The 28-year-old's star is rising. He plays one of the funniest characters on one of the funniest TV shows: the over-confident Tom Haverford on NBC's Parks and Recreation. Once a Thursday night underdog, the sitcom is now in its third season, holding its own proudly between The Office and 30 Rock. He has his first major movie role this summer as Jesse Eisenberg's best friend in Ruben Fleischer's bank robber comedy 30 Minutes or Less. After landing a three-movie deal with Judd Apatow, Ansari and his long-time writing partner Jason Woliner just turned in a second draft of Space Man to the super-producer. Ansari stars as one of two disgraced astronauts who must go to the moon to clear their reputations. He's also working on his second Apatow film, Let's Do This, a road-trip movie about two motivational speakers. Then there's his stand-up: He played to a packed crowd at Carnegie Hall in January and sold out five consecutive nights in London a month later. He plans to write a new hour of material before shooting the next season of Parks and Rec in the fall, provided it's picked up. "Yeah, I do have a lot of shit to do," he says, eating a bowl of lentil soup (which he kindly offers me a taste of) at the East Village hole-in-the-wall Caracas. "But I also don't want to let the ball drop, you know?"
Ansari's official entrée into Hollywood can be traced back to a bit part in Apatow's 2009 film Funny People. His character Randy -- a heinous comedian known for gross quips like, "and the next thing you know, I got peanut butter on my diiiiick" -- earned Ansari, and Randy, a cult following. It led to a Randy documentary, a website and even a feature film -- the third Apatow movie is Randy-related. (I also think Randy inspired West's song "Runaway" wherein he admits: "I sent this girl a picture of my diiiiick.") Ansari's own humor is often as crass as Randy's, yet actually clever and self-aware. A typical joke tends to start with a wide-eyed, "What's the deal with..."-style observation on topics every plugged-in young person can relate to (text messaging, Cinnabon, Drake, porn in a donut shop, Joe Pesci's Wikipedia page) that escalates into something unexpected and downright bananas, with references to everything from stabbing Jamba Juice employees in the name of gay rights, shooting puppies and hippos getting blow-jobs. It's unpretentious yet deeply weird. A Pitchfork review of Ansari's album noted that "if there was a stand-up equivalent to the indie crossover of Phoenix's crowd-pleasing Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, this might be it." The comparison is a little shaky, but it's this quality that most likely landed him a gig hosting the MTV Movie Awards last year. Ansari is both accessible and cool.
The concept of being cool is one that seems to fascinate Ansari, and he's developed a knack for playing guys with over-inflated egos, desperately attempting to be your typical "cool guy" and hilariously falling flat: Randy thinks he's a rock star for talking loudly about his sexploits; Tom Haverford fancies himself a slick ladies' man, and has been known to wear a belt with an LED-screen-as-belt-buckle scrolling the phrase "What's cracking?"
In real life, though, you get the sense that Ansari's attempting to be -- and succeeding at being -- actually cool. A joke-friendship with rapper West, once fodder for his stand-up, appears to have evolved into an actual friendship -- though when asked to talk about it he declines to comment. He pals around town with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek. Last year, he interviewed Animal Collective for The Fader. In addition to Band of Outsiders, he's a fan of other hipster-approved fashion lines like Patrik Ervell and Thom Browne. Ansari is also a serious foodie; Momofuku's David Chang is one of his good friends, and he can't get over how amazing ABC Kitchen was, where he ate the night before our interview. "Vegetables that are really fresh like that are so good. Like, if you eat a really good tomato, it's really good." He frequently uses Twitter to outsource restaurant recs, and to extol the joys of eating delicious food -- fish tacos and burritos in particular. In other words, his life sort of resembles the New York magazine Approval Matrix.
It's a far cry from his days growing up in the small town of Bennetsville, South Carolina. Though Ansari was the only Indian kid in his school, he says that he had a relativel trauma-free upbringing. "The only trauma was living in a place where there's nothing to do and not that much culture. But that's not like 'trauma.'" His parents are both immigrants from India, but Ansari shies away from personal anecdotes about race and ethnicity in his comedy; instead pointing out the stupidity of racism in general. A particularly funny bit he does involves the racial slur, which he found during a deep Internet binge, "prairie N-Word."
He's also avoided getting cast as stereotypical Indian characters. "In the beginning, I would get called in to audition for parts like that, but I always said no. It just became clear that, 'OK, he's not going to do that.'" He adds, "If you want to star in a movie, you shouldn't play a guy with a thick accent working at a deli. They're not making movies about that guy." Ansari moved to New York in 2000 to study marketing at NYU, and started doing stand-up after his freshman year. He appeared at alt-comedy dens like the UCBT and the now-shuttered Rififi, fresh-faced and sporting a backpack. In 2005, he, along with like-minded comedians Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer, began making sort of absurd online videos under the name Human Giant. This was pre-Funny or Die, so the concept of viral comedy videos was a fairly new one. MTV picked up Human Giant as a TV show, which ran for two seasons. Back then Ansari lived in the East Village (incidentally, we lived in the same building above a Duane Reade on Avenue B) and performed alongside folks like Demetri Martin, Eugene Mirman, Chelsea Peretti and Nick Kroll, becoming a fixture on the downtown comedy scene. "Those people from that time, they're who I see and work with all the time now," he says.
While he lives most of the year in L.A., New York is much more Ansari's style. "L.A. is a bit more of a homebody culture; you're alone in your car a lot." He'd like to get an apartment on the Bowery this summer, where he can write his new stand-up material. "I feel more inspired in New York I think." When asked about his new jokes, he says, "I think for my first comedy special there was a lot of stuff I was really enthusiastic about, then for my second, I wrote about things I was really frustrated with." Since his material stems from whatever's going on in his life at the time, it makes sense that now, at 28, with a full-fledged career on his hands, he's thinking about touching on some more grown-up topics. "A lot of my friends are starting to have babies. And that's not something I see in my life at all right now," he admits. "So far, the stuff I'm writing, it's mostly about what I'm really afraid of." For now, though, he's afraid he won't have time between our interview and packing for an upcoming trip to Europe to enjoy some spicy fried chicken at Carroll Gardens restaurant Seersucker: "I love fried chicken."
Styled by Luigi Tadini
Grooming: Annamarie Tendler
Stylist's assistant: Shardae Jobson
Photographed at Santangelo Studio
Photos 1, 3, 4, 5 and 10: Suit by Band of Outsiders, shirt by Thom Browne, shoes by Casbia and sunglasses by MOSCOT.
Photo 2: Suit, shirt and tie by Brooks Brothers.
Photo 6: Coat and shirt by A.P.C., pants by Patrick Ervell, tie by Band of Outsiders and sunglasses by MOSCOT.
Photos 7, 8, 9: Hoodie by Band of Outsiders, shirt by Patrik Ervell, pants by Brooks Brothers and shoes by Casbia.
Photo 11: Jacket and shirt by A.P.C. and sweater by Patrik Ervell.