Aziz Ansari, Public Sociologist
A new book offers a model for public scholarly work.
As Aziz Ansari writes at the beginning of his new book, Modern Romance, “When you have success as a stand-up, you quickly get offers to do a humor book.”
My memory is that Bill Cosby was the progenitor of the practice, with his book, Fatherhood, which unleashed a flurry of other books by stand-ups with NBC sitcoms: Jerry Seinfeld (Seinlanguage), Paul Reiser (Couplehood) and Ellen DeGeneres (My Point, and I Do Have One).
The early form was essentially a repackaging of the humor found in their shows or standup. The jokes in Reiser’s Couplehood are the clear genesis (or perhaps offspring) of his sitcom, Mad About You. Seinlanguage is essentially verbatim reprints of Seinfeld’s jokes.
While we still have books from comedians that follow this original blueprint (Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman, and Jim Gaffigan come to mind), we also have an additional strain of titles that are still rooted in the author’s comedy, but also often make explicit use of memoir and autobiography.
This is seen in Tina Fey’s Bossypants, or Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, where the humor is rooted the authors’ life stories. Rather than old jokes in a new form, the books provide the reader with a deeper feeling of intimacy, as we learn the life stories of these accomplished people.
But as I read Modern Romance, I began to wonder if we’re on the cusp of a new age of books by comedians.
Perhaps best known as Tom Haverford from Parks and Recreation, at a relatively young age (32), Ansari has become one of the most popular stand-up comedians this side of Amy Schumer and Louis C.K., routinely playing large venues like Madison Square Garden.
Ansari says he long turned down offers of books deals, figuring that the stage was the best medium for his material.
But a series of stand-up bits rooted in his own experience of dating in the digital age made him curious, declaring, “I got fascinated by the questions of how and why so many people have become so perplexed by the challenge of doing something that people have always done quite efficiently: finding romance.”
Modern Romance is the result of Ansari taking his own curiosity seriously, and deciding to do something about it. Realizing that, “bozo comedian” (his own words) Aziz Ansari needed help to fulfill his ambitions, he connected with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg (Going Solo), and together, they constructed a research program that had the two of them conducting focus groups in locations scattered around the world, mining the terabytes of data in dating service OKCupid’s database, and interviewing social science experts on the ways people couple in our contemporary age.
I’ll admit, I was suspicious at first, thinking that Ansari, like some celebrities before him, had outsourced his book, but his presence is consistent throughout the text, relating his personal experiences, not only in his own life, but also during the on-the-ground research itself.
He recounts meeting seniors in a retirement home as they spoke about how common it once was to marry a person from your block or even your building, as well as women in Doha, Qatar who must acquiesce to marriages arranged by their families. He cites hard data on how people meet each other, and illustrates the findings of what kinds of profile photos draw the most response on dating sites in a section titled, “Why You Need to Go Spelunking with a Puppy ASAP.”
In a live appearance while promoting the book in Charleston, Ansari’s familiarity with the material was apparent, rattling off anecdotes and facts and figures from memory. He was versed like a teacher, not someone who had been taught.
I was impressed.
Having met my spouse prior to the existence of email, and finding the thought of scheduling a date with someone (or even breaking up with someone) unconscionably rude (this is apparently common among young people now), I’m well outside the target audience for a book on romance in the digital age, but I still found the book fascinating. If nothing else, it gives me better insight into some of the challenges students face as they negotiate their social lives.
More importantly, Modern Romance is an excellent model for an approach to public scholarship that could help introduce mass audiences to the important work of scholars. Ansari’s joking riffs and asides aren’t just sugar to make the medicine of information go down, but instead demonstrate how a similar curiosity drives both a comedian like Ansari, and scholars like Klinenberg.
This is nothing particularly new. Engagement with social issues has long been a staple of modern stand-up (Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior). Today, Amy Schumer tackles body image and sexism, Louis C.K. has riffed on “white privilege,” and standardized testing. Key & Peele routinely interrogate cultural assumptions about race and class.
But Ansari’s book is the first that makes the connection between scholarship and comedy so explicit. Any of these performers could do something similar on subjects that matter to them.
Comedians are on continual quests for truths. The proof is found in audience laughter and recognition. As artists, there’s no category I admire more. As educators, we could do worse than follow their models.
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