Aziz Ansari: Live At Madison Square Garden (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Aziz Ansari: Live At Madison Square Garden (2015)

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Aziz Ansari, fresh from his starring role in the recently completed Parks and Recreation, returns to the standup stage in his fourth comedy special.

Live At Madison Square Garden is currently streaming on Netflix.

Not the usual kind of cowboy"I don't think we're as amazing as our parents are."

A whistle-heavy western tune leans into the soundtrack as the black and white film stock catch a glimpse of Aziz stepping off of a freight elevator on his way to the main stage.  Despite the semi-mythic opening, the motionless camera watches Aziz Ansari walk by on the concrete and catches him in a split-second moment of panic.  His eyes go wide and he smiles so quickly and broadly his face seems ready to leap off his body.  But he makes his way to the stage, a dark figure against a setting sun, and the first thing he does is express appreciation for these people who came out to see him.

The western motif makes sense when he finally launches into his set, where barely ten minutes in he utters the line I emphasized above.  For him, and the rest of our generation, our opportunities to conquer new frontiers have to be entirely self-made.  There are no more global unknowns, no more places for the hopeless to toss the die and hope they end up somewhere with opportunity, and Aziz's frontier is where he's most comfortable - the stage.

Aziz explores a disappearing experience unique to American immigrants with depth, warmth, and crude humor.

Aziz explores a disappearing experience unique to American immigrants with depth, warmth, and crude humor.

Live At Madison Square Garden is not his funniest standup.  For my money, nothing tops the Kanye West story he drops toward the end of his first special Intimate Moments For A Sensual Evening.  I also don't see myself rewatching Live At Madison Square Garden anytime soon.  But the reason I'd be hesitant is the same reason Live is not as funny as his previous work.  Aziz is touching on some painful realizations about living life in the 21st century that may not be fresh, but are consciously aware of the compromises we have to make to sustain ourselves on this planet.  The frontier Aziz is pushing against here is what limits exist for himself, and how what meager lessons he can share might prepare the rest of us for the future.

This sounds abnormally heavy for a standup special, but those who grew up listening to Bill Hicks' moments of lucid philosophy know insight and laughs sometimes go hand in hand.  Aziz's approach to modern compromises earns this comparison to the great Hicks because of how he's shaped his persona over the years.  By Buried Alive, it was clear the party hearty "Raaaaannnnnnndddddyyyyyyy" days were over with, and instead of the blockheaded Aziz we got a thoughtful man who was curious about the ephemeral nature of love.  In this special he's looking toward his parent's past to examine our present, making welcome observations like how his parents moved to South Carolina because, "They were trying to find a place that combined racism with horrible public schools."

He doesn't even regard that as a mistake, but a necessity, and if only Aziz's love of his parent's was left in the special it would be a wonder to behold.  The bonus is getting sections which include jokes like that wonderful and unfortunately accurate line about South Carolina, and how his minority status means if he fails then, "Worst case scenario we'll cook some shit and sell it to white people."  The pep of his previous sets is gone and these lines come at the end of surprisingly pointed segments where he treats the audience like an intellectual partner in a dance which gets dirty on occasion.

Nothing demonstrates this better than the highlight of Live, an extended riff on the horrors of the chicken meat production industry with the squeal of Ja Rule.  I'm only a year younger than Aziz, so hearing him describe Ja Rule's voice as, "Getting stabbed in the stomach through an ulcer repeatedly," brought me some weird and hilarious nostalgia.  But the end point of these ruminations on the career of Ja Rule and the violent lives of countless chickens is when he imagines Ja Rule getting arrested for suffocating a chicken in a bag while screaming, "I had to make compromises to maintain economies of scale."  Here's the beautiful part - Aziz admits afterwards he was worried the audience wouldn't get the joke.  Not because of the economies of scale but his worry Ja Rule might be too old a reference.

I never caught the exact moments when the backdrop of the set changed thanks to smart direction.

I never caught the exact moments when the backdrop of the set changed thanks to smart direction which keeps the images flowing smooth as Aziz transitions between topics.

Aziz is smart enough to know our grasp on pop culture is the least reliable thing to base his comedy on, which is why the disappearance of "Randy" is a welcome evolution.  While he goes on his different topics the background changes at subtle moments to reflect, sometimes ironically, on his current subject.  When he's talking about the way women are treated horribly online it's against a backdrop of "MENMENMENMENMEN" endlessly looped on the projection.  The direction keeps us aware of these changes in the background while placing Aziz in scope with his intimate relationship with the audience.  It's pleasing, and once again intellectually rewarding, as a subtle visual experience in addition to the sprinkled bits of academia in his comedy.

Of course, this is still Aziz, and his treatise on internet sexism contains the line, "Oh yeah Aziz, I want to squeeze your head between my titties until your beard pops off," as he wonders what life would be like if women treated men like men treated women.  The fortunate thing about Aziz Ansari's work is he's likely to never completely "grow up" and we'll get zingers like that for the rest of his career.  He's approaching life on evolving terms, but those terms come with the same sense of humor which has made him so popular.  Finally we get to see this man proudly introduce his momma and poppa on what may be the biggest night of his life.  It's a wonderful capstone to a special which I'll be pondering for a long time.

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Tail - Aziz Ansari Live At Madison Square GardenAziz Ansari: Live At Madison Square Garden (2015)

Posted by Andrew

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