In the fictional Parks and Recreation governmental department, of Pawnee, Indiana, Tom Haverford is a king among men. His slick suits are from Brooks Brothers (the boys’ department), he has the run of the girls in the Miss Pawnee pageant (well, maybe) and he likes to think of himself as “The Brown Gosling”. Dude got the moves.
Haverford’s list of heroes runs from Vin Diesel to Tiger Woods and Flo Rida, via Michael Bolton; quite the Venn diagram of man.
If he weren’t played by Aziz Ansari — the breakout star of slow-burn hit Parks and Recreation since it first aired in the US in 2009 — the fictional Haverford would probably add the real-life actor to his list of male icons to emulate.
Ansari is living the dream his alter ego could only pray to Kanye for. Since Parks began its five series run in the US, Ansari, 30, has gone to hang at Kanye’s crib, been heckled by Obama and is about to get killed off alongside Rihanna and Michael Cera in This is the End, Seth Rogen’s Hollywood ensemble apocalypse comedy.
“I can tell you I get killed, because I get killed off in the trailer,” Ansari deadpans. Ansari is also partaking in that other actor’s rite of passage, a part in a big name animation. That’s Epic, out now, where Ansari provides the voice for a slug. Hey, at least Beyoncé’s in it.
On NBC’s Parks — which finally made its way onto UK screens this year on BBC Four — Ansari plays the sarcastic office sidekick to Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler. She’s a well-meaning mid-ranking government official whose big idea is to transform the local pit into a park.
Let’s just say by the end of series two, it’s still a pit. The joy of Parks is how good-naturedly it takes swipes at American culture, politics and the silliness of human behaviour. Leslie will never be the first female president, but as long as she believes it, that’s all to the good.
Tom will never be a player, but you know, that guy can really get a party started. From its theme tune down, Parks is perky and upbeat, but it doesn’t mean its comedy isn’t on point.
Dreamed up by the producers of the US The Office, the comedy was conceived to be a mockumentary-style vehicle for the Saturday Night Live veteran Poehler, but has established itself as a strong ensemble piece.
There’s Nick Offerson (playing Tom Swanson, proud owner of a moustache that doesn’t just come out for Movember), Louie CK (as the local cop with a weakness for Miss Knope) and Ansari, whose character makes like a player even though he’s an Indian kid from South Carolina.
“If he had his brothers, he would be like Diddy,” says Ansari of his character, “this mogul type person who has a record label and liquor. But he’s not. He’s just a guy in a small town. He tries to do his best with what he can, given the circumstances. You have this guy with all this ambition but he’s ultimately too scared to go for it and move to LA or New York.”
Like Haverford, Ansari grew up in South Carolina, but made it out to study marketing at NYU. While there he started stand-up, becoming a regular at the iconic Upright Citizens Brigade improv group where Poehler and comedy pal Tina Fey paid their dues.
His break came when MTV commissioned a comedy sketch show called Human Giant. On the back of this and his stand-up, he was the first name to be attached to Parks.
The Kanye West connection came about when he saw Ansari in stand-up and invited him on a night out. He ended up at West’s house, where 808s & Heartbreak was playing. Ansari does a typically self-deprecating sketch about the experience.
“I told him, that’d be like if I had a stand-up album and you came over to my house and I was listening to it going ha-ha-ha-ha these jokes are dope.” A bit-part in the video for the Kanye/Jay-Z track “Otis” followed. So is he officially cool now?
“I know these guys,” he says. “They’re friends of mine, I’ve met them, but you know, I don’t go to brunch with them any weekend or anything. I was in the video for ‘Otis’. That was fun. You never think you’re going to be in a rap video. You never think, ‘Let’s get this Indian kid who grew up in South Carolina and get him in the video.’ That was definitely bizarre.”
Then there was the one time Ansari performed at an Obama fund-raising rally and the President later joked that he had more followers than the stand-up. About 11 million more. Not that Ansari is getting too hung up. “
I have no interest in being a professional Twitterer,” he says, “but I’m not one of these people who goes, ‘Woah, I gotta make sure I write a couple of funny Twitter things today.’”
He prefers to concentrate on his stand-up, bringing his show to London this month, where he’ll insist anyone wanting to take photos does so at the start.
He says the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ recent ban on smartphone video at their gigs was inspired by them seeing his zero-tolerance approach to audience behaviour. No surprise then, he doesn’t get hecklers:
“If you’re playing theatres, it would be a bit absurd for someone to pay all that money to come see a theatre show and then yell, ‘You suck’.” Man has a point.
Parks and Recreation Series 1 & 2 is out now.