With his fourth stand-up special, Aziz Ansari joins a shortlist of comedians to sell out New York’s Madison Square Garden. But despite the huge arena space, thousands of people, and a cinematic intro, Live From Madison Square Garden is an intimate special, with Ansari treating the space as if it were any other club.
There’s a vulnerability to his material. “I’m a minority,” he says, just over two minutes into the hour. He shares stories about how his parents struggled to adjust to America after uprooting their lives in India, and even though he turns up the heat in a few places (“kill some racist motherfuckers if you need to”), there’s a soft earnestness to this brief but slicing material about his family, making the special’s final shot—Ansari hugging his parents on stage as confetti rains on the arena—feel powerful, earned, not at all hokey.
This vulnerability runs throughout the hour, in which Ansari speaks honestly about the anxiety of liking someone new and the intense love at the beginning of a relationship. He shares a super-sincere text he sent to his current girlfriend; there’s nothing funny about the message at all, but Ansari just lays it all out there, and instead of just being this huge persona on a huge stage, he’s a real person. He doesn’t feel pressed to fill the stadium with forced dramatics. His energy never drags, and he works the stage with confidence, but these quiet, softer parts lend to the intimacy.
Ansari’s best material is usually rooted in relationships and dating, and that’s certainly true of Live At Madison Square Garden. He talks extensively about how texting and smartphone culture has, ironically, made it even harder for people to make plans. Being single now, he explains, is like being a secretary “trying to schedule the dumbest shit for the flakiest people.” But Ansari doesn’t just leave his observations hanging there without context: When discussing how single people act, he also ruminates on why. His curiosity about human interaction and behavior adds an extra layer to his material. He asks questions of his audience, using an approach to comedy that almost feels scientific. He’s a comedian with a very meticulous and thoughtful writing process—which he details in his Nerdist podcast appearance—and it shows in the final product.
That anthropological curiosity is usually best showcased in his crowd work (never forget the Olive Garden proposal from his previous special, Buried Alive), but the logistical limits of a stadium show make direct audience interaction a little difficult. Still, Ansari finds a way, bringing a woman from the crowd up so he can read one of her text-message conversations. His riffing is as tight as the rest of the material.
Much like with Buried Alive, Ansari’s latest jokes lean on his act-outs. Whether he’s nailing the cadence couples use to tell the stories of how they first met or personifying different kinds of meat dunking on vegetables, Ansari’s act-outs are some of the strongest in the game, elevating his jokes and giving specificity to his observations. On paper, a bit about Ja Rule and the meat industry should not work—and even Ansari playfully acknowledges the strangeness of the bit—but he also pulls it off.
The special also includes a whole section on creepy men and the bullshit women have to put up with on a daily basis. Ansari uses a fairly simple joke construction here, reversing the gender script to expose how inappropriate and gross male behaviors can be by imagining what it would look and sound like if women spoke and behaved the same way. It’s effective, particularly because of those act-outs, which include a scene of a woman buying Ansari a drink and then immediately telling him she wants to suck his balls.
A lot of the connections Ansari makes between technology and dating aren’t necessarily groundbreaking, but he does so in a way that is both hilarious and also honest. He doesn’t need to reach far for his observations; instead, he focuses on very ordinary, everyday behaviors, picks them apart, and brings them to life with his reenactments and imagined conversations. Ansari is a polished act, from the clothes he wears on stage to the production value of the special. But this hour feels more like a conversation than a performance.