Who is Aziz Ansari? Is he US stand-up's rising star, a man who counts everyone from Kanye West to Judd Apatow among his admirers? Or a clever actor with great timing who steals the show in acclaimed sitcom Parks and Recreation? Or a master of social media's dark arts, followed by 2.9 million people on Twitter with a nice line in pop culture parodies?
The answer is all of the above although the likeable 30-year-old comedian, who provides the comic relief playing a slug in upcoming animated fantasy adventure Epic, admits he never set out to become a jack-of-all-trades. "I absolutely think of stand-up as my main thing," he admits. "That's me – it's my voice, my writing, my everything. Parks and Recreation is a team effort of which I'm lucky to be a part of and while I love it I don't see it as my main career – it's the stand-up into which I put most time and thought."
The son of Indian immigrants, Ansari grew up in the small Southern US town of Bennettsville, South Carolina. It was a comfortable middle class upbringing – his father was a gastroenterologist and his mother worked in a medical office – and a conventional one: "I never thought of being a comedian," he says. "But as a student in New York my friends kept telling me I was funny and should give it a go."
Two years of performing in venues throughout New York led to a TV show, Human Giant, which featured Ansari and friends from the comedy circuit performing a series of sketches. It was a breakout hit on MTV and led to a scene-stealing role in the Judd Apatow movie Funny People. He was then cast in Parks and Recreation. "I jumped at that because I knew the writers had made the US version of The Office, which was just great TV," he says. "We worked on the idea of Tom [Haverford, his character on the show] as this small-time kind of guy with big dreams who really wants to be a P Diddy-style mogul but can't because he's not in a big town."
So not too far then from Ansari's own stage persona – his early shows riffed on hip-hop culture and played up the idea that he was a wide-eyed dreamer. "Yeah, they do take little elements from our personalities and lives and use them," he says laughing. "They also used the fact that I love a sharp suit."
Ansari's stage persona is all goofy enthusiasm but in reality he is considered, his answers thoughtful and measured. "Well I mean a lot of comedians are quiet and reserved in real life," he says, allowing a hint of impatience to creep into his slight Southern accent. "Most comedians are smart dudes; they're not going to be crazy in real life. I'm not a goofball, no."
And for all his faux-naivety on stage, Ansari's act has always been acute on human foibles. His most recent show, Buried Alive, takes a sharp look at why his generation don't seem ready for marriage at 30 – "I definitely feel that I'm not ready and when I was preparing the show it seemed like a lot of people had the same fears" – while the next one will consider the detrimental affect modern technology is having on love. "It just seems that meeting someone face-to-face is increasingly a luxury," he says. "So many relationships are all about texting games or building a rapport online and it seems like something is getting lost. You know you can flirt with five different people online and that's acceptable but it's not as though you'd make dirty phone calls to myriad people."
As one of a breed of comedians who've cemented their reputations online, he's aware of the power of the internet – "I think it's much smarter to embrace it, if you have a mindset that's all about how to stop people downloading then you're being foolish. You need to work with it" – but admits he does draw the line: "I don't mind my specials being available on YouTube but I don't like it when people film live shows and put that up online."
Now that his movie career is taking off – in addition to Epic he can also be seen in apocalypse comedy This Is The End and recently sold three film ideas to Apatow – could he see himself abandoning his first love for life on Hollywood's A-list? "I'm more interested right now in writing the next special," he says, sounding shocked. "I don't want to get too invested in the movies; my focus remains stand-up. It's always bothered me that it's not always given proper respect. Stand-up is an art form. I get really excited when people treat it like that."
'Epic' opens in cinemas on 22 May