A non-Jayhawk celebrity stands out in Lawrence, Kansas like the Missouri Tigers mascot – or, rather, like a tiger. It’s a fascinating truth of our culture: that we collectively recognize the actors on the stage and yet only very rarely have access to them. In some way having that access makes it seem as though reality were existing specifically for us – our awarenesses physically manifest before our eyes. In Lawrence, Kansas this phenomenon is especially exotic.
The coolest thing about comedian Aziz Ansari appearing live at the Kansas University Lied Center is that it was two days after he introduced Kanye West’s hyper-hyped performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. A lot of eyes – including a lot of eyes in Kansas – saw him. It was almost impossible to separate his Lied Center performance from the context of the broader hype – television, YouTube, Twitter and Kanye were like a collective consciousness of the mostly college-aged sold-out audience. I mean, Kanye himself could have appeared unannounced on stage and it would have been instantly rationalized by the stoned, anxious, media-dazed audience meta-mind. Even I kept thinking I saw Stars in the crowd…
The first dose of reality came when the lights went down and an un-billed, two-time award winning “Funniest Man in Kansas” came out to deliver his set. Who cares if he was funny or not – the inescapable effect was anticlimax. Of course it’s totally par for the course to have a warm-up act and it should have been expected. The disappointment exists in the context of media flow. Aziz Ansari introducing Kanye West at the VMA’s – the thing on everyone’s mind – is On Demand on every iPhone in the audience. Aziz Ansari, two days later, at the Lied Center in Lawrence at 7:30. The lights go down… and out comes some dude. How could we not squirm in out seats?
Aziz’s set, a half hour later, was announced by the bumping pop excitement of “Power” from the new Kanye West album. Lights low, “Power” bumping – that was the right mood. It made me think about celebrity-synergy, the way top talents can connect and extend their reach and relevance through validation from each other. Think Aziz Ansari doesn’t get credibility points by association with Kanye? Think Kanye doesn’t collect targeted promo points via Aziz repping him? It’s smart and there’s no reason not to think it’s genuine. There is one particular drawback and I’ll get to that.
First thing Aziz does when he gets on stage: gives everybody a minute or two to take pictures of him in exchange for not taking pics through his set. Pretty brilliant: everybody gets out their phones and takes pics and videos of him posing and pretending to tell jokes, so the digitally-shared promo is guaranteed, at the same time neutralizing the annoyance – and consequences – of the surreptitious shot. Kind of a win-win.
And then Aziz does his set. It’s all been scripted, it’s all part of his new traveling show. It’s a comedian engaging the audience with comedy and not a celebrity dishing it up. Again, it’s obvious – not a surprise – but the air is charged with access to the life he’s leading and the people and secrets he knows and his onstage persona as an angstily-bemused confidant who lives in L.A., works in television, and uses social media makes it seem like he’s going to give you more dish than he does. The most striking joke was one I was already familiar with from reading an article about him in Rolling Stone. In the article he’s riffing on a Motley-Crue tell-all in which band members cover up the smell of groupie sex by fucking a burrito. The riff, which Rolling Stone presents as off-the-dome, was pretty hilarious. I just didn’t expect to hear it in his set. It felt cheap – as though the article had misrepresented itself as a snapshot when it was really a promo piece – or as though Aziz wasn’t as savvy about media consumption as he seems. Or maybe my disconcert was case-in-point? I read something funny and remembered it enough to go to his show where I got to hear it again. Fuck me!
Aziz finished and the audience cheered him back and he seemed ready to go off the dome. “What do you want to talk about?” he asked. “KANYE!” everyone shouted. And then he riffed on something else. He asked again: “What do you want to talk about?” “KANYE!” And then he riffed on something else. “What do you want to talk about?” “KANYE!” “Kanye? Ok, I know everyone thinks I have funny shit on Kanye – and I do – I just can’t…” And then he relented and pulled out some milquetoast exchange with Kanye before the VMA’s about what each of them was wearing. And that’s kind of the motherfucker of it. Everyone wants the scoop, the vicarious experience full of details that dazzle – not just about Kanye, about everything – about the lifestyle – about being 27 and a multimedia celebrity – about the shit that goes down, the crazy shit, the shit you wouldn’t believe. And it’s insulting to think that we don’t get that because people are image-managing each other. Isn’t that the purpose of a comedian? To mine their experiences for the funny and ridiculous things that give perspective to everyone not on stage? In particular with a young, modern celebrity comedian who magically appears before our eyes in flyover country on the tidal wave of everybody talking. Tell us some shit, man! Tell us about this culture that brought you here and that’ll yank you back the moment the show’s over.
We’ve got your back, yo! We won’t tell anybody…