Mar 7, 2015

Channel Surfing: "Aziz Ansari Live at Madison Square Garden"

Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.

There's some art to how Aziz Ansari's latest stand-up special opens. It is a big one for a lot of reasons, most notably because he's playing a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden. It is a venue that is more prone to welcoming legendary or popular musicians more than a man who spasms as he talks about Cold Stone or R. Kelly with hilarious exaggeration. In fact, it doesn't seem all that plausible that even with a noteworthy role on Parks and Recreation that this would seem possible. However, it did. What better way to open up than with some Ennio Morricone-esque score in front of a sunset on an electronic backdrop shifting through images. It is mythic as he goes from a silhouette into the foreground to begin the show at a venue he may return to, but for now has to give us a reason for that.
How does he start? Does he open with the reliable relationship conversations and technology addiction that made his previous special "Buried Alive" not only memorable but surprisingly mature? Nope. He starts more personal than that with a discussion on immigration and his parents' first day in America. It is a poetic, heartfelt monologue that isn't necessarily funny despite helping to define the evening. As things shift to him, he shrugs it off with a joke and moves the set along.
There's a startling juxtaposition between this hour-long special's first and second half that is indicative in this moment. While always funny, his opening feels charged with importance. He covers new ground as he mixes his egotistical style with important themes such as the meat industry and feminism. His passion manages to make his obvious messages echo through the theater. It helps the jokes to resonate even further while allowing him to pull off what is easily his attempt at George Carlin edginess and importance. He is older now and is no longer just obsessed with pop culture and dating. He wants to bring his new status as a high caliber comedian to the masses in an important way.
Then, there's the other half in which things change. Deep into a tangent on meat packing, Ansari shifts to lecture on Ja Rule. For those familiar with his work, the impersonation and jokes were on point.  However, it reflected his inability to let his tried and true subjects go. There isn't anything wrong with that, especially since he manages to churn out just enough laughs from both halves. Still, the shift is a little jarring and reflects someone on the cusp of becoming a more challenging and interesting comedian and not just a super likable and hilarious talent.
To discuss minutia in an overview of what makes this special would ruin the point. It's comedy and it's what Ansari does best. He works the crowd, improvises and most importantly leaves an impression. His manic energy, while repetitive with purpose, remains a charming essential. His ability to act out moments on stage with nothing more than a quick body shift shows the level of confidence that he is working at. Thankfully his material still manages to hold interest, even if there's likely complaints that he ditched some tried and true subjects such as an ongoing segment about his brother.
However, beyond it being just a hilarious special that continues to restore faith in Ansari, it also had a poignant ending. After a brief encore, the credits roll as he introduces his parents; the people who he first spoke about in the show. There's something homely and nice about it that may unintentionally help the show not only come full circle, but also provide a deeper context. His discussion on immigration may have been brief, but it spoke to why this sold-out show meant something to him as a first generation American. It is a moment that is also  likely to be glanced over, especially as the show began to hit familiar notes. However, it may be the most profound part of his set for the deeper symbolism is has and the pride it shows in his family. 

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