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This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If Aziz Ansari’s 2015 evolution from supporting player to multihyphenate leading man was years in the making, he’s not saying. The 32-year-old comedian, who gained notoriety as the charmingly shallow Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, followed the February end of the beloved NBC sitcom with a blockbuster Netflix comedy special, a satirical self-help book and, now, a critically celebrated half-hour comedy of his own making: Netflix’s Master of None.
“It wasn’t any kind of coordinated thing,” says Ansari, who is prone to laugh at his own successes. “The book, the special and the series … it just kind of worked out that they all fell into place this year.”
The symphony and sequence of Ansari’s efforts should not be undervalued. First, Parks and Recreation‘s final season went out on a critical and ratings high — earning the series its first Emmy nomination for outstanding comedy in four years. Ansari’s immediate follow-up, the Netflix special Live at Madison Square Garden, cemented his entry into the elite fraternity of comedians who have headlined the venue (with two 10,000-strong crowds). And, while still working on Master of None, Ansari released his and co-author Eric Klinenberg’s Modern Romance. The treatise on dating in the Tinder era has been a fixture on The New York Times best-seller list since June. His research for Modern Romance ended up informing Master of None in an unexpected way, inspiring him to take a more journalistic approach to his screenwriting.
“We interviewed so many people when we were doing the book,” explains Ansari. “It really helped inform the way I thought about a lot of ideas. Like, when we wrote the episode ‘Old People,’ I told [co-creator] Alan [Yang] that we should just go spend some time with women who live in retirement homes. If we tried to write those characters the way we thought they were, we would have gotten them so wrong. So that’s what we did.”
Verisimilitude like that, combined with the show’s unique sense of humor and noticeably diverse casting — Ansari launched it with a New York Times op-ed about the dearth of diverse actors in film and TV — have helped earn Master of None raves. The slightly self-referential series about a struggling, single actor in New York boasts a wild 91 rating on review aggregator Metacritic, easily topping any other recent comedy.
“For us, it was a no-brainer. He has something to say with maturity and depth and humor,” says Universal Television president Bela Bajaria, who was keen to keep Ansari with the studio as his other Parks and Rec co-stars with rising profiles (i.e. Chris Pratt) were leaving the nest. “We went to a lot of cable networks and everybody wanted it, but it was Netflix that gave that straight-to-series order. I’m just happy he got to write, produce, direct and star in the vision of the show he wanted.”
Netflix brass is similarly high on the project (chief content officer Ted Sarandos has been particularly vocal in his approval), so a next act for the 10-episode series seems inevitable. But for now, Ansari says he’s just happy with what he’s put out. “It feels like a lot of people have seen it,” he says, offering up his own estimate of just how many viewers have been tuning in to his show on the ratings-free streamer. “I walk around New York, and it’s crazy how many people are coming up to me. So even though there’s no official number, I would say it’s probably a shit-ton.”
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