News Date: Tuesday, July 7, 2015
In 2013, I went on a date to see Aziz Ansari on tour. It was the third time I had gone out with this person, and while we got along pretty well, it seemed clear that things weren’t headed for love or marriage. But she’d been a fan of Ansari since his early days at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and I’d gotten free tickets.
At one point during the show, Ansari began polling the audience, by show of applause, about our romantic lives. His survey included the question “Who here has recently met someone they’re excited about?” While hands tapped around us, I waited to see if my date would join in; when she didn’t, I was both relieved and hurt. It was reassuring to know that she, too, didn’t think we were soul mates. But was I really so dull as not to warrant a couple of claps? (I can only imagine her terror that I might have broken into a standing ovation.)
That experience—the anxiety, the incredulousness, the botched messaging—felt like the setup to an Ansari bit, one whose payoff might feature him gawking bug-eyed at his iPhone while the grateful laughter of self-recognition thundered all around. Since his first major tour, released on DVD in 2010 as “Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening,” Ansari’s material has often charted the dating struggles of youngish singles; his most recent standup special, “Live at Madison Square Garden,” focussed more intently on the role of technology and social media in everything from casual hookups to long-term breakups.
And now “the many challenges of looking for love in the digital age,” as Ansari puts it, are the subject of his first book. Written in collaboration with Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University and the author of “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone,” “Modern Romance” is equal parts cultural investigation, self-help treatise, and celebrity memoir, its various statistical findings illustrated by graphs and tables and leavened with jokes.
The book opens by explaining what inspired the project: a fling of Ansari’s that ended in inexplicable radio silence, and bewilderment, when his text messages went unanswered. Telling the story onstage, he realized that the experience was common among people of his generation. “I got laughs,” he writes, “but also something bigger, like the audience and I were connecting on a deeper level.” Sensing that he’d tapped into a largely undocumented experience, he partnered with Klinenberg to collect and distill data from research they conducted in places as diverse as Los Angeles, Wichita, and Doha, Qatar, to explore his hypothesis that “in a very short period of time, the whole culture of finding love and a mate has radically changed.”
In many ways, “Modern Romance” marks the endpoint of the bachelor phase of Ansari’s life and career. Having recently entered a serious, monogamous relationship, his material seems to be shifting to new topics—miscommunications among couples, the perils of Valentine’s Day. But aside from a few fleeting moments of autobiography, the book resists disclosure. It’s primarily a manual of peer-reviewed best practices for those currently braving the waters of singledom via cell phone. “Don’t just write a stupid ‘W’sup’ message,” Ansari instructs potential male suitors, based on feedback from women. “Try to say something thoughtful or funny. … Make it personal.” He also recommends paying attention to grammar and spelling, being honest about one’s romantic intentions, and, more generally, observing basic etiquette with empathy and respect.
As those tips suggest, Ansari’s advice isn’t exactly revelatory. Was it necessary to assemble an international study in order to conclude that “our ability and desire to interact with strangers is another muscle that risks atrophy in the smartphone age”? Or that texting “separates you from the person you are speaking with, so you can act differently from how you would in person or even on the phone”? Ansari is clearly fascinated with gadgetry, and perhaps for that reason he overlooks the fact that most modern love begins not merely via devices and screens but with writing. Which is an opportunity missed: exploring the tension between text-based courtship and our predominantly visual culture might have yielded some compelling insights.
That is not the only thing about our society of spectacle that the book declines to address: the influence of Internet pornography on courtship and coupledom goes mostly unexamined. In fact, “Modern Romance” has almost nothing to say on the topic of sex. There is no inquiry into hookup or rape culture, both of which have provoked recent, extensive study; an examination of those topics might have illuminated why, for example, so many men feel entitled to approach women online so callously. The absence of that discussion is in keeping, though, with Ansari’s stage persona. As a comic, Ansari doesn’t avoid sexuality, but he does tend to treat it with ironic distance, often performing his most explicit material in lewd caricature.
“Modern Romance” makes a distinction between “companionate” and “passionate” love, and in many ways Ansari is a companionate entertainer: he offers solace rather than something more dynamic or oppositional to his audience. And, in contrast to some of his standup peers, he generally doesn’t take a dim view of the current age. While Louis C.K., for example, often laments how leading screen-based lives compromises human empathy, Ansari, in his most recent special, claims that, due to social media, “we’re part of the least lonely generation.”
The “we,” I think, is telling, as is the note of consolation. Part of what Ansari provides, in both his book and his comedy, is a voice for tech-based alienation; it’s a key factor to the scope of his success. Simply by talking about what it’s like to ask someone out by text message, he addresses the vulnerability and the melancholy many of us feel, alone, when our words zip off into the electronic ether. All observational comedy relies on recognition, but by expressing the private neuroses of the digital age Ansari at once communalizes the experience and disperses some of its attendant isolation.
That “we” is also exclusive, though, or at least limited. Ansari’s material speaks specifically to the experiences of a mostly under-forty, heterosexual, middle-class, educated, childless audience. (In 2013, he set up demographically specific focus groups on which to test new jokes.) That fan base is also the population isolated for research in “Modern Romance,” and there’s an accordingly normative focus to the material that feels not just insular but scrubbed clean of irregularities. Granted, men who attempt moronic salvos such as “I like your tits” deserve to be called out, but according to Ansari so does the poor guy whose clueless use of the word “texty” marks him as “a very dorky, terrifyingly Caucasian weirdo.”
Deviance, in Ansari’s universe, is cause mainly for dissociation and disavowal. From someone who rose through the ranks of the alt-comedy scene, courting mainstream appeal might seem like a fall from indie grace, but he speaks to that marginally left-of-center population whose particular tastes distance it from the status quo. References are the language of shared experience, and Ansari traffics heavily in cultural signifiers, from movie titles and celebrity name-drops to a bit about the dubiousness of bed-sheet thread counts. He offers nothing excessively out there, but his work is referentially specific enough to make his fans feel directly addressed.
That the tech age’s Everyman is played by the son of South Asian immigrants might seem unlikely, but Ansari holds his heritage at an arm’s length; as with his standup, it earns only a cursory mention in “Modern Romance,” in a few paragraphs on his parents’ arranged marriage. Yet his resistance to ethnic signification also affords him access to a wider range of experiences than entertainers whose identities are more central to their acts. As Kelefa Sanneh wrote in his 2010 piece on the comedian, Ansari “can identify with the white people in the audience, chuckling at the excesses of African-American culture, while simultaneously allying himself with the ambition and eccentricity of these nonwhite performers.”
That cultural liminality allows Ansari to be one of “us,” whoever that entails, and for him to operate not just as a mirror but as a screen for projected idealizations. When he boasts about a romantic text message he sent his girlfriend—something about her being the opposite of a mud puddle, which is sweet but not exactly Neruda—we might forgive the ingratiation because he’s merely presenting us with a romanticized version of ourselves. Additionally, while his investigations into contemporary culture and himself never quite dig beneath the symptomatic, they’re always performed with what seems like genuine curiosity and perplexity rather than cynicism. It helps that he’s so innately likeable. Ansari’s face conveys a childlike mix of naïveté and mischief, the stupefied look in his eyes ironized by a cheeky grin; his fans share his bafflement, and want to be in on the joke.
That said, the best parts of Ansari’s standup specials are when he permits himself some cruelty. At that show I attended back in 2013, I laughed hardest when he borrowed phones from audience members and mocked their texts—particularly at one poor sap whose clumsy hip-hop come-ons weren’t just hilarious but uncomfortably familiar, since I was sitting beside someone who I knew had been on the receiving end of equally lame messages. It was a little mortifying, sure, but it was the only routine that night that forced me into an uncomfortable moment of self-recognition—and the shame I felt was transmuted by comedy.
After the show was over, I walked my date out to the street. There seemed slightly more distance between us, maybe, than when we’d gone into the concert hall. I waited while she unlocked her bike and we stood on either side of it for a moment. Though it felt mostly dutiful or polite at this point, I asked if she wanted to hang out again. She seemed a little deflated. “I think I told you that I’m not really into dating anyone right now,” she said. I didn’t recall her ever telling me this, and suspected that if she had said such a thing it might have been in a text message—one I’d likely misunderstood. As she rode away, I found myself feeling disappointed again, even though all she’d done was express my own thoughts back to me.
Written by: Pasha Malla