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The Transformation Of Aziz Ansari From Childhood To Parks & Recreation

On January 25, Aziz Ansari released his most recent comedy special, "Aziz Ansari: Nightclub Comedian" on Netflix. It is the first taste fans have had of a post-COVID Ansari since Season 3 of his show, "Master of None" dropped in 2021, and it's the first time they've heard the comedian discuss the pandemic at length. Yet, even as Ansari — like almost every comedian nowadays — shares his take on the stresses of culture and quarantine, he remains calm and aloof. He's still cheerful, but he's far from the borderline-hyper young comedian of the late 2000s, who wooed the world through his role as Tom Haverford in the NBC sitcom, "Parks and Recreation."

That was back in 2009, when Ansari was still an up-and-comer in the American eye. He hadn't even released his first comedy special yet, though he was working on it. In the years before "Parks & Rec," he had slowly built his way up the totem pole of show business, undergoing a massive transformation from his childhood in South Carolina, to the comedic powerhouse he is today, which — for many of us — began in "Parks & Rec." Here's the story of how he got to that point.

Ansari had a unique childhood growing up in South Carolina

Ansari doesn't often give many details on what his life was like before entering show business. A lot of his upbringing can be seen in "Master of None," where Ansari's parents play the part of his character's (Dev's) parents. Similar to Dev, Ansari was raised in a first-generation Indian household as a Tamil Muslim. This, according to Ansari, presented challenges growing up in South Carolina. "It was kind of hard to participate in the religion because there was no mosque or anything like that," Ansari said in an interview with NPR. "So I was never really religious. I never really took to religion in general. I just remember being a kid and even having that thought of, like, well, it seems like everyone's just doing whatever their parents' religion was."

Outside of "Master of None," Ansari has integrated elements of his childhood into other characters. In Season 1 of "Parks & Rec," for instance, we learn that Tom is also a born and bred South Carolinian (via Screen Rant). Though, none of his characters explore his family's religion to the same extent as Dev in "Master of None," whose Americanized values occasionally cause conflict with his parents' traditional worldviews. 

Towards the beginning of his comedy career, however, Ansari's upbringing was considerably less overt.

Ansari got his start hosting standup shows in college

Aziz Ansari left his home state to attend New York University. It was there that he first got into comedy, performing in various clubs in New York. By the time he was 22, Ansari was already getting attention for his work. He acted as host for the Upright Citizen Brigade Theater's show, "Crash Test," and in 2005, Rolling Stone Magazine named him the country's hottest comedian.

The year after that, he and Mitch Fatel won the standup section of HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival (via Festival Focus). Around this same time, Ansari started attracting small roles in various TV programs. His first credit on IMDb is in 2004, for an episode of "Uncle Morty's Dub Shack." He continued playing similar bit roles in shows like "New York Noise" and "Flight of the Conchords" before he landed his first true gig on TV. This role, you may be shocked to learn, had absolutely nothing to do with "Parks & Rec." In fact, Tom Haverford was not even a twinkle in Ansari's eye.

Ansari had his own sketch comedy series

Ansari met a variety of popular comedians during his time as host of "Crash Test," and before long he capitalized on those new connections by co-creating his own comedy series. Along with comedians Paul Sheer and Rob Huebel and director-editor Jason Woliner, Ansari created and starred in "Human Giant," a sketch comedy series produced for MTV.

The series first aired in 2007, and while it never dominated ratings, it was a unique and interesting program for MTV during a time when the network was focused more on sensational reality TV series. It was also uniquely built for the increasingly digital world that comedy (and most entertainment) was turning into. The "Human Giant" crew had already been making their own short films for the web before the MTV series, garnering the attention of the network. According to New York Magazine, it was MTV that approached them with the idea of doing a TV show.

Unfortunately, the reign of "Human Giant" would not last forever. The show would last for two seasons before Ansari, Sheer, Huebel, and Woliner closed up shop. They did, however, get to run MTV for 24 hours in their own "Takeover" special (similar to "Jackass"), which pretty much featured every big name in alt-comedy at the time (via Vulture). But while that chapter of Ansari's life would inevitably close, it would only be the beginning of his TV career.

Ansari proved that he's no Scrub when it comes to being a Funny Person

So far, we have spoken about Aziz Ansari as if the only places fans were introduced to him were through "Parks and Recreation" or "Human Giant," and while those shows were important steps in Ansari's early career, there are other likely places where people first met the man. 

After "Human Giant," Ansari's acting career really began to kick off. So, in between the "Parks & Rec" fans and the die-hard "Human Giant" hipsters are people who likely know him from one of three roles: Ed from "Scrubs," Eugene from "I Love You, Man," or Randy from "Funny People." 

The first of these roles, Ed, debuted just four months before the first episode of "Parks & Rec" aired in April 2009. As one of the newly hired interns, Ansari's Ed distinguished himself as the most fun-loving, popular, and carefree of the newcomers. Unfortunately, his character's loose attitude also caused him to fall behind on his medical knowledge, and he is eventually fired by Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley).

Ansari then made his first appearance in a major film with Eugene in "I Love You, Man." Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot to say about this role since Ansari only appears for a scene or two. Unlike Eugene, however, Ansari's other bit role as the annoyingly hyperactive comic Randy in "Funny People" achieved widespread popularity, even getting his own short-lived series of web shorts on Funny or Die.

Aziz Ansari lands his very first standup special

While we're here to talk about Aziz Ansari's career leading up to his role on "Parks and Recreation," we should clarify that "Funny People" technically came out after "Parks and Recreation" first aired. That said, Ansari would have been working on the film long before "Parks & Rec" was released. He also would have been working on his debut comedy special with Comedy Central — "Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening."

Based on material from his "Glow in the Dark" standup tour — which ran from October 2008 to January 2009 (via Pitchfork) — this special would introduce the wider world to the most genuine form of Aziz Ansari to date (along with a cameo from Randy). By the time most people had heard the name Aziz Ansari, he had already been around the block by running his own show and acting. The title "Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening" is almost too appropriate, since it was the first time many audiences ever saw him being himself, instead of playing a role.

Of course, that didn't stop him from killing it as Tom Haverford across the next seven seasons of "Parks and Recreation." Likewise, his success on NBC (and later Netflix, with "Master of None") never stopped him from continuing to do standup. Thus, seven seasons, 12 years, five specials, and one global pandemic later, Aziz Ansari still finds success onstage.