Monday, March 1, 2010

Late to the Party: Aziz Ansari's "Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening" (2010)

It has been quite awhile since I bought a new comedy CD. Aside from the spate of posthumous Bill Hicks releases from the late 1990s and early 2000s, I think the last one I bought was David Cross's appropriately titled It's Not Funny (2004), which I later sold on for like $5 when people were still buying CDs.

Well, the other night, I was flipping through the channels and landed on a stand-up performance on Comedy Central. I recognized the comedian, Aziz Ansari, from a bit part in an episode of Flight of the Conchords (where he plays a man who runs a fruit stand and has an irrational hatred of Australians) and from his turn as "Raaaaaaaandy" in the sluggish Judd Apatow dramedy Funny People. He's probably most known for his role as Tom Haverford on NBC's television show Parks and Recreation.

What makes his comedy CD (also available on DVD) Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening so hilarious is his infectious delivery, his mastery of fairly complex and quickly delivered bits, his handle on contemporary pop culture (especially his relation to it as a comedian and actor with some decent media exposure), and the musical cadence of comedic voice. Ansari never sounds angry, though he can get animated, especially during his most sarcastic routines. His voice is reminiscent of Mitch Hedberg, but is delivered with the bravado of a rapper. His observational humor tends toward the surreal, especially as he expands on the minutia inside of his bits. For instance, in a sketch called "Sheets," while discussing the mundane topic of "thread counts," he relates buying sheets that were advertised as having a thread count of 600. But, after doing some online research, he finds the actual thread count of the sheets is 296. His response: "Are you shittin' me, man? I almost slept on that shit. 296 is sandpaper as far as I'm concerned. If that was a drug deal, I would have shot Hotel Luxury Linens in the face." His observations about race, particular as a first-generation American, from South Carolina, whose parents immigrated from India, are insightful. While doing a promotional interview for a TV show, he tells his audience that an interviewer asked him if he was "psyched" about the success of Slumdog Millionaire, which is an odd question considering Ansari was not in the film. He is asked the question simply because of his Indian ancestry. He then asks: "Are white people just psyched all the time? It's like, 'Back to the Future. That's us. Godfather. That's us. Godfather Part II. That's us. Departed. That's us. Sunset Blvd. That's us. Citizen Kane. That's us. Jaws. That's us. Every fuckin' movie BUT and Slumdog Millionaire and Boyz N the Hood. That's us. We're white people. Suck our dicks!'"

Ansari hits his stride when talking about his cousins Harris and Darwish and how he complicates their lives by "messing with them" on Facebook. These intimate yet oddly universal tales are reminiscent of the best comedy in that it touches on the mundane and familiar with remarkable and silly detail. This leads into a bit where Ansari describes hanging out with the rapper Kanye West. Similar to Richard Pryor's account of similar interactions with larger than life figures (in his instance, football player and movie star Jim Brown and boxer Muhammad Ali) or Kevin Smith and Charlie Murphy's narratives surrounding meetings with the eccentric musician Prince, Ansari relates the kind of details that at once surprise and seem exactly like the media-construction of Kanye West. He tells the audience about being cut off mid-sentence by Kanye West so the rapper can go to his high-powered telescope to check out a female neighbor with large breasts. However, the highlight of the proper set is his account of going to an R. Kelly show (and later meeting him). It's nearly as funny as Dave Chappelle's impression of him in his mock-video "Piss on You." Ansari gets the singer's cadence down spot-on. He also perpetuates the stereotypes made about R. Kelly (especially his hypersexuality) in new and hilarious ways. After visualizing for the crowd a rather explicit element of R. Kelly's stage performance, Ansari says, "Wow. You are not gonna see shit like that at a Modest Mouse concert."

One criticism that can be made of this performance is his transition between the R. Kelly material and his encore as Raaaaaaaandy (that's right, with eight As), Ansari's comedic alter ego who embodies some of the lowest common denominator tendencies of comedians/performers like Dane Cook, Andrew Dice Clay, Funkmaster Flex, or the more sexually-oriented Def Comedy Jam comedians. The material is funny, but his performance is so similar to his concluding musical impression of R. Kelly that it's really hard to distinguish Ansari's regular stand-up from his alter-ego Raaaaaaaandy.

Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening in no way represents a revolutionary breakthrough in stand-up comedy. Ansari's material is slight, and when he does slip into political topics outside of the domain of race, like gay rights, he is more interested in social aspects of political integrity than in making statements. But there is nothing wrong with this. Ansari's debut CD is highly entertaining and almost always generate laughs for the duration of its fifty-four minutes. Ideally, this is what a comedy performance should do.

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