On September 7, 2013, I attended a comedy show of Parks and Recreation star Aziz Ansari at the Victoria Theater in Dayton, Ohio. The evening started out with Ansari allowing the audience to take a picture of him on stage, a practice that had just previously been announced as prohibited. Ansari wondered why fans were so eager for a picture that would inevitably be blurry.
Ansari then began his act dedicated to dating and relationships in today’s climate of smartphones and texting. Ansari emphasized the awkwardness and difficulty of dating in modern life, drawing upon some of his own experiences, those of his friends and even reading an audience member’s texts on her phone. I thoroughly enjoyed the humor laced social commentary on how texting changes the ebb and flow of relationships, changes the power dynamic, and creates new uncertainties and anxiety in the dating process.
Appearing on the Conan O’Brien show in November 2013, Aziz elicited several rounds of laughter with his comments. “[Dating in today’s texting era] is pretty much now like you’re a secretary for this really shoddy organization scheduling the dumbest shit with the flakiest people ever.”
“I see people my age getting married to people they don’t know that well, sometimes to people they’ve known for a year and a half. A year and a half! Is that enough time to get to know someone to spend the rest of your life with someone? A year and a half? I’ve had sweaters for a year and a half and I’m like what the f*** am I doing with this sweater?”
“Imagine if marriage didn’t exist and you’re a guy and you’re asking a woman to get married. Imagine what that conversation would be. You’d be like ‘hey, so, you know how we’ve been spending a lot of time together, doing a lot of stuff together, hanging out like everything?’ ‘oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I know.’ ‘I want to keep doing that till you’re dead!’”
Talking about his fascination with today’s world of romance, Ansari explained, “I’m super-fascinated by how texting and modern technology have made the early stages of our romantic interactions frustrating—that roller coaster of emotions you go through when you text some girl you are into, asking about dinner.
You don’t hear back for hours, and you are going crazy. Then you look on Instagram, and she’s, like, posting a photo of her dog and you’re like, What the f*#!? Why are you Instagramming photos of your puppy, you rude piece of s*#!? Respond to my text! I started talking about stuff like that and was stunned by how much it seemed to resonate—such a specific, modern conundrum that has become almost universal. In a few hours of no texting, you can go from elation at meeting someone to total horror and anger.”
Ansari was given an advance of $3.5M from Penguin Press to write a book on this topic. Here’s how the publisher describes the untitled book, which is expected to be published in September 2015. “[The book] will provide an investigation into what Ansari argues is an entirely new era for singles, in which the basic issues facing a single person—whom we meet, how we meet them, and what happens next—have been radically altered by new technologies.”
At first glance, it feels quite surprising that a comedian like Ansari would be able to credibly write about dating. But when you peel back the onion, it isn’t that surprising. As a comedian, Ansari is constantly observing and finding humor in the the human condition. And being single in New York, he’s likely to have experienced the trials and tribulations of the dating game in perhaps the most competitive and challenging place in the country.
As Scott Moyers from Penguin Press says, “So much of Aziz Ansari’s brilliant humor comes from grasping the hidden forces that govern our everyday lives. I’m delighted but not surprised that he is the one who is going to make sense of the strange new world that singles have to navigate today.”
What I really find surprising about this book and the willingness of both the public and publisher to have Ansari serve as an expert on dating in this decade is not that he is a comedian, but that he is an Indian American comedian.
Ansari was born in 1983 in Columbia, South Carolina to immigrant professional parents from Tamil Nadu, India. South Carolina is not thought of as a hotbed for Indian Americans, evidenced by the 2010 Census which shows that in Columbia there were 878 Indians, or 0.7% of the total city population. Undoubtedly, during his teenage years, the Indian population would have been even lower.
Admittedly, I haven’t come across any mention of Ansari’s dating life in South Carolina, but given that level of diversity, it’s unlikely that any Indian American, even a funny, handsome one, would have been in dating demand. Indian Americans have made notable contributions in fields such as medicine, academia, science, mathematics, and business, but sustained notoriety in public facing fields such as media and entertainment feels like a newer phenomenon.
While some would debate whether Ansari’s dating expertise is one of the desired areas of assimilation, the fact that it could happen is a clear example of diversity in career and lifestyle choices.
While there is certainly a long way to go, as evidenced by the backlash from a few mis-guided vocal critics on Twitter against the recent Indian-American Miss America winner Nina Davulur not being American enough to hold such a crown, Ansari’s example is a comforting sign of progress.
Apurva Desai lives in the Silicon Valley where he has worked for leading Internet and Mobile companies ranging from large giants to emerging startups for the last decade. You can find him on Twitter @apurvadesai and at his personal site apurvadesai.com .