TORONTO - Have you heard the one about the Indian comic? Because Aziz Ansari has — and he's pretty bored of it.
After enduring some racially inspired jabs at the hands of some of comedy's top stars for Comedy Central's recent roast of bleary-eyed James Franco, Ansari took his turn at the dais and shooting back, with his trademark earnestness: "I think it's so cool that some of you guys were able to travel back in time to 1995 for some of those Indian jokes you did. That's so cool!"
"With a roast kind of situation it's pretty obvious what people are going to joke about — Jonah (Hill)'s weight, Franco maybe being gay," Ansari said in an interview from Los Angeles. "And when I started seeing all these Indian jokes, that's when I came up with this kind of thing ... so I thought it'd be funny to (roast) them for that instead of (roasting) them in the other kind of ways.
"You know, I haven't really heard that kind of stuff in so long, and I don't think anyone's really heard it in a while. And that's why I think that hit like it did. As soon as I called it out, it was like, 'Yeah, that stuff is so old.'
"Even with the sitcoms these days, it's people like me or Mindy Kaling and others — there's no 7-11 jokes or anything like that. I think the culture really has moved beyond that stuff, and that's why it was kind of jarring to hear those kinds of jokes and it's like, 'Really, you're really going to go there with this; you think that stuff is relevant anymore?'"
He's certainly been around the stand-up circuit long enough too — 12 sneaky years for the comedian with the boyish features and the contagious on-stage excitability, who has risen to fame by stealing scenes in the NBC comedy "Parks and Recreation" as the cad Tom Haverford, and in the 2009 Judd Apatow vehicle "Funny People."
Now, he's set to headline Toronto's JFL42 comedy festival, which will mark one of the first large-venue crowds that will see his new, still-untitled hour of comedy, exploring love in the time of technology — an issue in which, he says, he has some expertise.
"It's what I'm dealing with in my life — dating, trying to find someone, maybe not trying to find someone," said the 30-year-old. "I write my stand-up about whatever's consuming my head and when I was writing this stuff, that's what I was doing a lot.
"It was like, 'Man, this is such a weird time to be a person trying to find love. It's a very frustrating time in a lot of ways.' And it's struck a chord, with both men and women."
While his previous sets featured more standard comedic observations — stories about his North Carolina upbringing, about the time-sucking properties of the Internet, and the hijinks of his wide-eyed little cousin Harris — he calls this set his most difficult yet, aiming to spew his emotional guts while busting his audience's too.
"The goal is to do stuff where people laugh, but there's also a sort of deeper laugh of, '(Wow), thank you for saying that, I can't believe you said that, that's so awesome, that speaks to a truth in my life,'" he said.
"(With this set) I really tried to hit in a deeper way than I did with the other shows. This one, I'm really trying to do something different and I think I pull it off, but we'll see."
Ansari recently agreed to write a book for Penguin Press, described as a comedic but research-driven "investigation" into modern romance, riffing off the material in this latest set. But despite the months he spent studying the matter, it is perhaps alarming that Ansari feels no more confident about his place in his new frontier.
"I have a better understanding of what I think about everything, but I'm still just as confused. I haven't gained any insight that makes me any less frustrated by it, I guess," he said.
"I hope the take-away is just to be a little more thoughtful, and realize that these are people with feelings and to cherish things like actually seeing people in person, rather than just texting people back and forth."
With the book deal in hand and "Parks and Recreation" entering its sixth season, Ansari is nearing a career-turning point, where he no longer necessarily needs to do the stand-up rounds. But rather than see it as a step toward wider success in TV or film, Ansari said he prefers having that creative control, and acknowledged the reality that, for the most part, big-screen comedies can amount to forgettable fare.
"The thing people don't understand about movies is that most comedy movies aren't that great," said Ansari. "There are only a few that end up being really, really, really great, and if you're not in one of those, then I don't need to waste my time doing it.
"Unless it's something I'm really excited by creatively, for me it's much more worth it to put my energy toward stand-up and doing something I know I'm going to really be proud of. ... It's a very hard game to play. Whereas in stand-up, it's like, 'These are ideas that are interesting to me, and I can figure out a way to make them really funny and share them with people.'
"I think it's important to develop your own voice, and that happens from doing stand-up."
Ansari will perform two shows at Toronto's Sony Centre on Sept. 27.