“Parks and Recreation” truly is the gift that keeps on giving. Not only was the Amy Poehler-starring NBC sitcom an absolute joy to watch for its seven seasons on the air, but it also helped bring to light some of the entertainment industry’s brightest stars. Aubrey Plaza is stealing scenes as she carries indies. Chris Pratt has become a bonified box office superstar. Nick Offerman is the pinnacle of American manhood. And on Friday, the product of one former star and one former writer, producer and director was released on Netflix to rave reviews, touting it as one of the best TV shows of the year.
That being said, “Master of None” is very different than “Parks and Recreation.” Its central protagonist, played by Aziz Ansari, is no Tom Haverford. Dev is a socially sensitive actor living in the cultural center of the world, with an active interest in food and a heavy investment in the people around him. This leads to a variety of experiences and scenarios, all chronicled with a sophisticated single camera setup and told through the shifting perspectives of those who understand each situation best. Dev remains at the center of it all, but co-creators Ansari and Alan Yang are eager to let other voices steer the conversation.
In late October, Indiewire spoke with the two friends separately about the various voices in “Master of None,” the influence of ’70s cinema on the series, what it’s like to direct their own parents and one secret easter egg for “Parks and Recs” fans only. This lightly edited interview is the result.
What was the first thing that sparked your interest in “Master of None”? How did it get started?
YANG: Aziz and I have been friends for a long time. We met on “Parks and Recreations” in 2008, probably, and we were similar ages and we were both kind of kids on the show. I was the youngest on the writing staff and he was one of the youngest people in the cast. And before the show people were like, “Oh. You’re gonna hit it off with this guy. You two are gonna get along.” And I didn’t know him before, but as soon as we met on that show we started to hang out all the time. It was the kind of thing where people knew better than we did. We had a lot in common. We loved going out to eat and traveling and stuff like that, so we did sometimes when we were off the show.
[When] “Parks” was winding down, he said he wanted to do his own show and asked if I wanted to be his partner on that project. And I jumped at the chance because the more we talked about it, the more we realized it could be a really personal way for us to tell stories that we hadn’t seen on TV that much before. Hopefully, we accomplished that.
ANSARI: Here’s the point where I really wanted to act in something that I wrote, that I felt represented my comedic voice and I’d never really had that opportunity. I’ve worked on movie scripts and stuff, but none of them were able to really gain traction for whatever reason, and I also think that at this point I’ve developed my voice better than I had when I worked on scripts anyways. I also chose to pursue a TV show instead of a movie because with movies it’s so slow and it’s such a grind and you have to work on these scripts for years and by the time they’re ready to shoot you’re not even the main person that handles the idea. I like the immediacy of TV, we pitched the show to Netflix and they were like, “We’re in, we’re doing 10 episodes.” We didn’t have to do a pilot or anything. We really got to make it pretty quickly.
You’ve been addressing some of these deeper social questions found in “Master of None” for a while, through your stand-up and more recently your book. What about performing stand-up works best, as opposed to the book and then the show? When you’re doing each medium, what’s most satisfying for each one and how do they change?
ANSARI: They’re all satisfying for different reasons, and that’s why I do them all. The thing with the show was […] I wanted to avoid more than anything the idea of, “Oh, this is just this character saying his stand-up to other people.” That’s not what we wanted to do. We really worked hard to avoid that. You see the seeds of some of the ideas in “Master of None” in my stand-up, or in the book, but it’s never just a straight translation into a narrative. We worked hard to adapt things, make it fit the show, get it unique and have it stand on its own.
Does the immediacy of stand-up satisfy you more than that of a TV show, or is that something that you weighed when you were doing it? How you can have immediate feedback from the audience when you’re doing stand-up, as opposed to a TV show, where it takes a long time to put it together.
ANSARI: The immediacy of stand-up is really interesting because you have the immediacy of, “I did a show last night, and I talked about this new idea, and it works really well, I’m really excited by it.” But I only got to experience it in that room with those 100 people — if it’s like a thing where I’ve dropped into a small club. And by the time I’ve toured everywhere and put it out in the special, it might be a year and a half from that moment. You don’t get to share it with everybody for a long time because of the way stand-up is where it’s not like I can just do a stand-up bit, have it work, and then put it out right away. Because then I can’t tour with that material, or I can’t have it in a special because people have already seen it. So where stand-up has an immediacy in one sense, in another sense it doesn’t. The lasting version of it is putting out those specials. For a TV show, what’s cool is there’s just something totally different about controlling this narrative and the whole filmmaking aspect of it [is different] than putting out stand-up specials, which are the only other thing I’ve done where it’s been some sort of attempt at putting out my comedic voice.
It feels very specific to you and unique on TV right now. I read that you drew inspiration from ’70s comedy films like “Heartbreak Kid” and Hal Ashby movies. What about that era felt conducive to the stories you’re telling here?
ANSARI: One thing I liked was the way it’s shot; things are paced totally different than they [typically] are now. Things now are so fast-paced and they just: cut, single, single, single, single! Everything moves so fast. Characters are saying joke, joke, joke, joke! And stuff back then was more conversational. It felt more natural and real. Everything had more room to breathe. so when we talked to James Ponsoldt, who directed our first episode — he did Episodes 1 and 3, but it was the first to be shot — he was like, “I totally get it.” He’s a big film nerd and was so psyched to help us develop this aesthetic and that’s what he did. I think the other thing that attracted us to this stuff was just tonally this stuff feels more real. Now I think the instinct is for everything to wrap up in a nice bow and the guy and the girl get together and everything is good. Those movies didn’t always end like that. I love that moment at the end of “Shampoo” where he’s like, “Alright, well, I guess I’ll get together with this girl,” and he goes to get back with her and she’s like, “No, I’m hooking up with this other guy.” He’s like, “Oh, okay.” [laughs] And he’s just left there bewildered. […] Those moments, I relate to that. That’s the kind of shit where I’m like, “Oh wow, that really speaks to me,” and I think a lot of people feel that more so than, “Oh, the two characters get together and they’re really happy.” [laughs] I guess they can relate to that at times, but I think the other thing is way more interesting and raw. I always liked living in that moment and that tone, where things felt more real and didn’t always have a tidy ending.
YANG: Those were literally the same movies we talked about: “Shampoo,” “The Last Detail,” obviously Woody Allen’s stuff. One thing that occurs to you as you watch those movies is that in a lot of scenes they’re just talking about really interesting, sort of real problems. And the thing we kind of talked about — between me and Aziz — was that, is TV a copy or is film a copy at this point? A lot of these copies seem to take place in hermetically-sealed environments where they don’t talk about the stuff that you and your friends talk about at dinner. And so, we thought the thing about this sort of naturalistic, looser ’70s style is that it’s a good match for people talking about these issues, for lack of a better term. And we didn’t go into the show thinking we need to address these social topics and it was more like, “What do we actually talk about?” We do talk about this stuff. People talking about all of these issues is actually more real than not talking about them. I would say it’s just an inch towards being more political, but I wouldn’t say it’s an overtly political show. But we did feel that some of the naturalistic settings that we found were a match for the topic and the talent.
I think you’re tapping into something that’s really relevant to right now, in that it feels like this is very much about the journey more than the destination. But so much of TV is usually structured in terms of getting from point A to point B. How do you imagine, season-to-season, where this thing is going to go?
ANSARI: Well, we haven’t really thought about season-to-season because we haven’t officially even gotten a second season and it’s a little premature for that conversation. But as far as how we wrote the episodes, we did a few things that don’t really make sense for a TV staff. First off, those friends, you don’t see them every week. We wrote one version of the show where it was like you see these same people every week and then you start writing and it feels forced. It doesn’t feel like you should see these people every week. It just felt like no one has dinner with the same three friends every single day, why are we doing this? Let’s just bring in these five characters as we need them and have them come in as the story organically necessitates, rather than force them in. When you’re doing a show like this with 10 episodes, it’s like let’s just do the stories we’re most interested in and service that. So the episodes we did, each topic was something that we were pretty passionate about whether it’s the episode about the elderly, the episode “Ladies and Gentlemen” about sexism, there’s an episode about race and entertainment called “Indians on TV,” there’s an episode that explores our thoughts on long-term relationships and that episode was “Mornings.” So each of those episodes was really driven by an idea and we asked, “How do we put Dev in a situation that allows us to explore our different ideas on this?”
YANG: We did have an overall arc for this season, and it comes into place in terms of both work and relationships. But we didn’t feel the need to make it one long continuous 10-episode story. So, we refer to it as a light serialization. But we would pepper in “This is how he feels about this person now. This is the middle of the relationship. This is the end.” But, yeah, it’s always a juggling act.
What ideas were you most excited to explore with this kind of almost episodic story structure?
YANG: The show underwent a lot of evolution. When we first started out it was going to be possibly just a show about relationships or a show about dating. And we realized pretty quickly that it was far more interesting for us to do a show that tackles different topics, and we wondered what would it be like if we had the kind of show where we were able to tackle all the issues one at a time. We felt like we hadn’t seen that really on TV before. And I think we had a cool way to do it especially with Aziz. I think he’s a great mouthpiece for these issues because his stand up is becoming more and more curious and by that I mean he wants to investigate the world around him. And I think people see him as a good ambassador. He’s neither white or black. He’s already done some stuff about feminism. […] And so, early on […] I told him a story about my dad growing up; how insane and lucky for us to even talk about doing this show, and how crazy it was that my dad grew up basically in a hut in Taiwan without enough food to eat. And within one generation his son in America gets to do a comedy show about whatever he wants.
I love the episode about old people. I feel like those are characters that you don’t see so much on TV, and a lot of shows can’t do an episode like that because they have to feature their regular characters in the story. In our story, we have the freedom to use our characters as we need to and as we see fit. And so a lot of the show is about empathy towards other people’s experiences, because the show can feature other characters like that, like his dad and my dad in “Parents.” The more stories we wrote and the more episodes we wrote, I think we got even more into the hang of what we trying to accomplish and how to best execute it.
You guys dedicated this to Harris Wittels?
YANG: The entire season and really the series. It’s just a really hard thing where besides working with him — you know, I worked with him for seven years — but more than that we were friends. Harris and I would go to movies together. One time we went to Texas together to see a band we liked. He was a just a guy who was full of joy and a really tough loss for all of us. That was easily the hardest thing to happen on the show, was losing someone like that in the middle of it. We’ll never forget that.
Speaking to that episodic nature of the show, how important do you feel the pilot is for Netflix viewers? There are kind of two different schools of thought, where people talk about how it’s not as important because people just keep watching for as long as they want, but then others worry that the shortened attention span of this generation might make the emphasis on this first episode stronger.
ANSARI: What’s weird is like, I don’t know how many episodes you’ve seen, but it’s hard to really pick like, “Okay, this episode is what this whole series is like.” I feel like they’re really different. I think the pilot probably skews more traditionally, actually, than the other ones. I think the second episode feels more representative of the series, but I love the way the first episode opens. That sex scene I think feels very real and you just get a sense of how we’re going to do things. The conversations feel very real and it feels a little more natural and not, “Go, go, go, go, go!” I think as the series goes on, the show kind of evolves so I hope people watch all the episodes. But whenever I talk to people who have seen like five episodes versus all 10, the conversations are totally different because the things we do in the last half of the season are so different than the kind of stuff that we did in the first half of the season, so I hope people watch all of it.
YANG: Obviously we want the pilot to be incredible, but what if the second episode were to be even better? Or the third episode even better than the second? Seriously and honestly, one of the biggest things that I tell people about the show now is I want them to watch three episodes, four episodes, five episodes because they are all different. Honestly, of all the people who have seen the show, many people have told me that different episodes are their favorite. And I think that has a lot to do with each episode [being] kind of about a different part of society, or a different thing that people can relate to. You know if your parents are immigrants or if you’re an immigrant you might love “Parents” the best, or if you have a close relationship with your grandma you might like “Old People” the best. Or if you’re an actor you might like “Indians on TV” the best. I honestly think that it really varies from person to person.
I think it’ll be interesting, too, because a lot of creators talk about how they like the weekly release schedule, because it makes people think about an episode longer. They can’t just move onto the next. They have to spend some time on that one. But the way that this is set up, they have to do that anyway. Even if they binge they have to spend a little bit of time thinking about the new ideas that are presented with each half-hour block.
YANG: I hope so. I’m glad you said it because it was presumptuous for me to say, “Well, I hope people think about each episode.” So yeah, that’s kind of the point. […] It’s kind of a macroscopic version of what I saw in Aziz’s stand-up sometimes. Sometimes we would write an episode and then he would take a little kernel of it and it would be the topic [for the episode]. He did this bit in his stand-up show where he said, “How many women here have been followed home? [Who have] had a man follow you home and scare you?” And in the audience almost every women would raise their hand. And walking out of the show I literally heard two or three different people asking their girlfriends, “Oh. You really got followed home? How come you never talked about that? What happened?” I never even considered that happening. When I, as a man, walk home from a bar or party it never occurred to me not to me not to feel unsafe. It just doesn’t. And the same is true for me. I’m not like 6’5″ and 250. I’m a small man, and I never fear for my safety. So, things like that where, again, walk a mile in other people’s shoes. See other people’s perspectives. And hopefully people will talk about it a little bit.
Something that recently happened was that Netflix finally released their viewing statistics for “Beasts of No Nation.”
ANSARI: Woah, they did? What did they say? I don’t know anything about this.
I think they said there were three million viewers over the first weekend.
ANSARI: Three million viewers, so what would that equate to box office-wise?
Well, if you went by average ticket price that’s probably around $24-28 million. So, pretty good.
ANSARI: Yeah, that’s pretty good. The rating stuff I don’t really care about. I kind of like that no one knows because they would release these numbers when we did “Parks and Rec” and they were never really accurate. The whole Nielsen thing is really a number that doesn’t mean anything. They don’t factor in people that DVR and all those kinds of things aren’t factored in properly. It just seems like they’re a terrible measure that I don’t really care about. What I care about is that we made the show, I’m really proud of it, the reviews that we’ve gotten have been great, that’s good, and I hope people watch it and like it. They always said the ratings on “Parks” were so-so or whatever, but man, I’ve walked around and I see how many people know the show and like the show. It seemed like it did pretty good to me. So I don’t really need any specific numbers to be released or anything. I’m fine with whatever.
Yeah, “Parks” was a great example of that, too, because I feel like that was one of those shows that maybe the overnight ratings weren’t as strong as something like “The Big Bang Theory,” but over the course of its seasons, it really seemed to grow and have this incredibly strong fan base — and part of that was being available on Netflix and Hulu and streaming services.
ANSARI: Also, if you think about it, I don’t know anyone that watches the high-rated shows. I don’t know anyone who watches “Dancing with the Stars.” [laughs] I don’t have any friends that watch that stuff. My friends are probably watching things like “Fargo” or whatever, and at that point, I don’t know what the ratings on things are. I just know what people that I like and respect enjoy and watch, so that’s what’s important.
YANG: I actually feel really liberated not seeing those because if your show is not a smash hit like “The Big Bang Theory” or one of those shows, the day after your show airs you’re looking at these numbers and if it’s not good news it’s just bums the writers room out. So, this is almost a dream. Can you imagine a world where you’re able to make a creative project that is very personal and you express ideas that you’re interested in and no one is saying it’s gotta make “x” amount of money or get “x” amount of eyeballs, I mean, that’s a dream. […] To me this wasn’t a show for 50 million people anyway. This was a show for a certain number of people. And, hopefully, it will be their favorite show.
Steering back to the show, what did you learn from your time directing the show when you helmed your own episode, versus just writing it and creating it and acting in it? What were the responsibilities that maybe you didn’t see coming or stuff that you applied to the other aspects of creating this show?
ANSARI: I ended up directing Episodes 2 and 5, but we shot them at the end so I could have time to prep and everything like that. It worked out great because by then I was really familiar with what the show was and what our aesthetic was and how to shoot our show. I really wanted to make sure I did it right and the thing that was really helpful was that by the time I was doing those two, I’d also spent a ton of time in the editing room and had seen how we were putting the episodes together. So if you spend time in the editing room, you gain a whole new level of insight into the kind of shots you should grab and the kind of options you want to get performance-wise and everything. Having been so heavily involved in the writing, I also just knew the tone Alan and I wanted to go for and what we wanted the show to be like. All of that really helped me direct because I knew what I wanted the end product to be like. Plus, I am acting and directing at the same time, which is a little tricky, but Alan was there the whole time. He’s about as close as I could get to having myself cloned and having someone with my exact taste watching and giving me ideas.
Was there a scene or a moment in those episodes that was a favorite of yours, that you saw in the edit bay and were like, “Oh my God, that’s even better than I imagined it was going to be?”
ANSARI: In the “Parents” episode, there’s that long dinner scene. First off, a long scene like that where it’s just people talking, those are hard because it can get boring very quickly and if the jokes don’t hit, it gets very monotonous and boring. I was worried about that scene because my parents are in it and they’re not actors. My dad had acted in a few scenes at that point and was starting to get the hang of it, but my mom, this was maybe her first or second scene, so I was worried about how this thing was going to come together. There were a lot of weird factors and you have to shoot it in a way that’s interesting and have shots that make it look good so it doesn’t get boring visually, as well. And then we watched it and I was laughing the whole time. The jokes really landed, the pacing was really good and I was really happy with it. It’s weird because it’s not the most dynamic crazy scene, but I was really happy with how it turned out. I also love in Episode 5 the scene I do about the ghosts, about the baby Justin thing. That just came together really well and I remember that when we screened it, it hit so hard. It was really cool.
You mentioned on Twitter that there’s a secret shout-out to Tom and Donna from “Parks and Rec” in “Master of None,” and I wanted to ask if you’d specify what that might be — or if you just want fans to find it themselves?
ANSARI: It’s very, very tiny. How about this? For the article, just put it’s in Episode 5. But don’t put what it is, let’s keep it between us, and I’ll tell you what it is.
[removed from the interview by request of Mr. Ansari]
ANSARI: I’m curious if Retta’s going to catch it. It’s very small and silly…