Aziz Ansari on His Excellent New Series ‘Master of None,’ Sexism, and Race in America
The acclaimed stand-up comedian sat down to discuss his great Netflix show, the online harassment of women, and being a person of color in Hollywood.
Master of None opens with one of the most awkward scenarios imaginable.
Dev (Aziz Ansari) is on top of his first date, Rachel (Noël Wells), and engaging in the type of sex you’d expect from a desperate 3 a.m. Tinder swipe: comic moaning, lazy thrusting, and too much talky-talky. Then the condom breaks, and what follows is a cringe-worthy series of events, from Googling the effects of pre-cum, followed by an Uber to a pharmacy to grab Plan B (and a couple of bottles of Martinelli’s), and a silent ride home.
You’re immediately swept into this world of Ansari, who created the 10-episode Netflix series with pal Alan Yang, about a 30-year-old struggling actor whose desperately striving for decency in a world gone mad—one where people of color are marginalized and placed in boxes by white power brokers, women are followed home at night by creepy entitled men, and children neglect their elders. No, this isn’t Donald Trump’s America—it’s the real world as viewed through the eyes of a person of color in America, which sadly isn’t a perspective mainstream audiences are treated to very often.Ansari’s Dev—along with his diverse gang of friends, including Brian (Kelvin Yu), Denise (Lena Waithe), and Arnold (Eric Wareheim)—explores the point where human behavior and social responsibility collide, broaching heavy topics like respect for one’s immigrant parents to racism in pop culture, including a disturbing montage of Indian stereotypes on TV. Yes, it’s a far cry from the douchebag characters the Indian American actor’s become known for in film and television, from Tom “treat yoself” Haverford on Parks and Recreation to his obnoxious stand-up performer Raaaaandy! in Judd Apatow’s Funny People.
Master of None is a fascinating mélange of Ansari’s stand-up act, which has gotten more issues-oriented in recent years; his book Modern Romance: An Investigation, that explores the strange nuances of dating in the Internet age; and the familiar semi-autobiographical format of Louie. In short, it provides a portrait of a thirsty male ally navigating the treacherous terrain of New York City who is, in the immortal words of Jules Winnfield, “trying real hard to be the shepherd.”
The Daily Beast sat down with Ansari to discuss Master of None—one of the best comedy series of the year.
If you look at Louie, Seinfeld, and to a degree Top Five, it seems like this is the ideal format for stand-up comedians—the semi-autobiographical sitcom format.
I think doing stand-up really helps develop what your point of view is, and a lot of the stories I like have a specific point of view. My last two specials have been more pointed, and I’ve developed that point of view. The next logical step was to take that into a narrative form. I thought, “Oh, I’ll try and do a movie,” but every time I try to write a movie script, it takes forever. You’re sitting there working on this script you thought of a year and a half ago thinking, “I’m not even the same person anymore.” When I finished Parks, I thought I could write a TV show and get it up pretty quick. A lot of people look down on TV still, but I would put up four episodes of Master of None against any comedy movie that’s come out recently.
With the exception of the occasional Apatow or Rogen joint, mainstream Hollywood comedies have gotten abysmal.
Yeah. Watch the mainstream comedy trailers and they’re very broad. It’s all just someone getting hit in the nuts and falling through a building. In Master of None, our inspirations were ’70s films like Manhattan, Heartbreak Kid, Annie Hall, The Graduate—a bit slower, conversational, natural, and a little bit harsh. It’s like the end of Shampoo, where Warren Beatty thinks, “OK, I’m going to be with this woman,” and she goes and hooks up with another guy, and then the movie ends. A moment like that hits for me so much harder than the typical happy ending. And it is a little semi-autobiographical. Just as Alvy Singer was a stand-in for Woody Allen in Annie Hall, Dev is a stand-in for me.
How did the show land on Netflix?I met up with Alan [Yang], the co-creator of the show, and said, “Let’s do a show,” and he said, “I’m down.” We went and pitched it around a bunch of places and everyone was into it, but Netflix said, “We want to do it, and we’re ready—go shoot 10 episodes.” There wasn’t even a pilot or any of that. And I’d enjoyed working with Netflix on my specials, so they seemed like they believed in us, and would do well by us. We wrote for a couple of months while I was on Parks, then I wrote for a couple of months at the beginning of this year, we started shooting for 12 weeks in late March, edited it, and it was done.
Parks does seem to be the exception more than the rule when it comes to primetime comedies. Most of them are pretty terrible. And you look at NBC passing on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and wonder, “What are they thinking?”
Among myself and my friends, we like smart, insightful comedy—and there’s not a ton of that. And it goes doubly for movies. Obvious Child I thought was so great! There should be so many more movies like Obvious Child.
So you never thought about pitching Master of None to your Parks home of NBC?
I just didn’t want to do a network show for a number of reasons. I didn’t want to deal with the content restrictions. Any of the sex scenes we did in Episode 9 or language stuff, it’d all be such a battle. I mean, the show starts with a condom breaking and us talking about jizz! You couldn’t do any of that. It’s so hard to make a show that you think is really funny and then have to jump through all the hoops of standards and practices.
Well, you were pretty nice to your former employer by not including the dreaded Outsourced in your montage of offensive Indian parts in TV and film.
Ah, well I stopped it at a certain point! If it kept going in time, I would have to show up in the montage, so we stopped it at Ashton Kutcher’s Popchips ad.
That montage is brutal, too. It covers about 40 years of pop culture and shows how these racial stereotypes are so culturally ingrained.
That’s what’s annoying—when those portrayals have real-world effects, and it’s a perpetual cycle. Most of the people writing this stuff are straight white guys, so that’s their worldview. You really need more and more creators from different backgrounds to show their view of the world and “normalize it,” as Shonda Rhimes would say.
Episode 4, “Indians on TV,” focuses on the racist typecasting that nearly all Indian actors endure. I can’t imagine going to an audition as an American actor of Indian descent and being asked to do an exaggerated Indian accent time and time again. That’s devastating.
Yeah, that happens! That stuff is all true. People go in for auditions and they’ll say, “We need you to do an accent.” Or before you even get the script, they’ll tell you, “It’s an accent thing.” It’s frustrating because you think, “Oh, that’s the only time you think of me. You don’t think of me for other parts.” That’s slowly changing, and if you have a certain amount of heat on you, it’s OK, but people still, say, bring in an Asian girl when it’s a nail salon thing, not when they’re just looking for a funny character. If you’re a minority actor, your casting is oftentimes based on what you’re ethnicity is perceived to do in a mostly-white world.
How demoralizing did it get? We all know you turned down an audition for a part in Transformers as a call center guy that called for an Indian accent.
Early on I just quickly said, “I’m not doing anything with accents,” and I stopped getting parts like that. Then I did Human Giant, and Parks, and the things I more wanted to do. Then I got to do parts in films like Funny People and 30 Minutes or Less that weren’t dictated by ethnic stereotypes.
Do you think a role like Dev would’ve been available to a person of color like yourself in Hollywood? It seems there are a dearth of these complex characters for people of color, which in a way may have forced you to take the reins and create one.
Master of None goes beyond people of color, for me. It’s an issue all actors face where people see you and go, “Oh, I know what that guy does. He does this.” Anything I would’ve gotten after doing Parks would’ve been something that felt like a worse version of Tom Haverford—me jumping in and yelling something that sounds kinda like “treat yoself.” I don’t think anyone would’ve written me a role like I did in Master of None, but I don’t think that necessarily has to do with me being a person of color. Generally, these types of leading man roles go to white goes more often—they’re not looking at Asian guys from the get-go—but more generally, people like to put you in a box and I don’t think people knew I could do what I do on the show.
At the same time, the episode “Indians on TV” deals with how network sitcoms have an unspoken mandate of sorts where they can only have one person of color in the central cast—like, say, The Big Bang Theory.
Oh, yeah. I don’t think it’s unspoken. I’ve seen people write stuff about how they didn’t get a part because they were told, “We’ve already got our ethnic role filled.” It’s crazy. That’s how people think. You’re like, “Really? They only know that one Asian guy? They never run into any other Asian guys?” I’ve seen two Asian people before! I think there’s this fear of, “White people won’t relate to it.” But they will. I watch white people all the time and I relate to what they’re doing. These are universal problems. People watch CGI characters all the time, I think they can handle people of different ethnicities.
And this is one of the more diverse shows on television. The lead is an Indian dude, an Asian actor and a black lesbian play two of his three best friends, and there are numerous other parts for people of color on it. It feels real.
Well that’s it, right? You’d see some movie and think, “I don’t know if Tyrese would really be hangin’ out with that guy,” you know? So you don’t want to hit that thing where it seems fake. But I’m friends with those people, and shit, I was hanging out with people the other day and thought, hey, this is kind of like the show! There’s an Asian guy here and here, and one white guy. My friend group is pretty diverse. So we wanted it to feel real and not like any sort of ploy.
Speaking of casting, your real-life parents, of course, play your parents on Master of None. And your Dad, in particular, steals every scene he’s in.
He’s really funny! Out of all the people we ever had on the show, no one made the crew break more than my Dad. Comedy is all about making unexpected choices, and he is making really weird, unexpected choices every single take. It was cool to see how in the beginning he was very nervous and memorizing his lines, and as he got more comfortable, he even started improvising! I auditioned some people for my parents, and those characters I wanted to be very careful with because a lot of times when you see immigrant parents depicted on TV or film, they’re depicted as these caricatures—ethnic stereotypes—and become these vehicles for hacky, ethnic jokes. I wanted these characters to be well-rounded, and like immigrant parents you’d actually meet. I auditioned people and I just felt like they were all people doing an impression of an Indian person. Plus, I based the characters on my parents anyway, so I asked them if they wanted to do it, and my Dad was very enthusiastic right away. My Mom, I had to twist her arm a little bit.
How did you swing Claire Danes for Episode 5? That’s a pretty big get. And her role—that of a cheating society wife—isn’t one we’ve see her in before.
I knew her personally a little bit. We had that part and knew it would be a good one for a guest star, so we thought, “Who would we get that would be different, and people wouldn’t expect?” We reached out to her and she said, “This is perfect. I’ve been trying to do a comedy thing.” And she did it, and was fantastic. In every interview actors always talk about how weird it is shooting sex scenes, and it is, but she’s so good she made it easy.
Was the Rachel character inspired by a real-life relationship of yours?
No, I didn’t have a relationship like that. I didn’t have a girl that I went to a concert with and then took to Nashville, or anything like that. And the condom thing wasn’t based on a real person either, we just thought of that scenario. I thought Master of None was excellent. Is there any talk of doing a second season, and would you be interested in doing one?
There hasn’t been any talk of it yet. I hope people like the first season. If they ask us to do a second season, we’ll have to talk about it and figure out what we want to do. But I definitely have more of an attitude of how Larry David approaches Curb, which is I’d need to have ideas and wouldn’t want to make it a lesser version of what we did, because I’m really proud of what we made.
The sexual harassment episode, “Ladies and Gentlemen,” is one that a lot of people will be talking about. It’s so pertinent to what’s going on today—on social media, in particular. Lena Dunham had to quit managing her own Twitter account because she was getting so much nasty stuff in her mentions.
Oh, yeah. Go on any famous woman’s Instagram and there are crazy death threats in the comments everywhere. No one is giving Drake death threats—only female celebrities get that. It’s fucked up. I don’t understand it. I don’t know how you can be that disgusting of a human being to write those things, and also, if you’re not aware that it’s happening overwhelmingly more to women than it is to men, you’re an idiot who’s detached from reality.
The seed of that episode came from a bit during my Madison Square Garden special where I’d talk about women getting followed home by creepy dudes, and I’d ask during the bit, “Raise your hands if you’re a woman and you’ve been followed home,” and everyone would raise their hand. And then all the other women would look around and go, “What the fuck?!” Then, I’d ask all the guys if they expected all the women to raise their hands, and none of them really did. They couldn’t believe it. I thought it was interesting that this is happening, yet so many people are unaware of it. And the problem is people aren’t talking about it. What I’ve learned, as a guy, is to just ask women questions and listen to what they have to say. Go to your group of female friends and ask them about times they’ve experienced sexism at their job, and you’ll get blown away by the things they tell you. You’ll think, “What the fuck? This is way darker than anything I’d imagined.”
Do you think it’s getting better when it comes to women being represented in comedy? I don’t think so! Not really. I mean, there are a handful of people, but not really. Women are half the population! Things like Scandal and Inside Amy Schumer are recent things. As far as how we like to deal with stuff on our show, I just watched what Mike Schur did on Parks where he had a very diverse writers’ room of gender and ethnicity, and I think that really helps to have a bunch of different voices and perspectives, and that’s what we did on our show. You need to have an empathetic worldview that’s open to voices other than your own.