Launched on Netflix two weeks ago, Master of None has already been become one of the most talked-about shows of the year. It’s been hailed as the show that aging Millennials have been waiting for, the show that put an end to the last acceptable ethnic cliché, a show that subverts masculinity, and a food-stuffed triumph; it’s the new Louie, the new Sex and the City. Aziz Ansari, the co-creator, co-writer and co-director of this mult-headed Hydra of amazingness, spoke to Sarmishta Subramanian about how he and his co-creator, Alan Yang, did it.
Reviews of your show have been ecstatic. People have really responded to it. Why do you think that is?
It’s making a narrative of our comedic viewpoint. Master of None is really me and Alan’s perspective, and I guess it resonated with a lot of people.
For me, as an Indian, it was like watching Indians on television for the first time. It was a revelation. Have you heard that from other people?
That was a point of the show. Me being Indian and him being Taiwanese, we could finally do an episode like “Parents” [which tells the backstory of the parents of Ansari’s character, and stars the actor’s parents] or “Indians on TV.” We were in a place that was so creatively friendly like Netflix; we also had the experience to tell a story like that, to get it right. What other show would have the impetus to do an “Indians on TV” episode? None, really.
It’s partly the specificity of it that’s ground-breaking. You never really see a Bengali or a Malayali or someone from Tamilnadu; it’s just “Indians.”
Yeah, that’s what I love. There are little things I’ve seen so many people respond to, such as my dad saying poda or ayyo or talking about pappadums, these little cultural things you haven’t really seen. Usually, it’s not an Indian person running the show, so there’s no one with that background to draw from.
Were you frustrated as a viewer by the generic way Indians are usually represented?
Yeah, that montage at the beginning of “Indians on TV” sums it up. But it’s not just Indian people—it’s everybody. The point with Master of None is: Everyone is an interesting, compelling person who goes beyond their ethnic background, their accent. We’re all three-dimensional characters.
A lot of times, characters of certain ethnicities are reduced to these two-dimensional, cardboard, stereotype roles, where their traits are very generic, and specifics of their ethnicities are painted with very broad strokes. It’s very insulting, and people don’t really get it right often. It’s pretty incredible that Ashton Kutcher did that brownface thing and didn’t get more flak for it. It’s pretty insane.
A big thematic point of Master of None is that there aren’t easy answers to these things and there don’t need to be. It’s more about having a conversation about it. A lot of the episodes were written with us in the writers’ room having long discussions about race or sexism or old people.
It’s not just a mix of races. In very subtle ways, the show also crosses age and class and sexual-orientation boundaries, but never in an over-the-top way.
That’s one of the advantages of structuring the show the way we did, as opposed to a four-piece ensemble every week. The show is really about: What’s [Ansari’s character] Dev going to find himself doing this week? And which characters can we bring in to help that story? Sometimes it’s that this episode is called “Old People,” and let’s just have him hanging out with Rachel’s grandma the whole episode and you don’t see the other friends. You probably couldn’t do that on a normal show, because they’d say you’ve got to have all the friends still there. It gets annoying, because, in real life—and people have responded to this—you don’t have lunch with the same four people every day; you don’t see the same four people every weekend. People weave in and out of your life.
The casting for the show is almost—almost—over-the-top diverse. Two Indians is too many? How about an Indian guy, a Taiwanese guy, a black lesbian—
[Laughs] It wasn’t done in this way of a United Colors of Benetton ad. It was done in a very genuine way. The Brian character is based on Alan, the co-creator of the show, so he’s a proxy for him. Denise—we had an open call for that character. We told our casting person, Alison Jones, “Let’s meet with interesting people.” I read with so many women, and Lena [Waithe] was the funniest, and it just so happened she was an African-American lesbian woman, so we totally adapted the character to her. And Wareheim—Eric Wareheim—who plays Arnold, he is a good friend of mine in real life and he’s really funny.
These are the funniest people. These are not people we chose because of their ethnicity. It also reflects my and Alan’s perspective; when I hang out with people, it is that diverse. I don’t hang out with five white people. I do have a mixture of people in my friend group. I think a lot of people do. I’ve seen a lot of people say, “It’s so cool seeing a group of friends on TV who look like my group of friends; they’re not all like models.” I’m not dissing their attractiveness or anything, but you see certain shows and you’re, like, [laughs] “Oh-kay!”
It’s funny, because networks make the market argument, and you touch on this in the series—
Yeah, the fear is—okay, let’s say the “Parents” episode. They could say, “This is a lot of you and Brian and these two old guys. It doesn’t seem like people will connect with that; we need young people.” Who knows what they’d say? I don’t know. I always operate from [the idea that] if it’s good [and] compelling, people are going to watch it. No one’s going to say, “Oh, I don’t connect with this old person.” No one’s going to say, “Oh, there’s too much Indian stuff in it.” If it’s funny and interesting, people will watch.
How did you discover the “brownface” in the movie Short Circuit 2?
I watched it as a kid and, one day, when I was in college, I thought, “Whatever happened to that Indian actor? I never saw him in anything else.” I went on the IMDB website and was like, “Oh my god, Richard Stevens?!!” It really blew me away! I had no clue. That’s pretty crazy that they did that. I would ask people if they knew that, and a lot of people really didn’t. Then later, of course I interviewed Richard Stevens.
I know you were asked to do an Indian accent yourself [for the Transformers movie], and said no. Have you done accents before?
I never really did it. Any time I was asked to do it—I can’t explain it. I hesitate to talk about it, because I never want to come off like I’m insulting people who do it, but it’s a personal thing every actor has to decide.
I just never read anything where—it was always: “Oh, this is a cab driver.” It was never: “This is the story of a cab driver who came all the way from India, and now it’s about his day-to-day struggles of trying to live his life and raise his family.” It was always: “Oh, this is a cab driver and he just spilled curry on his pants and just said, [fake accent] ‘Oh my goodness!’ ”
Even if it were a dramatic thing, I’m not sure I would. I feel like that accent has a weird history for me personally, as something that was used to make fun of Indian people, so I shy away from doing it. But it’s not about saying it’s right to do these accents, or it’s wrong. It’s about having a conversation.
Your show has a gentleness; it has real heart. It has a very different rhythm from your stand-up.
Stand-up is a totally different medium. I don’t think you could do a show that—well, I guess there are shows where they go for a faster pace and more rapid-fire dialogue similar to stand-up. But as far as our filmic references, it was stuff like old Woody Allen, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman—more conversational.
Did Netflix make this show possible in a way that wouldn’t have been elsewhere?
It would have been a nightmare to make this show on a network. A network show is just a totally different thing; it’s a 22-minute show. We film this show in a cinematic way, we use a wide-screen ratio, some episodes are a different length, we don’t have to cut for commercial breaks, there are no content issues, we can say or do anything, we can cast whomever we want.
It’s a different thing. Netflix is definitely the place to go if you want that level of creative freedom. I’m not s–tting on people who do network shows. I know how it is. I hear stories from friends about stuff they have to battle for. For me and Alan to write something that we’re really excited about is very hard. To do that and then have other people tear it down just seems like a hellish experience.
I wonder if there will be a Master of None effect in television. Now that you’ve raised these questions . . .
A: That would be incredible. My point in talking about all this stuff is to basically say, when you’re casting something, an Asian lady shouldn’t only be looked at when you’re casting a nail-salon person. There are so many interesting characters that have never been explored before. I’m watching Fargo, and there’s this Native American guy who’s part of a Mafia family. And they cast a black guy to play the Mike Milligan part—and that was probably a white guy, right?—and he’s really great. It just shows you all this s–t doesn’t matter. If we just push ourselves to think beyond the standard tropes, we can pitch stuff that’s interesting creatively, and that people really respond to.
And do it in a way that doesn’t view ethnic groups as a market to be tapped. Because there have been attempts to do that, and they’ve generally fallen flat.
That’s a funny observation, where it’s: How do we get Indian people? Oh, let’s do a show about a million Indian people! No, we can do a show with, like, two Indian people, and it’s fine. No one watches a show because they’re like, “I like the ethnicities on that show!” No, they watch the show because that show’s funny, that’s show’s good, it’s interesting! That was the goal with Master of None.
There was one time when we were shooting a scene with all of us there, and I went over to Alan and I said, “This is kind of crazy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this scene before, where there’s an Indian guy talking to an Asian guy, and a black lesbian, and a white guy.”
There is a world where they’re not as open-minded and they’re doing the casting for the female friend, and they might be like, “Ahhh . . . this woman’s funny, but the character is not written as an African-American lesbian woman, and we already have storylines about her going out with a guy.” Or you could say, “Oh, s–t, this person’s hilarious, let’s change everything and make it work for her!”
Is that what you did? You retooled the character?
Yeah. Lena basically helped us change the character, and we wrote it just for her. We wrote every character to the actor. That’s what they did on Parks and Recreation, and that’s what they did on The Office, the U.S. one. That’s a trick Alan and I learned from [executive producers on those shows] Mike Shur and Greg Daniels. The way to get three-dimensional characters is to base them somewhat on the real people, because the real people are three-dimensional characters.
People have talked so much about the relationship between me and Rachel, and I’ve sat with [costar] Noël Wells and we just dumped our heads out. We took a lot of stuff from our own lives, our own relationships. It all felt real, because it’s coming from a real place.
Why has the “Parents” episode struck such a huge chord?
A: It’s a story that millions and millions of people can relate to, and it’s never been told in this way. It’s one of these things that so many people have an experience like that. They have parents who went through some sort of journey like that, and it hits a chord. Even if you don’t have immigrant parents, everyone can relate to the idea of being an ungrateful kid! That’s everyone: everyone who has parents who did good by them.