Recap: Aziz Ansari Riffs on Relationships and Technology at the Riverside Theater
For the better part of two decades, stand-up comedy
was ruled by outsiders. Immersed in the alternative culture of the time, the
coolest comics of the ’90s and ’00 were schlubs, intellectuals and elitists, unconcerned
with winning over audiences that might find their act too high concept or their
references too obscure. Aziz Ansari, perhaps more than any in-vogue comedian,
signals a shift away from alternative comedy’s historic value system. He’s
clean-cut, sharply dressed and unabashedly materialistic, and he engages with
pop culture freely—not to mock it, but to celebrate it. If Janeane Garofalo,
Patton Oswalt and David Cross were the cool older siblings who turned you on to
the Meat Puppets, Ansari is the little brother who just wants to hear KISS FM
on the drive to the mall.
In his breakout comedy specials Ansari leaned on pop culture worship hard, with routine after routine about the absurd majesty of stars like R. Kelly and Kanye West. His latest material, though, has taken a sharp turn away from those anecdotes, just as they were threatening to become a gimmick. The bulk of the first of his two shows Monday night at the Riverside Theater was an extended examination on relationships in the iPhone era, an insightful and occasionally even poetic look at the ways society has been rendered callous and unhappy by technology.
The set was even framed by a thesis statement of sorts. “We are all shitty people,” Ansari contended, explaining how we’re almost pathologically opposed to committing to plans with friends lest better plans come along and how that cold impulse to weigh our options carries over to dating. He examined these subjects with the focus and thoroughness of a Mike Birbiglia monologue, though unlike some of Birbiglia’s chattier material, he kept the jokes coming at a solid clip. In one of the night’s highlight routines, he illustrated how wishy-washy dating has become by borrowing an audience member’s phone and reading out loud a long text message exchange between her and a prospect she just met at the bar this weekend.
For his encore, Ansari took requests for old routines, though he ignored calls for his R. Kelly concert reenactment and instead stuck to bits about bed sheets with low thread counts and how black people are blown away by magic tricks, his favorite racial stereotype. Some of these routines were just a few years old, yet tonally they were miles removed from the bittersweet crawl of the relationship material he’d just delivered. They were fast and huffy, leaning heavily on an insolent persona that he’s since softened considerably. Trivialities still amuse Ansari, but these days he’s more interested in the human condition.