“I do think we need more shows with protagonists that aren’t straight white guys,” says Aziz Ansari — the Indian-American stand-up comedian and best-selling author who co-created, with Alan Yang, writes and stars in the acclaimed Netflix comedy series Master of None — as we sit down at New York’s iconic Empire Hotel to record an episode of the Awards Chatter podcast. “Being a minority that’s running a show, I feel an obligation to look out for all minorities — not just Asian people, but everybody — because every person has their version of the cabdriver thing.”
Over the course of our conversation, Ansari talks about growing up as a first-generation American in South Carolina; his attraction to and evolution in the world of comedy (“I’ve always enjoyed making people laugh”); and how making short films with a sketch group led to a show with MTV and also his first acting opportunities, at which point he found he often was asked to portray “very aggressive, stereotypical Indian stuff” (he refused to do accents, losing major roles because, he says, he “didn’t want to get pigeonholed”) and had little room for growth (“They make new white movie stars all the time, but they never bother to try to do that with other people”).
His big break came when he was cast on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, a comedy series from the makers of The Office, which provided him with a plum part — and an introduction to Yang, a writer on the show and a fellow single young foodie with whom he bonded. “It ended up being a great gig,” says Ansari, even though “every year we thought Parks was gonna get canceled.” In anticipation of that outcome, which eventually came in 2015, he did other things on the side — including stand-up (he eventually sold out Madison Square Garden for a Netflix special) and, with Yang, writing ideas for a 10-episode narrative show based on his stand-up, which Netflix eventually ordered straight to series.
Master of None, which looks more like an independent film than a TV series (indie standouts James Ponsoldt and Lynn Shelton each directed several episodes), features Ansari as “Dev” and presents stories about modern romance (his main love interest is played memorably by Noel Wells, and his partner in a one-episode fling is a terrific Claire Danes), entertainment-industry bias (featuring standout work by Ansari’s friend Ravi Patel) and, perhaps most memorably, the parents of first-generation Americans (in which Ansari’s parents, Dr. Shoukath Ansari and Fatima Ansari, play Dev’s parents).
Ansari becomes emotional when speaking about Harris Wittels, his longtime friend who worked in the writers room for Master of None‘s first season before dying of an accidental drug overdose in February 2015. (“He was the best. … I think about him every day. It’s hard.”) He addresses flack that he has taken for giving Dev only white love interests. (“It kind of hurts me. … We’re gonna do something about that in season two.”) And he says that, like Larry David and Louis C.K. with their HBO and FX shows, respectively, he will not rush his to meet deadlines — but does anticipate that season two will hit Netflix in April 2017.