Unlike other comedians writing debut books, Aziz Ansari chose a decidedly more sociological approach to bursting into the published world. The Parks and Recreation actor teamed up with sociologist Eric Klinenberg to lift the fog of Gen-Y dating in his debut work, Modern Romance. The comedian swiped right on EW to share what he’s learned.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, how is post-“I wrote a book” life?
AZIZ ANSARI: It’s now “promoting a book” life, and I’m working on my new Netflix show at the same time, so my hands are full. Life’s good!
Why did you think comedy and sociology would make a good combo?
When I was going out [to publishers] with the idea, I was really clear I [didn’t] want this to be a book of essays about my dating life or a regular humor book because, to me, if I have any funny stories, I would rather just do those in my stand-up. I wanted to try to do something that works both as sociology and humor.
Just as you learned about sociology from your co-writer Eric Klinenberg, did he learn anything about comedy?
He saw me do stand-up and probably got a little glimpse into the comedian’s life, but what’s interesting is how much overlap there is. They’re both professions where you’re just trying to make observations about the world that have resonance with people.
Did you ever take a sociology class in college?
Never. But like I said, it weirdly overlaps with the comedy I was doing. In my stand-up specials I talked about online dating, and I didn’t know anything, so I would just ask people in the crowd about their experience and learn that way. I guess that was me dipping my toe into the pool.
What was the moment that convinced you this book could work?
When we did one of our first big interview sessions with 20 women about their dating lives. It was eye-opening. I never would have guessed this is what people are going through, and I felt like we should and could keep doing this on a bigger scale and even travel the world to do the same thing in Paris and Tokyo.
Between Paris, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires, did you run into any trouble with this topic abroad?
In Japan, it was a little weird because we had a language barrier and they’re also a bit shyer about talking about sex. In America, people were less shy about opening up, maybe because I do stand-up and people feel like I’ve talked to them and my intentions were good. But in Japan, people were less familiar with me so it was a bit harder.
Give me a stat that rocked your world.
In 1967, they did a study that said 76 percent of women would marry someone they were not romantically in love with. That one blew me away. When I first started writing the book, I was like okay, clearly the big changes are online dating, texting, all these things—but really, the big change is the whole process and perception of what it means to get married. It was really tough talking to these older women in retirement homes who had a big regret in their lives, who yearned for a period in their lives when they weren’t encumbered by the responsibilities of a family and could just have fun. And it’s like, wow, that’s all me and anyone my age does now, and we take it all for granted.
What posed the biggest challenge to your skillset?
You’re trying to do your due diligence as far as learning about people’s real experiences, then looking at existing studies, then speaking to academics, then distilling it all down to a cohesive idea. The hardest part was probably that, just taking it all down into one idea. Also, there was just so much stuff that we kept learning. You kept finding more things you wanted to put in the book. Every day, something new.
Tinder seems to have changed so much in the months since you finished writing this thing.
It was hard to stop writing, period, because everything was changing all the time! When we first started, we asked people about Tinder and they were like, “Eh, it’s just for hooking up.” Then as we were finishing the book, they’re like, “Oh that’s where I meet people!” So people’s perceptions of these things, which seem crazy at one point, end up becoming normal a few months later. I saw it in my own personal life with OKCupid.
How much do you want to urge people to change their dating ways?
The idea of the book was never to be an advice book, but it helps to have some takeaway. If you’re a guy texting a girl, the book’s making the plea that, just for a second before you write this thing, imagine being in her shoes and what’s in her phone and how best you can really present yourself.
With what you now know about romance, what did you learn in hindsight about Tom on Parks and Rec?
You don’t really see him dating that much, but it was probably slim pickings in Pawnee. [laughs] I imagine he probably overcomplicated things and didn’t realize. Another eye-opening thing to me is how much women responded when we said, what if a guy just texted you and invited you to a specific thing at a specific time? And they went crazy.
What didn’t you include in the book that you wish you did?
Honestly, there could be a whole other book written about really young people in high school. Man, they’re crazy!
What can you share about your upcoming Netflix show?
We’ve been shooting in New York and I’ve been working a shit ton on it. I don’t really have a logline, per se. But of all the things I’ve done, other than my stand-up, this is the thing that’s the most my thing. I was so involved in the writing and producing, and I’m directing a couple episodes. It’s like, of all the things I’ve done, I’m really most excited about it.