It’s easy to see why Aziz Ansari is famous enough to headline at a festival like JFL42; he’s funny, charismatic, and completely comfortable on stage. Ansari has the sort of natural stage presence that could allow him to just talk to the audience without making any jokes, and still hold their attention for the entire hour and a half.

This stage presence is what makes Ansari’s interactions with the audience so satisfying. Ansari is so collected and in control on stage that the audience is never worried that an interaction with an audience member will spiral out into awkwardness. It’s because Ansari goes to the audience looking for data to corroborate his theories on romance instead of looking for victims that his interactions seem safe and comfortable. It was this kind of casual crowd work that was one of the show’s great strengths. I think that everybody left the theater with the feeling that they had just had a conversation with Ansari.

With this extremely due respect being given, I do think that Aziz Ansari’s show was one of the ones that I enjoyed the least at this year’s JFL42. 

Although there were many shows at the festival where things went awry in a way that they never did for Ansari, it always felt to me that those moments of failure were balanced out by moments of revelatory success. These were shows where I left the theater thinking, “Well, things were a bit rough in places, but that one bit was brilliant.” With Ansari, everything was of uniformly solid quality, but, to my mind, nothing was inspirational.

Put it this way: I laughed in all of the right places, but there was nothing in the set that I could see myself quoting back and forth with my friends. There was nothing that changed my perspective on things. 

Why? 

Part of it, I think, is that the material was so general. Ansari’s entire act was about dating, and the impact that technology has had on the way people search for love. This is fertile ground for comedy, but it began to seem a little bit one-note after a while. With the exception of one bit about sharing a cinematically romantic moment with a woman he later turned out to share no chemistry with, there was almost nothing in the act that seemed to arise specifically from Ansari’s personal experience. There was nothing that made me think, “This is an Aziz Ansari joke. Only Aziz could have come up with this.”

The result was a set that felt, to me, somewhat impersonal. It felt like I was listening to material that would have been as relevant coming from anybody else. It felt like factory-made comedy: designed for everybody to like, but for nobody to love.

I feel bad writing all this, because I really do like Aziz Ansari. While his older material is less polished than his JFL show, it does have the kind of unique perspective that I think the new act lacks.

What changed? I think that Ansari invested a great deal of himself in the character he plays on Parks and Recreation. When he began putting together a new hour of material, I think that Ansari tried to distance his onstage persona from that character, and in so doing set aside some of the truth that made him such an engaging performer earlier in his career.

On the other end of the spectrum is Ansari’s opener, Brent Weinbach. Weinbach’s unabashedly conceptual comedy makes no concessions to being relatable and left a lot of people in the audience thoroughly baffled. I felt about Weinbach’s performance the way that I usually do; I found half of it hysterical and the other half inscrutable.

Who this act is for: Mostly geared toward a younger and single audience.

Who this act is not for: This is an act that anybody can enjoy, although I think it is one that few people will adore.


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