Aziz Ansari is bird-dogging again. His target is petite, curly-haired, barely postpubescent. “Puppy!” he hoots, and swoops down on a young woman’s tender young cockapoo, camera-app at the ready. Ansari—stand-up comic, Parks and Recreation star, Twitter maven, and now, with the new action-comedy 30 Minutes or Less, marquee-movie player—has never met a dog he didn’t feel comfortable accosting. We’re on a walking tour of the 28-year-old comic’s old haunts from his Village days, when he was finishing a stint at NYU’s Stern School of Business and jockeying for slots at the Comedy Cellar. This was before his MTV cult-comedy breakthrough with the trio Human Giant (the other two humans were Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel), before Judd Apatow gave him a high-profile cameo in Funny People and NBC hired him to be Amy Poehler’s smarmy foil on Parks—before the tractor beam of L.A. locked onto his career and drew him westward. He’s been crashing in New York regularly for the better part of a year, working on material for the follow-up to his “Dangerously Delicious Tour” (the high point of which was a sold-out Carnegie Hall show) and dropping in on clubs to refine new material.
In just two days, though, he’s due back on the set of Parks. These are his last hours in his old bailiwick for a while; and, flâneur and foodie that Ansari is, there’s a lot of ground to cover. “What’s next, what’s next, what’s next” is his restless refrain, as we plunge from gelateria to speakeasy, from taco truck to record shop. He’s been stopped on the street several times by adoring fans and first-name-basis pals alike—one gets the sense that, long before Foursquare, Ansari was mayor of the East Village. But almost as many times, he’s the one doing the flagging down, hitting on every passing canine he finds adorable: “See, how can I be mad at people who bother me for photos? I bother puppies for photos all the time.”
“I took some other pictures of dogs,” he says, thumbing through his photo album. “I’ll show you my best stuff. These guys,” he pulls up a pair of English bulldogs, “were hanging outside this morning. And then there’s this guy”—a floppy-haired maybe-cocker mix—“whose name is East 4th Street Gizmo.” His gallery of casual quadruped acquaintances is impressive (all the more so because he doesn’t have a pup of his own). “All of these are East Village dogs,” he says, then amends himself: “Well, this guy’s West Village. I saw this dog hanging outside of Kiehl’s, probably picking up some moisturizer. Name? Johnny Jump-Up. I think I saw that dog in a bathroom at Bowery Ballroom, banging some hipster chick.” He scrutinizes it. “No, not the bathroom: He looks like more of a ‘photo booth’ man to me.”
As his fans know, Ansari’s something of a specialist when it comes to dogs of the human variety, as well. He’s built a comedic cottage industry on the Ed Hardy’d backs of bottle-service guys, transparently pseudo-macho poseurs who mimic rap-grandee pomposity with oft-ridiculous results. Parks and Recreation’s small-town playa-in-his-own-mind Tom Haverford is a subspecies of this type, as is Randy, his Dane Cook meets Soulja Boy stand-up alter ego. Like most successful alt-comedians, he sympathizes with idiot strivers. “You take little bits of your own personality and amplify them to the necessary degree of what this character is. So you know, Tom’s really into silly hip-hop, and I like that stuff too, but not to the degree Tom does. I don’t run around jumping on people’s couches singing ‘Turn My Swag On,’ but Tom does. I can amp that up in my own personality.”
Comedy, for Ansari, seems as easy as walking around and eating—which makes sense, considering these are more or less his three favorite things. He wants you to try the cecina at the Tacos Morelos cart on Avenue A and 2nd Street; he wants you to experience the Irish Maid, “a great summer cocktail” from the mixologists at Please Don’t Tell. He’s a walking, joke-cracking recommendation engine, and it’s easy to see why he interfaces so effortlessly with social media. (Twitterers might starve overnight without Ansari, who emits restaurant picks and jokes in equal proportion.)
He’s a seasoned New Yorker, but he retains an outsider’s wonder and appreciation for the inexhaustible smorgasbord of Gotham street culture. After all, he grew up in a small town in South Carolina, where street culture mostly consisted of driving down the street to Chick-fil-A (which he still craves). Ansari says his hometown of Bennettsville felt “like Friday Night Lights,” and, though he says he had a perfectly acceptable upbringing there, he doesn’t seem all that eager to go back. But his comedy often makes the trip for him: In the Parks pilot, Tom describes himself as “a redneck,” and it’s arguable that his identity as a displaced southern boy is more crucial to his appeal than his identity as a second-generation Indian-American, the ambitious and hardworking son of immigrant parents.
His character in 30 Minutes is certainly a nose-to-the-grindstone hometown boy, a nerdy-cool schoolteacher from Grand Rapids, Michigan, whose slacker best bud (Jesse Eisenberg) is forced to rob a bank by a pair of small-time crooks (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson). In the movie’s opening, he and Eisenberg get into the ugliest, most hilariously ungainly nerd-on-nerd brawl since Bill Gates and Steve Jobs first faced off. He and Eisenberg more or less carry the movie in tandem. It’s a big leap, and Ansari knows it. “I’m not in a position where I can be like, ‘I’m gonna do movies the rest of my life; it doesn’t matter if I do a bad one,’ ” he says. “I don’t have that right now. I’m not Ben Stiller. I’m Aziz—I can’t fuck up.”
But on the off chance that he does fuck up—and it’s looking like the offest of off chances—he says he’s more than happy to return to a life of strolling, noshing, stand-up, and dog-watching. He’s developing new material about dudes who say things like “Don’t be pushin’ on me” in crowded bars, girls who go “Wooooooo!” (“It’s like that sound, as a person”), and other social irritants. Even his interrogation of the girl at the NYC Icy stand (“This is pumpkin flavor, not pumpkin-pie flavor. Pumpkin pie has pie crust in it. In it!”) and his critique of New York’s Vita Coco ads (“See, Rihanna’s a lot more excited about her Vita Coco than Alex Rodriguez is about his. Alex Rodriguez looks like, ‘I can’t believe I’m in a fuckin’ Vita Coco ad’ ”) have the rhythm of incipient bits. Aziz Ansari is always working, even when he’s playing: How can he not? He’s Aziz. He can’t fuck up. He’s lean and hungry, his metabolism set to cheetah. Even as our tour ends and I waddle home full of taco and gelato, he’s scanning the streetscape, ravenous: What’s next, what’s next, what’s next.