Reaching the rarefied air of performing stand-up comedy to arena audiences, and particularly New York City’s Midtown Manhattan palace — Madison Square Garden — lends itself to moments of celebration for the comedians who find themselves at that summit.
Kevin Hart shot fiery flames in the air behind him. Dane Cook performed in the round to pack an additional few thousand fans inside. Louis CK sold out four separate dates this winter (although a blizzard cancelled the final date). Hart and Cook both used the occasion to shoot stand-up specials or concert films that night. As did Aziz Ansari, whose fourth stand-up special, Aziz Ansari: Live at Madison Square Garden, debuted Friday on Netflix.
While Ansari’s hourlong performance contained a few moments of high-energy bursts or wild-eyed schemed that hark back to his beloved onscreen characters of Tom Haverford from NBC’s Parks and Recreation or his breakout big-screen turn as Raaaaaaaandy in Funny People, his MSG set takes a much more measured, mature, assured approach.
Instead of self-congratulatory stories about hanging with Kanye West and Jay-Z, we’re treated to a deeper cut, as Ansari goes back 15 years for a Ja Rule impersonation, which he incorporated into a routine about factory farming and eggs. As Ansari tells us, buttoning up the bit: “Guys, if only you knew how long it’s taken me to find the perfect stand-up bit to showcase my frustrations with the meat industry and my flawless Ja Rule impersonation, then you’d know my struggle.”
Ansari does telegraph the significance of this performance by showing his entrance to the arena in slo-mo stride from backstage set to Spaghetti Western instrumentals. But by the time he does take the microphone, suited up in black-tie with bow-tie, he first wants you to know how far his family, and so many other immigrant families have come to allow sons and daughters like himself to achieve the American dream. His parents emigrated from India and landed in South Carolina, which Ansari jokingly called a choice that “combined racism and horrible public schools.” And when you hear older immigrants talk about arriving in Brooklyn with only $20 in their pockets, Ansari can only laugh at the thought of himself in that situation now, pulling a Tom Haverford and spending it almost immediately on a bad investment.
To what does Ansari owe his ability to hold our attention without overpowering us? Credit his book deal, for one. As Ansari worked on his book about “Modern Romance,” he often used live stand-up comedy crowds for firsthand anecdotal research — and he proves here that he’s equally comfortable using the same technique of “now clap if you this” or “clap if you’ve seen this” to tens of thousands as he is to one or two hundred fans in the audience at The Comedy Cellar or any of the UCB theaters in New York or Los Angeles.
When he invited audience members to bring their cell phones directly to him onstage so he could read one of their initial text conversations with a new beau, the first one turned out to be the charm.
Credit, too, though, Ansari’s own successful experience with modern romance. For more than a year, Ansari has dated a chef (and anyone who has followed the comedian’s social media and stand-up routines for years knows that the way to his heart may indeed lead from his taste buds). But more importantly, as he pointed out in an interview with David Letterman just a couple of days before taping this Netflix special, his girlfriend also is a feminist. “If someone asks you if you’re a feminist, you have to say yes,” Ansari told Letterman.
“My girlfriend has influence on me,” he said. “She’s a big feminist, and that made me think about those kind of issues.”
That’s directly reflected in this hour.
The giant screen behind him onstage changed displays throughout to complement his routines. When it blankets the word MEN several times across the screen, though, Ansari is flipping the script — noting how men never have to worry about a creepy woman, whereas every woman in his audience could likely tell him at least three creepy guy stories.
When he talks about women are treated online or onstage, he’s deathly serious. Ansari recounts one night he worked with a female comedian and heard a guy in the audience yell at her within the first minute or so to take her clothes off. The @replies, YouTube comments and messages from “creepy guys” online are even worse. Ansari jokingly wonders what/how these guys could ever see their fantasies become reality.
And when he segues to more “normal” relationships, he’s self-aware not only to recognize that the new normal for relationship-seekers is quite crazy in itself — whether it’s our reliance on texting which leads to miscommunication or whether it’s our online dating experiences — but also to pause for a sincere moment to recount a self-described “cheesy” text he sent his girlfriend. Which he knows is a much different text from what he’d send if he and his girlfriend are still together 10 years from now.
You’ll hear plenty of material which serves as a teaser to the book Ansari already has written on “Modern Romance.” The single-people stories he wishes we heard more often that don’t end in happily ever after, the idea that being single works much better in theory than in practice, the problems of finding lasting relationships within a generation of the “rudest, flakiest people ever” thanks to our phones and social media, and the dilemma of FOMO (although he doesn’t use that lingo to describe our collective and individual Fear Of Missing Out) that plagues our interpersonal connections.
The set has two encores of sorts, following a closer that plots out our potential magical relationship graphs as a slightly less-unsettling version of the first 20 minutes of Up, and sticking around through the applause and standing ovations first to talk about ghosts and a Valentine’s Day to remember, then to bring up his mother and father to hug as confetti falls around them.
It might not be his biggest laugh-per-minute or laugh-out-loud hour to date, but it’s certainly his most significant and longest-lasting.
His parents rightfully could be proud.
Aziz Ansari: Live at Madison Square Garden is now available via Netflix.