As dramas drive the debate over television's new golden age, comedies aren't really a part of the conversation. A sitcom is still a sitcom, and that's just how it is, right?
Not in the view of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. They've turned the genre on its head and created one of the year's most innovative new shows, Master of None. It stars an Indian-American leading man — yes, Ansari — and broaches topics like race and ethnicity, all the while producing laughs.
Ansari plays Dev, a Brooklynite and semi-successful actor in his early 30s who is just trying to get by. He has successes and failures in his career and his relationships, just like anyone else, but he experiences them with a wit and charm that make the show eminently watchable. Which is exactly the way the co-creator-executive producers designed it,
The two met in Los Angeles on NBC's Parks and Recreation, where Ansari was costarring as Tom Haverford — an Indian-American bureaucrat who prefers an Anglo name — and Yang was writing, occasionally acting and directing and, ultimately coexecutive-producing. They quickly bonded and began working together.
As the end of the series loomed, they developed a unique idea: a half- hour single-camera comedy that was not filled with jokes, but rather had the sensibilities of their favorite movies from the 1970s. Films like Shampoo, The Heartbreak Kid and Annie Hall were all direct influences on the project, which landed at Netflix with a 10-episode commitment.
"At some point on Parks," Ansari recalls, "Alan and I were talking and decided, ’22 episodes is too many, and we're tired of L.A. Let's do a show together — like, six to 10 episodes — and shoot it in New York.' It started like that, I think, and then when Parks was winding down, we sat down and talked about an idea and went and pitched it."
"It evolved over time," Yang continues. "Originally, it was a little more conventional. The tone, the premise, everything sort of changed the more we talked about it. It didn't come out fully formed. It took us a really long time to figure out which episodes we liked. Once we knew that, it started to take shape."
That's also when the pair focused on those classic movies made by such industry titans as Warren Beatty, Hal Ashby, Elaine May and Woody Allen and figured that, if the approach worked 40 years ago, it could work now. Netflix agreed, and so did the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which awarded Master of None the Best Comedy Series trophy at its Critics' Choice ceremony in January.
Amid the rich and deep collection of episodes in that first season—which feels more like an assemblage of 10 short films—one stands out: "Parents." In this second episode, Dev and his friend Brian (based on Yang and played by Kelvin Yu) decide to take their immigrant parents out for dinner to learn more about them — especially their struggles to assimilate upon their arrival in America in the early 1980s.
The episode, one of two that Ansari directed, is hilarious and heartbreaking, with flashbacks showing younger versions of Dev's parents and Brian's dad and narrative twists and turns that keep viewers on their toes and add to the humor.
"That was one of the earliest we came up with," Ansari says. "It was before we had a writing staff or anything. We were just walking around the city, talking about what would be interesting episodes, and I said to Alan, 'What if we contrast my character's life with one of those immigrant merchants who sells the scarves on the sidewalks?' Then Alan told me his story about his dad.
"We had this immediate reaction of, 'Oh, this can be our parents' story.'" Yang's story — which involves his father having to kill a pet chicken to feed the family in 1958 Taiwan — is captured in the episode and is both moving and surprisingly funny. It's also 100 percent true.
"Oh, yeah, that's real," Yang confirms. Aside from being a great inspiration for the episode, the story also gave the pair the opportunity to tell a story like no other.
"One of the things that made us excited about the idea was that it was the kind of thing that only our show could do," Yang says. "With Dev and Brian both being the sons of immigrants, and being the main characters in the show, we just hadn't seen that before. The flashback ideas were very powerful to us. You're going to see India and Taiwan in 1958. The breadth of that, the scope, was something that really, really excited us."
Part of that excitement also came from the introduction of two potential stars: Fatima and Shoukath Ansari, the Indian couple who play Dev's parents and are, in fact, Aziz's real-life mom and dad.
Casting the roles was a bit of an ordeal. Ansari and Yang quickly landed on Clem Cheung to play Brian's father, Peter (Brian's parents — like Yang's — are divorced; his mom doesn't appear in this episode, but she might show up in a subsequent season).
However, they were having no luck casting Dev's parents, called Nisha and Ramesh in the show. That's when Ansari thought that maybe his father could handle the role of the dad. After all, it suited him perfectly.
"When we had the idea for this episode," Ansari says, "and I knew I wanted my dad to be a character, we wrote him just like my dad. My dad is pretty funny."
Yang adds: "His dad had been bugging me to put him into Parks and Rec for a while. Years. We auditioned a lot of actors, and a lot of them were good, but none of them really felt right."
"When I mentioned my dad to Alan," Ansari continues, "luckily, he knew him, and knew he could probably pull it off, and so we brought him to New York. I gave him the stuff, he memorized it at home, practiced with my mom. I remember the first time we rehearsed it together — as soon as he started, I was laughing. I immediately texted Alan and said, 'Dude, we're fine.'"
To say Shoukath Ansari is a natural is a bit of an understatement. He steals every scene he's in over his three episodes, and is responsible for some of the biggest laughs in "Parents."
Like when Dev gets him a guitar and some lessons, but instead of taking up an instrument he's always wanted to play, he tells his son to leave him alone and let him play video games, just as Dev had done as a child, 25 years earlier. Or, when he expresses his love of Iron Man movies.
"He can turn every single line into some sort of joke," his son says with pride. "He's not copying other people."
He does, however, have some serious competition from his wife, who had to be convinced to appear. Fatima Ansari resisted her son's entreaties for a while, but ultimately agreed to be a part of the show once she saw her husband rehearsing.
"She had been helping my dad with his lines, and then she got this attitude like, 'Well, if he can do it, I can do it,'" Ansari says, laughing throughout his recounting of the story. "She didn't want to do it, and I tried to explain how it wouldn't be hard. She said, 'I know I can do it — I just don't want to do it.' Eventually, she came around."
In the pivotal dinner scene—in which Dev and Brian sit in a Chinese restaurant with their parents — Fatima has a moment that is equal parts emotional and amusing.
When Dev asks her if she was excited when she first came to America, she very matter-of-factly tells him that she sat on the couch and cried. Does the dinner sequence, which is filled with such instances, serve as something of a microcosm for the entire season?
"It does, in a way," Yang says. "It's very personal. It's about us and our parents. There's funny stuff in it, there's jokes, there's emotional stuff and on top of that, there's a little bit of cinematic ambition with the flashbacks. It's this tiny piece of the show that represents a lot of the stuff we were trying to accomplish."
Building an episode like this one is an ambitious endeavor, certainly not without its share of challenges. One of the big ones was creating a pair of realistic sets depicting an Indian bazaar and a Taiwanese hut, both circa 1958, then shooting both sequences in the same day.
Something of a logistical nightmare, the shoot required two assistant directors (on a standard day, only one is needed), and featured a slew of novice actors, as well as livestock including a cow, oxen, horses, donkeys, peacocks and other assorted birds, all gathered together in an abandoned junkyard in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. And the location was right near the L subway line, so shooting had to stop every seven minutes as a train rumbled past,
"There were so many little details that went into it that really made it work," Ansari recalls. "And what's great is, when it came out, people thought it was real. What they say about special effects is that the best ones are the ones nobody talks about, because they think they're real. You don't even notice them. It was like that with the India and Taiwan stuff. It looked legit, so people bought it. It was a testament to every department coming through."
On top of that, there was the shooting of the dinner scene with other inexperienced thespians — namely Fatima and Shoukath — who had to sit on a hot restaurant set for hours, repeating lines over and over again, while a B unit was shooting next door. With Yang running back and forth between the sets, Ansari was busy with a sequence far more complicated than viewers might think.
"That was the day my parents were at their wits' end. They were like, 'We have to say this again?'" Ansari says with a laugh. "And then, at the end of the day, we put the camera on me and I had to say all my lines at once. I had, like, one shot to get it all in because we were out of time. I had spent so much time with them, getting every single version of every single line, to make sure we had it all."
Ansari and Yang will do a second season, but not until 2017 — they want to take time to insure that whatever they do next will measure up to what they've accomplished in their first go-round. The 10 episodes all stand on their own, but the co-creators admit that "Parents" is dearest to their hearts.
"I like a lot of the episodes for different reasons," Ansari says, "but that one obviously holds a special place because, you know, it's our parents. And my parents are actually in the episode."
"It's just so personal to us," Yang agrees. "It's definitely one of our favorites, if not the favorite."
All that might provide enough satisfaction, but this episode accomplished one other thing viewers might not expect: it helped Ansari and Yang get closer to their folks. There is a line in the show when Brian tells Dev that his father has never once, in his whole life, told his son that he's proud of him. That came from Yang's real-life experience
"My dad watched the episode, and then he texted me and said he really liked it," Yang says. "He also said, 'I'm proud of you.' So I guess that's the point of the episode. That I made my dad say that."