Aziz Ansari Tackles Racism, Sexism & Taco Trucks In Master Of None

Photo: Matt Baron/BEImages.

Aziz Ansari
has been everywhere lately. He's popped up in all sorts of high-brow news outlets to discuss his best-selling book Modern Romance; sold out major venues (including Madison Square Garden) for his standup performances; hit the road with Amy Schumer and friends on the Oddball Comedy Tour; and hitched a piggy-back ride from Jennifer Lawrence.

He's taking a slightly more conventional mode of transportation, a New York City taxi, when he calls Refinery29 to speak about his latest venture, Master of None, the 10-episode series for Netflix he co-created with Parks and Recreation writer Alan Yang. New York is the setting of the half-hour comedy (premiering November 6), in which Ansari plays Dev, a 30-year-old actor who might be on the threshold of taking big adult steps in his career and dating life, or he might just end up spending his time deciding which is the best taco truck for lunch.

How did you come up with the format of this show? It's not a conventional sitcom approach.
"Our first version of it was a more traditional [structure], like: Here's a guy and his friends, and every week you see the same friends. Then we were trying to write the second episode and were like, 'Why is that friend here?' There's no reason for him to be around. We started talking about the fact that no one really has coffee or dinner with the same four people every day. Let's do something a little bit different.

"Then we came on this idea of treating the show the way I treat standup, where it's like, I'll take a particular topic for each episode. So episode two is about parents, and episode eight is about the elderly, and episode seven is about women's issues, and episode nine is a relationship episode. Each episode is a self-contained thing, but at the same time there is a through line with each episode."
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
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Why did you decide not to use your real name as your character name, the way many comedians have been doing lately?
"It's not an autobiographical show. It's an Indian guy, so there's a similarity there. He's an actor. The only reason he's an actor is because we didn't want to do a thing where if he worked at a magazine or something, then you've got to show him at the magazine. I don't know what it's like to work at a magazine, and I don't have any interest in, you know, shadowing someone to learn that."

Are there plots and scenes you wrote for yourself that you think no one else would have written for you?
"Yeah, the whole show! No one would have given me things like that. Episode nine, there's a lot of dramatic stuff, and I don't think anyone would have thought I could do it. No matter if you're a white actor or a minority actor, no one has a ton of imagination for actors. For the most part, people just assume, 'Oh, he can just do the thing he did in the other thing.' It would just be, like, shittier versions of [my Parks and Rec character] Tom's jokes."

How did you cast the other roles? Are Eric Wareheim and Lena Waithe, who play Dev's friends Arnold and Denise, people you knew before this?
"Eric's one of my good friends. I needed a token white friend, and I was like, Eric's my token white friend in real life, so I had him audition, and it was great. You could tell there's a real chemistry between us that's hard to build with someone you don't know. And Lena was a big open casting call. Our casting person, Allison Jones, who is amazing — she's cast Freaks and Geeks and all the Apatow stuff — she introduced us to Lena early on, and was like, 'This person's really special; you guys should just use her.' We auditioned a ton of people. We didn't know who that [character] was going to be; it was an open ethnicity. After we auditioned Lena, we tailored the character for her.

"Noel [Wells], who played [Dev's love interest] Rachel — Alan and I really wanted this love interest and I to really have a chemistry and a good rapport. That stuff is such a hard thing to do, to have people believe in this relationship. We read a ton of people, and Noel immediately floored us. She was so natural and funny."

At the beginning of the series, you get the sense that life is going really well for Dev and he deserves good things, but then the mood turns ...
"One thing we were trying to get away from is, I do think things kind of [wrapped] up in a bow in all the comedy stuff now, where the couple rides off and everyone's happy. I don't think real life ends like that a lot. We looked to a lot of '70s films. Shampoo and Warren Beatty. That movie, he kind of decided, 'All right, I'm going to be with this lady,' and he goes to tell her he loves her, and she's like, 'No, I'm marrying this other guy.' ... And he's just kind of stuck there, just standing there confused. That resonates with me more than, 'Oh, I'm with this person and we're happy.' "

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.

Dev has some characteristics of what we've come to think of as the millennial stereotype, but he also seems to want to get his act together and figure things out. Were you purposely trying to portray your generation in a certain way?

"I do think there's this broad brush that's painted of millennials. ... This is a representation of someone that's trying a little bit harder. One thing I hate now is the whole click-bait culture and our discourse that we have, where people take a quote out of context and want to condemn people and yell at people, and there's never any kind of instinct to hear people out and listen to what they're saying and have a dialogue. It's just a lot of yelling and nonsense. We wanted to portray a character who's more empathetic and willing to listen to people.

"In [episode seven], Ladies and Gentlemen, my character is talking to his female friends, and they're talking about creepy guys following them and the kind of sexism they experience. And it's about this guy shutting up and listening to what these people are saying, and trying to learn from their experiences, rather than just assuming he knows everything and yelling at people. I think there's this thing where people don't want to say they don't know something, or don't have an opinion. With all these outlets like Twitter...you have to have an opinion about everything. No one is like, 'Oh, I'm not really familiar with that. Can you tell me about it, so I can understand it a little better?'"

You spent a lot of time listening to other people for your book Modern Romance. Are there insights you gained in your research that you put in the show, too?
"There are things that I've learned from doing the book that informed my writing, but it's definitely not a TV show version of my book in any way...Episode eight, about old people — that was definitely informed by all the time I spent with old people when I was doing the book."

Have you thought about doing a follow-up to the book, maybe about long-term relationships, now that you've tackled dating?
"No, I just finished it! Leave me alone! Episode nine is a big rumination on long-term relationships. It's not the book, and it's not my standup. The show is my outlet for exploring my ideas that I have on [relationships]. That tail-end of the show is when I really figured that out."
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.

Do you have plans for another season of Master of None?
"If they want to do another one, that'd be cool. I haven't really thought about it. I mean, I just finished this one, and now I've got to yap about it forever."
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What are you working on next?
"I don't think I need to do anything else. I'm kind of done! I sold out Madison Square Garden, I made 10 episodes of a show, I wrote a book. I don't know why in all these interviews they're like, well what are you doing next? I think I'm fine. I'm going to go away for a while."

Okay, there's one weird thing I have to ask you about: How did you end up getting a piggyback ride from Jennifer Lawrence?
"We were leaving [Amy Schumer's] SNL party, and I was going to jump on [Jennifer's] bodyguard's back like Prince did in that famous video, but her bodyguard was like, 'You can't do that.' And then she was like, 'You can do that with me.' And I jumped on."
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