Parks and Recreation is nothing if not a place to find a vast array of loveable, quirky characters. Yet that was not always the case with Aziz Ansari‘s Tom Haverford. The Pawnee Parks Department’s erstwhile second-in-command was, in the NBC comedy’s debut season, actually a bit subversive. But after some tweaks here and rejiggering there, Tom — and Ansari — emerged as one of Parks‘ VIP players — a title of which he would no doubt approve. Here, Ansari discusses the evolution of his R&B-bumping (wannabe) playboy, reveals how much improv plays into his performance and shares some of his standout Season 4 moments.
TVLINE | By now we know that Tom Haverford and Aziz Ansari are not one and the same. But to be honest, sometimes it’s still a little hard to differentiate between the two.
[Laughs] For a lot of us on the show, I think there are elements of our real lives in the characters. For example, I like hip-hop music, and Tom really likes hip-hop music. I find ’90s R&B music really funny, too, but I think Tom is into it in a different way than I am — like a lot more seriously. [Laughs] Tom would legit sit down and put on Boyz II Men if a girl came over; I would not do that. But for me, because I do standup, I think [fans] see me speak as myself, so [they] have more of a sense of who I am in real life.
TVLINE | Much depth has been added to Tom since Parks‘ early days, when he was actually kind of mean-spirited. Talk a little about his evolution.
Like you said, in the first few episodes he may have been a little more mean-spirited. And after we came back [for Season 2], we all tinkered with the characters and the stories a bit to find what worked. In the second season, Tom had a crush on his “green card wife” (played by Jama Williamson) [and] it was those kinds of storylines that gave the guy something emotional to play. It helped make the character more three-dimensional and a real person. These characters are a little weird, but you never want them to seem like cartoon characters. Every character on the show is well-rounded, and with Tom it’s good to see all of those sides of him, both from a storytelling perspective and for me as an actor.
TVLINE | We have to discuss last season’s introduction of that kooky Tom-and-Ann romance. Were you surprised to learn that was on the way? And what are your thoughts on where the relationship ended up going?
[Showrunner] Mike [Schur] told us [there are] all of these soul-matey relationships in the show, like Leslie and Ben, and April and Andy, so they wanted to do one that was a purely comedic thing, and that it would give us some fun stuff to play… It was fun just seeing all of the dumb ideas Tom had in trying to romance her. It’s cool to see a relationship like that, because those two should not be together. I think we’ve all known couples like that in our own lives. It’s like, “Why are those people dating?! They are fighting all the time and should not be dating.” [Laughs]
TVLINE | Obviously the Parks writing team is solid. But given your background in comedy, is there room for you to improv?
Sure. Every now and then there are things that are improvised that make it in, but most of what you see is written… Sometimes they write things with the intent of having us improvise, though. There was that bit when Tom lists food nicknames. They gave me a few and asked that I make up a few, too. So, what you end up seeing is usually a combination.
TVLINE | And in an instance like that, the nicknames just come to you on the spot? Or you plan them out ahead of time?
You know, I’ll think of some on the fly or in between takes. A writer is always on set, so they’ll pitch jokes, too… Also, the song that Tom sang to Ann last season — I can’t remember what was on the page, but I think that was pretty heavily improvised. That was really fun.
TVLINE | On a show filled with so many moments like the one you just mentioned, it would seem a tough task not to break character all the time. Is that ever actually the case?
I’m pretty good about that stuff — or I try to be. If you start giggling and ruining a take, it sucks because then that performance didn’t get captured and it was funny. You try to keep it together, but every now and then people get the giggles… There was one scene where Tom and [Adam Scott's] Ben are having lunch with Joan Callamezzo (recurring guest star Mo Collins), the local newswoman. She’s getting really drunk and flirting with Tom in this weird way, and at one point she gets up and says, “I’ll be right back. I have to go to the ladies room to powder my nose,” and then she comes up to Tom and says, “…amongst other things” — which is a phrase no one has ever said! [Laughs] And then Adam had to say this crazy line, “Dude, is she going to go powder her vagina?!” and we just couldn’t get through it. It was too much.
TVLINE | Vagina-powdering aside, what’s your favorite Tom Haverford moment from Season 4?
I would say that scene where Tom finds out that Ann doesn’t know who Ginuwine is, and then finds out that Ginuwine is Donna’s cousin. That was just such an absurd thing to do with so much emotion, but I knew it would mean that much to Tom. [Laughs]