Aziz ANSARI: I read the Internet so much I feel like I’m like on page a million of the worst book ever.
Aziz Ansari is a comedian, an actor, and now an author. Today, he answers our FREAK-quently Asked Questions. For instance:
Stephen J. DUBNER: What do you collect, if anything, and why?
ANSARI: At a certain point, I started buying some older cameras. You get cooler pictures and it’s 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: You can either do that or you can have this real moment with a person where you say, “Hey, how are you? What’s your name? Thanks for watching my stuff.” That feels like a real thing to me. 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 N.Y.U. 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 N.Y.U. 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: I’m curious why you wanted to write a book, especially a real book with real research, real paragraphs and real ideas. It’s good. If I could do what you do ,I don’t know if I’d want to waste my time writing books.
ANSARI: My thought process was this: I’d been offered book deals in the past. Usually, for a comedian, a book deal is a cash grab. You basically write down a version of your act as a book and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to do another book where it’d be new essays, because I would rather just do stand-up with those ideas. But I had this material that was about dating and romance. I’d met a few academics, one person in particular, Sherry Turkle. She does stuff about communication and technology. She came to a show in L.A. The next day, we spent a lot of time together talking about the show and how her research related to some of the things I was talking about, [like] how texting had changed so many things about courtship and that dialogue. I was like, “That’s interesting, my perspective as a comedian meeting the viewpoint of these academics and sociologists. If I could write a book that captured that tone it would be very interesting.” I was genuinely curious about the stuff.
DUBNER: I felt like I knew a fair amount about this topic. We’ve written about it some. But by going really deep into a relatively narrow topic — even if you know a little bit of the literature — it was really interesting. The stuff about how people fifty or a hundred years ago used to marry our neighbors.
ANSARI: Are you referring to the propinquity studies?
DUBNER: I believe I am referring to the propinquity.
ANSARI: That was a real shocker to me. The idea that the basic concept of trying to find someone has changed. That study is from the thirties in Philadelphia and it was like,”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 within a five-block radius. It was startling. You think about it now and 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. That was a bigger change than the technology or anything, 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. Whenever I tell people my parents had an arranged marriage they say, “Wow. That sounds crazy.” If you look at the history in the United States even, back in the day someone was like, “This guy that lives near me. He’s nice and seems like he could provide for me.” The women we spoke to in retirement homes, they were like, “What was I going to do? I was living with my parents. I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t have my own career. I could get married to this dude and then I could go on with my life and finally become an adult.” To me, the craziest statistic in the book that blows my mind the most, is: in 1967, there was this study they did where seventy-six percent of women said they would marry someone that they are not romantically in love with. Now, the idea that we have all these options of what to do with our lives and our goal of who we want to find is not a decent person to settle down with and start a family with. 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: In the end, you personally sound like a bit more of a traditionalist than a lot of thirty-two-year-olds. Do you think you are? And if so, or if not, do you think that was influenced by your own family, especially since your parents were the result of an arranged marriage?
ANSARI: I am in an interesting generation because I’m thirty-two. I have one foot in the world of this post-Internet world. But I remember a time where I didn’t have a computer, when I made phone calls. When I was young and had a crush on a girl, I would have to use a phone. I remember some of these things. I remember a world before text messages and all these things. There is a chunk of my generation that does romanticize the past and I am part of that. When I go to a bar and I see people all on their phones and I’m on my phone, I get bummed out. I’m like, “We wouldn’t be doing this.” But then, would I even have met up with all these people if I couldn’t text them to tell them where to meet up? Part of the impetus to write this book was this frustration of so many relationships 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. That makes you long for a simpler time before all this stuff.
DUBNER: Let me ask you some of our FREAK-quently Asked Questions. Tell us in sixty seconds or less what you do in a given day. I’m guessing that your given day is a lot less given than most people’s given days.
ANSARI: With the job I have, you don’t really have an average day because it depends on what you’re doing. Right now I’m editing this television series that I shot for Netflix. Now, I’ll wake up at 8:30 or so and shower. Then, I come to our offices. I sit in an edit bay and review our cuts of episodes of our show. 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. 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: I don’t think they know anything about what it’s about, so it’s hard. And it’s hard to surmise it, so…
DUBNER: Do you want to give us a forty-five-second description and we’ll come up with a name for you?
ANSARI: My silly description of the show is Aziz Ansari plays Dev, a gentleman that loves delicious food and gets into humorous/thought-provoking situations.
DUBNER: We’ll put the listeners to work on it. Let me ask you this: we ask everybody this. We’re not just singling out you because you’re in show business. 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, sixteen years old. If your parents’ net worth was 1x when you were sixteen, yours today is what x?
ANSARI: I have no idea how much money they had. I probably have more. They’re in Bennettsville, South Carolina. Even if you have a lot of money, what are you really going to do? Are you just gonna buy a lot of biscuits? There was so much cream-style corn. It was 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. 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, [an airline] 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. It’s like, “If I do one extra show, I can just never do a connection.” I can always do first class. Then that way, I’m like, “I’ll definitely do that.” That’s what I did my second tour.
DUBNER: That makes sense.
ANSARI: Then you justify it that way.
Coming up after the break: why Aziz Ansari is selective about the work he takes on:
ANSARI: If I did some 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. I respect them and they’re usually cool people.
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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 [on] Hotmail or something?
ANSARI: No. I had a work email address, and I would get so many emails. Then, when I started filming my TV show, I 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. 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.” 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. Focusing on [work] for two minutes and then getting distracted to answer some question that isn’t pressing at all, you do a worse job. I found that I’m much more focused when I don’t have those little questions. Then, at the end of the day, I have someone fill me in on everything or I call someone on the phone. Or I call someone in the morning. Then I can focus on what I’m doing throughout the day, and my head is much clearer when I do that. 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 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. Useless stuff. I read the Internet so much I feel like I’m on page a million of the worst book ever. I won’t stop reading it. For some reason, it’s so addictive.
DUBNER: That’s interesting because 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 just like it and you feel guilty about it and so you say that because it sounds like the thing that you want to be true, maybe?
ANSARI: I’ve thought about this stuff a lot. Here’s what I’ll say: the times where I haven’t read 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. I deleted Twitter and Instagram off my phone. I use them to post stuff, but I don’t have them on my phone. I don’t have a feed. I don’t follow anyone. 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. I feel like a lot of people do a lot of this stuff. If they cut it out, I don’t think they’d miss it that much. I really don’t. Like a blog that you check if you don’t read it for a week 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. When you scroll down and you see a new blog post, that gets your brain excited. It’s like, “There’s something new!” You click it and you read it and you’re like, “Ooo!” But it’s garbage. It’s nothing. Somebody dropped an n-bomb. Great. That is a cool story, but you’re just searching for this new thing. When you look on your Facebook feed and you see these pictures, none of that shit really matters. You just want to see a new thing on there and it gives you something to do. I’ve sat at my computer. I still do it. 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.” Here’s a test: take your nightly or morning browse of the Internet, right? Your Facebook feed, Instagram feed, Twitter, whatever. If someone every morning was like, I’m gonna print this and give you a bound copy of all this stuff you read so you don’t have to use the Internet. 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 like the story about the horse that found its owner.
ANSARI: That does actually sound sweet. Maybe you just need a copy of the animal stuff, compiled. Then you can 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, “There’s an iguana that was in Arizona that somehow got on a flight to Minneapolis.” All right, I’d read that.
DUBNER: Some people would say, even some economists would say is that, “Your revealed preference is 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 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: To some degree. Right.
ANSARI: But I would say this, the problem is, when I take that stuff away: 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. Anytime there’s a lull in the conversation, our attention spans are so short you 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. I’ve found the way to fight this addiction is to take the phones, or whatever out, of the equation. Then you end up being able to resist it. Then you forget about it and your mind’s at ease. For me.
DUBNER: What do you collect if anything, and why?
ANSARI: At a certain point, 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.
DUBNER: Do you shoot with them or do you just like to have them?
ANSARI: I shoot with them. I like taking film pictures, there’s something interesting about them. I think you get cooler pictures and it’s fun to drop off the roll of film. Then you see the photos and you forgot about them.
DUBNER: You are such an old man.
ANSARI: At the same time though … It’s weird. I took my girlfriend on this vacation for her birthday last weekend. I took all these photos with my film camera and I’m describing these places to a friend of mine. I’m like, “Damn. If I took iPhone photos, I could show him those photos.” There is a convenience to what we have now.
DUBNER: 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. Strangers come up to you and they tell you they appreciate the work that you do. Especially in New York. New York’s very cool because in New York less people that want to take a photo with you as a celebrity to post it on social media or whatever. There’s way more people just seeing you and they give you a nod. Or they give you a thumbs-up. They’ll see, “This guy’s with his friends. I’m not going to stop him and ask him for a photo or whatever. I’m just gonna give him a little nod or just say, “I love your work.” I appreciate that. I think that’s really nice. If people ask for a photo, I have a nice way of telling people, “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.” 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: Why do you do that? What’s the point in not doing the photo?
ANSARI: When I was first starting to act and stuff, I heard about some actor that didn’t take photos. I was like, “Man, that seems kind of shitty. Why not? That’s not a big deal. 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 somewhat recognizable, you get stopped all the time. You can either take all those photos — and I used to do that but I started becoming a grumpy person. I would do it and I’d be grumpy about doing it.
DUBNER: Like Alec Baldwin grumpy or just a little bit grumpy?
ANSARI: Like, the flash isn’t on. Or things never go. It’s never this quick thing that you imagine. Again, I’m not complaining about this stuff beause I know I’m lucky in a billion ways. I’m not complaining about this. But you don’t think about — you’re with your girlfriend and every minute you get stopped. People that stop you when you’re with your friends or your girlfriend, they’re not rude to them, but they don’t treat them like they’re real people. They’re like, “Hey! Take this of us!” They’re mean to your other friends sometimes.Your other friends get a little annoyed that. Every thirty seconds you have to stop and do this whole thing. You take one picture on the street and then some people see it and they’re like, “What’s going on over here?” Then they come over. Then, eventually, there’s some tourists who are like, “Who are you? What are you doing?” And you’re like, “I’m just an actor and these people recognized me.” And they’re like, “Okay, come here. We’re getting one.” “I don’t even think you know who I am or what I do, but if you need it…” It becomes this whole thing. You can either do that or you can have this real moment with a person where you say, “Hey, how are you? What’s your name?Thanks for watching my stuff.” I’m happy to do that. That feels like a real thing. I was at a comedy club and I saw Louis C.K. do this. He was just like, “What’s your name?” He was like, “I just do that.” I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s great.” Then you don’t have to be this grump and take this weird photo. You can just say hi to someone and if they’re cool, they’ll understand. Most people get that. 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 a black car. Wherever they go, they’re in a black car. They don’t get to be like normal people. 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 about that? Maybe it’s not an inevitable paradox, but it’s a potential paradox. 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 gonna 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: The way I have things planned out, I’m not going to do anything that’s gonna get me to that point. It’s not like I’m going to do the Twilight reboot or something. I’ve been really careful about what I choose to do, and I only do things that I really like. If you do a show like Parks, or you do stand-up,, you’re gonna attract people to your work who are people you would probably enjoy meeting or speaking with. If I did some 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. It’s about the choices you make and what you do, you know?
DUBNER: That’s a really good point. 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 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. I have a lot of faith in the city of New York helping you figure out what you want to do. That’s what helped me figure out I wanted to be a comedian, was living in New York. It wasn’t about being at N.Y.U. or anything. I would probably live in New York. When I was in South Carolina, I lived in a very small town and I always wanted to be somewhere bigger where stuff was happening. When I went to New York, it was so exciting because I could go to concerts and things like that. Bands don’t come to South Carolina. If they do, they’re in Charlotte and it’s like a three-hour drive. Maybe it’s on a weekend and you can go. I was excited to be in a place where things were happening. The thing that was happening that was exciting to me was comedy . That’s what I 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: Okay. Finally: 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: Okay … At night I brush my teeth by the sink and in the morning I brush my teeth in the shower. And…
DUBNER: That’s your thing? That’s your distinctive thing?
ANSARI: Wait, wait, I haven’t finished.
ANSARI: Here’s the thing: every day starts with this moment of this nuisance, “My toothbrush and my toothpaste are by the sink. They’re not in the shower.” I turn on the shower. 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. I have been trying to remind myself to buy the second toothbrush for about three years. That’s something no one knows about me.
DUBNER: 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. Maybe if the show goes well and I do another big tour, maybe I can save up the four dollars 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: 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. I wish you all the best with it and with all your other stuff.
ANSARI: Aw, 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: Great. Catch you later. Bye-bye.
ANSARI: All right, bye!