The Meet an Alumnus page on the website of the South Carolina Governor's School for Science and Mathematics (GSSM) currently displays the profiles of three former students. One, test system engineer Shawn Peterkin, Class of 1998, says that "GSSM prepares you mentally to know that no matter the challenge, you can accomplish it!" There's also pediatric dentist Kim Elvington ('95) and Dewey Nguyen ('04), a law clerk for S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal. Since 1988, students like Peterkin, Elvington, and Nguyen have received rigourous science- and math-based training on the Hartsville residential campus.
But noticeably absent from the Meet an Alumnus page is the one person who may be the school's most illustrious graduate, at least in the pop-culture scheme of things. "Governor's School is a very special place," says comedian, TV and movie star, and 2000 graduate Aziz Ansari. "You always read about South Carolina coming in pathetically low in rankings of public education. If you are in one of these parts of the state with bad schools, Governor's School is a ray of hope in a way." And while his personal path has veered away from the studious subjects emphasized at GSSM, it's hard to imagine an astrophysicist or a molecular biologist raising money for their alma mater the way Ansari is, performing seven sold-out shows over three nights at Theatre 99 and the Charleston Music Hall. "Going to the school helped me grow in a myriad of ways, and I feel it's important for kids in South Carolina to have the opportunity to go there."
Ansari grew up in Bennettsville, the county seat of Marlboro in the northeastern part of the state. "No offense to Bennettsville," Ansari says, "but it's kind of small and shitty in a lot of ways. Also there were only 20 kids or so in my class in Bennettsville." So he spent his final two years of high school at GSSM, where he got to live and learn with some of the brightest teens in the state. "To meet so many kids from different backgrounds with different ideas and interests, it really influenced me."
The Aziz Ansari of 2000 was a lot skinnier and less hairy than what the general public is used to seeing on Thursday night TV, which is evident in the pages of his senior yearbook, where he looks out boyishly in a traditional tuxedo. Underneath his photo are two quotes, one from Bob Marley, the other anonymously attributed: "He who shall laugh at himself shall never cease to be amused."
While at the Governor's School, Ansari wasn't restricted to class clowning liked you'd expect a professional funny man to be — he was also a star member of the tennis team and got good grades. GSSM can share anecdotes from former classmates who remember performing in skits with the actor before he was famous, his mastery with a guitar, and when he picked up the turntables. One year, Ansari and a fellow student decided they'd read their biology textbook from cover to cover as part of their summer reading list for the hell of it, so it seems like even then he was a joker — just in a much nerdier way.
The comedian says he never had a set clique among the 120-plus students. "I hung out with people into things as varied as DJing, foosball, hip hop, indie rock, macaroni and cheese (Velveeta shells and cheese we'd make in the dorms), and, of course, terrible, nasty, cheap vodka sold in 1.5 L plastic bottles and also pathetically bad Hartsville weed," he says. Yes, vodka and pot: Because no matter how brainy teens are, they're still teens.
Not surprisingly, the tiny residential school has its share of folklore, often surrounding the gender-split dorms. "You'd hear stories about the kids who graduated like 'Oh, this guy got busted for going to the girls side, then came back upstairs and went over again the same night,' or 'These kids found a closet and made a hole through it and had a secret tunnel over to the girls side,'" Ansari says.
There are traditions, too. Every year, a group of four outgoing seniors will pass down items to the next round of students, and during his time, Ansari was one of the lucky ones. He was gifted the prize piece: a chair carved with the names of everyone who's owned it. "I wonder if it's still at the school," he says. "Hopefully, it's still around and not in a dumpster."
But obviously, despite the intellectual leg-up Ansari got in high school, he changed his mind somewhere along the way. "I did an immunology research project during the summer of my junior year at MUSC and lived in Charleston," he explains. "It was fun and I learned a lot, but I realized biology wasn't for me. After a while I just decided 'All right. I know enough about cells. This is getting too abstract and intangible.'"
His legacy lives on. GSSM Foundation President Kim Bowman was hired by the school after Ansari had already graduated, but she's heard stories. "I had a student tell me yesterday that you have to get to class early at the Governor's School because everyone wants to sit in the front," she says. "That might not sound normal, but it's normal to us. Aziz was one of those smart kids who wanted to sit in the front."
This past December, Bowman visited with other GSSM alumni in L.A., along with Dr. Carlanna Hendrick, Ansari's history professor and tennis coach. They missed out on getting to see Ansari (he was in New York), but he promised them he wanted to show his support for his school. "The next thing we knew, he was coming to Charleston," Bowman says.
Because Ansari is an alumnus, the money raised from his Charleston shows will go directly into a general alumni fund designed to support the school's greatest needs: scientific research (which GSSM students are required to do on college campuses over the summer), technology, adjunct professors, scholarships, and more.
There are now plans to add Ansari to the Meet an Alumnus page, according to Leigh Hewlett, the GSSM Foundation's marketing and PR coordinator. "I think it's interesting, because a lot of people think our alumni are going to be engineers, doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, and having someone that's a comedian and an actor is just very unique," she says. "He didn't really go that route of science and math, but we always say you never know. You never know where a solid education in science and math is going to take you."
The school's seven-member foundation, as well as several people from the staff and faculty, are planning to make the trek down to Charleston to see Ansari perform. "I don't know about the students, because it's a little mature," Hewlett laughs. "We're not really encouraging that."
Ansari's seven performances at the Charleston Music Hall and Theatre 99 on Feb. 1, 3, and 4 are sold out.
Charleston is no stranger to visits from Aziz Ansari. Before he made it to television with Human Giant or starred in 30 Minutes or Less, he performed at the Charleston Comedy Festival and Piccolo Fringe. The last time he made it back to the Lowcountry — in June 2010 — his NBC comedy Parks and Recreation was on a temporary hiatus, pushed back to a mid-season start. Today, it's one of the most popular shows of the night, a fact that is certainly helped by his character, the charming-and-obnoxious wannabe cologne magnate Tom Haverford, who buys suits from Brooks Brothers' boys collection and who calls chicken parmesan "chicky chicky parm parm" and air conditioners "cool blasterz" (he doesn't know where the "Z" comes from). These days, Ansari finds more Parks quotes yelled in his face than howls of Raaaaaaaandy!, the not-at-all charming and completely obnoxious character he played in Funny People who should be starring in his own movie soon. We're sure wherever he goes, shouts of "treat yo self" will follow. "Coming to Charleston is a treat yo self adventure in and of itself for me," he says.
The ups and downs of Parks and Rec have no affect on Ansari's stand-up career. "They are two different animals," he says. "I just try to write the best hour I can and then tour it. The show I'm doing in Charleston will be a test run of some new stuff I have been developing to tour in the spring."
Ansari is also a well-known foodie, having done culinary tours of New York and Japan for GQ magazine last year. He's still researching where to eat in our town — and hopes that he has enough time to do it. "It's hard to keep up with all the new spots," he says. "I had great meals at FIG and I always enjoy Jestine's." We think he should stop by Martha Lou's instead, though. And not because it's right across the street from our office.