The best moment in the music video for “Otis”—Jay Z and Kanye West’s tribute to luxury rap and lookin’ like wealth—doesn’t involve either rapper. Nor does it involve the $250,000 Maybach they destroy with a chainsaw, the flames flying out of the exhaust pipes Batmobile-style, or the backseat full of supermodels that are so beautiful they make you nervous.
No, the best part of the video comes about two-thirds of the way through: Aziz Ansari, while sporting a sharp suit and black sunglasses, stands next to Hov and Yeezy, shaking his head, and pumping his arms.
Classic rap hands.
It’s a brief moment, lasting barely three seconds, but the juxtaposition of Aziz’s silly presence to the swaggier-than-Justin-Bieber-can ever-dream-of-being Jay Z and Kanye West is, simply, hilarious—and also indicative of the comedian’s relationship with music.
Over the past five years, Ansari’s connection to music culture has been well documented. Outside of appearances in rap videos or having his voice sampled by Drake, much of his early stand-up revolves around telling funny stories about musicians, whether that’s watching 50 Cent eat a grapefruit for the first time or recounting his younger cousin Harris’s online relationship with Kanye West. He’s also been caught on camera at various concerts, most notably getting snapped while crowd surfing at one of LCD Soundsystem’s retirement shows a couple years ago at Madison Square Garden. The internet played its part as well, with someone launching the successful Tumblr Emceez Ansari, which photoshopped his face onto popular rap albums.
What makes Aziz such an enjoyable comedian is that he doesn’t abandon his “normal dude” roots. You can imagine yourself listening to his stories over coffee, laughing with him and then applying the underlying messages to your own life. His newest stand-up Buried Alive, available to stream now on Netflix, finds a more confident and realized Aziz Ansari. The 30-year-old doesn’t rely on the crutch of telling stories about hanging out with rappers or feeling out of place with other famous people. Instead, much of the special focuses on the difficulties of relationships in the current state of the culture, touching on texting troubles or wondering why someone won’t call you back. You could say, perhaps, it’s his Take Care moment. Or maybe he’s just growing up. I called Aziz up last week hoping to find out—or, at least know if he was listening to Drake while writing.
Noisey: The stand-up special has been out for about a week. What’s the response been like?
Aziz Ansari: It’s been great. You know, this special is definitely way different than the other ones. It’s not a complete left turn, but I think it’s my strongest one. The response has been that people are really into it, which is the same response I got during the tour. A lot of people came to me and said, “Hey, that’s cool. I feel the same way about what you’re talking about and I haven’t heard people talk about it like that before.” That’s always a gratifying response to me—when you get a joke and the person is like, man, I’m glad you said that because I’ve thought that before.
What’s drawn you to more, for the lack of a better term, “serious” comedy, versus telling funny stories, like about watching 50 Cent eat a grapefruit?
Well, the answer to that is just that’s what I’ve been dealing with in my life. You see friends getting married and having children, and you have that realization like, oh shit, I have to become an adult at some point. This is going to be my life soon. It’s a scary thing, and you start thinking about those things, and I just write stand-up about whatever is in my head, whatever is going on in my life. With the first two specials, it was like, oh, what are some funny things I can talk about for an hour to keep people entertained? At this point in my career, I’m trying to go for something a little bit higher—like, what am I going to talk about that’s really funny but I also want to say something and have a full cohesive show. Now, if I have some random funny thing happen, it doesn’t really fit in the show as well, because there’s a bigger theme to the whole thing, so I’ll save that for a talk show or an encore or something like that.
To me, it’s just, at this point, if I tell a funny story about Harris or whatever, that is funny and it’s a good piece of content and I’m proud of it, but it’s cooler to tap into that deeper level, where people are like, “Holy shit that’s really funny, but you said something that spoke to me about something I felt.” It’s cool hearing someone say that. It’s a deeper laugh.
I feel like the best kind of comedy speaks to a deeper level than surface level jokes.
It’s cool for me too. I did a bit on Conan the other night, from my next show, which is about modern romance and what it’s like to be single in this era, and how frustrating it can be with technology. And I was just doing a bit about texting back and forth and dealing with how flakey people are now. The way people clapped at the end of that bit, you can tell, they’re like, man, I deal with that same shit. To me, as a comedian, it’s cool because ultimately the message is, yes, this shit is so frustrating but we’re all in the same boat and all dealing with it together.
How much Drake were you listening to when you wrote the standup?
Oh my god. Wouldn’t that be so funny? Imagine me sitting there alone, blasting Take Care and writing in a notebook. [Laughs.]
But seriously, I actually don’t really listen to music when I’m writing. I write a lot of stuff—and I’ve heard this from a few different comedy writers—while I’m taking a shower. A hot shower. And then I saw Woody Allen mention that and his thought was that it puts you in such a different environment—there’s water on you, you’re very isolated and it allows you to clear your head and think of stuff, which is interesting. I also write a lot of stuff at the comedy club, or I’ll have an idea or two and force myself to get to the comedy club so I can write it there. When I have a time crunch, it makes my mind work a little bit faster. And when you’re in that environment—when you hear laughs—I think that activates the part of your brain that helps you come up with that stuff.
Speaking a little bit to that Drake comment, and connecting that to themes of your stand-up, why do you think the culture is more receptive to outward emotion?
I think that’s because—and I read this somewhere—the more personal is the most universal. In music, or in comedy, if you start talking about things that are really personal, they end up being very universal. Because we all have similar experiences and have gone through the same emotions at different times of our lives, you know?
Did Drake ask you to sample your voice on “All Me”?
No, I think that just happened, and then I got a call from him saying, “Hey, I sampled you on the album.” And I was like, “Awesome.” And then it came out the next day and I heard it. It was really flattering, really cool.
I think it’s every Noisey editors’ dream to be sampled by Drake.
What have you been listening to lately?
I got the Arcade Fire album. I like it. I’m a big LCD Soundsystem fan, so you hear a song like “Reflektor,” and it’s like, “Oh man, this is really good.” It’s a good blend of LCD and Arcade Fire. I’ve been listening to a lot of METZ lately. I listen to a lot of vinyl, so when I travel I go around to record shops and buy a lot of weird stuff. I found these two compilations of French pop music, like France Gall and Franciose Hardy. Those are really cool. I found them in Michigan.
Do you have a favorite record you’ve found while traveling?
Those are pretty cool—they are some pretty bootleg copies. Have you ever heard of this compilation called After Dark? It’s from that label Italians Do It Better. It’s synthy stuff, kind of like the Drive soundtrack—weird, dark, electro stuff.
Donald Glover recently opened up pretty extensively about the intersection of technology, stand-up, and music, and the difficulty to escape it.
I totally agree. Reading blogs all the time—man, it gives you such a warped view of the world. That’s why I shut it off and don’t really read blogs or anything. I try not to check websites all the time. If you spend all day on tumblr or whatever, you’re living in this weird subculture that really exists there. A lot of people don’t know about it, or even subscribe to it, so I try to check out of that stuff. It doesn’t really help you grow as a person, I don’t think.
A big moment for me came a few years ago when I went to India. I wasn’t able to check Twitter or Tumblr or anything. I was away from my computer and not able to get online. And when I got back, I realized, oh, I don’t care about that stuff. I feel like I don’t even have to go back and check it. And that’s when I realized, oh, that stuff is really unnecessary.
What do you think that’s doing to us as humans and how we think?
I mean, the obvious thing is that we have a shorter attention span. That’s the biggest thing. When you have a shorter attention span, you don’t give things as much time and you become less thoughtful over time.
Last question: What’s your favorite rap verse of all-time?
That’s a great question. God damn. I get very nervous answering questions where it’s like, “name a favorite thing,” but one verse that stuck out in my head is Fabolous on Tha Carter III. The verse where he makes all the Wayan brothers references. I can’t remember exactly how it goes. He’s like, *adopts Fabolous flow*, “Aimin’ with this Damon, I’m putting that Major Payne in.” Or something. He puts in like 20 Wayans Brothers references. [Laughs.] It’s a funny exercise, and then after that he mentions Luger lasagna, and I have no idea what Luger lasagna is, but it definitely sounds interesting.
Eric Sundermann is an editor at Noisey and also doesn't know what Luger lasanga is. He's on Twitter — @ericsundy