The definitive Aziz Ansari facial expression has introduced each episode of Parks And Recreation since the start of that show’s stellar third season: Mouth agape, eyes agog. It’s a look that shows the exaggerated emotional spectrum of his character Tom Haverford—if Ansari narrowed his mouth a smidge and opened his eyes a few more millimeters, it could just as easily display complete and utter terror.
The fine distinctions between wide-eyed wonder and wide-eyed horror factor heavily into Ansari’s newest stand-up special, Buried Alive. The actor and comedian has kept his eyes, ears, and mind open for the past year and change, and its produced some of his freshest material in years. Buried Alive is a spectacularly entertaining hour-plus of stand-up, but it’s also an intriguing bit of cultural anthropology. Throughout the special, Ansari asks questions—as a character within his routines and to the members of his audience—and what he turns up is just as frequently funny as it is heartfelt and penetrating. And that’s from a stand-up set that uses a clogged toilet as the seed for a cunning observation about the mysteries and coincidences of human connection.
More succinctly: Aziz Ansari notices all of the stupid shit people do. That’s an obvious conclusion to draw, because it’s part of a stand-up comedian’s job description. But Ansari also thinks about all of the stupid shit people do, and that’s what distinguishes the gut-busting profundities of Buried Alive from run of the mill observations about airline travel or gross fast food. Those are both topics of discussion within the prepared material of Buried Alive, but they come up as tangents in routines about much larger topics: Parenthood, relationships, marriage equality, social graces, anonymous hook-ups aided by smartphone apps. At one point in the special, he drops the phrase “in my research” without an ounce of sarcasm. He’s been asking the questions about how married couples meet, he’s been doing the homework about raising a kid, drawing fascinating conclusions all the while. Buried Alive marks the point where Aziz Ansari becomes the Malcolm Gladwell of stand-up comedy.
But even when it seems like he may be jumping to conclusions, the obvious thoughtfulness at play elevates Ansari’s material to a new level. It’s a stark contrast from last year’s Dangerously Delicious, which coasted off of the energy and subject matter of its predecessor, Intimate Moments For A Sensual Evening. Buried Alive comes off like a clean break; in tackling something bigger than himself, Ansari’s work paradoxically becomes more personal. There’s craftsmanship here: The crowd work portions of the set are off-the-cuff, but like any worthwhile work of improvised comedy, they land because Ansari is so practiced and so disciplined. (Also: Within the special, they have the benefit of post-production editing.) I love the beat he takes after the couple near the front of the stage inserts a basket of breadsticks into their engagement story. He pounces immediately, but then steps back before asking if the breadsticks were unlimited. It’s a one-time-only routine with a seasoned execution.
The personal angle of these universal probings comes from specificity. At some point in his meditating on marriage, Ansari hit upon the notion that every expectation a person makes of their spouse would sound incredibly creepy in the wrong context. And so Buried Alive delivers a bone-chilling passage in which marriage’s fundamental questions—“Will you spend the rest of your life with me?” “Will you wear this symbol of our love on your finger?”—become the inquiries of a psychopath. Plenty of the topics broached in Buried Alive have a “’til death” attached to them, and the opposite end of all the baby talk that opens the special seems the obvious next subject for Ansari’s comedic prodding. Though, given the lengthy Buried Alive tangent inspired by the TV series Celebrity Ghost Stories, perhaps Ansari already has the afterlife all wrapped up.
Buried Alive is defined by curiosity, and that’s a quality that enlivens even the set’s most questionable bit. Pivoting off some generalizations about obnoxious people he’s encountered in bars, Ansari delves into his “favorite racial stereotype ever”: Black men having explosive reactions to magic tricks. The intro smacks of “white guys drive like this, black guys drive like this” laziness, but in its peculiarity (and its use as an analogy for the acceptance of others) it ends up working. In its way, it’s a meta-commentary of such sweeping stereotypes; it’s also presented in a manner that demonstrates the thoughtfulness and curiosity that went into the bit. This isn’t something Ansari noticed once and wrote a joke about—if challenged, he could probably whip up the phone that figures into the special’s incredible dick-pic prank and show the audience multiple YouTube videos of the phenomenon he’s describing.
Aziz Ansari’s stand-up brings so many observations, so many opinions, so many anxieties to the stage. In Buried Alive , he’s stares them each in the face and asks “Why?” For that reason, it’s his best recorded work yet.