Aziz Ansari’s Master of None might be the kindest comedy of the year, with its thoughtful, nuanced takes on modern romance, the intricacies of text etiquette, and living and loving in New York. And it’s funny as hell, to be sure. But this paean to decency from co-creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang has urgently important things to say, too: about race, feminism, the first-generation immigrant experience and television itself.
No wonder then that the Netflix hit racked up four Emmy nominations in its first year, for Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Writing, and Outstanding Directing and Acting for Ansari. It’s earned praise for its realistically diverse cast—one that actually looks like a normal group of friends in present-day Brooklyn—and for its naturalistic, cinematic feel, ably capturing both the sweetly heightened pangs of early romance and the thrills and frustrations of long-term love.
Ansari stars as Dev, a struggling actor whose claim to fame is a well-liked Go-Gurt commercial. The son of two Muslim immigrant parents (played in the show by Ansari’s real-life parents, Shoukath and Fatima Ansari), Dev approaches the perks and indignities of adulthood with bright, open-minded curiosity, doubt, self-awareness, and an inborn desire to do the right thing, whether it’s accompanying a hookup on a last-minute Plan B pill run or staging a vigilante arrest on a subway masturbator.
Of course, because this is Master of None, even that subway masturbator gets a small moment of pathos: Pained, he asks Dev and his friend Denise what they would do if they were into doing something frowned upon in public. But it’s the episode “Parents,” which Ansari submitted for writing, directing, and acting for this year’s Emmys, that most poignantly evokes the simplest of the show’s imperatives: showcasing basic human empathy.
In the episode, Dev and his friend Brian realize that for all the inconceivable sacrifices their parents made for them in leaving their homes and moving to America, neither ever really bothers to connect with their parents as people, much less show sincere gratitude. Ansari and Yang pull from their parents’ real-life biographies (including a heart-wrenching and hilarious story about beheading a pet chicken) to humanize the easiest figures in our lives to take for granted: the ones who raised us.
The Daily Beast talked to Ansari during a production break from the show’s Season 2 shoot in Italy (Dev was last seen post-breakup jetting off to pasta school) to talk about his four Emmy nominations, his parents, and maintaining hope in the age of Trump.
More than a few Master of None episodes are essentially about empathy: for old people, for parents, for women, for people underrepresented in TV.
That was definitely a big theme, yes.
Why do you think that became a hallmark of the show?
I guess for me and Alan [Yang], that’s part of our own values. I think our idea is basically that everyone’s life is very interesting and has unique struggles and conundrums and that’s what makes us all unique and amazing. But at the same time, there’s a universality to all of these experiences that I think is also really interesting. Those are the two things the show is about, in a way.
“Parents” is the episode you submitted for acting, writing, and directing, and I know it’s a very personal story for you. I can’t tell you how strange and wonderful it was to see the experience of being a first-generation immigrant reflected on TV with such specificity.
Yes, I mean with that episode, even people who don’t have immigrant parents grabbed onto this idea that “Wow, my parents made a lot of sacrifices for me” and at the core that’s what the story is about. Realizing you’re not gonna be able to repay that back to them, you know? It’s crazy how many people have come up to us like, “My dad had to kill his pet chicken too!” Things like that. Those are all my and Alan’s parents’ stories and that episode is basically a love letter of sorts to our parents.
What was it like for you and Alan to hash out those feelings and ideas for the show?
Well, you know what’s interesting is it’s a little bit like art imitating life or whatever. My parents, after that episode came out, I definitely noticed they said, “Oh, we’re really proud of you” a lot more. And I definitely have made more of an effort in my life to kind of be closer to them and spend more time with them. I posted this long thing about how my dad, after the show came out, told me that he took time off and used all his vacation to film the show. And he was like, “I liked acting and everything, but I really just wanted to spend more time with you.” And I was like (mock-sobbing), “Ohhh, my god! I’m the worst person ever!” (Laughs) ’Cause he’ll be like, “Why don’t you guys come to visit?” And I’ll be like, “I can’t, I’m in New York. You come here!” Hopefully if you’re lucky enough to have nice parents, I feel like you never fully realize how much they really love you and how much they’ve really done for you.
It was kind of the same experience watching “Mornings,” when Dev tells Rachel that he hasn’t told his parents about her despite them dating for over a year. And when she asks why, he just says, “It’s a cultural thing.”
That’s definitely a thing that a lot of people with immigrant parents have told me, “Dude, I’ve been in that same situation.” Or, “My boyfriend or girlfriend has been in that situation, I can’t believe you showed that.” That’s the kind of stuff I get excited about. That “Mornings” episode is one of my favorite ones we did. I really wanted to do something that was like a cool portrait of a modern-day, long-term relationship and we did it in one episode. We showed a year of a relationship and how it progresses. When I talk to people about that, it’s cool to hear them be like, “Dude, that’s what it is! It’s so hard and interesting and weird.”
Your dad was so great and so funny on the show last season. I assume he’ll be in Season Two as well?
Yeah, he’ll be in there. I’ll say that much. He’ll be in there, of course. (Laughs) He was pitching stories for Season Two before we even finished Season One. One of ’em made it in there, pretty much the way he told it to me.
So in addition to best comedy, best lead actor, and best writing, you also scored a nomination for your directing debut in “Parents.” Did that one come as a surprise?
That’s very flattering because it was the first time I had directed and I’d always wanted to direct. I think what’s helpful is that since I’m so involved and everything, I knew exactly what I imagined it to be in my head. I’m filming things that happened to me in my childhood, so of course it’s very clear to me how I imagined it looking. It was just so fun for me to direct and now I’m doing it again this season and it’s been something that I’m really having a lot of fun with. And to get nominated for that, it’s pretty crazy. It’s cool. I’m glad I got it. (Laughs.)
Master of None, along with shows like Mr. Robot and The Night Of, are leading a wave that is sort of redefining the way Middle Eastern and South Asian men are seen on TV.
Or just anybody, man. It’s like, anyone can be a protagonist of any story, you know? Whenever someone wants to meet up with me if I’m filming somewhere, they’ll be like, “What are you doing in town?” and I’ll be like “I’m working on this thing” and they’ll be like, “Oh, what do you do? Do you, like, hold the lights or hold the camera or something?” They’re never like, “Oh, you’re the leading man, right?” And that’s just what people’s perceptions are. But I think Master of None kind of shows that’s not the way it has to be. Anyone can be the protagonist of these stories and have an interesting perspective. It’s not just me—it can be anybody, as long as they have a good script and an interesting perspective.
The Emmys comedy category this year is also more diverse than it’s been in decades thanks to this show and black-ish. How gratifying has that been to see happening?
It’s great. Between our show, black-ish, and going to these things and seeing the guys from Mr. Robot and just seeing all these perspectives being represented, it’s cool. It wasn’t like that all the time. With the explosion in the pure amount of television there is, what’s cool is that you have more opportunity for people to show their voices and have the creative freedom to do so properly. I think what’s cool about Master of None is Netflix is so trusting. I think on another platform in another time, someone might have seen the episode “Parents,” for instance, and been like, “This is too specific, a mainstream audience isn’t gonna get it”—with that just meaning that white people aren’t gonna get it. Netflix really believes in us and trusts us and I think after the first season we’re gonna be able to do that again with the season we’re doing now.
You wrote a piece for The New York Times earlier this year about how Donald Trump’s rhetoric makes you scared for your parents, who are Muslim. How did you find that piece resonated? And how do keep up hope amid his constant onslaught of hate?
You know, I put out that article and I thought like, “Maybe this will resonate with other brown people.” But it ended up being like the most-emailed, most-viewed article on the site for a couple of days. People come up to me of all different races, all different religions like, “That’s really cool that you wrote that. I really liked that article.”
I think with Trump, that’s just ultimately how he treats everyone that isn’t someone who looks like him. (Laughs) Blaming them for something, misrepresenting them, making them some sort of strange character that they’re not, not giving them the depth that he would give other white people. I think that’s what people responded to. And what gives me hope is that I think sometimes the people that are more negative, kind of troll-y type people, they’re very loud, but I think they’re a loud minority. It’s a strange juxtaposition, but I think there are still plenty of good people. I have hope.