Emmys: Aziz Ansari Talks Drawing on Personal Experience for 'Master of None'
"It was so cool to see my mom and dad saying these things and getting huge laughs," Ansari tells THR as he discusses working alongside his real-life parents and the challenges he and co-creator Alan Yang faced while filming the episode "Parents," nominated in writing and directing categories this year.
When Master of None co-creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang first brought their series to Netflix, they pitched it as a romantic comedy. Thankfully, once aware of the flexibility offered by working for the streamer, they drew outside those lines to include episodes about immigrant families — "Parents" received writing and directing noms — and the portrayal of Indians on TV. The first season, admittedly ambitious in its scope and portrayal of a diverse set of characters, was a favorite among critics and the awards set: In addition to its Emmy recognition — Ansari also was nominated for comedy lead actor — Master of None has won the Critics' Choice Award for best comedy series as well as a Peabody.
The first season ended with Ansari's character, Dev, on a plane to Italy for a life change after breaking up with girlfriend Rachel (Noel Wells). He spoke to THR about the learning curve he and Yang have been on as they prep for season two, working with his real-life parents on the show and some of his favorite episodes.
Was there something about being the boss that surprised you?
I knew it was going to be way different because Parks and Recreation was the coziest gig: I show up in this big ensemble, I'm there for a few days, a week at most. Now I'm here all the time making every decision imaginable. It all comes down to me and Alan. I'm directing, writing, everything. So I knew it was going to be a much bigger beast, and it was. But I also get to make something I'm really proud of, and that's a great deal for me.
Did you guys have trouble between doing social commentary on Master of None and being funny at the same time?
We never wanted [the show] to come off as preachy, and that was always something we tried to be conscious of. We didn't want it to feel like an after-school special. I feel good about what we did. It never comes off that way.
What's the biggest challenge of directing while acting?
I think Alan and I had such a clear vision of what the show is that directing was never super difficult because we just always kind of knew what we imagined these things to be. And so many things I pulled from my own life experience, so I know exactly what it looks like in my head; it's about bringing that to life. As we've gone on, we've gotten better and better, and by the time we did the last episode, the last block, I was able to really feel comfortable on the set. I knew the crew really well. I saw how the other directors were shooting our show on previous episodes and what the cinematic language was for how we would shoot our scenes.
What was the most challenging episode this season?
For me, the "Parents" episode was pretty difficult because it was probably our most ambitious. I was directing it. So many of the people who are acting in that episode are nonactors, and we're doing this huge India set that our incredible crew was able to pull off. There were a lot of things going on. I never felt nervous that things weren't going to turn out well, but it was hard.
Ansari with his onscreen girlfriend, Rachel, played by Wells.
And the most rewarding episode?
I would say two: First, the "Mornings" episode. Everyone talks about all the cultural stuff on the show and the diversity — and I'm obviously proud of that stuff — but I also am really proud of the episodes we did that are just of the romantic relationship, the Dev and Rachel arc. Noel Wells [Rachel] did incredible work on those episodes. "Mornings" was a year of our relationship told in just one episode — each scene is a different morning — and I think it's a really cool portrait of a long-term relationship. A lot of people have come up and told me that it really rang true to them. I was really proud that I was able to pull it off and that it worked and people responded to it the way they did. And then obviously the "Parents" episode is a very special thing. That scene where all of us are sitting around the dinner table at the Chinese restaurant was tough. I've got my parents in this scene, they never acted, it's just people talking around a meal. Sometimes you look at those scenes when you edit, and it's like, "God, this is boring, these jokes aren't landing hard enough, this is horribly slow." But that scene worked. The first time I watched it, I was like, "Holy shit." We screened all our episodes in movie theaters before the show came out to see how things were pacing out and to find out where the laughs were. When we screened that scene, it was so cool to see my mom and dad saying these things and getting huge laughs. It was surreal.
Did your dad ask for a raise now that he's become a bit of a celebrity?
Oh yeah, it's totally gone to his head. I'm just kidding. He's really thrilled. I think people really latched on to his character, and it's so funny that's how it worked out. I'm very excited for the stuff he'll do in season two.
Did people think he was a professional and not your dad?
I've talked to friends who were like, "Oh yeah, that guy who plays your dad, we're thinking about putting him in something." I was like, "That's my dad!"
In what part of the creative process are you the most critical of yourself?
Alan and I are both pretty big perfectionists. We're hard on ourselves and just wanted to make sure that we're doing the best we could. Season two is interesting. I have more experience as a director and the way I'm approaching it.
How will season two be different?
We're done writing, and we start shooting in a couple of weeks. Normally on these shows you have a pretty quick schedule, and you just go right back into writing. I was talking to Netflix, and I was like, "Honestly, we're capped." The show was so personalized, we dumped our heads into this, we just needed to be people and live our actual life. This show isn't the type of show where we're going to be able to just turn around and turn it in right away. We covered so much stuff in season one and wanted to make sure the ideas we had in season two were equally interesting and the episodes were just as ambitious. So we took a long break, and that's why season two hasn't come out yet. It won't come out until, like, April. I think the break helped us. Because the first season was so well received, I didn't want to make something that didn't feel as strong. But now that we've written the scripts, I feel really confident, and we're trying to be even more ambitious.
Seasons: 1 on Netflix
Executive producers: Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang, Michael Schur, Dave Becky, David Miner
Emmy history: 4 nominations
Unexpected plot twist: While filming in Rome, Ansari and co-star Eric Wareheim created a parody music video for Kanye West’s “Famous.” West liked it, so he made it the song’s official video.
2016 Awards: Critics’ Choice Award for best comedy series; Peabody Award; AFI Award for TV program of the year Fun fact: When asked on Reddit how similar he is to his character, Dev, Ansari wrote: “I’m gonna say it’s similar to Jimmy Smith Jr. vs. Eminem in 8 Mile.”
Master of None Co-Creator Alan Yang on the Backstory Behind Nominated Parents and Pride Episode
"That episode is so, so personal to us. I still remember it was one of the first we wrote. Aziz and I were in New York. We were up in his hotel room. I said, 'Whatever happens with this show, we shouldn't take this for granted. My dad grew up in a hut in Taiwan in a small village and didn't have enough food to eat. He had to kill his pet chicken for dinner and now we're in this nice hotel room talking about our show for Netflix. This is our job. We should be grateful.' And he was like, 'Is that a real story? We should just put that in the show.' I'm like, 'Yeah, let's think about the emotion of being the children of immigrants.' We felt we hadn't seen that story portrayed on TV the same way it applied to us. My dad texted me a description of his house growing up, a picture of it, and we had our production designer build [it]. There's a line where the character based on me says, 'Asian parents don't have the capacity to say they're proud [of their kids].' My dad watched the episode … and texted and said that he was proud of me. It was like life imitating art." — by Ashley Lee
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.