When the creators of NBC's hit sitcom The Office approached Aziz Ansari about a new mocumentary-style sitcom, the 25-year-old stand-up comedian said yes — even though he had no clue what the show was going to be about.
Now three years later, that show — Parks and Recreation, staring Ansari as Tom Haverford — is a hit.
Born in Columbia, S.C., Ansari is one of only a few Indian comedians on the Hollywood scene. Yet the actor's humor is not solely based on his identity. In fact, characters like Haverford and Chet, whom Ansari plays in the new film 30 Minutes or Less, could be played by almost anyone. Almost. But with his comedic talent, Ansari was a shoo-in for the roles.
"I'm very happy when I'm able to take roles from white actors," Ansari says jokingly to weekends on All Things Considered guest host David Greene. "If a part is written for a white guy and then I get cast, I'm very proud of myself. It's like a victory for all minorities," he says.
In all seriousness, Ansari says his comedy is about life and personal anecdotes like friends getting married and having babies — events that he says he couldn't begin to deal with in his life right now.
"That kind of stuff seems so far away for me and seems like such a crazy amount of responsibility," he says. "So I talk about the fear of those kinds of things."
Comedy Via Business School
In a strange twist, Ansari started his comedic career while attending New York University's Stern School of Business.
"I just started doing stand-up while I was in college," Ansari tells Greene. "I didn't have any aspirations to be in movies or TV or anything like that. I just liked doing stand-up and wanted to get better at it the same way someone would like to get better at playing guitar," he says.
And get better he did. From the comedy clubs in New York, Ansari began to make short films that eventually led to the MTV sketch-comedy show, Human Giant.
"You have a lot better odds if you develop stuff yourself," he says.
Soon even bigger offers came rolling in. Ansari's resume includes acting roles in Funny People; I Love You, Man; and Observe and Report. Now the stand-up comedian, who still tours from time to time, stars alongside Jesse Eisenberg in the new release 30 Minutes or Less.
"Yep, my brown-bearded face is on that screen the whole time," Ansari says.
What's next? Some sources say he's working on an R&B album ...
DAVID GREENE, host: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Aziz Ansari is one of the few Indian faces in Hollywood, but his stock and trade isn't ethnic humor. There are other reasons his character on the NBC sitcom "Parks and Recreation" is so appetizing.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")
AZIZ ANSARI: (as Tom Haverford) Zerts are what I call desserts. Tray-trays are entrees. I call sandwiches sannies, sandoozles or Adam Sandlers. Air conditioners are cool-blasterz with a Z. I don't know where that came from. I call cakes big ol' cookie. Fried chicken is fri-fri chicky-chick. Chicken parm is chicky chicky parm parm. Chicken cacciatore? Chicky catch. Tortillas are bean blankeys, and I call forks food rakes.
GREENE: That's Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford in NBC sitcom "Parks and Recreation." The South Carolina-born comedian has his first leading role in a film out this weekend called "30 Minutes or Less." But the 28-year-old actor did not take the typical route to the big screen. Aziz Ansari's path to comedic fame went through NYU's School of Business.
ANSARI: I just started doing stand-up while I was in college. And the summer of my freshman year, which is the summer of 2001, I didn't have any aspirations to be in movies or TV or anything like that. I just liked doing stand-up and wanted to get better at it the same way someone would like to get better at playing guitar or something like that.
GREENE: So, you feel...
ANSARI: I - yeah. And so I just kept doing it. And then as I got better, different opportunities opened up, and I became noted for my stand-up. And then I made some short films with some people and that led to a sketch comedy show on MTV called "Human Giant" that I did for two seasons.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HUMAN GIANT")
ANSARI: (as himself) What's up? I'm Sergia(ph).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Michael.
ANSARI: Michael. What's Michael want?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Tadpole wants to swim with the big fish.
ANSARI: Oh, boy. You think you got what it takes, huh? Well, take a bleep) on Mount Rushmore and call me Jefferson, buddy. This place will eat you up.
GREENE: How important is it for you to write and develop your own projects, like "Human Giant," the MTV sketch comedy?
ANSARI: I think it's super important. That's what I'm doing right now with films. I'm developing a few films for me to shoot next time I have a hiatus from "Parks and Rec." And not a lot of stuff, not a lot of scripts out there are really funny. And then if the script is funny, the chances of there being something for me to do that fits me well, it's hard. So it'd better, you have a lot better odds if you develop stuff yourself and, you know, go for it.
GREENE: I once heard you say that one of the things you're really proud of with your character on "Parks and Recreation," Tom Haverford, that he could be played by anybody. I don't know if I believe that, but you said it's not a role specifically for an Indian actor. And I think the same can be said for Chet, the character in "30 Minutes or Less." Is that important to you? Do you not want to be sort of, you know, pigeonholed as an Indian actor playing an Indian role?
ANSARI: I just - I'm very happy when I'm able to take roles from white actors. So, you know, if a part's written for a white guy and then I get cast...
GREENE: You want it.
ANSARI: ...I'm very proud of myself. It's like a victory for all minorities.
GREENE: Well, I mean, in all seriousness, ethnic-based humor, I mean, some comedians do sort of get rooted in it, some could say stuck in it. I mean, do you feel when you head out on stage to do stand-up, are people - you know, your audience is just expecting an Indian comic?
ANSARI: Not anymore. I think I've done so much stuff that people kind of know my style of comedy. My comedy, especially my stand-up, is really just about whatever's going on in my life, you know what I mean? It's much more personal. If I do do anything about my ethnicity, I'm very specific about it. In the last special that I did, I told the story about how I was doing an interview and someone asked me if I was really excited about the success of "Slumdog Millionaire." And to me, that was an interesting idea to explore in stand-up.
(SOUNDBITE OF STAND-UP COMEDY ROUTINE)
ANSARI: I was doing an interview once, and this guy goes: So, you must be pretty psyched by all this "Slumdog Millionaire" stuff.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
(SOUNDBITE OF STAND-UP COMEDY ROUTINE)
ANSARI: And I was like, yeah, I am. I have no idea why, though. I had nothing to do with that movie. It's just some people that kind of look like me that are in this movie that everyone loves and winning Oscars and stuff. And I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa. Are white people just psyched all the time? It's like "Back to the Future," that's us; "Godfather," that's us; "Godfather Part 2," that's us; "Departed," that's us; "Sunset Boulevard," that's us; "Citizen Kane," that's us; "Jaws," that's us. Every (bleep) movie but "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Boyz n the Hood" is us.
GREENE: A lot of comedians will say there's nothing like doing stand-up. Is that where you're most comfortable?
ANSARI: I don't know if it's where I'm most comfortable, but that - I mean, if I had to pick one to do the rest of my life, it would probably be that, I think. But this year, I pretty much just did stand-up and lived in New York and was like, writing stand-up and touring. And I was like, wow, like, even if, you know, I got fired off "Parks" and no one ever wanted me to do a movie again, I could just do this, and I would be extremely happy. And I would make a living that I'm really pleased with.
GREENE: I want to talk about the new film, "30 Minutes or Less." It's just released nationwide on Friday. I saw the film. It's absolutely nuts. I mean, it's like 90 minutes of absolute craziness.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "30 MINUTES OR LESS")
JESSE EISENBERG: (as Nick) OK. Here we are. You got the handguns?
ANSARI: (as Chet) (Unintelligible).
EISENBERG: These look to be real.
ANSARI: Get down on the - get down on the ground and give me the money in the bank.
EISENBERG: How am I supposed to get you the money if I'm on the ground?
ANSARI: Go get the money in the bank and then get down on the ground afterwards.
EISENBERG: All right. I'll be right back.
GREENE: It's pretty funny. You guys were not exactly professional bank robbers doing this.
ANSARI: No. I mean, part of the fun of that movie was that the characters are these guys that watch all these action movies all the time, you know, movies like "Die Hard," "Point Break" and things like that. So when they robbed the bank, they kind of, you know, trying to get into the mode of these characters they've seen in movies that they watch.
GREENE: And no offense, you're not like, screaming Bruce Willis when you're robbing that bank.
ANSARI: Yeah. That's what's funny about it is I'm not Keanu Reeves. I'm Aziz. So it's not really intimidating.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GREENE: And your first leading film role, really. I mean, you were on screen almost this - the entire 90 minutes.
ANSARI: Yup. My brown bearded face on that screen the whole time.
GREENE: Well, I mean, making movies, stand-up, sitcom, what else is left? And what do you still want to add to the repertoire?
ANSARI: My R&B album.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: You have to drop us a little R&B before we let you go. I mean, if that's where you want to go eventually.
ANSARI: (Singing) I don't know if I can do that for you today, David.
GREENE: That's actor-comedian Aziz Ansari, up-and-coming R&B star and current star of the new film "30 Minutes or Less," which is in theaters now. Check it out. He joined me from our NPR West studios. Aziz Ansari, thank you for coming in.
ANSARI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.