2015 was a year of reckoning for comedy.
Amy Schumer became a household name — beginning with a slew of viral videos from the breakout third season of Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer that skewered rape culture, Hollywood sexism, and ageism and then reaching critical mass with the film Trainwreck, written by and starring Schumer in a welcome subversion of the Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler man-child trope. Jen Kirkman also scored with her Netflix comedy special I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine), in which she radically argues for the fun of being a single woman in her forties, graying pubic hair and all.
Barry Crimmins, as profiled in the stunning Bobcat Goldthwait-directed documentary Call Me Lucky, has emerged as a name that, if previously unknown or forgotten, should be cemented in our minds and hearts for the work he has done in giving voice to the unspeakable. And then there is Bill Cosby, a name formerly synonymous with the American Dream that has since been blighted — and rightfully so. Not all names deserve to keep the luster once ascribed to them, no matter how powerful their sway once held.
In a year so full of questioning and challenging of the status quo — or, in the words of novelist Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, realizing the danger of telling a single story — a sincere and compelling comedic voice that has risen to the occasion of telling under-told stories is, drum roll, Aziz Ansari. A surprise to some, perhaps, given that pre-2015 Ansari was best known for playing the entrepreneurial yet underachieving Tom Haverford on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, made winning by Ansari’s guileless performance and the catchphrase, “Treat yo self.” Another actor may have made Tom a douche, but Ansari isn’t that guy, onscreen or in life.
Since Parks and Recreation’s final episode aired in February 2015, Ansari’s career, unlike the careers of most actors coming out of a beloved if not ratings-successful network show, has snowballed. His fourth stand-up special, Aziz Ansari: Live at Madison Square Garden, was released on Netflix in March and covered topics such as dating, factory farming, over-reliance on the Internet, rampant misogyny, and being the child of immigrants. Ansari’s first book, Modern Romance: An Investigation, was released in June and immediately shot to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Co-written with Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist and professor at New York University, the book combines comedy and social science to investigate how the Internet and its attendant technologies have affected modern love and relationships.
And then came Netflix’s Golden Globe-nominated comedy Master of None, which was released for streaming in November to near-universal acclaim. Co-created and co-written by Ansari and Parks and Recreation writer Alan Yang, Master of None follows a 32-year-old actor named Dev, ingenuously played by Ansari, who is navigating the ups and downs of life in New York City. The 10-episode series has struck a chord with audiences and critics because of its funny, adept, and compassionate handling of a diverse breadth of issues, from everyday violence against women to Indian-American actors facing quota casting to the oft-untold stories of immigrant parents (Fun fact: Dev’s mom and dad are played by Ansari’s parents, Dr. Shoukath and Fatima Ansari, and they are wonderful).
In this exclusive interview with Consequence of Sound, Ansari opened up about the complications of diversity, the power of experience, and some of the inspiration behind Master of None — Stevie Wonder may have had something to with it.
I watched all of Master of None in a weekend. I tried to pace myself and not binge-watch, but it was too good, and I just couldn’t help myself. I am a big fan of Parks and Recreation and your role on that show; but Master of None is a much different project, in subject matter and especially in style. So, I’m curious: How did the idea for this show come to you?
Well, I wanted to do something in the narrative form that was my voice, my comedic voice. With stuff I’ve acted in thus far, I’ve always acted in someone else’s thing; I’ve never gotten to act in something that was my project, something that I was the creator of and really shaping. So I sat down [with Alan Yang] and said, “Hey, what do you think about doing a show?” and he was into it; we’re friends, so we talked about it.
As for the aesthetic we wanted, we started talking about ‘70s comedy films that we really liked, whether it be the Woody Allen stuff from back then or Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid, and we were talking about how the dialogue is a little more conversational, things were shot a little differently, things weren’t quite as fast-paced as they are now. So we took cues from that stuff to get the tone of Master of None, while giving it a kind of modern sensibility at the same time.
Did you consider playing yourself on the show, or a pseudo-self like “Jerry” or “Louie”? Or was the character of Dev important for you to establish a difference between you and him while also including some autobiographical elements?
He just became confusing because if I was Aziz, it’s like, “Well, I’m an actor, but I wasn’t on Parks and Rec.” It was easier to just make this character Dev and I could also just use autobiographical elements when I wanted to, and then other things that were totally made up for Dev that I couldn’t do with Aziz. It was just a little less confusing to call the character Dev and having that liberty to change his life so much that I wouldn’t have a problem with it.
That makes sense. I also can see how a lot of elements of this show — the best parts, in my opinion — would not have jived with a network. What made you decide to go with Netflix?
I chose Netflix because one, they were so enthusiastic. They immediately wanted to do 10 episodes of the show; they went straight to series. Another thing is that I partnered with them on my stand-up specials, and they had done a good job on those. The other thing is just, as is said in many places, they are very creative-friendly, and they really let you make the show you want to make. They were really hands-off and really trusted us to make a great show, and luckily we delivered for them. But they really trusted me and Alan and wanted us to make the show we wanted to make.
A lot of your stand-up is about millennial dating and modern romance, and you also co-wrote a book on the subject. Was that intended to be a key part of Dev’s journey from the beginning?
Well, I never wrote the book with the intention of using that for the show, but after writing it, obviously it gave me ideas. I talked to so many people about relationships and things, and [a lot of] the Aziz in the book is in the show, in certain scenes and episodes. But I think what works about the show is half is Dev’s personal life, love, and relationships, and the other half is more issue-based episodes, social commentary. And I think that is a blend that works.
I listen to a lot of Stevie Wonder albums, and I’ve noticed when you listen to Innervisions or Songs in the Key of Life or one of those older albums, there is that blend of love and also social issues. Not to say that my work is anywhere on that level [laughs], but it’s an interesting way to kind of blend those things and have those types of stories.
How does the writing happen, between Alan and yourself and with your team, and how important was it to you to have a diverse group of people in the writing room as well as onscreen?
So, Alan and I would run the room, we had a room full of writers, and we would have discussions about the episodes, and everyone would contribute jokes and ideas. Alan and I were the heads of the room and ended up writing most of the episodes, but everyone really contributed a lot to all of the episodes, even the ones where their names aren’t on there.
And as far as diversity in the writers’ room, yeah, it’s very important because you get different viewpoints. When you’re writing about stuff, you don’t want to have just five white guys who wrote on the Harvard Lampoon and those are your only viewpoints. Not that they won’t be different, but it’s good to have people from different comedy backgrounds, different personal backgrounds, different genders, and different ethnicities. We have a small room, but we did the best we could, and I’ve found that to be something that is very helpful. As far as onscreen, what’s interesting to me is that Alan and I didn’t choose our cast and say, “Oh, we’re going to have this really diverse cast.” That’s just what our real-world experience is. When we hang out, that’s a diverse group of people.
The Brian character is based on Alan; that was intended to be an Asian guy. But all of the other characters we left to open-ethnicity casting, and the people that got it were really the best people. Lena Waithe, who plays Denise, is an African-American lesbian woman, but she wasn’t cast because she is an African-American lesbian woman. She was cast because she is the funniest person who auditioned for that part, and we made the character someone who’s similar to her. And same with Eric Wareheim. I’ve joked that he’s our token white guy, but we auditioned people of every ethnicity for that part, and Eric was the funniest, the person we were most excited about, so we wrote the character [of Arnold] for him. And we did that with as many characters as we could. Obviously with Brian’s dad, that’s gonna be an Asian guy, and if it’s my parents, they’re going to be Indian. But we really tried to keep it open.
And when people talk about diversity, I just want to make sure that I’m not taking credit away from how talented all of those people are, and not that we cast them because they looked a certain way; we cast them because they are tremendously talented. And it just felt real to us. As far as what we see when we’re hanging out with our friends, it is a mix of people like that, and I think it feels real in that way. And I think that’s why the diversity of Master of None feels authentic; it doesn’t feel forced, you know? If you do a show like Seinfeld, yeah, I buy that. Those four white people hang out together. That doesn’t mean, like, “Oh, Kramer could be an Asian guy.” Not necessarily. [Laughs] Kramer can be … well, Kramer has his own issues with race, but that’s a different interview.
I think with our show it feels very authentic and it works, but I don’t think the answer is like, you see it sometimes where it’s done as window dressing, where people kind of do it the other way, where they’re like, “We need to have the black guy who’s a friend,” and they have one black guy, and in every scene you’re just like, “Man, you can tell that black guy really doesn’t want to be friends with these people.” It never feels like that in Master of None because it came from a real place. It wasn’t from a window-dressing place.
Right. One of the best episodes, I think, is “Indians on TV,” where you actually say, and I’m paraphrasing, we’re not yet at the point where a network will cast two Asian guys in the buddy comedy friend group. Obviously there can be more than one white guy, and we’ve finally reached the point where there can be more than one black guy, but there can only be one Asian guy or one Indian guy. What do you think that today’s casting directors and actors can do to circumvent this long-held practice of tokenism and quota casting?
I think doing open-ethnicity casting is really great and just trying to get the best people. And sometimes it is harder to find actors. Like when we were casting Brian, it was hard to find him. It was hard to find Kelvin [Yu]. We auditioned so many guys, and nobody felt quite right for this role. And we almost switched the character, like maybe we’ll make it an Asian woman, maybe we’ll make it someone else. It was hard; the character is based on Alan, our story ideas are based on him being an Asian guy. And then at the last minute, Kelvin came through, and he was great. And as far as casting directors, we were so lucky to have Alison Jones as the person who helped us get our main cast, and she’s like a legend in the casting world. She did Freaks and Geeks and a lot of the Judd Apatow stuff, and she knew a lot of interesting people.
So Alan and I were just like, introduce us to people who are interesting. And in those meetings we met Lena, we met Noël [Wells], we got to know these people. We met a lot of actors of color. I think Alison does a really good job of trying to meet a lot of different kinds of diverse, talented people. And sometimes it’s hard to find people. There are less Indian people doing comedy than there are white people. I mean, there are so many white people doing comedy. There are so many white people acting. And with Asian people and Indian people, there are less of them doing it, and I think you have to look extra hard to find them.
And I think in writing and things like that, don’t only think about these ethnic minorities when a role comes up that needs to fit a stereotype. For example, in our show there’s an Asian, and usually the agent is a white guy. And you think of a guy from Entourage or something like that [to be an agent], you think of a slick white guy, and then Alan and I were like, “Well, what if it is an Asian guy with an agent who is an African American woman, and make it Danielle [Brooks] from Orange Is the New Black,” and she was hilarious and made the role her own. It felt different. And you end up helping yourself by separating yourself from previous generations of these kinds of characters.
And the more people see an Indian guy on TV who’s not desexualized or made to play some sort of stereotypical role, I think the more actors will think, “Hey, maybe I can audition for this part even though it is outside of the stereotype that I’m normally asked to play.” I think that’s great.
Like the guy who plays Anush. That guy’s hilarious. That guy’s bit is that he’s a gym guy who’s kind of dumb, right? And normally you wouldn’t think to look for an Indian guy. That character in another show, his bit would be that he’s Indian, and there would be some ethnic stuff about him being Indian. But in our show, it’s about how he’s a dumb, sweet guy who’s really obsessed with working out. And you know, it’s still funny with an Indian guy in there.
Totally. Another thing that I like about your show that I don’t see in a lot of other guy-fronted shows is the representation of women as more than just a mystery. A lot of stand-ups joke about how they don’t understand women, but I what I like about your comedy is that you do try to understand them, like in the episode that begins with the experience of a woman walking home alone in contrast with a couple of guys walking home, and there are other examples. What do you think compels that in you, to not be dismissive of women’s experiences but rather inclusive of them and their stories?
Well, I think that’s the big theme of the show in general, to just listen and try to learn from other people’s experiences, whether it be your parents, women in your life, older people, whoever. I think you learn so much by just listening to other people and hearing about their experiences and having a dialogue, having a conversation. I feel like our Internet culture is so much about yelling at people, saying they’re wrong or they’re racist or whatever. I think it’s more about looking for blood, and everyone is kind of like a shark that’s looking for blood, to pounce on people. But we’re not sharks, we’re people, and we should look for understanding and dialogue and conversation, because you end up learning more that way.
It’s true. And your character, Dev, is empathetic in that way, which is interesting. There is a cynical, snarky edge to a lot of comedy nowadays, and yours is not that. In fact, you’ve covered some topics on Master of None that are rarely delved into with such empathy and nuance — and on most network shows, ignored entirely — such as what it’s like to be an older person who isn’t the butt of a joke or invisible, or what it’s like to be an immigrant parent who has raised a first-generation American son. What stories do you think should be told that aren’t being told enough or at all on television, and do you plan to continue telling them on Master of None?
I think that’s all about how what we did came from a real place. Alan and I, we do have immigrant parents, so we can tell that story. I have auditioned for stuff where [casting directors] have told me, do an accent. So I think it comes off well, because it is coming from an authentic place, and I think Alan and I felt like, “Well, we are in a position where we could really tell these stories, so we should do it.”
And I feel like sometimes there is a fear in telling these kinds of stories, because for example, look at some of the episodes of Master of None — I’m sure there was a network somewhere that would have been like, “Oh, this episode about the parents, this is really sweet, but I don’t think we can do an episode where it’s just watching four old, aging people. We’ve gotta have some young, hot people in there. Or this whole episode where you’re hanging out with this older woman, is there any way we could have other characters here? It’s a little odd to just have you and an older woman be in a whole episode.” Or with “Indians on TV”: “This seems a little too insider-y. I don’t know if people will care about this.” And I think that’s a thing that a lot of people have in their heads, like “The mainstream audience won’t care about this story.” And that’s really just a coded way of saying, “White people won’t be interested in this.” But that’s not true!
And I think with my show, with an episode like “Parents,” that obviously hit really hard with people who have immigrant parents, but it also hit with people who have parents who feel like they’re ungrateful or a shitty kid; it’s a very universal thing. And the “Indians on TV” episode, yeah, that is a pretty specific thing, but I think people can relate to the ideas I’m bringing up; and even if they don’t have a personal experience that so directly relates to it, they understand it being an intelligent discussion about race, and it gets people talking about these things. With the “Ladies and Gentleman” episode, I think people have seen that episode and then talked to each other about the times that they’ve been followed home or harassed, things like that. And the show, in a cool way, I think, has really opened up a lot of these discussions, and that, to me, is exciting.
As far as what can be done to further more stories like that, I think it’s a tricky problem to address, because I think you just need more and more creators that have experiences that are from diverse backgrounds. So, you look at someone like Shonda Rhimes and it’s like, wow! She’s killing it so hard, and those shows [Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder] have casts of characters that we haven’t seen before [on television], and same with our show. And I think the issue is that most people who are showrunners are people who don’t look like me and Shonda; they’re people who are straight white men. That’s not a dig on them, that’s just the way the TV industry has been for so long. And it’s just going to take some time, I think, for more people to break through.
And the other thing is that if you had hired me and Alan to do this show like six years ago, before we had all of these experiences that we’ve had on Parks, we wouldn’t have been as good and wouldn’t have been able to do the stuff we did [on Master of None]. So it’s a tricky cycle of more people from diverse backgrounds entering the entertainment industry, getting experience, and then getting into the position to tell these stories; and for people at the top to really try to make that extra effort to find these people and give them the chance of hearing their ideas, just like Netflix gave me and Alan the chance to do what me and Alan wanted to do.
Ok, one more question about the show. I love the soundtrack.
Aw, that’s great.
Do you pick the songs yourself? And if so, what was that process like?
We have a music supervisor, this guy Zach Cowie, who did a fantastic job. I’m a pretty big music guy; I love the process of finding the right music to go with a scene. So I would talk to him for a long time, he would send me a huge batch of songs, I would listen to them and try to find stuff, or sometimes I would just have stuff in my head right away of what I thought would work. It was collaboration between the two of us, and it was really one of the [most fun] parts of the show, taking the music and putting it into all the scenes.
Switching gears to how you got your start: Did you know from an early age that you wanted to do comedy, or was it something that you more so fell into and realized, “Hey, I’m good at this”?
More the latter. I grew up in South Carolina, and so I never … In South Carolina, you don’t really have big dreams. Your dream is to get out of South Carolina and then hopefully just get a job. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m going to do Madison Square Garden!” Like, you’re in this small town of a few thousand people, if you’re thinking like that, people will say, “Oh, really? Well, cool. Have fun building a house on Mars!” [Laughs] You know? It’s so far beyond your imagination.
So I came to NYU, and when I was a student there, I started doing stand-up at these talent nights, and I really enjoyed it and just kept doing it, and it kind of went from there. But I always went from the viewpoint of “I really enjoy stand-up; I want to get better at it.” I never thought that I would have the opportunities that I ended up having in my career.
As an actor, a writer, or as a stand-up, have you had any failures that helped you succeed or experiences that you learned from that made you better?
Well, I’ve been pretty lucky in that the stuff I’ve done has all turned out pretty good. But I think I gained a lot of experience doing all of these other things, and it got me to a place where I was ready to do my own show. I think that by doing all of the years that I did on Parks, I learned about how to make a show, how to act in a show, how to be a leader on a show by watching someone like Amy Poehler, how to be a good showrunner by watching someone like [Parks and Recreation showrunner] Mike Schur.
I think all of the experiences I’ve had have led me to the place where I could make something like Master of None, which I’m really proud of. And I’m sure I’ve made mistakes in all of the other things that I’ve done that have helped me get into the place where I was able to pull this off.
I think you just gotta do the work you’re excited by, and you’ll get better at stuff just by doing it more. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it, whether it’s writing or acting or directing; the experience is what drives everything. If you just keeping doing stuff, and keep an eye on the idea of trying to get better at something and learn, I think overtime you will get better.
One plot thread running through Master of None’s first season is Dev auditioning for and getting cast in The Sickening, which is a horror film about some sort of deadly virus on the loose. Which leads me to this final, very important question: Do you have a plan for the zombie apocalypse, and if so, what is it?
Oh, man. I’m probably just gonna try to hide out in a wine bar somewhere that has the best stock and hope for the best.