'Master of None' Co-Creator on Finding Comedy in Racism, Breaking Stereotypes

Alan Yang talks with THR about working with star/co-creator Aziz Ansari and changing the way Asians are portrayed on the small screen.
Courtesy of Netflix

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Netflix's Master of None.]

If anyone was worried that Aziz Ansari wasn't ready to transition from supporting actor on NBC's Parks and Recreation to running things on his own show, it's safe to say that Netflix comedy Master of None has put those fears to rest.

The series, which bowed Nov. 6, follows the life and career of Dev (Ansari) as he navigates modern dating and life as an Indian actor in New York. Ansari, however, isn't going it alone: Alan Yang, who wrote and executive produced Parks, co-created the show with him. (Parks showrunner Mike Schur also serves as an EP.)

Master of None has been heralded for its take on diversity issues in pop culture, as well as its efforts to portray the lives of people not often seen on TV. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Yang to discuss how to preach without being preachy as the series takes on such issues as aging, diversity on TV, parents and more.

 

How did the show change as you developed it?

We thought it might be more of a dating/relationship show. We thought it might just be about that aspect. It became much richer and more interesting once we opened it up to other topics. We just realized we didn't want to pen ourselves into that. I think the balance is really good. We never want to be preachy or be scolds in the episodes, but I think a show where every episode is a social issue might be a little exhausting and a show where every episode is about relationships might not be quite as unique.

How much is Dev's friend Brian (Kelvin Yu) based on you?

A lot of it is based on my experience. Certainly his relationship with his dad is very much based on my relationship with my dad. So much of what Peter Chang (Clem Cheung) in the show says is stuff my dad has said. He's always emailing me links from the Economist that say that the world is going to end, so that's all real. And he's a positive, upbeat guy, which is how I am, so there's definitely aspects of me in there. Kelvin Yu is a really great writer, too, and he brought his own perspective, and he has a couple details that are kind of lifted from his life. So maybe it's a composite.

Is the dating side of it true to you as well? Have you ever texted someone a question mark like Dev does?

Yeah, I think I have. [Laughs.] This is going to make me sound bad, but in the "Hot Ticket" [episode] where Brian says to just text a bunch of girls and whoever answers gets to go, there was a period in my life where I was doing that. But I don't do that anymore! But when you're young and single and you've got a cool event ... it's probably not the most humane thing to do. It's probably a bad thing. But I have done that before so we put it in the show. The characters can't be perfect. They have to do some bad things too.

Not a lot of shows have an Asian man who's quite that confident with women. Was that a conscious effort to upend that stereotype?

We were conscious of that. Because growing up as an Asian kid, I never saw Asian men on TV, and if I did, they certainly weren't going out with any women. I had this conversation in college with my friend who was African American and he was always complaining about how African American people needed better representation in pop culture, which I totally agreed with, but at the same time I said, "well, have you ever seen an Asian man kiss someone in a movie?" And we just couldn't think of it at the time. This is a few years ago, but we just couldn't think of it. Even that movie, Romeo Must Die, where I believe it's Jet Li starring in it — I think they rewrote the ending so he doesn't kiss the girl. I think I literally read that. Maybe that's an urban legend, but I read that happened and I believe it, because there's a strong history of desexualizing Asian men in TV and movies, and so we just thought it would be good.

 

The "Indians on TV" episode has gotten a lot of attention. How did you decide how to tell that story in terms of breaking down what was going to happen to Dev [who refuses to do an Indian accent in order to get a role]?

There were a number of reasons that that that episode was very difficult to break a story for. The subject matter was fascinating to us, because that's something that is very personal to us. It comes from personal experiences that Aziz has had, and it comes from experiences that I've had in the writers' room. It's tricky territory because you don't want to paint the executives in the story as complete racists or clueless, because they're not. In real life, when you meet these executives, they're good people. They're not trying to necessarily be discriminatory for the sake of being discriminatory. They're trying to run a business. And so we wanted to make sure that the perspective of the executive wasn't cartoonishly racist, but at the same time, point out that because these networks are so risk averse, they're not even trying to take a risk in terms of diversity.

How carefully did you guys calibrate that "curry favor" line?

Believe me, we had tons of discussions. The very early versions of the draft didn't have any racist jokes in them. They just had the person say, "Oh, they're good, but there can't be two [Indian actors on one show]." And we thought that even that would be enough, because by itself, that's not necessarily super offensive. But as a minority actor, it just kind of sucks to read that. But then we realized that to give the episode a little more juice and to put Dev in a little bit of a trickier situation, it would be better if there were something to set him off a little more and motivate him more.

How did you end up picking Busta Rhymes as the more established famous minority person to advise Dev in that episode?

Oh my God, he was so good. We thought it would be funny if it were an established rapper, just him dropping his wisdom on Dev, who clearly is just a commercial actor and doesn't have the status that this guy has. We were like, "Who would be at a Knicks game? Who's kind of a New York rapper?" And we hit on Busta's name and we called him and he was so funny. He came in so well-prepared. I tried to give him his lines for the day when he came in and he said he didn't need them, he was off book, and he really was. He just had everything memorized. He has a great line at the end of the scene, after he says, "Charge it to the race card," which is a great line that Aziz's brother Aniz wrote. He says, "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go f— with some of that shrimp," and that was just Busta improvising.

Master of None is now streaming on Netflix.

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