Few comedians have had years that compare to Aziz Ansari’s 2015. In February, his time as Parks And Recreation’s Tom Haverford came to an end, concluding seven seasons of serving the people of Pawnee, Indiana (and treating himself to apps, ’serts, and Snake Juice). The following month, Netflix debuted Aziz Ansari: Live At Madison Square Garden, an hour-long special culled from Ansari’s sold-out stand at the New York City arena. Live At Madison Square Garden’s material about love, dating, and technology in the 2010s overlapped with Modern Romance, Ansari’s authorial debut alongside sociologist Eric Klinenberg, which was published in June.
Between all that activity, he managed to produce another Netflix project, co-creating Master Of None with fellow Parks And Rec alumnus Alan Yang. The series is a departure from the rapid-fire, mockumentary style of Parks, a loosely autobiographical comedy inspired by its creators’ lives and influenced by the spontaneous, conversational feel of 1970s cinema. Ansari stars as Dev, a New York actor skating by on commercial gigs and bit parts, who’s more apt to talk through major life choices—with friends (Eric Wareheim, Ravi Patel, Lena Waithe, and Kelvin Yu), with romantic interest Rachel (Noël Wells), with his parents (Ansari’s mother and father, Fatima and Shoukath Ansari)—than actually make one. Prior to the premiere of Master Of None’s first 10 episodes, Ansari spoke to The A.V. Club about the show’s origins, how his real-life parents fared as his TV parents, and the benefits of asking questions and genuinely listening to the responses.
AVC: How do you watch streaming shows? Are you a binger, or do you take it one episode at a time?
AA: I tend to space them out, but sometimes I’ll do a binge, too. It kind of depends. I haven’t really watched much recently, though. I’ve been watching those new Fargo episodes, but those you can’t binge those because it’s once a week. I watch Nathan For You, but that’s once a week, too. All the shows I watch now are once-a-week type jams, so I haven’t been able to binge any of them.
AVC: What do you think is the ideal method of watching Master Of None?
AA: I think you can do it either way. I think each episode works as a separate piece, but there’s an overarching story as well. I think what we learned doing the show, Alan and I, with the writing is we treated the show the way I treat stand-up, where every episode is a rumination on a certain topic. If we treat it that way, we make these episodes that work really well as modular pieces, but we kept the stories going so it works as a narrative for all 10 episodes. But if you watch some of the later episodes—like this episode called “Old People” about my relationship with the elderly, or “Ladies And Gentlemen” about my relationship with women and women’s issues, or episode nine is about long-term relationships and our thoughts on that kind of stuff—those episodes are modular in a way, but they do relate to the overall story. So if you binge them, you get it, if you watch them individually spaced out, you still get it.
AVC: When it came to breaking the stories for the season, did you approach it on a topic-by-topic basis? Every episode has such a strong theme, it seems like you and Alan might have sat down and said, “Here are the 10 things we most want to address.”
AA: A lot of episodes we did approach that way. For example, in “Parents,” Alan and I talked a lot about our parents and their stories of immigrating to America, and we thought that was an episode that would be interesting to see—a whole episode about the immigrant experience and these kids’ relationships with their parents.
A lot of it is, “How do we tell a story with this character that lets us talk about our ideas related to it?” How can we explore these stories through Dev? And what kind of situation can we put him in where he ruminates on these things? In other episodes, like ‘Nashville,’ that was just a funny idea: Do a whole episode in Nashville and that’s like [Dev and Rachel’s] date, and what that would be like. And that episode has a different tone than others.
AVC: “Nashville” definitely stands out. There are so many filmmaking inspirations at play in Master Of None, and that one feels like a mini-Richard Linklater movie.
AA: You’re pretty dead on. [Linklater] has been a huge influence on me, and he has been for a few years. Before Sunset, in particular—I love that movie, and I was trying to figure out how to make the dialogue in Master Of None feel conversational and natural. A lot of times you watch these comedies and you can just tell people are improvising, or you can tell it doesn’t feel like a real conversation. You can feel like, “These people are a little bit too funny, or they thought of that too fast.” It just doesn’t feel natural, right?
So the trick is “How do you make stuff funny, but still make it feel natural?” Then I was trying to think of “What dialogue have I heard that sounds really natural?”, and to me, it was that Linklater stuff. That feels so real. So I looked into what he does, and one thing is he does a ton of rehearsals and he works with the actors to craft the dialogue. So I did that with my cast. Alan and I would write stuff, but we also spent a ton of time rehearsing with the cast. So I would take Noël [Wells] and I would give her a prompt and say something like, “Okay, we’re at this barbecue place, and you’re a vegetarian. Let’s do the scene like that.” And I would record it on my phone and we’d improvise for a while and play it very real, and we would land on funny things, and I would play it back and use that to craft the script a little bit.
A lot of comedy is like, “joke, joke, joke, joke, joke,” and this kind of breathes a little more and it’s closer to, not only Before Sunset, but also ’70s comedies like Woody Allen stuff, Hal Ashby stuff, The Heartbreak Kid—Elaine May’s version. Those were all reference points as well. We wanted the show to feel closer in tone to that stuff—there weren’t as many current influences.
I think one thing people are wary of when they hear a comedian has their own show is like “Oh, is this going to be him standing there talking to people and saying lines from his stand-up?” And that was a thing we worked very hard to fight against.
AVC: How did that relate to what you wanted to get out of the direction of the show? Especially with Eric Wareheim’s episodes, it feels like the show gets that space to breathe—it’s a natural, unobtrusive style of direction.
AA: We needed a director for the first two episodes, and we hit the jackpot with Mr. James Ponsoldt, who’d done The Spectacular Now. We just sat down with him and told him our ideas for the show: Shooting it more like that older stuff and making the show feel more filmic. And he’s a big film nerd and knows everything. [Laughs.] He was like, “Oh, I know how we can do this…” So he helped us craft that feel and we got into it more and more as we continued the series. And our other directors—Wareheim, he was great, he ended up doing four episodes; Lynn Shelton did two, and then I did the last two—by the end we knew how to shoot our show. “Oh, these are the kinds of shots we do in our show to cover these kinds of scenes.” We just had a style at that point.
Alan and I didn’t want the show to be so cut-y. Sometimes I’d watch Parks and it’s so fast-paced. It’s a 22-minute show and you have to edit for commercials and sometimes they’d have chunks of the show that are like eight-and-half minutes long, and it’d be like “We have a commercial at eight minutes. So we have to take 30 seconds out.” And on those shows, you have to do weird things sometimes: We had to cut out jokes we liked, you have to suck out air in between what people are saying. I think I even read one time that NBC speeds up shows so they can squeeze in more commercials. So things were very fast—and definitely that is the trend, right? To make things fast, and it’s a lot of singles, and it goes from person to person, and it ping-pongs back and forth. We really made an effort to make our show have a totally different feel [from that].
AVC: What inspired you to cast your mom and dad as Dev’s mom and dad?
AA: I write characters that are based on elements of people I know and experiences I’ve really had. So these parents characters, it was important to me to craft them and make them feel real and not like caricatures. Because a lot of times when you see these immigrant parents depicted on television, they’re very broad and they’re crazy and they’re not real. They don’t feel like three-dimensional people—they feel like a vehicle for ethnic stereotype jokes. So I wanted these people to feel three-dimensional and real—who better to base them on than my parents, who I know better than any old Indian people?
My dad is very funny. He has a very particular sense of humor and way about himself, as does my mom. So I wrote these characters in their voices. And when we auditioned people, no one really felt like them and didn’t really seem to get it—the timing and things like that. I talked to Alan, and Alan knows my dad and knows how silly he is, and he’s like, “Yeah, your dad’s really funny. I don’t know if he can act, but I think we can get it out of him.” We tested the waters out a little bit, because it’s definitely not a cameo. The dad is in a few episodes, and there are some scenes where it’s a little bit of heavy lifting, acting-wise. He auditioned and he did pretty good, so we were like, “Let’s just use him.” And he ended up being very good. He has unique comedy instincts and just makes choices that you did not expect—no one made the crew break more than my dad. And I think part of it is that he’s not so influenced by all the senses of humor that comedic actors normally have.
This is the thing people have asked me about a lot in interviews. I think there was something where I was quoted saying, “There’s not enough Indian actors and we had to use my parents.” That’s true in a sense: There wasn’t a ton of older Indian people that auditioned for the role, but I also want to give credit to my parents because they were really great. When you’re faced with the challenge of trying to capture this voice, the idea of, “Why don’t I use them and see if they can do it?”—and they were—was really the clincher. They really were able to perform these characters in a way that made them feel well-rounded and not broad. It didn’t feel like an American actor pretending to be an Indian person, if that makes sense.
AVC: How would you describe your parents as scene partners? Were they generous actors?
AA: [Laughs.] They were great. I think the big surprise for them is how long it takes to shoot these things. It’s not a quick process. At the end of “Parents,” you have that big dinner scene—you have to shoot a bunch of different angles of coverage to get the scene. So you have to shoot all these different camera angles and all these different eye lines, and it took a whole day to shoot that scene. It was one of the longest days, and my parents were like, “Seriously, we’re doing it again?” They would often get frustrated by that kind of stuff.
It’s been great seeing people watch the show and compliment their performances. I remember when we first screened that episode, and to see my dad get such huge laughs from his stuff—and my mom get laughs in her scenes—it was pretty crazy to see them killing.
AVC: Let’s talk about the romance between Dev and Rachel. It’s hard not to root for them, even as Master Of None shows that maybe these two people shouldn’t be together—it’s a very honest way to look at that type of relationship.
AA: We decided early on, “Let’s deal with them being in a relationship.” Let’s talk about that—because I haven’t done that as much in my career, most of my stuff has been about being single, when I’ve talked about that stuff. But I have been in a relationship for a couple of years now, so I have a lot of observations and insights that I wanted to deal with in that area. So you look at episode nine, that whole episode is like if I did a whole stand-up special about being in a long-term relationship. But I never did that, so this episode takes what I would have done with my stand-up and puts it into a narrative form. I think what people expected from me at this point was some sort of dating show—and I did not want to do a dating show and I don’t think Master Of None is a dating show at all. I think there’s some references to that kind of stuff, but just as much as any other kind of show would have to deal with love and relationships.
We were trying to show, like you said, a more honest version, and I think that goes back to the ’70s films. Back then, the movies didn’t always end with the characters getting back together, and it didn’t end with them being in a happy relationship and hugging and then it goes to credits. Now, I feel like that’s all that happens; the relationship works out and you see them really happy. And anyone who has ever been in a real relationship knows that’s not always the case. Relationships are hard, especially when you’ve been in them for a while. Things get very complicated and sticky, so we wanted to show these characters going through that stuff and show it getting messy and hard. That feels more real and more relatable to me. I know more people that are frustrated and confused than purely happy [Laughs.] and just not dealing with any issues.
The end of Shampoo is one of my favorites because that ends with Warren Beatty, deciding, “Oh, I’m going to be with this woman” and then she’s like, “No, I’m marrying this other guy now” and he’s like, “Oh, okay,” and he’s just left standing there confused and it goes to credits. To me, that’s fantastic. I relate to that. And that’s what I told Alan early on: That’s the moment I want this guy to be in all the time. [Laughs.] That moment of “I thought I had everything figured out. No, I didn’t.” That was something we pointed to a lot for how we wanted relationships to be depicted in the show, to be more living in that messiness and that realness rather than just tying everything up in a bow.
AVC: Is there anything you feel like you couldn’t have written without the knowledge you acquired from researching and writing Modern Romance?
AA: The episode called “The Other Man” was helped out by all the conversations about cheating I had when I was writing the book. “Old People”—that was weirdly influenced by the book because I spent a lot of time when I was writing the book talking to older people in retirement homes, and that’s where I told Alan, “I think we should do an episode about old people.” And he really responded to that idea, too, and it really helped us craft [the grandmother character] in “Old People.” Alan and I went and had lunch with these older Italian women one day and learned about their lives and what it was like growing up in New York, trying to have the same kind of conversations that my character has with Grandma Carol.
That was something I’d learned from the book: How much you learn from talking to people and learning about their experiences, and that’s how you get these stories and this dialogue and these characters right. Because otherwise, if I’m trying to write this Carol character without ever speaking to these people, I don’t think it would’ve been right. When we sent this episode to Lynn Cohen, who played Grandma Carol, she was blown away. She was like, “Whoa. I’ve never read something written for me that’s not just silly grandma humor where it’s about making fun of the old person—they’re getting hurt or rapping. Who wrote this?” And I was like, “Me and Alan.” And she was like, “How did you do it?” and I told her we spent a lot of time talking to people to get it right. That’s kind of the theme of the show overall: Instead of yelling your opinion, or telling people to shut up, or engaging in this clickbait-internet culture, have a dialogue with someone and ask people questions and listen to what they have to say.
AVC: Were Claire Danes and Noah Emmerich the first choices for the roles they play in “The Other Man”?
AA: We were casting that and we thought, “Who is someone that you think is interesting that you haven’t seen do comedy?” Because sometimes you see a lot of the same people and we were pushing ourselves to come up with somebody you hadn’t seen before. And I knew Claire a little bit personally, and she hadn’t done any comedy stuff really. So I reached out to her and sent her the stuff and she was like, “This is really funny, do you think I could do it?” I was like, “You’re an amazing actress; of course you can do it” and she was fantastic.
And I think Noah Emmerich is so good on The Americans. I find him to be a very compelling actor and a compelling screen presence so we thought of him for this other part. It was so fun because that guy he plays on The Americans is a very warm guy and in this he’s such a dick and he was just killing me. That scene in the ice cream store where he goes, “Give me whatever that fudge ball is having!” then just throws the ice cream away—he was great. I think he had a lot of fun doing comedy and I don’t think he’d done much comedy in that tone.
AVC: From a TV-geek standpoint, it’s just fun to see the interdepartmental cooperation between the fictional CIA and the fictional FBI.
AA: Yeah, there’s a lot of nice stuff for TV nerds. It’s also weird because I didn’t realize that [Danes’] character’s name is Nina—I didn’t catch that ’til afterward. I should have named her something else, but it worked out okay.
AVC: One other reference point in Master Of None that makes a lasting impression is the fig-tree excerpt from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which Dev reads in the final episode. When did you come across that passage, and what made you want to integrate it into the show?
AA: That was Alan—he found that passage in The Bell Jar and was like, “Whoa, this really applies to the show and to a lot of stuff that we’re talking about.” And I had just been obsessed with this notion of The Paradox Of Choice, this Barry Schwartz book where it talks about how when you have so many options, it’s harder to make a choice. The instinct is that when you have more options in your life, it’s better. But in actuality, it’s harder to make a decision and when you do make the decision, you’re often left unsatisfied because you’re worried you picked the wrong thing. So that’s another theme of the show overall, is this idea of options. The theory is in that taco scene at the beginning of episode 10. That’s what this guy is afraid of: He’s going to find the best taco and he does all this research and then he gets there and the tacos are gone because it’s closed and he wasted all this time. That scene is a silly, weird version of The Bell Jar, right? And Alan just had this great idea where he sent me that passage and I was like, “Oh my God, that’s perfect.”
That episode was interesting: That wedding scene at the beginning was based on a wedding I went to where these people did these vows that were very moving. They just seemed like a couple that was genuinely very, very happy and very much in love. After the wedding, a few couples [that attended] broke up, and one of those people that was actually at the wedding was our music supervisor. And I told him about this, and he was like, “Oh my God, that’s crazy that you’re putting that in.” And whenever I watched the episode, there’s a song that’s playing when Dev is reading—it’s The Durutti Column or something like that. And I was like, “What is that song? It fits really well,” and he said, “Well, that’s a song I listened to a bunch after that wedding when I had that breakup and everything.” And I was like, “Oh, shit!” and he was like, “I went real method with the music direction.” So that’s how that scene kind of came together from all those angles.
AVC: As an honest, personal choice, it’s fitting for this show. It’s not just you and Alan: A lot of different people left their impressions on this project.
AA: Yeah, for sure. That was always the moment that I felt really excited about, when we were on set and we’d be doing scenes and multiple people would come up to me and be like, “Oh my God, this feels so real to me.” This was one of the weirdest scenes to shoot, but in the “Mornings” episode. when you see that montage of us having sex and how it starts off, it’s very exciting, and she’s like, “Oh, you wanna fuck me on that chair?”—and then a couple of months later, going to the chair has become going through the motions. We were doing that scene and a few of the crew came up to me and were like, “This is exactly how it feels in real life.” It all goes back to this other idea—and I don’t know whose quote this is—but it’s the idea that the most personal ends up being the most universal, and I’ve found that to be true in stand-up and in the show as well.