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Aziz Ansari Is a Comedian for the Ages -- the Digital Age, That Is

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Aziz Ansari doesn't do jokes about curry, though many of his cracks do come back to food -- or the internet.

Aziz Ansari
Aziz Ansari Credit: NBC
The 29-year-old standup-comedian-turned-TV-sitcom-actor-turned-internet-wunderkind is everywhere these days: in TV commercials, on tour, on Twitter and in an hour-long comedy special downloaded or streamed online the world over.

The special "Dangerously Delicious" followed the example of Louis C.K.'s "Live at the Beacon Theater" by side-stepping cable networks or DVD distributors and releasing the standup show directly to viewers via the web for $5 a pop. While Mr. C.K. touted that his show raked in more than $1 million in sales, Mr. Ansari declined to release any figures. "It's going really well," he said, adding that he doesn't yet know if he'll release standup this way again.

It may be hard to see beyond his current comedy tour, in addition to his prolific tweeting or next season of his TV show, "Parks and Recreation," where he plays Tom Haverford opposite Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope, local government bureaucrats in a fictional Indiana town. But his online experiment illustrates Mr. Ansari is the breed of entertainer that 's both of the internet and will try anything there. His standup is replete with mentions of Facebook posts, Wikipedia, YouTube and mindless internet "research."

"I have internet access right now because things are going pretty well," he says during "Dangerously Delicious." He's wearing a gray jacket, tie and tuxedo-stripe pants, which combined with his wide eyes and nasally nerd-voice, lend a goofiness that belies his fondness for the word "dick."

Many fans first fell for the potty-mouthed Mr. Ansari as his fictional alter-ego, Randy. That especially vulgar comedian briefly graced the silver screen in "Funny People," but with so much good material that Raaaaaaaandy, as he's better known, ended up in short documentary-style videos on and on his own website,, as part of the movie's viral-marketing campaign. The movie, directed by Judd Apatow, debuted to lukewarm reviews and, despite its cast of comedy elite, including Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, it was Mr. Ansari that made the lasting impression.

Mr. Ansari first got into comedy in college, while pursuing his bachelor's degree in marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business.

"By the time I was in my sophomore year, I was confident I could do well in comedy," he said. "Luckily, I was right."

In more recent marketing endeavors, Mr. Ansari is the centerpiece of American Express's "Link Like Love" commercials, where he uses Facebook and his AmEx card to impress a girl by buying things she likes on the social network, such as modern art, a tuba and a kayak. American Express has a history of working with comedians like Tina Fey, Conan O'Brien and Jerry Seinfeld in its ads, and it let Mr. Ansari write his own gags in the prop-heavy commercials. At one point, he dances in place with a kayak paddle and appears to be channeling Randy. But for AmEx, Mr. Ansari left his foul mouth at home.

"I'm on a network TV show, so my mouth isn't that foul," Mr. Ansari told Ad Age during a phone call. He's eating his way through America during his current "Buried Alive" tour, including ribs and fried chicken in Kansas City and Pizza Bianca in Phoenix. The man is preoccupied by food; he's asked his 2 million Twitter followers where to eat in Raleigh, St. Louis or Indianapolis and joked onstage about men thrusting their genitalia through doughnuts or mac and cheese.

"He's a huge talent and has really built a nice following," AmEx chief marketer John Hayes told Ad Age in April. "I say nice following because it's got some diversity. It's also a younger audience than others."

Though Mr. Ansari is Indian-American, his ethnicity isn't a huge part of his standup. He acknowledges it, especially vis-à-vis his South Carolina upbringing, but more as an entrée to make fun of the entire concept of racism.

"Sure certain parts of South Carolina can be pretty racist, more racist than other parts of the country," Mr. Ansari jokes during "Dangerously Delicious." "But what people forget is that the food there is delicious. So growing up it was kind of like: 'Oh, did that guy just say the N-word? Oooh, fried chicken and biscuits. Nevermind!"

Like his TV character on "Parks and Recreation," which he'll be back to filming soon, Mr. Ansari is self-consciously Indian in appearance only. Born Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani, the character Mr. Haverford revealed in the show he changed his name to make it in politics. Mr. Ansari himself seems more in step with black culture and comedy. In high school, he loved Chris Rock's HBO specials and Eddie Murphy movies. Randy has released a song titled "Aaaaaaaangry" attacking rappers for missing deadlines, and Mr. Ansari both cracks jokes at and pals around with Kanye West. One of his best known jokes is about 50 Cent and grapefruit soda."I don't go up and do jokes about curry," Mr. Ansari said. "It's not interesting to me. When I do shows, there are old people, there are young people, Asian people and Indian people."

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