There are several different versions of Aziz Ansari, the comic from South Carolina renowned for his wiry, observational snark and slacker cool.
There is the perpetual hipster doing standup about M.I.A., Bonnarroo, and Kanye West (a steady subject of his routines). An ever-increasing legion of fans will see that version of Ansari this weekend at the Merriam Theater, or in his July run at the Borgata in Atlantic City.
There is the casual sketch comedian who sharpened his chops at NYC's Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and was part of an improvisational trio, Human Giant, with its own MTV show in 2007.
There is Tom Haverford, the character he plays on NBC's Parks and Recreation, an arrogant government employee who spends more time working on his swagger than on his official duties.
While each of those personas has a shiftless quality, they couldn't be further from the real Ansari, a never-idle comic presence with a rapid-fire delivery bred on the jump-cuts of a thousand MTV videos.
"I was raised on whatever was on MTV when I was growing up," says Ansari, 29, from New York City. "Mostly a lot of Snoop and Dre. What kid from that generation doesn't know every single word to 'Regulators'?"
Although Ansari still rocks ("new Beach House, old stuff like Stooges, Neil Young"), his MTV-viewing past explains his comic attention to hip-hop. Along with Kayne skits and flagrant pokes at R. Kelly, Ansari's just-released album, Dangerously Delicious, features an absurdly hilarious routine about how 50 Cent has not a clue what a grapefruit is. Ansari even appeared in West's "Otis" video with Jay Z for their Watch the Throne album.
Being an MTV baby points to why Ansari's comedy races by in a quickly assembled jumble of pop-cultural references. But there's always a question of what's next. Once he finishes performing a routine during a given tour, like his current Buried Alive, it will be jettisoned. "When I finish a tour, I put that hour of material to bed," he says, speaking to the desire to keep jokes fresh and get his stuff up on YouTube, various MP3s, and comedy albums.
Ansari has a need for speed and immediacy.
"Film stuff is so frustratingly slow," he says, "and you have to jump through so many hoops. That's why I love standup. I can think of an idea and put it out in front of thousands of people that night and hear the laugh right away." Ansari hones his work in small clubs until it works in all settings, but to him, it all boils down to this: Big or small, "jokes are jokes."
His parents are Muslim immigrants from southern India. Ansari, a self-described atheist, started doing standup while at New York University, where he graduated with a marketing degree. One thing he doesn't joke about is ethnicity, his or other people's. Other comics may use their heritage as a comic device, but, Ansari says, "personally, I find making jokes about that stuff boring."
Boredom isn't something he has time for. Along with standup, he has his work in Parks and Recreation with Amy Poehler, another alum of Upright Citizens Brigade. The ensemble mockumentary about midlevel bureaucracy in a fictional Indiana town may seem like a series of goofy improvisational riffs. But like the Marx Brothers' brand of anarchist comedy, Parks and Recreation's scripts are tightly woven.
"Parks is very collaborative, but most of what you see is scripted," says Ansari. "The writers have become tremendously adept at writing to our voices, though, so that's why I think sometimes more of it seems improvised than actually is." Surprisingly, the one-time Human Giant ("I loved that show — it was like high school") never feels restricted or held back because Parks is a network show. "I mean, come on," he says, "we did a whole episode about how my character was stunned his love interest wasn't familiar with Ginuwine."
Ansari isn't getting less busy. In the last five years, he has not only racked up credits with the shows Human Giant and Parks and Recreation, but has also appeared in films like Funny People, Get Him to the Greek, and 30 Minutes or Less. He has lent his voice to cartoon flicks like Ice Age: Continental Drift and the currently filming Epic. He has appeared on television series including Flight of the Conchords and Scrubs, and he has hosted the MTV Movie Awards, where his "swaggering coach" bit became an Internet favorite. Currently, he's linked with comedy giant Judd Apatow and pal and Human Giant director Jason Woliner, developing ideas for Apatow Productions. "Writing for film and TV is way different than standup," says Ansari. "It all still has my voice in it, I hope."
Yet, it's during his standup routines — riffing on pop culture's currency or doing his braggadocio bit — that he's truly in his own skin. "I've always been very comfortable with public speaking, even at a young age," says Ansari. "I have no clue why, but since I'm a comedian, I guess that's a good thing."
Aziz Ansari, 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Tickets: $45, $35. Information: 1-800-298-4200, www.comcastTIX.com.