An Unexpected Evolution Lies Within ‘Aziz Ansari: Live At Madison Square Garden’

There seems to be a need to force standup’s best acts into a hierarchy, whether by ranking them, sticking them in a bracket system, or creating a bullsh*t analogy (for the latter, I like the idea of a jungle-like comedy food chain, with Louis CK as standup’s lioness, biting off more than he can possibly chew and dragging it back to his den-mate, the male lion Dave Chappelle, who roars only at his leisure). But today’s crowded scene is topped by comics who can’t be categorized solely as standup comedians, and squashing them into one of the aforementioned pecking order mechanisms does everything to discard their off-stage efforts. You can’t Google a top-level standup — be it Burr, Oswalt, Rock, Buress, Schumer, Maron, Peretti, or any of the many others — without pulling up a flood of podcasts, network sitcoms, cable/Netflix programming, stage plays, movies, sketch shows, movie cameos, writing credits, and the list goes on.

One of the more unique acts at the top of the standup game is longtime UPROXX favorite Aziz Ansari, who surely fits into any animal-comedy analogy as a mishmash of bird characteristics — rooster-voiced, roadrunner-bodied, peacock-suited — and has earned his multi-hyphenate status via his Human Giant sketch show, role as Tom Haverford on the sadly-expired Parks and Recreation, awards show hosting, voiceover work, movie roles, upcoming authorship, and of course — standup. The latest entry to his standup catalog premiered Friday on Netflix.

Aziz Ansari: Live at Madison Square Garden marks Ansari’s fourth standup hour and second consecutive special to be released exclusively on Netflix. He’s now dropped three specials since 2012 and showed a marked evolution with each, an impressive output considering his other obligations.

Ansari’s new material covers plenty of ground, sometimes beautifully melding two topics that couldn’t be any more detached (it’s about time someone used Ja Rule to shame the food industry) and usually making the most of the maniacal, animated approach we’ve come to expect from him (one bit about the traditional arc of marriage is elevated almost exclusively by his energy). But his act also evolves during this hour, flashing spots of vulnerability and sweetness and humility, as well as a newfound patience to let his act breathe between punchlines, particularly when hitting on autobiographical bits about family life and dating.

The perils of dating, specifically the new slate of technology-based problems faced by today’s singles, eat up a large chunk of the hour, which should come as no surprise given the subject of Ansari’s upcoming book, Modern Romance. But the modernity of the set stretches well beyond the written material. There’s plenty of traditional crowd interaction on a macro scale (polling by applause), but on a micro level, Aziz engages in a one-on-one interaction with an audience member that never could have occurred during a standup show of yesteryear. That exchange also shows off Ansari’s ability to improvise, and might be the best bit of the evening. Other innovations are strictly aesthetic: no stool or mic stand or water bottle here, and the traditional static background is eschewed for a digital screen that transitions in step with his act.

Live at Madison Square Garden packs everything an Aziz Ansari fan wants to see — the spectacle, the stage-romping, the shouting — while packing a new bag of nuanced tricks that, at times, do the unexpected: turn a Madison Square Garden show by a bombastic act into a surprisingly intimate affair. Here’s a preview: