Hey podcast listeners. Today: an episode from our archives called “Aziz Ansari Needs Another Toothbrush.” It’s an interview with the actor and comedian Aziz Ansari. We talked shortly after he published a book called Modern Romance and shortly before the release of his excellent Netflix series Master of None. In fact, as you’ll hear, the show didn’t even have a title yet. Hope you enjoy listening to Ansari as much as I enjoyed talking to him.
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AZIZ ANSARI: I read the Internet so much I feel like I’m like on page a million of the worst book ever.
STEPHEN J. DUBNER: Hey, what do you collect, if anything, and why?
ANSARI: At a certain point, I started buying some older cameras. I think you get cooler pictures, and it’s kind of fun to drop off the roll of film and then you see the photos.
DUBNER: You are such an old man.
And if you come up to Ansari on the street, he’d rather not take a picture with you.
ANSARI: So you can either do that or you can have like this real moment with a person where you say, “Hey, how are you? Like, what’s your name? Like, thanks for watching my stuff.” That feels like a real thing to me, and I’m happy to do that.
What else is he happy to do? How does he spend a typical day? And what the hell is he going to call his new TV show? He needs your help with that one.
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Aziz Ansari is best known for his role on Parks and Recreation, the sitcom starring Amy Poehler that ran on NBC for seven seasons. It was never a huge hit, but it was beloved. In part, because it was smart but also – at least this is what I think, and this is why I liked it so much – because the show was, at its core, sweet. Ansari played Tom Haverford, probably the most selfish and hustle-y character on the show – and yet he too was pretty sweet, deep down. And after listening to this interview, I’ll be surprised if you don’t think the same thing about Ansari himself.
He grew up in Bennettsville, South Carolina, to parents who immigrated from India. His dad worked as a gastroenterologist, and his mom worked in his dad’s office. Aziz says his parents have been happily married for 35 years. After high school, Aziz came to New York, studied marketing at NYU. But he got into stand-up comedy and, well, he stayed in it.
He’s been a comedian and actor for fifteen years now. And he just published his first book, a non-fiction book with an NYU sociologist, Eric Klinenberg, as a coauthor. It’s called Modern Romance, and it debuted at No. 2 on the Times best-seller list. It’s about how people meet, and mate, in the modern world, and how that is different from the past.
DUBNER: So I’m curious why you wanted to write a book, especially, you know, a real book with real research and real paragraphs and real ideas. And it’s good. And I mean, I guess I’m thinking, if I could do what you do, I don’t know if I’d want to waste my time writing books.
ANSARI: Well, I would say my thought process was this. I’d been offered book deals in the past and usually for a comedian, a book deal is kind of a cash grab. You basically just write down a version of your act as a book, and I didn’t want to do that. And I didn’t want to do another kind of book where it’d be like, new essays, because I felt like I would rather just do stand-up with those ideas. But I had this material that was about kind of dating and romance, and I’d met a few academics, one person in particular, Sherry Turkle I met. She does a lot of stuff about communication and technology. So, she came to a show in L.A. And then the next day, we spent a lot of time together talking about the show and how her research kind of related to some of the things I was talking about. Just how texting had changed so many things about courtship and that kind of dialogue I was like, “oh that’s interesting.” That my kind of viewpoint from my perspective as a comedian meeting the viewpoint of these academics and sociologists, that to me seemed like, “oh, if I could write a book that captured that tone it would be very interesting.” And I was genuinely curious about a lot of the stuff.
DUBNER: I felt like I knew a fair amount about this topic. We’ve written about it some. But I feel like by going really deep into a relatively narrow topic, you came up with stuff that was just — even if you know a little bit of the literature — it was really interesting. The stuff about how so many people, 50 or 100 years ago basically used to marry our neighbors. There’s that one graph you have that shows like, proximity of, you know, mate…
ANSARI: Yeah, are you referring to the propinquity studies?
DUBNER: I believe I am referring to the propinquity. Isn’t propinquity density? This is a proximity study.
ANSARI: Well, that was a real kind of shocker to me. Just the idea that, like, oh, the basic concept of, like, trying to find someone, has changed. You know? That study is from the thirties in Philadelphia and it was like, yeah one out of twelve people will marry someone in the same building. Eighty-something percent, it was the same city. One out of three it was like within a five-block radius. And it was really startling. And you just think about it now and it’s like, no one marries someone from the same city. You meet people throughout your whole life that are from different parts of the world, and you go to college. And that change was something that was actually a bigger change than the technology or anything. Just this overall change in what used to be called the “companionate” marriage to the “soul mate” marriage. The companionate marriage is pretty close to an arranged marriage. And whenever I tell people my parents had an arranged marriage, they’re like, “wow that sounds crazy!” Well, if you look at the history in the United States even, back in the day, you know, someone was like, “this guy that lives near me, and he’s nice and seems like he could provide for me.” And, you know, a lot of the women we spoke to in retirement homes, the way they spoke about their lives they were like, well what was I going to do? You know? I was living with my parents. I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t have my own career. I could just get married to this dude and then I could just go on with my life and finally become an adult. To me the craziest statistic in the book, the craziest one that blows my mind the most, is in 1967 there was this study they did where they found 76 percent of women said they would marry someone that they are not romantically in love with. And you know now, just the idea that like now we have all these options of what to do with our lives and our goal of who we want to find is not like, oh a decent person to settle down with and start a family with. It’s no, we’re trying to find the love of our lives. We’re trying to find this amazing, elusive thing. That just wasn’t a thing people had the luxury to look for.
DUBNER: Yeah. So I have to say that in the end, you personally sound like a bit more of a traditionalist than a lot of 32-year-olds. And so I guess I want to know, do you think you are? And if so, or I guess even if not, do you think that was influenced by your own family, especially since you said your parents were the result of an arranged marriage?
ANSARI: I am in an interesting generation because I’m 32. So I have one foot in the world of this post-Internet world. But I still remember a time where I didn’t have a computer, and when I made phone calls. And when I was young and had a crush on a girl, I would have to use a phone. So I still kind of remember some of these things. I still remember a world before text messages and all these things. I do think there is a chunk of my generation that does romanticize the past, and I am part of that, I think. You know, when I go to a bar and I see people all on their phones and I’m on my phone, I get bummed out and I’m like, “ugh, we wouldn’t be doing this.” But then it’s also like yeah, but would I even have met up with all these people if I couldn’t text them to tell them where to meet up? You know, part of the impetus to write this book was this frustration of like, so many relationships kind of playing out on my phone without even getting to spend time with people in real life and actually have an experience. It was really frustrating. And that kind of makes you long for a simpler time before all this stuff.
DUBNER: Yeah. OK, so let me ask you some of our FREAK-quently Asked Questions. That’s OK?
DUBNER: So, tell us in 60 seconds or less what you do, what you actually do in a given day. And I’m guessing that your given day is a lot less given than most people’s given days.
ANSARI: Well, I would say, you know, with the job I have, you don’t really have an average day because it depends on what you’re doing. So right now I’m editing this television series that I shot for Netflix. So my day now is: I’ll wake up at 8:30 or so and shower and then I come to our offices, and I sit in an edit bay and review our cuts of episodes of our show. And then I’ll go when that’s done at six or so, I’ll go maybe grab a drink or get some delicious food with my girlfriend, maybe stop at a comedy club, work on some material and then go to bed.
DUBNER: Does the show have a name yet?
ANSARI: No. So hard to come up with a name for a show. I don’t have a title for it yet.
DUBNER: Do you want to crowdsource it here and now?
ANSARI: Well, I don’t think they know anything about what it’s about so it’s kind of hard, and it’s kind of hard to surmise it, so.
DUBNER: Do you want to give us a 45-second description and we’ll come up with a name for you?
ANSARI: My kind of silly description of the show is Aziz Ansari plays Dev, a gentleman that loves delicious food and gets into humorous/thought-provoking situations.
DUBNER: OK, alright. We’ll put the listeners to work on it. Alright, let me ask you this. We ask everybody this, so we’re not just singling out you cause you’re in show business. But, let’s talk about your net worth, which you don’t need to name but you’re certainly welcome to, compared to that of your parents when you were, say, 16 years old. So if your parents’ net worth was 1x when you were 16, yours today is what x?
ANSARI: I don’t know. I have no idea how much money they had. I don’t know. I probably have more. Well, I mean, they’re in Bennettsville, South Carolina. So even if you have a lot of money, like, what are you really going to do? Are you just going to buy a lot of biscuits? There was so much cream-style corn. It was just flowing everywhere. We had a moat made of gravy. It was so much stuff.
DUBNER: What is one thing you’ve spent way too much money on but do not regret?
ANSARI: Probably just personal comfort. You know, I think I work so hard, and I work a lot. I don’t take a lot of down time. But when I do, and when I am in a situation where I can be a little more comfortable, I’ll spend the money. I’ll give this example. When I was first touring if there was a connection or like, it would be like do you want to upgrade to first class, I’d be like no. But then at a certain point when you start touring a lot, you’re traveling a lot, and it’s like, “well, if I do one extra show I can just never do a connection. I can always do first class.” And then that way I’m like, “oh yeah, well I’ll definitely do that.” And that’s kind of what I did my second tour.
DUBNER: That makes sense.
ANSARI: And then you just kind of justify it that way.
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I’ve just asked Aziz Ansari one of our FREAK-Quently Asked Questions. It goes like this: What’s something that you own that you should probably throw out but never will? Considering that his new book, Modern Romance, is about finding love in the digital age, his answer might surprise you.
ANSARI: I’ve been trying to throw out my email address, in a way.
DUBNER: Are you like Hotmail or something?
ANSARI: No I had an email address, a work email address, and I would just get so many emails. And then when I started filming my TV show, I just set up a thing that said, “this email is dead. I’m not checking email. If the world’s going to end you can call me.” And I had an assistant on my show and I was like, you can call her. She’ll tell me what’s up and we’ll figure it out. And you know what you realize is, all that shit people email you about all the time, all day, none of it is important. None of it is pressing. And if you just focus on the work you’re doing instead of focusing on it for like two minutes and then getting distracted to answer some question that isn’t pressing at all, you do a worse job. So I found that I’m much more focused when I don’t have those little questions. And then at the end of the day, I just have someone fill me in on everything or I call someone on the phone. Or I call someone in the morning. And then I can focus on what I’m doing throughout the day, and my head is much clearer when I do that. So I’d love to just throw out — if I could throw out the Internet as well, that’d be great. I never read anything. I’ve never read all these novels that are like these beautiful stories that have continued to have a resonance with people for so many generations, like beautiful works of art that I could read at any point. But instead, I choose not to read them, and I just read the Internet. Constantly. And hear about who said a racial slur or look at a photo of what Ludacris did last weekend. You know, just useless stuff. It’s like, I read the Internet so much I feel like I’m on page a million of the worst book ever. And I just won’t stop reading it. For some reason it’s so addictive.
DUBNER: So that’s interesting because you sound like a pretty — I mean you’re a pretty disciplined person overall. It sounds, like you do a lot of work. And you get your work done. Obviously it sounds like you like your work so it makes it a little easier to do that. But still, I mean — well, let me ask you this: Do you think that you really wish that you didn’t read the Internet all the time and would read books instead? Or do you think that, you know what, you just like it and you kind of feel guilty about it and so you say that because it sounds like the thing that you want to be true, maybe?
ANSARI: Well, I’ve thought about this stuff a lot. Here’s what I’ll say. I’ll say, the times where I haven’t read that stuff, the stuff that I normally read on the Internet, just nonsense, blogs, or whatever, the next day I’ve felt like I’ve missed nothing. You know? I deleted Twitter and Instagram off my phone. I mean I use them to like post stuff but I don’t have them on my phone. I don’t have a feed, I don’t follow anyone. And I used to read that stuff a lot. And now I don’t read it. I don’t see those pictures. And I don’t miss it. And I feel like a lot of people do a lot of this stuff, and if they cut it out, I don’t think they’d miss it that much. I really don’t. I mean when I don’t check in on those blogs and stuff, if I miss it I don’t go back and if you don’t read your blog for a week, right, do you go back and like, not your blog in particular, I’m saying like a blog that you check, right? If you don’t read it for a week, right, and you come back, you don’t go back and read Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, because you’re not reading it for the information. What you’re reading it for — and this is just my personal theories about this stuff — what you’re reading it for is a hit of this drug called the Internet. The phone world. You just want a hit of it. Like when you scroll down and you see a new blog post you’re like, “oooh!” That, like, gets your brain excited. It’s like, oooh! There’s something new! And you click it and you read it and you’re like, oooh, but it’s garbage. It’s nothing. Like ok, alright. Somebody dropped an N-bomb. Great. Alright. I mean that is kind of a cool story, but, you’re just searching for this new thing. When you look on your Facebook feed and you see these pictures it’s like, none of that shit really matters. You just want to see a new thing on there, and it just gives you something to do. I’ve sat at my computer — I still do it — and I go on like Facebook or whatever and I’m like, “what am I doing?” I’m going on a loop with these same four sites for no reason. I’m not genuinely interested. Like, here’s a test. Take your nightly or morning browse of the Internet, right? Your Facebook feed, Instagram feed, Twitter, whatever. Ok if someone every morning was like, I’m going to print this and give you a bound copy of all this stuff you read so you don’t have to use the Internet. You can just get a bound copy of it. Would you read that book? No! You’d be like, this book sucks. There’s a link to some article about a horse that found its owner somehow. It’s not that interesting.
DUBNER: I kind of like the story about the horse that found its owner.
ANSARI: You know, that does actually sound kind of sweet. You know, maybe you just need a copy of just the animal stuff compiled. And then you can just read all those stories about animals that found their owner and then that would be a gripping read. That would be an amazing short story collection. Each chapter’s broken down by animals: dogs, cats, horses, reptiles. The reptile chapter would be incredible. It’s like, oh there’s an iguana that was in Arizona that somehow got on a flight to Minneapolis. Alright, I’d read that.
DUBNER: Well, so what some people would say, even some economists would say is that, well, your revealed preference, what you actually do. is that, right? And that means that at root that you want it. You write in the book about dating, you know this whole notion of the paradox of choice. Do you think that’s what you’re up against now? Do you think that’s what your Internet craving is about? It’s just so much stuff that potentially might be exciting that you spend a lot of time on crap that isn’t at all exciting just by process of elimination?
ANSARI: You’re making the argument that like, oh well, if I do enjoy that stuff. It’s revealing that I do actually like it. If I do look at it, I do like it, right?
DUBNER: Correct. To some degree.
ANSARI: But I would say this, the problem is, when I take that stuff away. Like if I go to dinner and I don’t have my phone, I don’t miss those moments of looking at my phone. But if I have my phone with me, I want to look at it because it’s drug-like. You want to check it and just see what’s going on. And anytime there’s a lull in the conversation, our attention spans are so short, you just have to look at it. But I don’t like that I have to look at it. I don’t like that I’m that compulsively addicted to checking my phone or the Internet. I definitely don’t like that. So it’s — I’ve found the way to fight this kind of addiction is to kind of take the phones or whatever out of the equation. And then you end up being able to kind of resist it. And then you forget about it and your mind’s at ease. For me.
DUBNER: Hey, what do you collect if anything, and why?
ANSARI: What do I collect? At a certain point, I started buying some older cameras. I started buying these older Polaroid cameras and some film cameras. I have a few of those. I don’t know a lot about cameras. I’m not like a…
DUBNER: Do you shoot with them or do you just like to have them?
ANSARI: No, I shoot with them. I like taking film pictures; there’s something interesting about them. I think you get cooler pictures and it’s kind of fun to drop off the roll of film and then you see the photos and you kind of forgot about them. It’s kind of…
DUBNER: You are such an old man.
ANSARI: Kind of. At the same time though, it’s weird. I just went on this — I took my girlfriend on this vacation for her birthday last weekend, and I took all these photos with my film camera and I’m like describing these places to a friend of mine, and I’m like, “aw damn, if I took iPhone photos I could show him those photos.” I mean there is a convenience to what we have now.
DUBNER: Hey, what’s the biggest upside for you of being well-known?
ANSARI: The biggest upside of being well-known is that random people are really nice to you all the time. People are inclined to be nice to you. And strangers come up to you and they tell you they appreciate the work that you do. And especially in New York. New York’s very cool because in New York there’s way less of people that want photos and just want to take a photo with you as a celebrity just to post it on social media or whatever. There’s way more people just seeing you and they give you a nod. Or they’ll give you a thumbs-up. They’ll see “oh, this guy’s with his friends. I’m not going to stop him and ask him for a photo or whatever. I’m just going to give him a little nod or just say, ‘hey, I love your work.'” And I appreciate that. I think that’s really nice. And you know, if people ask for a photo I have, like, a nice way of telling people, “oh I’d rather not take a photo but what’s your name? Thank you so much for watching my work and I’m genuinely very appreciative.” And people in New York get that and it’s a cool thing to just see people giving you positive feedback to what you work so hard on all the time.
DUBNER: And why do you do that? What’s the point of not doing the photo?
ANSARI: Well, I’d say what happens is — you know when I was first starting to act and stuff, like, I heard about some actor that didn’t take photos. And I was like, “man, that seems kind of shitty.” Why not? That’s not a big deal. Like, I would take every photo. But it didn’t happen that often. But at a certain point if you’re walking down the street in New York, and you’re like somewhat recognizable, you get stopped all the time. And you can either take all those photos and I used to do that but I started becoming kind of a grumpy person. I would do it and I’d be kind of grumpy about doing it.
DUBNER: Like Alec Baldwin grumpy or just a little bit grumpy?
ANSARI: No just like, no, the flash isn’t on. Or like you know, things never go, it’s never like this quick thing that you imagine. And it just keeps — again I hate — like, I’m not complaining about this stuff, because I know I’m so lucky in a billion ways. I’m not complaining about this. But you don’t think about, like, oh, you’re with your girlfriend. And every minute you get stopped. And people that stop you when you’re with your friends or your girlfriend, they’re kind of, not rude to them, but they don’t treat them like they’re real people. And they’re like,
“Hey! Take this of us!” And so they’re mean to your other friends sometimes. And your other friends get a little annoyed that, like, every thirty seconds you have to stop and do this whole thing. And you take one picture on the street and then some people see it and they’re like, “what’s going on over here?” And then they come over. And then eventually there’s like some tourists who are like, “who are you? What are you doing?” And you’re like, “I’m just an actor guy and these people recognized me.” And they’re like, “All right, come here. We’re getting one.” Ok, I don’t even think you know who I am or what I do but, if you need it. So it becomes this whole thing. So you can either do that or you can have this real moment with a person where you say, “hey, how are you? Like, what’s your name? Like, thanks for watching my stuff. And I’m happy to do that.” That feels like a real thing to me. And I’m happy to do that. I mean, I was at a comedy club, and I saw Louis C.K. do this. And he was just like, “hey, what’s your name” or whatever. And he was like, “yeah, I just do that.” And I’m like oh my God, that’s great. So then you don’t have to be this grump and like take this weird photo. You can just say hi to someone and if they’re cool, they’ll understand. Like, most people get that. You know the other thing is there’s some people I know that are famous to the point where they don’t even walk down the street anymore. They’re always in, like, a black car. And wherever they go they’re in a black car and they get down and they don’t get to be like normal people. And I don’t want to lose that. I want to be able to walk around and be a dude, you know? And just be a person.
DUBNER: Do you worry, though, about that, maybe it’s not an inevitable paradox but it’s a potential paradox, which is the better you do your work, or the more popular you get, at least — there’s not really a relationship between how good your work is and how popular you get. But, you know, you’re a performer, you’re an actor, you’re a comedian. You’re making a new show for Netflix. The more exposure you get, the more likely it is you are going to lose the ability to just live a life like that in New York. Do you think about where that border is and do you fear that you might cross it?
ANSARI: I think the way I kind of have things planned out, I’m not going to do anything that’s going to get me to that point, you know? It’s not like oh I’m going to do the Twilight reboot or something. I’ve been very careful about what I choose to do, and I only do things that I really like. So I do things, if you do a show like Parks, or you do standup, which is just going to be you, like, you’re going to attract people to your work who are people you would probably enjoy meeting or speaking with. Like if I did some, like, douchey show that I didn’t like, I would probably have some douchey fans that I don’t like. But since I’ve done stuff that I’m proud of and respect, the people that come up to me are cool and respect me, and I respect them, and they’re usually cool people. You know, so I think it’s about the choices you make and what you do, you know?
DUBNER: That’s a really good point. So let me ask you this: If you weren’t doing what you do now — like any of it, comedy, TV, movies, none of it — what do you think you would have ended up doing?
ANSARI: I’d probably be, like, sad and fat somewhere. Eating a lot of food. I don’t know. Who knows? I never had any deep passions that I think I would have gravitated towards.
DUBNER: You think you’d be living in New York or back in South Carolina or somewhere in-between?
ANSARI: I would probably be living in New York. And I think I have a lot of faith in the city of New York helping you figure out what you want to do. I mean that’s what helped me figure out I wanted to be a comedian, was living in New York. It wasn’t about being at NYU or anything. So, I would probably live in New York. I always, when I was in South Carolina, lived in a very small town and I always wanted to be somewhere bigger where stuff was happening. And when I went to New York it was just so exciting because I could go to concerts and things like that. You know, bands don’t come to South Carolina. Bands just don’t come. If they do they’re like in Charlotte or something and it’s like a three-hour drive. Maybe it’s on a weekend and you can go. So, I was excited to be in a place where things were happening. And the thing that was happening that was exciting to me was comedy and doing comedy and that’s what I kind of fell into. But if I didn’t, maybe there would have been something else I was really into. Maybe I would have really gotten into that Stomp thing and bashing trashcan lids.
DUBNER: OK and finally, just tell me something that almost nobody but maybe close friends and family would ever know about you. Tell us something that people who are fans just would be really surprised to learn about you.
ANSARI: OK, so I do a thing where, at night I brush my teeth by the sink and in the morning I brush my teeth in the shower, right? And —
DUBNER: That’s your thing? That’s your distinctive thing?
ANSARI: Wait, wait, I haven’t finished. So, here’s the thing: Every day starts with this moment of, of this nuisance of oh, my toothbrush and my toothpaste are by the sink. They’re not in the shower. And I turn on the shower and so I walk over, and I grab the toothpaste and the toothbrush, and I come back to the shower.
DUBNER: Can I make a suggestion for you? Because I think you’re doing well enough that you could afford it, is what if you got two of each and kept one in the shower and one at the sink?
ANSARI: Here’s the thing. I bought another thing of toothpaste. But I have yet to purchase the second toothbrush. And I have been trying to remind myself to buy the second toothbrush for about three years. So that’s something no one knows about me.
DUBNER: Well, does that mean that your primary toothbrush is three years old? That you’re brushing your teeth with a three year old toothbrush?
ANSARI: No, I just keep forgetting to buy this double of the toothbrush. To have two of them so I have two of them going simultaneously. And you know, maybe if the show goes well, and I do another big tour, I can save up the $4 to buy that other toothbrush.
DUBNER: I would like to think. Let me say this to you: Aziz Ansari, may that be the gravest problem you have to fight in your life.
ANSARI: Yeah, it’s a really tough life. There’s that. The whole trying to stay off the Internet thing. And people wanting pictures. It’s a real rough life I’ve created for myself. No, it’s all great.
DUBNER: Yeah, thank you very much for the time. Listen, really congratulations on the book. It’s just fantastic that it’s good and that it’s popular, and I wish you all the best with it and with all your other stuff.
ANSARI: Well, thank you. That’s very nice of you to say. Thanks so much for having me on. I’m a big fan and I’m excited I was able to come on.
DUBNER: OK great. Catch you later. Bye-bye.
ANSARI: All right, bye!
I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s blast from the past. We’re working on a ton of new episodes — one of which we need your help for. If you have any stories about Freakonomics Radio changing the way you think, or make decisions — maybe even some problem you’ve solved or enemy you’ve defeated — let us know. Drop us a line at email@example.com. Thanks.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Kasia Mychajlowycz and Suzie Lechtenberg. The rest of our staff includes Arwa Gunja, Jay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Christopher Werth, Greg Rosalsky, Caitlin Pierce, Alison Hockenberry, Jolenta Greenberg and Emma Morgenstern. Our intern is Harry Huggins. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook. And don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.
- Aziz Ansari, comedian, actor, author
- Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klineberg (Penguin Books, June 2016)