Another Intimate Moment With Aziz Ansari
Aziz Ansari stands on the corner of Rue Saint Paul and Rue D’Youville, looking pleased. He’s wearing khakis, a red button-down and has a pair of clunky headphones haplessly draped around his neck. The cobblestones glisten with fresh rain. There are more horse-drawn carriages than SUVs. Somehow you can tell everyone thoroughly enjoys maple syrup. This is Old Montreal, where Aziz has been for the last few days working on fresh material. “Let’s hit this place called Olive and Gourmando,” he says with his characteristic persuasive exuberance, “They’ve got the best coffee.”
“I’m doing a series of four Twitter-announced shows,” he says between sips of an iced cortado, “to polish some new jokes for my next special.” The hiss of a Marzocco espresso machine and the clatter of dishes almost drown out the whispers of fans at the neighboring table. Almost. But Aziz either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. Since the release of “Intimate Moments for A Sensual Evening” in 2010, he has finished two more hour-long comedy specials: “Dangerously Delicious” and “Buried Alive.” This current batch of bits will comprise his fourth special and will likely be finished before the release of “Buried Alive.” An impressive feat given the amount of acting he’s done in the meantime–from his recurring role on “Parks and Recreation” to the recent feature film “This is the End.”
Morgan Murphy, a writer for “2 Broke Girls” and fellow stand-up, knows his work well. “I’m amazed by his work ethic,” she tells me over the phone, “He’s constantly generating really great material. It’s incredibly annoying.” When asked to explain his prolific nature, Aziz shrugs and simply says, “Stuff just came and I got ahead.”
These Twitter-advertised shows present only one major obstacle. “Unfortunately the shows sell out in two seconds,” Aziz groans, “and only to young people who maniacally check Twitter.” This generates an audience that doesn’t properly reflect the general public. A room full of Twitter-obsessed 16-year-olds simply doesn’t help a comic seeking a comprehensive understanding of how the courtship process now differs from earlier times, which constitutes the theme of this current show. “The ideal audience for this kind of thing,” he explains, “has just as many old married people as young single people.”
Tour manager and friend Matthew Shawver helped Aziz realize his idea for a unique ticketing system that could prevent such unbalanced audiences. “We’ve created an online lottery system,” Shawver explains, “That requires each potential patron to enter their age, gender and relationship status.” When enough people enter the lottery to fill each category, the program randomly selects the lucky winners. Diversity guaranteed. “The interface was designed to be incredibly user friendly,” explains David Cho, a friend of Aziz and the software producer who oversaw the creation of the ticket lottery.
The ComedyWorks, a dingy old-school club run by a man introduced simply as "Jimbo," has provided the venue. “I’ve been doing this for 23 years,” Jimbo says with a sigh one night, adjusting his beige trousers, Then all of a sudden, ‘What?! We don’t take phone reservations?’” ComedyWorks seats somewhere between 100 and 110 people, depending on how many are willing to stand. The back entrance reeks of piss. All the doorknobs are wobbly. The greenroom has two ratty sofas, a stool and insulation poking through the ceiling. The wallpaper hangs in tattered swaths. The place has charm.
During his last trip to Montreal, Aziz sold over 6,500 tickets doing a three night run at the Metropolis Concert Hall. Tickets were $50 apiece. ComedyWorks has been selling them for $10. You don’t have to do the math to know the profit margin is staggeringly different. But Aziz isn’t weirdly trying to get poor. This material will ultimately be toured in bigger venues at a higher price. In the meantime, ComedyWorks provides an intimate practice ground that a larger space wouldn’t. The laughs seem to come from the belly rather than the throat. “One cool thing about these smaller shows,” Aziz notes, “is how different each show can be from the previous. It’s so organic. Each audience leaves with their own inside jokes.”
"I love it when there’s an older couple in the audience,” Aziz explains as he steps back out into the soggy streets, “I can talk to them about how they met, their courtship process. It’s so fascinating to hear how people met and connected then versus now." Old Montreal has a Parisian sensibility that gives one the feeling someone nearby is smoking unfiltered cigarettes in an unfurnished loft. We are worlds away from Colombia, South Carolina, where Aziz was born. Here, beautiful wrought iron railings are so ubiquitous you can’t throw a maple leaf without hitting one. And yet the city has managed to preserve this Old World romanticism without neglecting modernity. Montreal’s bike share program, for example, was established five years before New York’s. This tension between old and new makes Montreal an incredibly appropriate place for one of the most tech-savvy comics to develop material that thematically focuses on the way technology has changed how people live, and in particular, love.
Aziz denies the accusation that the intention of the new ticket lottery is to figure out what jokes work on which people. “That’s not it,” Aziz laughs, “The jokes have to work on everyone.” The online lottery provides an audience that can offer real insights from very different perspectives. It’s honest research. This process lends an authenticity to the show that makes it not only funny, but also intelligently informed. Ambitious as it is, Aziz seeks to create a show that’s equal parts fart-joke and cultural commentary.
Every show at the ComedyWorks sells out. Aziz expertly leaps from prepared material to unscripted conversations with individual audience members. “Anyone here recently start a relationship and want to volunteer their phone?” Aziz asks one night. He confronts a guy up front looking at his phone, “You sir. What are you checking?” The guy answers, “None of your business.” Without missing a beat, Aziz responds, “Well you’re at my show…so it kinda is my business.” The crowd erupts in applause and boos the guy. Someone in the back bellows, “GET THE FUCK OUT!” Aziz regains control quickly, asking the guy in the back to calm down and kindly telling the first man that he looked like he was going to volunteer. The exchange epitomizes Aziz’s general style. Hecklers are silenced with surprisingly sharp invective and yet the tone never approaches malice. Beneath all his work lies an earnest, curious and kind tenor. In one particular show, an older couple recounts to Aziz and the audience how their first date involved poetry, a church and holding hands. It did not involve Tinder, Facebook or meeting for drinks with five other people. “Oh wow,” Aziz jokes, “Shit has changed!”
“Oh shit I forgot my umbrella!” Aziz mentions just before reaching ComedyWorks. Watching him run for it, you realize that sports were never an option. Watching him run back, you realize that comedy was probably the only option. One cannot help but notice the price tag still dangling from the umbrella. A dollar.
Despite it all, Aziz has managed to stay humble and human. Joe Mande, a current “Parks and Recreation” writer and stand-up opener for Aziz, describes him as “The R. Kelly of comedy. In terms of showmanship, I mean. I don’t think Aziz pees on tweens.” Ten minutes before the last show, Aziz sits calmly in the greenroom, occasionally jotting down last minute tweaks. The room bustles with pre-show noise from the staff. Then, like that one scene in “Lincoln,” Aziz hushes the room. There’s a blanket of silence. All eyes swivel towards him. “Wait,” he quietly says, “I heard someone say there wasn’t room for the local comics to watch? Let’s make room.”
Photos By: Emily Caldwell