The book “Modern Romance,” out this week from Penguin Press, was co-written by the eminent NYU sociologist, Eric Klinenberg. It begins not with an scholarly précis, but rather with these words:
“Oh, shit! Thanks for buying my book. That money is MINE.”
If this strikes you as strange, consider that Klinenberg’s co-author is the comedian Aziz Ansari, whose photo graces the book’s cover. And though the title page and text inform us of Klinenberg’s contributions, that hilarious opener–and the entire book–is in Ansari’s voice.
The book is an exploration of dating in our digitized age of plenty, and it’s a raucous read from start to finish, both hilarious and informative. And while Ansari will draw praise for taking an uncommonly serious approach to a comedy book, Klinenberg should be equally praised for shedding some of the overly serious trappings that cling to denizens of the ivory tower. We caught up with Klinenberg to learn how this curious collaboration came about, what he learned in the process, and why academics everywhere could stand to loosen up a little.
Did you teach Aziz Ansari as an undergrad at NYU?
No. Thank God. I can’t imagine having him in a class room. He signed a book contract with Penguin Press to write a book on modern romance, and he wanted to work with a social scientist. I had just published a book with Penguin called “Going Solo,” about the fact that there are more single people than ever in the world before.
When was your first meeting?
In August of 2013. I had just finished a four-day sociology convention in Manhattan. My family was in upstate New York, and I’d literally just gone to the grocery store, and I was standing in Penn Station waiting for the train when I got a call from an editor at Penguin. He said, “I have a funny question for you. Have you heard of the comedian Aziz Ansari?” I said, “Aziz Ansari. He’s my hero.” I knew his comedy really well. I’d been introduced to him by a nanny taking care of my kid who was also a standup comic. So I was one of the few card-carrying members of the American Sociological Association who was really familiar with Aziz Ansari’s work. I got permission from my wife to spend another night in Manhattan, dropped off the groceries with the in-laws, and met with Aziz in the Penguin office.
How’d that first meeting go?
We talked for an hour and a half with the editor. The editor had to go home, and then we walked to a cocktail bar a few blocks away. It was clear to me he didn’t just want to be funny. He wanted to go deep and understand things in a serious and rigorous way. He had very ambitious ideas about the kind of research he wanted to do, he was willing to help fund that research, and it was clear that he has a special kind of intelligence and insight about the world.
Did you worry what your academic colleagues would think?
I already do very public-facing work. I’ve written two trade press books and a lot of magazine articles, I’ve reported for This American Life, and I direct the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU, which is about the ways in which scholars can engage a bigger public. I don’t think academics should only be doing professional writing for a very small group of peers. I’m all for that, but the other thing scholars need to be doing is to make their work relevant to the world. This seemed like an amazing opportunity to do public sociology that was serious, but also creative and enjoyable.
How did the collaboration with Aziz work?
Aziz has been single in the age of the smartphone, and I have not. So a lot of the puzzles we wanted to figure out–like why is it so painful to wait for a text message from someone?–these were more puzzles from Aziz’s life than my life. So Aziz would bring up a conundrum he was thinking about and I would try to reformulate it into a social science question, and then I would design a research strategy.
The book describes how at focus groups you held, people would share their phones with Aziz and let him read actual exchanges over text or OKCupid. What was it like getting your dataset through a famous comedian?
Oh my God, it was amazing. When you’re trying to study people’s intimate romantic lives, it can be difficult, because that’s private, personal information. With Aziz, people feel like they know him. His standup reveals so much personal information, so people trust him in a way that’s really unusual. So suddenly instead of having to ask people questions, they would just hand us their phones, and we could just analyze it. So empirically speaking, it allowed us to be inside people’s phone worlds, learning about behaviors, in ways no one had had a chance to do before. Maybe the NSA…
How did you divvy up the writing?
We both had our eyes on every word. When we got to our final draft, the two of us would go sit in a hotel lobby, side by side, with one machine in front of us. We read through it and rewrote it sentence by sentence, poring over each individual chapter. Clear he drove the comedy and I drove the social science, but Aziz would work on social science sections, and I would work on comedic sentences.
Do you think there should be more jokes in academic papers?
Only bad things would come of that. But writing well is an important part of the ethnographic tradition, and I think it should be a part of other kinds of scholarly writing as well. One of the things that happened in this project is that I had to spend a lot of time on stage with Aziz doing these focus groups. I had to share the stage with one of the funniest people in the world. I remember standing behind him onstage at UCB, seeing how much the audience loved him, and just thinking, “How am I ever going to keep them interested?” But I went out there and started sharing some stats from “Going Solo:” that almost one in two households in Manhattan have only one person in them. There was a collective “Ahh!” in the audience. Later Aziz said, “Wow, I never understood that for a sociologist, an ‘Ahh!’ is the same as bursting out laughing is, for a comedian.” We’re both going for that moment where we surprise audiences by telling them something that’s true.
Has your academic life changed after working with a comic?
The experience told me that the search for knowledge doesn’t have to be so serious all of the time. I would sometimes go from an evening onstage with Aziz to a faculty meeting the next day, and the tones in those rooms are so different. It’s nice when we’re able to laugh at ourselves, and I wish more people in the university could do that, too.