Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor and director of the Institute of Public Knowledge at NYU, co-wrote the book Modern Romance with NYU alumnus Aziz Ansari. WSN talked with Klinenberg about his experiences working with Ansari and how he found the comedy in sociology.
WSN: What was it like working with Aziz Ansari, someone from such a different background than yourself?
Eric Klinenberg: Well, I think we both learned a lot from each other, and one of the things we discovered very quickly is that sociology and comedy have a lot in common. Both fields involve looking very closely at the funny ways people behave and trying to develop some insight that will resonate with people’s experiences even if they don’t have words for it. Comedians and sociologists both want you to see the world differently than you did before you heard what they had to say. Comedians have to produce an original insight and also make you laugh, sociologists have to produce an original insight and make you want to think a little bit more. But we were both surprised at how much we had in common. Of course, working with a comedian is very different to working with other social scientists, and for me it was refreshing to have so much laughter in my daily life.
WSN: Do you think that his contributions made the writing of the book very different from how you would have written any other book?
EK: Absolutely. No sociology book that I know starts with the words “Oh shit.” None have sections on how to Beyoncify your ex by photoshopping photos of Beyoncé over your ex’s face on your social media. Yeah, the book was written differently, but it’s really a blend of social science and comedy, and I think you can see both of our voices in it.
WSN: How do you think the work that you did with the book or what you learned from it would be applicable to anything you might work on in the future or here at NYU?
EK: Well, I joked about sociology being entertaining before, but the truth is when you’re lecturing or teaching, you’re looking for ways to get the students engaged, and you know I’ve been doing a lot of public speaking for a long time, but I really learned the value of laughter and humor from working closely with Aziz. If you’re enjoying yourself and finding a way to present material that makes people laugh, you’re also opening up possibilities for conversation that you can’t get if you’re too serious. There’s nothing worse than someone trying to be funny but isn’t, so you have to know whether or not you have it. Nobody wants to be in a class with a professor who thinks he’s really funny.
WSN: Do you have any good anecdotes from the process of writing this book?
EK: I discovered that Aziz is a workaholic. He is brilliant, but his success isn’t just about his brilliance, it’s also that he works harder than anybody else. We traveled around the world together for the book; we would spend a day doing interviews, conducting focus groups, taking long breaks so that he could find the most delicious food in whatever city we were in, and then come home at 9 or 10 at night and he would say, ‘Hey Eric, do you mind if we just spend a couple more hours writing because there’s all this stuff I wanna do.’ He really never stops. So it was nice to see the incredible work ethic he had. And also, he really wanted to learn sociology — we had a division of labor where I was in charge of the research and the social science and he was in charge of the comedy, but he really wanted to learn sociology and he had this passion and curiosity about how the world works that you see in the best students. And that was great.
A version of this article appeared in the Nov. 30 print edition. Email Nishad More at [email protected]