On Parks and Recreation, centered on a charmingly dysfunctional city hall in Pawnee, Indiana, Aziz Ansari plays Tom Haverford, a bottle-service-loving, wanna-be big fish in a small pond. "He wants to be Russell Simmons, but he's too scared to go to a big city," Ansari says. "He's doing stuff he sees rappers doing, and it's not impressing anyone but himself, but he's doing it. That's really sweet and funny to me."
Like Tom, Ansari, 28, grew up in a small town (Bennettsville, South Carolina, pop. 9,425), where he was the only Indian kid in his school. Unlike Tom, Ansari leapt his small pond the first chance he got, enrolling at NYU as a marketing major. His heart wasn't in it, and after people kept telling him he was funny, he tried stand-up. He hustled his way up from five-minute slots to hosting entire evenings. On the strength of his stand-up buzz, Ansari was able to co-write and co-star on a daffy, unhinged MTV sketch show, Human Giant, which ran for two seasons; MTV offered a third, but Ansari was already planning to move to L.A., where he was hired on to Parks and Rec.
He's never had any interest in "ethnic comedy" – but at the same time, being an outsider is a motif in Ansari's work, as in the (true) bit he used to do about hanging with Kanye West and Jay-Z. In the bit, which is several years old, he plays tour guide, ushering us into a glamorous world where he doesn't fit.
His distance from that world has shrunk. West and Jay-Z invited Ansari to join them while they were making Watch the Throne. Now that he actually counts those guys as his friends, Ansari says, "I don't talk about stuff like that as much in my comedy. Part of it is, I don't want them to be like, 'He's always telling stories.' "
By Jonah Weiner