The Astounding Age of AnsariPosted: November 19, 2015
When you look at the initial work of Aziz Ansari, it paints a very particular picture. Through his role as Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, his stand-up specials Intimate Moments For A Sensual Evening and Dangerously Delicious, and his small cameos in films like Funny People and Observe And Report, Ansari built a strong profile as the swagger-heavy hipster prone to hysterics. And while there was certainly more depth to that persona than you’d think, I don’t know if anyone would have anticipated what Ansari would become as both a performer and a social commentator. But starting with his 2013 Netflix special Buried Alive, a more mature and earnest Ansari began to emerge, questioning life in a more honest and emotional fashion. And now in 2015, Ansari has made good on that shift in voice, and marked himself not just as a funny motherfucker but as an astute observer of humanity that you can find.
This year, Ansari released three new projects: stand-up special Live At Madison Square Garden, nonfiction book Modern Romance, and TV series Master Of None. Through all three of these projects, there are many recurring observations about dating and modern living, and collectively they paint a wonderfully nuanced portrait of Ansari’s perspective on life.
Live At Madison Square Garden: This special was actually filmed in 2014 (where I was in attendance, nbd) but released on Netflix in March. The special is a very nice continuation from Ansari’s work in Buried Alive, with the biggest focuses being immigrant parents, gender roles and adult relationships. Ansari ponders the conflict between remaining single, with unending options and opportunities but a greater potential for loneliness, or committing to a relationship, which might be more fulfilling but also maybe monotonous. Furthermore, he also acknowledges the anxiety and frustration that comes with modern dating, and how disruptive that can be to both establishing and maintaining longer-term relationships. It’s a very funny show but also very earnest and passionate; Ansari is legitimately fascinated by these topics and questions, not just as objects of snark but as very important problems we have to face as members of society today.
Modern Romance: Ansari takes a turn towards the academic with this book, that takes the jokes from Live At MSG and expands them into a legitimate sociological study. Considering data from dozens of studies and website traffic, and interviewing people from around the world and every age group (with the help of sociologist Eric Klinenberg), Ansari delves into the nature of modern dating in incredible detail. While still peppered with jokes throughout, Modern Romance is a very sober-minded examination of love and commitment, that never loses sight of the questions that drive it. But even as (entertainingly) academic as the book is, it still retains the same earnest curiosity that has become a hallmark of Ansari’s stand-up. His drive to consider every side of a situation is a huge boon to this book, and he seems to modify and adjust his own feelings based on what he finds, rather than forcing things into a preestablished position. It’s even-handed and open-minded, much as Ansari himself seems to be.
Master Of None: Finally there’s Ansari’s Netflix series, which builds on the special and the book and dramatizes much of the content in both to tremendous effect. While still primarily focused on relationship dynamics, Master Of None also builds on the wide-ranging empathy Ansari has shown previously in exploring the lives of immigrant parents, women and others. And by filtering these ideas through a structured narrative rather than stand-up comedy, Ansari (with the help of co-creator Alan Yang and a great cast) is able to capture the emotional weight of his subjects better than ever. The show not only allows Ansari to dramatize these ideas but also explore his own theories and what-ifs in the most thorough way possible. Master Of None is achingly passionate about all of these concepts, much like its creator, and commits to exploring them to great success.
When taking all three of these projects as a collective whole, it provides a very clear look at Ansari’s perspective, the reality around him and how one is shaped by the other. While Ansari certainly retains his own ideas of what he should and shouldn’t do, and what does or does not matter, he is also very committed to acknowledging and considering the perspectives of others. But in doing so, he avoids cynicism and snark as much as possible (except when talking about Creepy Dudes, who deserve that in spades) and legitimately cares about the answers others provide. The collective result is a study in dramatic and comedic empathy that is as intriguing and moving as it is funny.
But where does all of this lead our friend Aziz? After questioning and considering and studying, what are his conclusions about modern relationships and love? Ultimately he seems to decide that the love of a companion and having a supposed “soul mate” is a wonderful thing that is worth having, that is worth sacrificing more immediately-passionate love for… but only if you’re satisfied with where you are and who you are. Having a life partner is an amazing experience that brings a lot of stability and comfort and love to your life, but it doesn’t compensate for an unfulfilling job or missing out on other life opportunities. Ansari seems to be arguing that settling down is great, but that it’s best to figure yourself out first, for your own sake and the sake of your potential soul mate.
But even if that is the ultimate hypothesis of this collection of work, I’m sure that’s not the end of Aziz Ansari’s explorations of modern love. There will be more Master Of None and more stand-up, I’m sure, and hopefully another book. I have no doubt that Aziz will continue to examine and question the world around him, and adjust his perspective (and his jokes) accordingly. Hopefully we can all learn from his example and do the same.