Aziz Ansari Goes Big by Going Small in ‘Live at Madison Square Garden’

Aziz Ansari’s Live at Madison Square Garden special, which premiered on Netflix early this morning, marks a definite improvement in Ansari’s already-strong comedy game. Selling out Madison Square Garden is an impressive feat for a comedian, but what’s more impressive is how easily the small comic commands the large stage. But then again, Ansari has always been performed on a huge scale, so maybe it’s only natural that he looks at home on the MSG stage.

In Live at Madison Square Garden, Ansari chooses more intimate, honest material to perform, ranging from stories about his parents moving to America (they show up on stage at the end of the special as confetti falls from the rafters, and it’s actually very affecting) to extended bits about relationships (and particularly the different ways each gender approaches them). These jokes are funny but mature, and Ansari’s nonstop energy and excited, childlike delivery ensure they remain entirely in his wheelhouse. But he doesn’t stray too far from what fans are used to; it’s been a slow crawl to this special (his last special went heavy on relationships, too, and he’ll soon publish a book titled Modern Romance), and Ansari keeps plenty of silly, pop culture-centric jokes too. 

Ansari opens the special by proclaiming that he’s a minority and sharing tales of his parents’ struggles when they first moved to America — and how his own “struggles” pale in comparison, joking about telling his children depressing stories about his iPad dying on a flight. He also gives some useful advice on how to deal with racism: “Kill some racist motherfuckers, if you need to.” (If only we could get that on a needlepoint.) It’s a great opener to the special and the best form of comedy, tackling a serious subject but still providing some laugh-out-loud funny punchlines.

Most of the special is like that, as Ansari illustrates the ways in which men can be awful through a decidedly raunchy bit about how “in general women don’t do dumb shit” like harass men on Twitter, the way men do to women, as well as simply talking about how creepy men can be. It’s understandable if this makes you wary, as Ansari has been on a somewhat questionable feminist tour, but he’s smart in his execution: Instead of providing strictly his own opinions, he retells an experience that a woman has relayed to him about being followed down the street — and he’s not speaking for her, so much as he’s aware that he has this platform and she doesn’t. It works because he’s not preachy, instead simply suggesting, “Hey, dudes? Maybe don’t do this creepy shit! It certainly won’t get you laid!”

aziz _pds_006_hBut it’s still fun and games for Ansari, who (in my favorite moment) performs a flawless Ja Rule impression and jokes about how bizarre it was that Ja Rule managed to have such a successful string of hits. In a later, especially impressive segment, Ansari’s improv, centered around an audience member’s text-message conversation, is just as solid as his prepared material.

While it’s true that Ansari tends to rely on predictable topics like relationships and people’s attachment to technology, he always manages to find hyper-specific aspects to zero in on. At one point, he accurately names the three VHS tapes that everyone had as kid: Home Alone, Jurassic Park, and Mrs. Doubtfire. It’s these specific observations, combined with Ansari’s larger-than-live stage presence, that best exhibit his comedic talents, making the Live at Madison Square special one that fans will happily devour.