Alan Yang

Alan Yang

Courtesy Alan Yang
May 24, 2021
Online Originals

A Cultural Perspective

As one of the most prominent Asian American writer/producer/directors in the industry, much of Alan Yang’s work reflects the cultural aspects of his community

Alan Yang may be known for Parks and Recreation and Master of None, which just dropped its third season on Netflix, but many may not realize he actually cut his comedy teeth on South Park.

Although the vast majority of his work is on the page, as a showrunner or behind the camera, Parks & Rec fans may recognize Yang from when he appeared on screen in a band fronted by Chris Pratt.

The Riverside, Calif. native has racked up a steady stream of awards recognition during his career, including a Primetime Emmy in 2016 for writing an episode of Master of None based upon his parents, who immigrated to the US from Taiwan.

That statuette was shared with co-creator and writer (and series star) Aziz Ansari, making the two men the first writers of Asian descent to take the prize in that category.

Yang co-wrote all five episodes of the show's new season, which takes a dramatic turn from previous runs of the program centering on Ansari's life as a single man in New York City.

In the four years since Season 2 debuted, Yang has directed and written a feature film, created a series for Amazon Prime Video and is hard at work on a new comedy.

In a wide-ranging conversation that touched on past and current projects and how the landscape has changed for Asian Americans since he started in the business, we spoke with Yang by phone as he took a break from the writers room of his as yet untitled Apple TV+ comedy.

Tell us more about the Season 3 concept of Master of None, which focuses on Lena Waithe's character Denise and her wife Alicia, played by Naomi Ackie. What else distinguishes this season from the past seasons, which centered on Dev's life in NYC?

This season is an intimate in-depth look at the relationship between Denise and Alicia. It's a departure in a couple of different ways in that it focuses on Denise, it's a little more dramatic, a little quieter and we hope better observed.

It feels more grounded and real. We have watched classic movies and it's unbelievable the care they took in depicting relationships. We wanted to look at a relevant relationship, and have a queer Black relationship at the center of it.

Talk about the creative shift for Aziz Ansari, who directed all five episodes of the new season with the full title Master of None Presents: Moments in Love.

We secretly had a plan in the back of our heads to do something like this a few years ago, to pivot and even to change the tone. Maybe future seasons look and feel different than this one. It's the same people behind the camera, but a different focus.

Your partnership with Aziz goes back to your days on the now iconic sitcom Parks and Recreation. How did your working relationship develop from there?

I was one of the first writers, and he was one of the first actors on the show. We were 20-something guys who were probably going to get along because we shared the same sensibility. We did hit it off and started hanging out.

We had this connection, and liked the same movies and TV shows. Master of None is a result of that serendipity. No one works as hard as Aziz. It's a fruitful relationship. He's grown so much as a writer-director, and we like to push each other to be better with everything.

How would you like to have viewers respond to Season 3 of Master of None?

We're hoping fans will grow and change - just as we have. It's a matter of trust. We feel this season is maybe the most exciting we've made. Even for viewers who didn't see the first two, if you're a fan of relationship dramas and rom-coms you don't have to have seen them to enjoy the show. Hopefully new fans will hop on board.

Shifting gears, you teamed with the Ad Council to fight anti-Asian racism during the pandemic. How is the campaign going?

Sadly, we've seen cases of AAPI hate going up. We made that short film a year ago, and spoke with real victims of incidents across the country, trying to spread awareness about an issue that is real.

I spoke to the people myself, but that is just the first step. There was a recent poll showing 42% of those surveyed couldn't name an Asian American person. I believe Jackie Chan scored second percentagewise with 11% and he's not even American. Yet I feel we've made great strides in increasing awareness.

What have you experienced as an Asian American in Hollywood and how do you see diversity and inclusion efforts impacting the community?

It's been such an increase in consciousness over the course of my career. When I started, this conversation wasn't happening. If it was, it was at a quiet volume. I hadn't even worked with another Asian American, but it's good to see consciousness being raised slowly but surely. Look at the Oscars. We see people in our peer group excelling and that's really exciting and gratifying.

I've been pretty fortunate. Parks & Rec was an open and open-minded workplace. From then on, me and Matt Hubbard teamed up and I've been fortunate to be in control of hiring and casting.

Yet some friends who are actors and below the line people find opportunities limited - and that continues to be the case. You and your friends are going out for the same role of the third best friend and that's only beginning to change. Change has to happen all over, including in the executive suite, and through the ranks.

Let's talk about the feature film you wrote and directed, Tigertail, released last April on Netflix, and how you developed the story. You describe the film as a love letter to your family - and to all Asian immigrants out there.

I was overwhelmed by the response to it. It is so personal and so specific. We shot in my father's hometown and in the sugar factory where he and his mom worked in Taiwan. To see that movie related to by a lot of people was amazing. They were reaching out and saying how they related to the father-daughter relationship, the divorce, the lost love and the regret. It was something very intensely personal yet very universal.

Congrats on Little America being named to the Television Academy Honors this year and its BAFTA nom. Tell us about the second season of the anthology series, which looks at the inspiring and sometimes surprising story of immigrants in America.

We are hard at work on it. Sian Heder, who made a big splash with the film CODA at Sundance is helping shape the scripts with Lee Eisenberg, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. I think Little America tells these true stories based on people from all over the world and connects to all kinds of people watching.

You have a new half-hour comedy for Apple TV + you created with cowriter and Parks & Rec vet Matt Hubbard, starring Maya Rudolph and as recently announced, Pose's Mj Rodriguez. Looks like we will wait for the title, but tell us more about the show.

We have a terrific writers room, and with Mj and Maya, this one's gonna be fun. It's about a woman getting divorced, but left with $87 billion. With the Bezos and Gates divorces, it' imitating life. It's a comedic show, with a big-tent ensemble cast, one you can sit back and enjoy. Yet there are overtones of what's going on in today's world in some of the themes.

This is your second project with Maya Rudolph, after Forever, in which she starred with Fred Armisen. Have you been a fan of hers - and his - since their SNL days?

I met Maya years ago, and recently found a photo of me, Maya, Aziz, and Rashida Jones at a party. Maya is one of the rare humans who is really, really funny but also delivers on dramatic moments. She's a delight, and I watched Bridesmaids again just recently.

In Forever, they're playing normal people, and that's what kind of appealed to me. People mention that they check it out on Amazon; it's a hidden gem. It wraps up the story in one season, and we had a great time making it.

More articles celebrating Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month.


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