Ansari And Yang Explore The First-Generation Experience In 'Master Of None'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the best TV shows that premiered this year, according to our TV critic David Bianculli, was "Master Of None," a comedy series on Netflix co-creating by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. They also wrote many of the episodes. They first worked together on "Parks And Recreation" where Ansari was one of the stars and Yang one of the writers. We're going to hear the interview I recorded with them in November as we continue our series of some of our favorite interviews of the year.
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GROSS: Ansari stars on “Master Of None” as an actor trying to make it in movies and TV, but in addition to all the obstacles typically faced by actors, his options are further limited by being Indian-American. Many of the stories in the series revolve around issues Ansari and Yang have faced regarding the entertainment world, relationships and being first-generation Americans.
Ansari's parents are from India. Yang's parents are from Taiwan. Let's start with a scene from an episode called "Indians On TV." Anari's character, Dev, is in a restaurant talking with his friend Ravi who's also an Indian-American actor trying to find good roles. Dev is complaining that some of the Indian characters on TV and in movies have actually been played by white people, including a character in the 1980s film "Short Circuit 2." Ravi, who is played by Ravi Patel, speaks first.
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RAVI PATEL: (As Ravi) What's wrong with "Short Circuit 2"?
AZIZ ANSARI: (As Dev) They got a white guy to play an Indian guy.
PATEL: (As Ravi) What - the robot movie with Johnny 5?
ANSARI: (As Dev) Wait, you don't know this?
PATEL: (As Ravi) Wait, which Indian guy are you talking about?
ANSARI: (As Dev) Dude, that guy's a white guy.
PATEL: (As Ravi) The robot or the Indian?
ANSARI: (As Dev) The Indian guy is a white guy. That's Fisher Stevens. They used brown face makeup.
PATEL: (As Ravi) Wait, what?
ANSARI: (As Dev) Yeah, they got a real robot and a fake Indian.
PATEL: (As Ravi) I'm sorry, man. I'm just - wow, I'm experiencing a lot of emotions right now. That - man, that's, like, one my favorite Indian actors.
ANSARI: (As Dev) Dude, it still happens. You see "The Social Network"? Max Minghella plays an Indian guy. He's white. They browned him up.
PATEL: (As Ravi) No, no. I read that he's one-16th Indian.
ANSARI: (As Dev) Who cares? If you go back far enough, we're all one-16th something. I'm probably one-16th black. You think they're going to let me play Blade?
GROSS: (Laughter) Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang, welcome to FRESH AIR. So one of the - one of the plot points in one of the episodes is that if you're an actor - if you're an Indian-American actor, there's only one Indian-American (laughter) per TV show. There can't be two. So you're always up against a friend of yours for the same roles, and it's really awkward. Has that happened to you in real life?
ANSARI: That same exact situation hasn't happened to me, but I do know some Indian-American actors who have relayed stories of auditioning for shows and basically saying, well, they already got their Indian guy. They already filled their quota, so they're not going to cast me, as well. And then me and Alan, the writers, started talking about this - about whether they would ever cast two. Like, what would happen if two guys were really good? Like, if they're doing a show with three people, like, what would they do if two of the best guys were both Indian guys? Would they cast them both? And that conversation, where we never really figured out what the answer is, became the germ of the idea for the episode.
GROSS: And, Aziz, another thing about that - your character refuses to do an Indian accent. And, I mean, this is true even if it's the role of a cabdriver who's an immigrant from India. So why would you, like, decline to do an Indian accent, even if you're doing a character who is actually recently arrived in America?
ANSARI: Well, to be clear, I don't think doing that accent is totally wrong. I think that's a personal choice that an actor has to make - whether they want to do that. For me, personally, any time I've been asked to do that, I feel like - it feels like it's making fun of people that have that accent if I do it and don't have that voice. It just doesn't feel right to me, and it feels like you're doing it so white people can laugh at Indian people. It feels kind of mean to me in some ways. And it depends on the script or something. If it's, like, an intense drama about an Indian cabdriver and it's this deep, passionate story and you have to do an accent, OK, then it's like - all right, well I maybe would do it for that, if it's something like that. But if it's the guy sitting in a cab and it's me saying something in an accent, making a joke about curry spilling on my pants, I don't see the (laughter) - the merits in that one.
ALAN YANG: Yeah, a lot of it has to do with genre because obviously there are exceptions, but something about accents - foreign accents specifically in comedy is a little tricky. And a lot of it has to do with history because the history of Indian and Asian people in movies and TV is really fraught with difficulty. And a lot of these characters - you see Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast At Tiffany's" - and almost to a man, the Asian and Indian characters throughout film history have been buffoons played for laughs. So it's difficult, and there are obviously great exceptions of people doing accents and doing a great job, but it's a tough personal choice.
GROSS: So I want to play another clip from the episode of "Master Of None" called "Indians On TV." And in this scene, Aziz, your character, Dev, is in a restaurant with friends talking about racism and comparing the kind of solidarity that African-Americans have when it comes to racism and how people get that, but that it's different if you're Indian-American. So you're specifically here talking to your friend Denise, who's African-American and a lesbian.
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ANSARI: (As Dev) Come on, Denise. People don't get that fired up about racist Asian or Indian stuff. I feel like you only really risk starting a brouhaha if you say something bad about black people or gay people. I mean, if Paula Dean had said, I don't want to serve Indian people, no one would really care. They'd just go back to eating the biscuits.
LENA WAITHE: (As Denise) Yeah, but Paula Dean didn't get in trouble anyway. I mean, she gave some fake-[expletive] apology and then went back to making fatty foods.
ANSARI: (As Dev) True, but she did have to apologize, right? Like, she had to go meet with Al Sharpton. I mean, that's kind of the punishment, right? You got to find Al Sharpton and go have tea with him or whatever? We don't have a person like that. Like, who are you supposed to meet with - Deepak Chopra?
GROSS: So this gets to a larger question that your episode also raises is when do you call somebody out for racism and when are you going too far? When do you call them out, and what might the consequences be if you do? Is that an issue that you've both thought about a lot?
ANSARI: I think so. That's a lot of what the episode is about. And one thing we try to do with the show, in general - I feel like now there's this click bait culture on the Internet where everyone is quick to just say something like, oh, that person's racist, or that thing's racist. And things about race will really spread around. And Alan and I, in the show, wanted to create a dialogue where it was less about this kind of condemning people quickly and more about having a dialogue and a conversation and hearing other perspectives and have all these different characters - Denise, black woman, Brian, Asian guy, Dev, Indian guy - talking about these issues and how they feel about them and seeing it progress throughout the episode.
YANG: We're making the show sound really funny.
ANSARI: It is a comedy. It's very funny, I promise.
YANG: This is just - this is just subtext, guys.
GROSS: It is really funny, and one of the things I really like about this series is - Aziz, I really like your character. He's a decent person. I mean, he's funny. He’s sometimes a little selfish, but he's decent. He tries often to do the right thing. He does have empathy. It's not a - it's not a - I mean, there's a snarky character, but it's not a snarky show. It's not a show that’s just always bathing in, like, cynicism and snark. And yet, it's funny. So was that the kind of sensibility you were shooting for?
ANSARI: Yeah, I think so. We were trying to make that character very empathetic. We also wanted to depict this character that's not just a man child, per se, which is a character you see a lot in these kind of comedies and in film, as well. Just - the guy is not Seth Rogan in "Knocked Up." Like, he has his life together to a certain point, and he's pretty mature for the most part. And to us, we wanted to explore what happens to a guy that does have his life together and is a little bit mature who's still struggling with his life decisions and already some basic stuff together.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari. They co-created the new Netflix series "Master Of None." The co-write many of the episodes and Aziz stars in it. Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guests are Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. They co-created the new Netflix comedy series "Master Of None." Aziz stars in it. They co-write many of the episodes. Alan Yang used to write for "Parks And Rec" and before that, "South Park."
So there's a great episode about two of the main characters in the series - Aziz, your character, Dev, and then another character named Brian who's Asian-American. They both - they both don't know a lot about their parents. Their parents are both immigrants who came to the United States. Brian's parents are from Taiwan, Dev's parents are from India, and neither of them really know much about their parents' backstory. But they often don't have time for their parents. You know, like, Dev's father wants to show him how to do something on his iPad with the calendar, and Dev just doesn't have time for that. And Brian's father wants him to show him something, and Brian wants to get to the movie early enough so he could see the trivia contest...
GROSS: ...That's on screen before the movie starts 'cause that's, like, really important. So they decide - you know what? - let's - we never get a chance to say thank you to our parents for all the sacrifices they've made, you know, to, you know, come to America and bring us up and, you know, in the United States so we could have good lives. So they decide to take their parents out to dinner. They go to an Asian restaurant, and this is where the stories start coming out that they've never heard before about their parents' lives. Are each of you first-generation?
YANG: Yes. I think it's very accurate in the show. Our parents are both immigrants from those countries.
ANSARI: Yeah, those are our real parents' stories for the most part. There are slight changes we made. But in the beginning of the episode, there's a flashback of both of the dads showing their journey coming from India or Taiwan to America and all the, you know, struggles they went through. And it's based on our real dads' stories.
YANG: That episode - right. That episode - the germ of that episode actually started when - I remember I was sitting in Aziz's hotel room, and we were trying to work on the show. And I told him this story about dad, which is real, which is that he grew up in a 500-square-foot hut in Taiwan with a single mother and two brothers. And he didn't have enough food to eat to the point where he had to kill his pet chicken when he was 8 years old or something to eat it for dinner. And I was talking to Aziz and said, and now his son gets to sit in a hotel room with a famous comedian and work on a TV show with him.
YANG: And it was just so staggering. And Aziz had similar stories about the sacrifices his family had made. And it's just something you kind of take for granted sometimes as the children of immigrants, and it's very legitimate. All of the emotions in that episode are very real because I've felt that guilt before and think Aziz has too.
GROSS: So, you know, for a lot of people, they can visit their parents', like, old neighborhood, which might be in the same city or in another state. But, like, Alan, you're never going to be able to go to, like, the hut that your father grew up in in Taiwan. I'm sure that hut doesn't even exist anymore. But, you know, it's just so - that distance is so great. It must be really difficult for you to imagine what your father's life was like.
YANG: That's absolutely true, and it's funny you should say that. The one time I visited Taiwan, I was 7 years old, and I actually did visit that hut. And it's in a...
YANG: Yes, it's in a town - a small village called Tiger Tail. And my dad's mom stayed there for the rest of her life. And it was really interesting because when my dad was born, he was the youngest of three sons. And his father passed away when he was 1 year old. And the people in the village told his mom to give him away because he was just - it was just too much. It was a single mom with three kids. And his mom worked in a factory making the burlap sacks for rice, so she wasn't exactly rolling in money. But she decided to keep my dad. And my dad ended up being a really smart, hard-working kid, and he would go help her at the factory.
And it's all sort of test-taking based in Taiwan. So he took a standardized test in high school and did really well. And he was able to go to a straight medical school program. So he ended up being really successful. He came to America, moved to New York, then moved to California. And even after all of that, he thought about bringing his mother over to America, but it was just too drastic a change. So she stayed in Taiwan. And it is a different - there is a psychic gulf that exists between myself and my grandparents because they don't really speak English, and I don't speak Chinese. And that's my own personal shame because I did not learn ever. But, yeah, I only saw my paternal grandma a few times in my life. And that's really crazy, I think - yeah, you know, all these white people visiting their grandparents all the time. And I think there's a bit in the show about Aziz talking to his grandparents. It's the same thing with mine. If I'm talking on the phone to my Grandma - she doesn't speak English, and I don't speak Chinese, so I'm not sure what we're supposed to say.
GROSS: Aziz, what did you learn about your parents from trying to get their stories out so you could put them in your series?
ANSARI: I basically learned the stories that ended up being in that second episode. My mom told me - it's like - describing the episode where she says that she got here the first day - in my mom's case it was South Carolina. In the show, the character is in New York. But my mom, she came to South Carolina. My dad picked her up from the airport, took her home, and then my dad had to go to the hospital and work. And so she's sitting in this apartment in South Carolina. She doesn't know anyone. She's all alone. She had an arranged marriage, so she'd known my dad for about a week, which is true. It's in the episode as well. She met my dad. A week later, she got married, and then she's in America.
And she's just there in this apartment, and I asked her, like, what did you do that first day? Like, did you watch TV? Did you, like, read a book? And she's - and I put it in the episode because it hit me so hard. She said no, I just sat on the couch and cried. And you hear that and you're like wow, these people really did something pretty incredible to get here and give me this spectacular life that I've been able to have, and I've never really thought about it. I never thought about them coming to South Carolina and trying to build a life in this strange place where they didn't know anybody and dealing with racism and, like, much harder racism than, like, oh, I've got to do an accent in the audition, like real stuff where people are...
ANSARI: ...People are pretty mean.
ANSARI: So it was a great conversation to have, and I think a lot of immigrant kids probably don't have that conversation with their parents because it is kind of odd, even if you're not an immigrant to be, like, mom, dad, tell me your story, like, let's talk about that. It just feels kind of odd to bring that up. And I think it's one of those things where kids are like oh, I'll ask them at some point. And then I bet a lot of times they don't end up doing it, and they never get to learn these stories.
GROSS: Aziz, your parents play your parents in the series. And why did you cast your parents? Strikes me - it's working out great in terms of my perspective as a viewer. It strikes me it could have the potential to be very awkward.
ANSARI: Well, Alan and I had those characters of my parents, and we knew the character of my dad was going to pop up in a few episodes. And he was based on my real dad, the way we wrote the character. And my real dad is very funny and silly. And for me, it was very important that we got these characters right because a lot of times when you see immigrant parents on television or film, they're portrayed in this unbelievably broad fashion, and they're just vehicles for very hacky ethnic jokes that are not real. So we wanted these characters to feel three-dimensional and real. And we auditioned a few people for these parts of my parents. And when they read, they just didn't feel like my parents. They didn't feel - it felt like people doing impressions of Indian people, and they just didn't have the timing and humor that my real parents had. I think - my mom's funny, too, and they just didn't feel right. And those parts are really important.
So they both agreed to do it, and it really was a - it’s really strange because usually when people have their real parents do things, it's a pretty quick cameo-type situation or, like, one scene. They were in it a lot. And, you know, they - it wasn't like they came into town for a couple of days. They were here for, like, two weeks working on the show. And my dad took off work from being a gastroenterologist to do an arc on my show. It's a pretty crazy thing he did, and I really have to thank them tremendously 'cause I think their work is great. And it's so crazy to read reviews where it's, like, Shoukath Ansari comes in and steals the scene (laughter) which is, of course, not going to go to my dad's head at all.
GROSS: So, Aziz, your parents had an arranged marriage. They knew each other a week before they got married. And you do a lot of comedy about dating and romance. You have a book that you co-wrote with a sociologist called "Modern Romance." It must be really hard when, in your mind, you compare your parents' marriage with your idea of what a relationship should be.
ANSARI: Yes, I think it's such a vast difference in the way that whole process is for me today than it was for my parents back then. And we talk about that in the episode. Whenever I'm having the conversation with my dad - I think it's in episode 10 - and I'm asking him, like, how many women did he meet before he decided to marry my mom, that's the real story. He told me that he met two people - my mom was the second person. And the first lady - he thought she was a little bit too tall (laughter), then he met my mom. And I was like, well, how long did you talk to her before you decided to get married? And he said, like, 30 minutes, and then he was good. And then you look at me and Alan - if we have, like, a lunch menu, we will spend 30 minutes trying to figure out what the best dish is before we pull the trigger on an order.
YANG: And then we'll decide to get them both and split them.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you both. If you're just joining us, my guests are Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, and they co-created and co-write many of the episodes of the new Netflix comedy series "Master Of None." Aziz stars in it. And we need to take a short break here, and then we'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, the co-creators of the Netflix comedy series "Master Of None," which Ansari also stars in. They previously worked together in "Parks and Recreation." Ansari was one of the stars, Yang was one of the writers.
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GROSS: One of the writers on "Parks And Rec," Harris Wittels, died at the age of 30, and, Aziz, you wrote a really nice piece about him after he died. And I'm just - I guess I'm wondering what it's like for both of you to have a contemporary, a colleague who was a contemporary, who died. I think when someone your own age dies, it's just a fundamentally different experience than when somebody older, especially considerably older than you, dies.
YANG: Yeah, that was one of the most difficult days, I think, of both of our lives. Harris was someone who was someone we saw every day. You know, I had worked...
ANSARI: He was writing on the show with us at the time.
YANG: He worked on "Master Of None" and...
GROSS: Oh, he was working on your show?
YANG: Absolutely, yes.
ANSARI: This was after - it was after "Parks," and when Alan and I were coming up with the show, one of the first things we said is we've got to get Wittels to be on our staff to write with us. If we can get Wittels, it'll be so huge 'cause he was really - he really was the strongest writer that we could think of to get on board with us. And we got him to work on the show with us, which is so flattering 'cause he's pretty picky about what he would do, and he wouldn't just sign up for anything. And, yeah, he was working with us every day. He was in the writers' room with us, and he wasn't there this one day - he was writing with us - man, it's really hard to talk about this. But we were working on the show and we got that phone call, and I just screamed. I couldn't believe it. And I was separate from - me and Alan were working separately from the other writers, and I told Alan what happened, and we were just in shock. And we just walked around the neighborhood for a while. We were just...
YANG: We had to take a walk.
ANSARI: Yeah, we were just trying to process this, and then - oh, God, it was a nightmare. And then we had to go in - and it was such a weird thing where those awful websites, like, were just, like, posting about this before people he knew could even find out. And it was one of these things where it was, like, well, we've got to tell them or else they're going to see it on, like, TMZ or something like that. And so I went in and told everyone. And it was an unbelievably difficult, horrible experience. And it was - it was awful. I'm glad that we got to spend so much time with him before he passed 'cause we were seeing him every day. And I'm happy that I got to spend as much time with him as I did before he left. And, you know, you see - there's moments in the show that are such Harris moments that I'm so glad are in there. And it's such - it's so sad that he's not able to see what we ended up doing with some of the great stuff he did and - but it's - yeah, like, Alan and I would screen - when we were working on the show, we would screen the episodes. We'd have, like, a long edit of an episode, and we would do screenings. And we would screen stuff, and Harris's stuff would get such huge laughs. And we would just, like, look at each other, like, laughing and also sad at the same time. It's such a weird feeling, like, people would be at the screening - a friend would just text me, like, oh, my God, like, that line was great, like, who wrote that? And I'd just be like, that was Harris and...
YANG: He was just a crazy comedy-machine. And just to give an example of his personality, he himself would say he was the fifth or sixth funniest person in the world. And we would often ask him who was above him at that point in time. And he would say, OK, well, Galifianakis, Louie, and right now, I think McBride and Larry David are a little funnier than I am, but I'm probably five or six right now. But the thing was, he actually really - he was because, you know, there are a lot of funny people in those writers rooms. But he was just - just so naturally talented. And it was infuriating sometimes because this guy would stroll in, and he was always the most confident dude, and just be the funniest.
GROSS: Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, thank you and congratulations on your new series.
ANSARI: Thanks very much, Terry. Thanks for having us.
YANG: Thank you.
GROSS: Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang co-created the Netflix series "Master Of None," which Ansari also stars in. Our interview was recorded in November. If you're looking for things to listen to over the holiday weekend, check out our podcast where you'll find some of our favorite interviews of the year, which we featured this week, with Larry Wilmore, Colin Jost and Michael Che, Tanehisi Coates, Gloria Steinem and Jeffrey Tambor.
All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a happy and healthy new year, and if this is a difficult time for you because of illness or other problems in life, we hope things will be better for you in 2016. We'll close with a recording of the new year standard by B.B. King, one of the great artists we lost this year.
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