On Friday, comedian and "Parks And Recreation" star Aziz Ansari will release his latest standup special, “Buried Alive.” The show won’t debut on Comedy Central or HBO, like it might have traditionally; and it also won’t go directly to fans on the comedian’s website, the sort of method pioneered by Louis C.K.
Instead, Ansari is piloting a new distribution platform for standup: Netflix.
Why the departure? When this plan was announced back in August, Ansari told the New York Times that Netflix “seems like it’s the closest delivery service of media we have that actually matches up to our preferences and expectations.” Just days earlier, he’d announced a deal to write a book about the intersection of tech and the single life, which has been “radically altered by new technologies,” he told the Times.
Normally I don’t spend a lot of time wondering what standup comics think about technology. Yet these comments — which sounded almost like excerpts from the latest digital innovation think-a-thon conference — inspired me to set up a conversation with Ansari earlier this week. I wanted to know: Is he an unusually technology-focused comedian? Or the world’s funniest tech guru?
“I’m definitely not an expert on technology,” Ansari demurred. The Netflix experiment, he told me, simply reflects a desire to keep expanding his audience beyond “the converted.” He’d done “the Comedy Central thing” with his 2010 special, “Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening,” and “the $5 thing” with last year’s “Dangerously Delicious” special, which was made available via his site for fans to stream or download directly. (It later aired on Comedy Central as well.)
Those models are great, Ansari says, but he’s still interested in building a new audience, and not just serving the one he’s already assembled. And he figures that Netflix matches up best with the way his likely audience consumes video content these days. The timing also seems right to try this particular platform, given Netflix’s obvious ambition to establish itself as a source of original content.
But digital wonderland aside, Ansari points out, touring is still his bread and butter. Netflix, his own site and even clips on Pandora’s comedy offering all ultimately serve as a means to drive people to his shows: “There’s still something about live events that’s special.”
Meanwhile, I had assumed that the tech/dating book most likely came about because some publisher took note of, say, Ansari’s astute bit about the perils of texting and romance, and convinced him to compile a similar set of riffs in printed form. But that’s not quite what he has in mind. “I’ve been approached a bunch about doing, basically, a book of essays,” Ansari says. Those pitches never grabbed him: “Basically, my standup is my book of essays.”
Instead, this book idea stemmed from a genuine personal interest in technology’s rewiring of the dating game. He’d been looking around for “something like a 'Tipping Point' or 'Freakonomics' kind of book” on the subject, but came up empty. So instead of just expanding on the personal observations he’s already making through his comedy, he’s now having conversations with actual academic experts whose work has touched on the subject. (The results, one supposes, will still be less wonky than traditional pop-psychology and behavioral economics books — but significantly funnier.)
When I suggested that I’d always assumed someone like him would be insulated from the more routine indignities that modern technology imposes on the rest of us, he politely set me straight. His own Netflix consumption, for instance, is largely restricted to the homefront: When he’s on the road, he has just as much trouble getting a suitable Wi-Fi connection as anybody else. “It’s not like you become famous and all these problems just disappear,” he said.
To the contrary, a public profile makes it impractical to experiment with, say, online dating sites. Obviously that’s one of the major developments in modern romance, “but it’s not really an option for me,” Ansari noted. And that’s precisely the sort of thing he’s looking to explore — not just the techno-changes he’s experienced, but the ones he knows are significant even if he can’t be a part of them. “You know,” he says, “I’m a curious guy.”