Aziz Ansari’s Master Of None has had a remarkable track record of producing episodes that stand alone as their own artistic achievements. The A.V. Club wanted to get the behind-the-scenes stories on three particularly striking ones in the second season. To discuss “Le Nozze,” an Italian jaunt about lost love, we turned to co-star and supervising producer Eric Wareheim, who plays Arnold. Co-creator Alan Yang told us about “New York, I Love You,” in which the camera leaves Dev (Ansari) and his friends to check in with New York’s other denizens. Finally, Lena Waithe broke down the episode she co-wrote, which follows a series of Thanksgivings over the course of her character Denise’s life.
Episode 2: “Le Nozze”
Let’s get this out of the way: According to Eric Wareheim, yes, his and Ansari’s trip to Italy for filming was as dreamy as it looks on screen, and, yes, they were really eating that incredible-looking food and drinking that wine.
Follow either Wareheim or Ansari on Instagram, and you’ll discover they’ve been all over the world together as buds off-screen. So to Wareheim “Le Nozze,” which follows Arnold and Dev’s Italian adventures, documents a slice of his actual bond with the series creator. “The episode’s really special to us because I really feel like it captures some of our real life friendship as well,” he says. “We were both out there talking about love and romance and dating and some of that made it into the show. It was really kind of cool time capsule of our friendship.”
Ansari was really studying pasta-making in Modena before shooting when he told Wareheim he had to come visit. “I went out there for a couple of weeks and he showed me this town and I ate some of the best pasta of my life and was very impressed that he spoke fluent Italian within like a month of being there,” Wareheim says. “And we traveled through Italy and had all these adventures and a lot of them ended up in the actual episode. For example, when we got our car stuck in that alley, that really happened.” There is evidence of the actual version of the incident on social media. Recreating the kerfuffle for the cameras wasn’t all that simple, however: “To make the car get stuck—it took a whole day to shoot that.”
The Big Bud-Little Bud trip to the Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana—run by chef Massimo Bottura, who was featured in Netflix’s Chef’s Table—was a last minute addition to the episode. It only came to be because Bottura heard that Master Of None had filmed at Hosteria Giusti, where Dev eats with an impromptu date in the premiere, and “got a little bit jealous,” as Wareheim tells it. “We were out drinking and he comes up to us and says, ‘What are you doing, why aren’t you shooting in my restaurant?’” Wareheim describes. “We were like, ‘We don’t want to bother you, you’ve got the number one restaurant in the world we didn’t want to impose on you.’ And he’s like, ‘No, tomorrow you are coming in for lunch in the private room. You are going to eat the full thing, drink real prosecco, drink real wine and we’ll shoot it.’ We were like, ‘Holy shit, this is our lives right now?’ So in the scene our expressions are real, we’re freaking out. It’s one of the greatest meals of my life that we happened to capture on film.”
In total, the Master Of None crew was in Italy for three weeks for shooting. During location scouting they would take detours to get a particular item of food. “It was a really fast shoot, but it was like a dream shooting there,” Wareheim says.
Episode 6: “New York, I Love You”
If you detect an LCD Soundsystem reference in the title of this ode to New Yorkers you aren’t off base. After all, co-creator Alan Yang, who also directed this episode, did run it by James Murphy. “Those guys in that band are friends with us, so I texted James. I was like, ‘Hey, man, we’re thinking about titling one of our episodes ‘New York, I Love You.’ What do you think of that?’” Yang says. “And James wrote back, ‘Hey, man, works for me.’”
Yang and Ansari came up with the concept for “New York, I Love You” while brainstorming ideas for the first season. “We were walking around New York. We were on St. Mark’s, and we were passing this guy who was selling sunglasses, and Aziz was like, ‘Man, I wonder what that guy’s life is like,’” Yang recalls. “It kind of stuck with us for a while, just this curiosity about all the people you walk past when you’re walking on the streets and what their lives are like. It really linked to this other idea, which is everyone is the star of their own show.” When they finally decided to pursue the idea in the second season, they did their research setting out to interview people whose lives they wanted to portray like cab drivers and doormen. Cord Jefferson, a former writer for Gawker, has a story credit on the episode and helped report it out as well. “We were like, ‘Well, maybe we should have Cord interview people since he’s an actual journalist,’” Yang says. In writing, Yang and Ansari used this material as inspiration, but the final product was also shaped by the people they cast.
For the part of cab driver Samuel, they hired first-time actor Enock Ntekereze, a refugee from Rwanda whose family is from Burundi. “The music in the montage that follows that first scene—where he’s driving all night, he has the night shift, and then he gets home in the morning—I wanted it to be music that Enock would actually listen to,” Yang says. “So I asked him to send me as many songs as possible that he liked. Some of it was Drake and stuff, and some of it was from Burundi.” Yang was taken with a particular Burundian artist and a YouTube search led him to one song he wanted to use. Ntekereze approved. “We didn’t know who owned the rights because our music clearance people couldn’t find it, so they had to write to the government of Burundi and eventually, somehow, through some finagling, our amazing music people called the Burundi government and got it cleared by paying them something or I don’t know what happened,” he explains. It made it into the show.
Master Of None is an entire series consisting of departures from a form. But “New York, I Love You” is more radical than most in that it leaves the main characters behind. Still, Yang says he and Ansari didn’t want it to look any different than any other episode. “What we ultimately settled on was, no, what we want to convey is more of a universality. We don’t want to single these people out, and be like these people are special and different. No. We’re all fucking people,” he says. “That’s part of the point of it, so the episode should in some ways look and feel in some ways like the other episodes.” However, it still diverges from the norm in one substantial way: by entirely cutting out sound for a segment focusing on a deaf bodega employee and her boyfriend. “The hope is that then you lean in and you pay more attention, suddenly you’re kind of in it more,” Yang says. “We screened that episode for a movie theater full of people and I watched that sequence of reaction where first it’s confusion, and then I think they’re more invested than ever.”
At the end of the episode everyone we’ve come into contact with ends up at a screening of a ridiculous movie called Death Castle with a twist ending involving Nicolas Cage, voiced by Andy Samberg doing his infamous impression. “That might be my favorite guest appearance,” Yang says. “Where it’s just Andy calling me in my apartment like at 11 p.m. at night and doing that over the phone.”
Episode 8: “Thanksgiving”
Fitting the second season of Master Of None into Lena Waithe’s busy schedule was “hell,” admits the writer and actress. Indeed, initially it does feel like Dev’s friend Denise has a reduced role. But then comes “Thanksgiving,” an autobiographical showcase for Waithe that charts her character’s coming out over the course of a series of Thanksgiving dinners at her home.
When Waithe went to New York to bat ideas around with the writers, Yang asked her about how she came out to her family. “I was like, ‘Look, I come from a family of women, it was just me and my mom,’” she recalls. “It was very unique experience. We were in a diner. I was really just being very specific about the experience.”
She didn’t even get back to her hotel room before Ansari called her to say they wanted to base an episode around her stories and wanted her to co-write it. She was hesitant given her own projects. “I already had a full plate,” she says, noting her other movie and TV commitments. (She’s in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One.) “I was like, ‘Are you sure? I trust y’all. I know y’all will do a great job with this.’ But he was like, ‘No, the stories you were telling, and all this and that, it was so specific. We really need your voice.’ It ended up being a huge gift for me.” The idea to frame it around the holiday came from the writers’ room; the conversations, however, were inspired Waithe’s own childhood, like the time she actually did mistake an Indian family for a black family and discussions of O.J. Simpson. “I learned a lot about race through that trial because of the conversations that were happening in my house,” Waithe says. “I can’t tell you how many times I heard my grandmother or my mom or my aunt say, ‘Oh, if he never married that white woman, this wouldn’t be happening.’ And I’m a 12-year-old girl hearing that. Even though we were having fun with it and playing with it, it really does show how, when you’re a kid, those conversations can really have an effect on you and how it helps you view the world.”
Waithe was involved in every aspect of production, from sharing photos of her childhood wardrobe to casting the kids who would play younger versions of her. But Ansari and director Melina Matsoukas—of Lemonade and Insecure fame—had the idea to get Angela Bassett to portray her mom. Waithe never thought it would actually happen. “I was like, ‘Well, call me when she passes, and I’ll start going through the list of black actresses that want to play my mom,’” she remembers. “And they were like, ‘Well, Lena, you’ve got to shoot for the stars,’ and I was like, ‘Okay, but that’s nuts. She’s not going to fricking do the show.’ And so they were, ‘Okay, we’ll see what happens.’ Aziz and Melina were feeling very confident.” They had every right to be, and when Waithe found out that Bassett had said yes she “lost [her] shit.” As for the crucial diner scene they perform together Waithe says: “My joke is always: ‘I thought it was hard coming out to my mother. It was actually harder coming out to Angela Bassett.’ That’s me just being silly. But the truth is it was sort of cathartic and validating to be reenacting a scary moment that every gay person has to go through, to redo it and to relive it, but the great thing was, Angela’s so kind and she was so generous.”
Some of Bassett’s peers make cameos too: on the wall of Denise’s bedroom, which is decorated as Waithe’s was with “every somewhat-attractive actress, singer, woman athlete that was hot at the time.” In the show, you can pick out Regina King and Karyn Parsons, both of whom are Master Of None fans. “We actually have these actual black actresses on the wall. [Bassett’s] like friends with all of them. ‘Oh, look, it’s Regina [King]! Look, it’s Vanessa! Oh, look, it’s so-and-so!’” Waithe says. “It was hilarious because when she walked in she was like, ‘Oh, shit.’”