ST. PETERSBURG — Halfway through Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance Tour stop, which was all about the undignified way people correspond today, he beckoned the crowd.
The audience at the Mahaffey Theater came forth and handed their phones to Ansari, an astute spirit animal of a generation that has forgotten how to speak.
"Relationships live and die over the course of a few messages," he said. He started looking through their phones.
At 31, Ansari is one of the most popular comedians in the business, thanks in part to his role on NBC's Parks and Recreation. Sunday, he wove at times chilling wisdom into a wickedly funny set (twice, because the first show sold out so fast). He wore a red velvet blazer, washed in romantic lights.
"If you've ever held someone you love and watched hours of critically acclaimed dramas, you've experienced the peak of human happiness," said Ansari, who claims to be in love himself.
Ansari has a gift for pulling a big idea out of the mundane, and he gets the point across without sounding like a miser who wants you off his lawn. How could he? Ansari keeps a Tumblr blog and he tweets and Instagrams. On Sunday afternoon, he posted a shot of himself at Bananas Music in St. Petersburg.
So it's with great authority he can explain how, when someone doesn't text back, we decide they're out of the country. In the hospital. Or maybe — maybe! — the text didn't go through.
"The text always goes through," he said.
And how the same person who blew you off then has the nerve to document every stupid thing: "Eating ice cream and watching Dexter. #reallyneedaman."
"You know I follow you!" he said. "You know I'm reading this! What kind of evil is inside you?"
People are so connected, he said, they're always holding out for better. And they don't commit to much. Ansari conceived of a hypothetical guy, sitting alone in his house, 40 years ago, eating beans from a can, and the land line rings. It's Phil, and he wants to meet up at 8.
"You would be there at 8 o'clock, and Phil would be there at 8 o'clock and if Phil wasn't there by 8:15, you thought Phil was dead. ..."
Now we're part of the "rudest, flakiest generation ever," he said, and the crowd of fans in their 20s and 30s agreed that this generation is the worst. But Ansari called them out.
"We are those people."
Back to those people standing at the stage, handing Ansari their phones.
A young woman met a guy at a bar, she told him, and he texted the next day. They went on a date, and he wrote the next night. Then she left him hanging, which in Ansari's estimation is the result of a widespread and crippling American fear of honesty.
Ansari took the phone and typed, I just woke up, boo-boo, bring me some donuts.
"You can write and say Aziz sent that," he told her. "He'll believe you."
Then, to make sure they were communicating clearly, he pressed his cheek to hers and took a selfie.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.