We all know him as wisenheimer Tom Haverford, the Pawnee, Indiana town official with a string of tacky entrepreneurial ideas on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. However, after being part of Amy Poehler’s esteemed second banana posse on that show, Aziz Ansari graduates to leading, complex protagonist in the Netflix comedy Master of None, a series he co-created with his Parks & Rec writing bud Alan Yang. For anyone going through Louie withdrawal, Ansari’s Master of None fits the bill, taking chances and harking back to some of the best signature guy-centered big screen rom coms including Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance and Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid.
At Deadline’s TV Contenders event, Yang said that Master of None is like, “10 short films,” breaking the linear formula of most network sitcoms. In fact, the duo’s original network draft was set around five couples. Louis C.K.’s Louie might sigh in the face of brutal angst, but Ansari’s struggling actor Dev always finds the silver lining. After Dev’s condom breaks during his one night fling in the pilot episode, the couple flees to a nearby pharmacy to grab a pregnancy test. Dev is over the moon: They sell Martinelli’s Apple Juice.
In Master of None, Ansari filters the misadventures of the single guy and his aversion to conventional social mores through a multicultural prism, whether he’s dinging ethnic sitcom casting in the episode “Indians on TV” or stressing about being the subsequent generation to Asian immigrants in “Parents” (Dev’s parents had an arranged marriage, he has Tinder). All of this is served with a dash of Ansari’s signature sass.
Tell us about the genesis of Master of None. When did you start putting it together? And how did it wind up at Netflix?
I had been wanting to do something, act in something, that was my own voice. Something I had written. I tried to work on some movie scripts during Parks & Rec, but movie stuff can be slow and the movie scripts I worked on faded away—probably with good reason; they weren’t the best scripts. I thought well, with TV, I could probably get a project off the ground. Sometimes you work on movies and you have an idea, and after so many drafts, you’re not the same person who had this idea. I was good friends with Alan Yang, who was a writer on Parks. I said, “What if we did a show that was a short order, like 8-10 episodes and shoot it in New York?” He’s like, “That sounds great.” We talked about what the show would be and used my stand-up to craft the ideas. We started working on it. Pitched it around everywhere. Netflix was enthusiastic. I had a relationship with them from doing my stand-up specials and they just wanted to go straight to series. They believed in us.
What inspired you to take the show’s look and vibe in a cinematic direction?
When we sat down to discuss the feel of the show with the pilot’s director James Ponsoldt, we discussed a lot of comedies from the ’70s, from Woody Allen, Elaine May and Hal Ashby. May’s The Heartbreak Kid was a big influence. At a certain point, people stopped caring about how good comedies looked [on the big screen]. James did such a great job and helped us figure out the visual voice of the show. We learned we could do long walks and talks, and during editing, it was fun.
The late comedy writer Harris Wittels is credited on Master of None as co-executive producer. He was an important voice at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in L.A. and on Parks & Rec. What were his fingerprints on Master of None?
He was the next person in charge on the show after me and Alan. So many of his jokes are in the show. There were so many that he pitched that everyone loved. That week the show came out… it was hard. Harris is an incredible joke guy and would come up with the most incredible, crazy ideas. There’s a scene in the episode “The Other Man” where Colin Salmon’s character invites me over to his house in the middle of the night. So we’re all pitching ideas on why he’s inviting me over. We’re like “What if he’s a DJ?” Harris is like, “What if he has a huge domino rally set-up in the house? And you come over, he lets you knock it down, and as soon as it’s done, he’s like, ‘Well, thanks for coming around, good night.’”
Your parents actually star as Dev’s parents on the show. When you were growing up, did they express any resistance to your stand-up comedy career plans?
As far as my path in comedy, I started doing it in college and by the time I graduated, I was doing OK and pretty soon after magazine articles would come out, and I was performing at colleges, my parents thought it was legit. I got pretty lucky and started acting in TV shows and movies pretty quickly. It seemed like a legitimate career with them. Initially, like any parent, you hear your kid is doing stand-up; that it’s a random thing that won’t end well.
What were your take-away episodes or moments from Season 1?
Well, people talk about the “Parents” episode. To me and Alan, that was personal. The way that resonated was pretty incredible. The “Parents” episode idea is one of the first that Alan and I had. We were walking around and talking about our parents and their stories coming to this country. We were in New York and seeing all these people. There was a guy selling scarves and a guy running a halal cart. And I thought, “Wow, every single one of these people has an insane story about how they came here to be in America.” Every one of those stories are incredible and you rarely hear about it. Then we started talking about our dads and that flashback idea and it was something we were really excited about.
Personally, I like the “Mornings” episode about Dev and Rachel living together. I’m part of that episode, and felt like we were trying to push ourselves to do things that we couldn’t do on a normal show. I thought Noël Wells’ performance on that show was pretty incredible.