Aziz Ansari gets candid about love: “elusive and sadly ephemeral”

Aziz Ansari gets candid about love: “elusive and sadly ephemeral”

Comedy fans have been tracking Aziz Ansari for a long time, and across a wide variety of comedy platforms. He earned national attention on TV with sketch troupe Human Giant. He broke into films with Observe And Report, Funny People, and 30 Minutes Or Less, among others. He’s involved in online-comedy videos, prominently appearing on Funny Or Die. He’s back to starring on TV with a regular role as Tom Haverford on Parks And Recreation. And he does frequent stand-up tours, resulting in a series of albums and specials. The latest special, Dangerously Delicious, is available for $5 via his website, following the Louis C.K. direct-release model. People who’ve watched it, or who’ve followed Ansari’s comedy, podcast appearances, and talk-show guest spots lately, or have seen him on his new Buried Alive tour, have noticed he’s been doing a lot of material about dating and relationships, from prodding Conan O’Brien about how he proposed to his wife to releasing Dangerously Delicious clips focused on modern communication and crushes. So The A.V. Club thought Ansari would be a perfect person to talk to about love, in honor of Valentine’s Day. To our surprise, though, he shrugged off lighthearted questions about Tom Haverford’s relationships and wanted to get straight into what’s behind his recent comedy: the research that suggests love doesn’t last and people can’t connect.

The A.V. Club: So, love: Is it totally overrated, or what?

Aziz Ansari: I don’t think it’s overrated at all. Underrated, if anything. It’s amazing and beautiful and uniquely wonderful, but unfortunately, elusive and sadly ephemeral. Woody Allen says it best in Annie Hall: Love fades. At this point, there is a lot of research that backs this idea up.

This Sonja Lyubomirsky essay in The New York Times is well worth a read and discusses a lot of the fears I have about love and marriage that I’ve discussed in my recent stand-up. In summary, research shows when you first get married, you experience the intense longing, desire, and attraction described as “passionate love.” However, after an average of two years, this wears off because of our tendency to get habituated to positive experiences. Then couples enter what researchers call “companionate love,” which is a less impassioned form of love that is a blend of deep affection and connection. Basically, the research shows—love fades. 

This makes sense to me even in relationships that aren’t as serious as marriage, though. I’ve seen it in myself, and in friends’ relationships. There are things in that piece that really make me think about relationships, findings like, “Surprise is apparently more satisfying than stability,” and we are “hard-wired to crave variety.” It all goes against the romantic notion of meeting someone and falling in love and being happy with them forever, which is all that’s been ingrained in our heads since we were young.

As a forewarning, this interview might be a bummer. All I’ve been doing recently is reading articles like this to help me develop my next set of material for my next tour that’s all about how frustrating all this shit can be. Please do not read further if you are into the idea of finding long-lasting love and happiness. 

AVC: Doesn’t that article have a strong upside as well, though? It says trying new things helps relationships last, and that sticking with relationships after the infatuation wears off lets people enter new, closer phases of connection and satisfaction.

AA: Yes, the article does say that couples, if they stick it out, do find that initial bliss later in life, 18 to 20 years down the road, once the kids are gone. But the other part is way more terrifying, and stuck with me. Ideally, I’d love to get to a place like my parents, who in my eyes have hit this second phase as they’ve gotten older and got my brother and me out of the house. Their marriage was arranged, by the way.

AVC: Is that kind of research typical for how you develop your comedy? Does reading depressing articles that reinforce your concerns about love get you going as a writer?

AA: I never did “research” for Dangerously Delicious or Intimate Moments [For A Sensual Evening], my first two specials. Those shows were way different, more random bits about whatever—sheet thread counts, Craigslist, my chubby cousin, random stories, etc. There were no themes or big ideas. 

With Buried Alive, my current tour, I started writing the show when friends started getting married and having babies. I had a friend who was really dumb, and him and his wife had a baby, and I was like, “What the fuck is going on? This idiot is a father now? What’s going on? I’m an adult now? I’m supposed to get married and have a kid? I’m not ready for that yet! AHHHHHH!” And from that place, I started writing about how scared I would be to have a baby, how terrifying the idea of marriage was, and how hard it is to find someone you really like. So I read a lot of articles about marriage, babies, online dating, etc. For example, I had a bit about arranged marriage, and I read all these studies they did about it to get some insight into it. I was surprised to learn that research showed arranged couples tended to be happier in the long run. That became a starting point for a bit. 

Also, I started just talking to audience members and asking them questions about these topics—how they met their spouses, how long they knew each other before getting married. What I realized is, I was accidentally, in a very loose sense, doing research. It was super-helpful. I have no experience online dating, so I learned about it from interviewing audience members via crowd work. I learned about things like Grindr, and heard about a guy who met his wife by typing “Jewish” and his zip code into Match.com. Both those things turned into bits.

I do one bit in Buried Alive where I ask how many women in the audience have gotten a dick photo sent to them. In almost every city, it seemed like 60 to 70 percent. That was so interesting to me—I didn’t think it would be that high. Then I talked to people in each of these cities about their experience with that, and seriously, I could do a TED talk on dick photos after all the “research” I’ve done.

The seed of the material I’m currently writing for the next show, which I don’t know when I’ll tour, is, “How has technology affected our romantic interactions?” Texting and technology have changed everything about modern relationships. It seems like you used to meet someone and then you’d spend time with them in person and get to know them. Now, there’s a middle phase where you engage in a bunch of nonsense-texting, trying to schedule and make plans. People overanalyze these tiny messages and go crazy. 

You know when you meet someone and you feel like you had a decent connection, and then you text them and never hear back? That’s what I’m writing about. Dealing with weird problems that only this generation of people has encountered. Getting a text message and thinking, “Okay, does that mean they are really busy, or are they blowing me off?” Not hearing back from someone you’re interested in, and then seeing them post a photo of a pizza on Instagram. Isn’t that kind of a rude thing to do? Shouldn’t we respect each other a little more than that? Everyone’s been through some version of that shit, and it’s very interesting to me.

What are you supposed to do if you don’t like someone who is asking you out? Pretend to be busy ’til they get the picture? Or do you write an honest thing saying you’re not interested? Respond with silence? “What happened with Lisa?” “I don’t know, she never responded back to that frog photo I texted her…” I actually heard someone say that.

At recent shows, I’ve been reading audience volunteers’ text messages, and it’s the most interesting thing to me. It’s so personal. You can see the ebbs and flows of a whole relationship over the course of 10 to 15 short sentences. You also see how these unofficial rules about waiting to text, not sending a second text before hearing back from the first, etc., are so widespread, and so adopted by our culture. I read this one guy’s texts where he texted a girl once and then texted again an hour later, after she didn’t respond. There were audible gasps in the audience when I read that. The fact that that provoked that kind of reaction fascinating to me. So many people are dealing with that nonsense, and from doing shows about it, it seems like a there is a lot of frustration, and many people are just sick of that shit, and wish they could just spend more time with people in person. 

Also, the research shows this stuff has even changed our interpersonal behavior, and when I keep an eye out for it, I see it all the time. The other day, a musician friend was at a coffee shop. To protect his privacy, we’ll pretend it was the lead singer of Papa Roach, who is not a person I know. This cute girl was smiling at him. Neither of them said anything to each other. He just figured she was being nice. An hour later, he said he saw that she tweeted something at him to the effect of “Saw @paparoachsingerdude at a coffee shop and smiled at him… swoon :)” If we didn’t have Twitter, would she have actually come up to him and said something? Would they have hit it off? Who knows. She was clearly into him, but more confident texting/tweeting than speaking to someone in person. 

A friend told me this story that she had a friend who was at the airport, and there was a cute guy waiting on a delayed flight near her. He had headphones on and was watching Game Of Thrones. In the past, would he have been bored and struck up a conversation? Maybe? But we’ll never know, because he had his goddamn headphones on and didn’t even see her. We just isolate ourselves with all this media, and we might be cutting ourselves off to amazing experiences. Sadly, you’re never gonna hear this story: “And then I pulled off his headphones and closed his laptop and said, ‘Hey, I’m Marie.’” Actually, that’d be amazing. Some girl please do that to me. I would love that. Actually, I might get really startled and scared that you are going to murder me, so maybe no? I don’t know.

Reading those articles, I don’t know how it makes me feel. Partly fearful, but also kind of weirdly comforted to know—oh, maybe that’s why I feel like that. I’d rather feel weird and understand why than just feel weird and be confused. The three books I’m reading right now to hopefully inspire me are The Myths Of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky—she wrote the Times essay I mentioned. I’m also reading Alone Together by Sherry Turkle—this lady is at MIT and has done a ton of research about text-messaging. Here’s a notion she threw out in a TED talk that’s well worth watching—it blew my mind. From her interviews, she found young people are so used to texting that they can’t have proper in-person conversations, because they are accustomed to being able to wait, write, and rewrite their sentences when having conversations over texts. Isn’t that terrifying, and doesn’t it make sense? I’d love for her to see my new show. Sherry, if you are reading this, hit me up. Stuff like that really gets my mind inspired to write. I just find that so intriguing. 

The other book is The Paradox Of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz. This one I’m reading because all research shows more choice makes us more unhappy and less satisfied. The simple example is, give a group of people a choice between three chocolates. They’ll pick one and say they really, really like it and are very confident and satisfied with their choice. If you give a second group a choice of 40 chocolates, they’ll pick one, but be less enthused about it. They think about how some of the other options were okay, get concerned that maybe they made a mistake, etc. I hope I’m not butchering this research when I paraphrase it, but to me, that makes total sense in regards to relationships. In this era, we have more choice than any group of people ever. When you are out at night, anyone in the universe can contact you instantly. Think about how crazy that is compared to even a few decades ago. There was an article I read about a guy who started online dating and went on all these dates. He was in this one relationship, and he said normally, he would have probably moved in with her and likely married her, but because he knew about all the choices he had with online dating, he broke it off and ventured back out to find someone who was a better fit. Shit like that is super-interesting to me.

Going forward, here’s a topic I’m trying to write about for the new show: the idea of, “Why do we want what we can’t have? Why does disinterest cause attraction?” Isn’t that so frustrating? As Woody Allen says in Annie Hall, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” I really hate that we are built that way, and want to learn more about it. 

AVC: Much of your comedy touches on relationships, dating, and marriage, and that focus seems to be turning into an obsession lately. Why?

AA: It’s all everyone is dealing with. It’s so universal. You can talk to any person about this stuff, and they have some opinion or experience to share. Who hasn’t dealt with love and relationships? I’d rather go deep in that subject matter now than talk about the stuff I talk about in my first specials, or write new jokes that are observations about shampoo or whatever. 

With my stand-up now, I’ve realized there are two types of jokes. One type is me talking about miscellaneous topics and getting laughs. That would be how I feel my first two stand-up specials come off. The second type is, you get a laugh, but you also get the feeling that the audience is saying, “Thank you for saying that!” I find the second type way more satisfying. I found it in Buried Alive, where after the show, so many people around my age said, “I’m glad you said that, I don’t feel ready to get married, I’m scared of my friends having babies, and yes, it is hard to meet someone you really like.” 

With this new material about texting and stuff, this has been even more pronounced. So many people have come up to me and talked about how they and their friends have been going through this same shit. I almost write stuff with two goals now: to have it be really, really funny, but also have ideas that resonate with people. When people come up to me and say, “Holy shit, man, I can’t believe you said that, that’s exactly what I’m going through, and I hate that shit too.” That’s way more meaningful than, “Funny shit, dude!” 

AVC: There’s a bit on Dangerously Delicious about what a terrible sign it is for a relationship if it starts with a woman meeting a drunk guy at a club. Where would you advise people to go looking for love instead?

AA: I have no fucking clue. I talked with a friend about this last night. Where do you meet classy men and women? When I talk to men and women, a general sentiment is just, “Where are the good, normal, nice, non-crazy people?” This is when people say things like, “Go the grocery store” or, “Go to a museum.” I’ve gone to both, and it doesn’t quite work out. But maybe if I spent as much time at Whole Foods as I do drinking at bars, I’d have a different experience. I would also be a weirdo that hangs out at grocery stores way too long. I would have to live off those little samples. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that.

The point of those jokes, though, is I just think it’s sad that the main places in our culture that we designate to meet new people are bars and nightclubs. I have not had great luck in those spots. I think you’re better off going through mutual friends. The other thing is work and school. Those are the best, I think, because you have repeated, unplanned, in-person interactions where you can really get to know people. 

I’m so jealous of people who have crushes on people they go to school with, or work with. That’s such a blessing. You actually get to see them all the time and spend time with them. Most single people I know, myself included, have a difficult time even meeting up with the people they like, be it busy schedules, texting games, or whatever. 

The school/work thing is huge, because you don’t have to deal with that. You are automatically given the three factors sociologists have always said you need to build a meaningful connection with someone: 1) proximity, 2) unplanned interactions, and 3) a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other. I read about this concept in another depressing article about how you probably won’t make new strong friendships after 30.

AVC: Do you have any basic advice for people who think they’re falling in love?

AA: Does the person love them back? If so, enjoy every single second of it. This is the most fun part. I believe it’s really hard to meet someone you have that much of a deep connection with, so you should cherish it. 

If the person doesn’t like them back, oof. I’m sorry. That’s a hard situation and it’s not always easy just to move on. When you meet someone you really like and connect with, I think that’s very special, and not to be taken for granted. They discuss this in Before Sunset, one of my favorite films, in a way that really struck a chord with me. Julie Delpy’s character says when she was younger, she thought she’d meet many people of the opposite sex that she would have a special, deep, personal connection with, but as she got older, she realized that’s not the case, and you realize how rare those kind of connections really are. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found I agree with this sentiment. 

Sometimes it can be easy to romanticize our unrequited loves, though, so maybe be wary of that. Again, you want what you can’t have. And if someone’s being shitty to you, just move on. If someone’s being shitty to you, no matter how great they are, that’s shitty, and you don’t want be with someone who treats you shitty. Ultimately, there will be someone you meet that you like as much or more, there always is.

AVC: You brought up the idea of successful arranged marriage a couple of times in this interview, plus all the issues with having too many choices. Would you ever consider an arranged marriage for yourself? Does anything about it look tempting at this point?

AA: No, I’d be way too terrified, but my gut reaction to the whole concept—which originally was thinking it is so ludicrous—has lessened as I read more about it. When people hear about an arranged marriage, they immediately think, “Oh my God! Do they hate each other? Ahhhh!” But wouldn’t that be just as fair a question if it was a non-arranged marriage?

After reading more into it, my impression of arranged marriage is that it’s your parents saying, “Let’s find a good person for our kid to start a family with. Let’s find a good family to bring into our family.” That seems reasonable, right? Of course, it probably doesn’t work out for everyone as well as it did for my parents, but again, the same could be said of non-arranged marriages. I’d put my parents’ happiness up against any old white couple that had a non-arranged marriage.

I do like the idea of my parents, who I love and respect very, very dearly, saying, “Hey, this is a nice person that we think you could be with.” Think about all the riffraff in clubs and bars. My mom wouldn’t stand for that nonsense. They’ve never gotten involved in my romantic affairs, though. 

AVC: Do you think the social disconnect will get any better as we get used to all the new technology and new demands on our attention? You sound entirely pessimistic about the state of love these days, and where we’re all going.

AA: I don’t think the stuff I am talking about gets better on a large scale, but maybe individually, we can make choices that help things get better. I’ve been trying to call people more. Even friends. I’m sick of being addicted to my phone and going on the same seven websites for 30-minute loops, so I’m going to go to a hypnotist that helped a few friends quit smoking and see if he can get me to stop being addicted to my phone and mindless Internet browsing. Wouldn’t that be awesome if it worked?

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic about love. I’m just frustrated at how the game has changed. It just seems less fun and romantic than it used to be. 

And also, of course, I have had great dates, relationships, etc. But that stuff is not interesting for a comedian to talk about. Who wants to hear a comedian come on stage and say, “Last night I met this girl, she was really nice, and we connected. We’re now in a successful relationship! Things are looking great.” That guy would probably get stabbed after a show. It’s much more fun to share and laugh at the bad times and the frustrations. I find you get a much deeper connection with the audience that way.

There are also some great positives about technology I’ve totally left out in our discussion. For every guy waiting in the airport watching Game Of Thrones and not talking to the girl next to him, there are so many others that have found love purely because of being able to reach out to someone they may not know that well, via Facebook. Or maybe they met their significant other on an online dating site: One in five relationships start online now. It’s not all bad. That couple that met on Match.com are probably really happy to have found each other. But the things I’ve been frustrated by and discussed in my new stand-up seem to resonate with people as well. 

I weirdly do consider myself an optimist about love. In my Buried Alive show, I tell a story about a guy who meets his future wife when he goes to Bed Bath & Beyond to get Drano. They fall in love. And in the joke, I just talk about how amazing it is that all these random factors came together to make it possible for these people to run into each other at this particular moment in time, in a parking lot at Bed Bath & Beyond, and then fall in love. I’m an optimist—I feel like an amazing part of life is that at any moment, any of us could have that Bed Bath & Beyond moment. 

AVC: You talked to the L.A. Times a few months ago about being indecisive about relationships, and afraid of commitment. But at the same time, it sounds like you’re really pained about being in a culture that promotes indecision and not committing. If you aren’t ready to settle down, why all the concern about how hard it is for people to settle down these days?

AA: Well, when I did that interview, my head was in the mode of the Buried Alive show—fear of babies, marriage, etc. Now I’m really getting into the new material, which has become about me being somewhat fed up and frustrated with what it is being a single person nowadays. I don’t want to get married tomorrow, but I also don’t want to sit around dealing with stupid texting games or whatever. Maybe it’s that I’m turning 30 this year? Look, I like going out and I like being single, but a growing part of me would rather just stay home, cook food with someone I really like, and do nothing. Well, that’s not a really strong pitch, “Come cook food with me and do nothing.” Maybe that’s my problem.