Randy, the self-promoting, maddeningly successful comedian he played in the Judd Apatow film Funny People, who has since become part of his act.
Just don't think that he is ever idle. When Mr. Ansari asked an audience member at a previous evening's performance at the Largo nightclub here to imagine how he spends his days, he was surprised by the response.
"He was like, 'You probably wake up about 10 o'clock, and then you smoke some weed,' " Mr. Ansari said. " 'Then you play video games for a couple hours.' "Recounting that exchange, Mr. Ansari said, "That sounds like a terrible existence." Before he had graduated from New York University, majoring in marketing, Mr. Ansari, who grew up in Columbia, S.C., was avidly performing comedy in New York clubs and became a fixture of the city's alternative scene. In 2007 the video shorts he made with fellow comedians Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer and the director Jason Woliner landed them their own MTV sketch show, Human Giant. That show, on which Mr. Ansari played everything from a hard-charging agent of child actors to a police officer who pursues criminals by hot-air balloon, caught the attention of the Parks and Recreation producers, who hired him before they had cast its star, Amy Poehler, or settled on a concept for the series.
"He defies categorization," said Michael Schur, who created Parks and Recreation with Greg Daniels. "He's really sarcastic but also kind of lovable." He added, "There's so much going on with him that we felt it would be funny just to have him and Amy Poehler in the same room." In his stand-up act Mr. Ansari can be just as far-flung, joking about his time-wasting Internet searches or his fixation with R&B and rap stars like R. Kelly or Kanye West. (Mr. West was sufficiently flattered that he invited Mr. Ansari to a party at his house, which in turn became the basis of another stand-up bit.)
Stephen Friedman, the general manager of MTV, said Mr. Ansari's pop-cultural tastes made him an ideal embodiment of the millennial-generation viewers whom the channel wants to reach.
"He's playing with music, our sweet spot, but doing it in a way that creates a visceral connection with everyone in our audience," Mr. Friedman said. "This guy gets us in a much more immediate way than other comedians. He's grown up with the audience." To Mr. Ansari, the musicians he satirizes are fascinating not for their over-the-top lifestyles but for their single-minded devotion to their craft. Citing a scene from "The Carter," a documentary about the rapper Lil Wayne, Mr. Ansari said: "He says something that I thought was really funny. It's like: 'Repetition is the father of learning. I repeat, repetition is the father of learning.'" "Not to compare myself to Lil Wayne," Mr. Ansari said, "but that's why I'm repeating my set three times tonight, to see if I can figure it out." Mr. Woliner, who has continued to direct Mr. Ansari on Parks and Recreation (and occasionally sleep on an air mattress in his house), said Mr. Ansari's work ethic comes from emulating comedians like Chris Rock, Louis C. K. and Patton Oswalt, who are constantly rewriting their routines from scratch.
In the weeks ahead Mr. Ansari, who has a small part in the new comedy film Get Him to the Greek, is commencing his stand-up tour and performing at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. Then he'll shoot a role in 30 Minutes or Less, a movie directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), playing the friend of a pizza deliveryman who is forced to rob a bank. Then it's back to work on the new season of Parks and Recreation. ("But touring is kind of a vacation," Mr. Ansari said.)
More than burnout, the peril for Mr. Ansari is that, as his celebrity increases, his ability to comment on his unusual pop-culture adventures - like partying with Mr. West - from the position of an outsider diminishes.
"Hopefully he won't lose that wonder at falling into these very strange situations," Mr. Woliner said.
What Mr. Ansari won't do is exploit his minority status for laughs, or make it the focus of his comedy. You won't hear him opining about his parents' background as Tamil Muslims from India, and he said he's tired of people's assumptions that he encountered rampant racism growing up in the South.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for Mr. Ansari is that to honor the values of the comedians he most admires, the ones who constantly refresh their acts, he will have to retire his best-known stand-up bits from only a few months ago. That includes his popular (and detailed) impression of an R. Kelly performance that was highly sexualized, even by the standards of that eccentric R&B musician.
But not to worry: Mr. Ansari said he's got a completely original R. Kelly bit in his new routine.
"I was kind of like, 'Aw, man, I shouldn't do another thing about R. Kelly,' but R. Kelly keeps doing amazing things," he said, blowing out the word "amazing" as if it were a party horn. "I'd be failing at my job if I didn't address them." In an earlier version of this article, Michael Schur, the co-creator of Parks and Recreation, partly described Mr. Ansari as a Muslim. Mr. Ansari describes himself as an atheist.
Watch Aziz Ansari in Human Giant's 'Mother Son Moving Company' on UCBComedy.com
Hollywood Reporter covers a day in the life of Parks & Recreation writersFeb 26, 2015
Michael Schur stands on a balancing board, shifting his 6-foot frame from side to side as he agonizes over the best way to kill a Parks and Recreation romance.
Dressed in Converse sneakers, jeans and a dark blue fleece jacket, the 34-year-old looks more like a laid-back dad on his way to a kids' soccer game than the executive producer of one-quarter of NBC's Thursday night comedy block.
It's up to him and the half-dozen other writers in this room to solve their story problem. And they're stuck.
As he drapes himself across a couch in this windowless room on the CBS Radford lot in Studio City, Calif., gazing up at the ceiling, Schur's fellow writers stare at him in silence from their seated perches at a long wooden table. A Rock Band drum set is in one corner of the room, and half-eaten food lies scattered across the table, which is also strewn with white and purple note cards.
It's 12:30 p.m. and Schur and his friends have already spent three hours figuring what the hell to write on those cards.
The white ones are usually Leslie Knope's (Amy Poehler's) story lines. If it's an episode that involves a lot of intermingling, other characters' stories will be on different colored cards. Today, that color is purple and it belongs to an as-yet-named mystery couple whose TV romance will be short-lived.
The goal is for these cards to join the other note cards that snake around the room in multicolor stripes, pinned to corkboards. When the snake has a head, midsection and tail, one writer will attempt to turn it into a script.
But there's still no tail in sight. Schur isn't five words closer to tearing the lovebirds apart.
Dan Goor, another writer whose bubbly enthusiasm rivals that of Knope's, looks vexed and pumps a plastic Nerf gun toward the ceiling.
"How do we make this funny?" he asks in a pained tone.
That's a question Schur and co-creator Greg Daniels, (The Office) have been asking, and answering, with quirky gusto during the past year. Under their watchful eyes, the mockumentary-style comedy about small-town bureaucracy in Pawnee, Ind., saw a spike in laughs its second season after a bumpy run out of the gate, even if ratings have stayed the same since Season 1: An average of about 4 million viewers, and a 1.9/6 share in adults 18-49.
Fans can thank a top-notch writing pedigree for greasing Parks and Rec's wheels.
The team's collective resume includes gigs writing for Late Night With Conan O'Brien, Saturday Night Live, The Sarah Silverman Program, Hung, Mad TV, King of the Hill, The Office, South Park, The Daily Show and Human Giant. Not surprisingly, in person, the team comes across as quirky as the City of Pawnee's staff.
Without anyone inquiring, Goor will proffer the nutritional info of his microwaved sweet potato; dapper Alan Yang will share stories of his late-night escapades as a single guy; and petite Katie Dippold will blurt out-of-nowhere prognostications like "There's going to be an earthquake tonight," earning her the title of "the weirdest person in the room" by her fellow scribes.
This is nearly the same team that penned Season 1, even though Season 2 feels so much sharper, a shift Schur and Daniels attribute to a writing hiatus -- a luxury they did not enjoy between the pilot and the first five episodes -- because of Poehler's pregnancy.
This time, they won't be so lucky: After delivering 24 episodes for Season 2, Schur has sent his team straight into Season 3 to work around Poehler's second pregnancy. "She's constantly pregnant," he quips.
That means between late-April and early June, when the writers break, six episodes have to be buffed, polished and placed in the can. And today, they are still two episodes away from this milestone.
They continue to talk in circles, no one cracking either a joke or a smile. As time passes without progress, Schur has a brainwave: He strategically splits the team into two, sending a youthful trio of writers (Dippold, Emily Spivey, Aisha Muharrar) into one of the smaller offices, while Schur, Goor and Harris Wittels move to a conference table in another room.
"That's the big picture room, and this is the rubber-meets-the-road room," Schur says, taking his place at a table with nine computer screens -- though with only one keyboard, at the end of the table, where he types as the words appear simultaneously on all the screens.
He talks about how just one little innocent query from one of the actors can eviscerate these words, and indeed an entire episode. Such was the case with "The Camel," the ninth episode of Season 2, where, according to the original script, the Pawnee bread factory burned to the ground and the Parks and Rec department designed a memorial in honor of the tragedy.
"It was like this weird nightmare," Schur recalls. "We suddenly were like, 'Why is this happening?' It just didn't make any sense for these people to be doing what they were doing." He and the writing team threw out 80% of the script and started over.
But right now, there's no starting over.
By 1 p.m., they're talking about food.
"Food is very important in a writers' room," says Daniels, a tall, pleasant-looking man with graying hair who's notably slender. "Access to food; when it's coming. Very important stuff."
"Greg consumes, by my rough estimate, between 14,000 and 17,000 calories a day," says Schur of his "skinny-guy" colleague. "He's like a brown bear. He goes into the kitchen, paws a bunch of stuff, brings it back to the table and shoves it into his mouth."
For a few moments, the thought of food gives the writers an escape. Then they're right back to the script problems.
Schur leads the group into their usual debates: picking the right word for the right joke; getting character motivation to come across in 30 seconds or less; whether K-Fed is pop culturally passe, if anyone still dreams of marrying Cindy Crawford and whether any person on the planet has actually ever ordered a calzone.
Much of the banter becomes fodder for the Candy Bag, a frequently updated Word document where hidden gems go to live in limbo until shoots require a quick-grab solution to a dead-end joke. If time permits, actors shoot alternate versions of a scene, using bits plucked straight from the Candy Bag.
Worst-case scenario, they rely on the actors to bail them out. "The advantage of having the actors we have is that we can say, 'Oh, Amy will save this,'" Schur admits.
Then, around 3 p.m., one of the actors steps into the room, perhaps to do just that.
Nick Offerman opens the door. He sits at the end of the round table, in front of a monitor, and digs into a cup of chili.
"Did the energy just get super weird in here?" Schur jokes.
Offerman shares an on-set anecdote from that morning's shoot, when actor Chris Pratt managed to dent a Chrysler--along with his testicles--while attempting to slide across the car's hood, Dukes of Hazzard-style.
The room erupts, but then Offerman leaves abruptly, and the problem still isn't solved.
By early evening, Schur gathers the entire staff again in their windowless rec room to work on ending the love story.
The women writers present their suggestions, then the others start chiming in.
Schur and his team won't leave tonight until the story is fully formed. There's still a long way to go.
"Basically, you have to be perfect," he says.
Dave Ferguson, Mike Mitchell, Chelsea Peretti speak on writing for MTV Movie AwardsFeb 25, 2015
'You never know what Aziz is going to throw in there,' host's writing team tells MTV News.
Nothing is sacred anymore, including fan favorites New Moon and Avatar, which are tied for five nominations each at the 2010 MTV Movie Awards. The writing team working with Aziz Ansari said anything can happen once the "wild card" host hits the stage.
"There's a lot of things we can't make jokes about," writer Mike Mitchell told MTV News backstage at the Gibson Amphitheatre, during a break from writing for the show. "You never want to be too mean." But, as his colleague Dave Ferguson added: "You never know what Aziz is going to throw in there."
Already planned and on the docket are jokes and moments that are "super political this year," fellow writer Chelsea Peretti added: "So a lot of that and then some crazy dancing."
While she might not have been referring to the epic New Moon vs. Avatar battle, that too seems pretty political. So where does the crew of Movie Awards writers stand on the issue? "I'm gonna go with New Moon,' Peretti said. "I love it! I'm sorry, everyone."
In a battle of the sexes, her male colleagues all picked Avatar, which they teased would be very well-represented in the show's jokes. Mitchell had a whole other team he wanted to join: "I'm on Aziz's team!"
There is one moment the writers teased that they think fans will really enjoy, aside from RPattz and KStew sightings. "I think there's a reunion of sorts on the show; I think I can say that. ... Cosby Show reunion," Mitchell joked, before really sharing: "There's an MTV reunion of sorts I believe on the show as well. Is that too much to say?"