Where is Aziz’s phone?
That seems to be the most frequently asked question on the set of Master of None’s season two, most frequently by Aziz Ansari, the show’s star and co-creator. “I try not to keep my phone on me because I need to keep all distractions out of my face when I’m trying to do all of this s***,” he says. So he makes a point of handing it off to his assistant, Jessica, whose main job seems to be to keep Ansari’s phone charged and to run across this Brooklyn soundstage and fetch it whenever he wants it, which turns out to be always, and then to remind him that she’s already given it to him, which also is pretty often, and then to take it away again.
“Hey, Jess, do you have that phone?” Ansari asks for the second time in the first 10 minutes of our acquaintance.
“I just gave it to you,” says Jess.
Ansari glances down at his hand to find his phone. “Oh, you did! Oh, s***!”
There’s a text waiting for him: “‘We’re ready to start shooting ASAP.’ Jesus!” he says and hands the phone back to Jess.
Ansari spent seven seasons knocking out jokes as the ridiculous striver Tom Haverford on NBC’s Parks and Recreation and two years ago joined the ranks of stand-ups who’ve sold out Madison Square Garden. But this Netflix series is the most personal work of his life, and today he has reason to be frazzled. Not only is he directing this episode but he’s also in almost all of it, as Master of None’s hopeless-romantic hero, Dev Shah, who’s essentially Ansari, just less successful — a fledgling New York actor, living off a Go-Gurt commercial he once did, looking for love and some tasty tortellini.
This season, Dev falls for an unavailable woman, and Ansari wrote so much good stuff that he asked Netflix to make the penultimate episode a two-parter. Creatively, it’s a coup; logistically, not so much. They had to extend the shooting schedule by weeks, and his inner circle for making the show — co-creator and former Parks writer Alan Yang; producing partner and co-star Eric Wareheim, who plays Dev’s buddy Arnold; and Ansari’s actual younger brother, Aniz, his long-haired, scruffy opposite who’s a crucial writer, joke-maker and sanity keeper on set — all have to leave New York before everything wraps. Oh, and half the dialogue isn’t working.
Ansari, 34, has a voice one octave down from a chipmunk’s, with a slight South Carolina accent that gets thicker the more excited he gets. His white sneakers look pretty fly and his iPhone is filled with Italian ballads from the 1960s. He’s the son of Muslim immigrants from southern India, and once had a colloquial fluency in Tamil, though he now uses the language, he jokes, mostly to have secret conversations with his family around white people. And it is an amazing sight, in these fraught times, to see him, both in front of and behind the camera, leading the charge of this ambitious single-camera comedy that he created with Yang, who’s the son of Taiwanese immigrants.
There’s nothing intrinsically political about Master of None. It’s a sweeter, less cynical, thirtysomething Louie, about a good guy who doesn’t always succeed at life — albeit with a unique ability, because of its star and creators, to make social commentary on subjects that few other shows can, such as casual racism toward South Asians in Hollywood, or what it’s like to sacrifice everything to immigrate to a country and raise children so ungrateful they can’t make time to help you fix your iPad.
The latter conflict is depicted in “Parents”, an episode that won Ansari and Yang a comedy-writing Emmy, and that starred Ansari’s real-life dad, Shoukath, a gastroenterologist, and mum, Fatima, who runs Shoukath’s medical offices. As their son recently joked about them in his monologue while hosting Saturday Night Live, they’ve moved once since coming to America in the early 1980s, from South Carolina to North Carolina, so it’s pretty useless to tell them to go back to India.
Master of None and that SNL moment have marked a turning point for Ansari, whose comedy for the past decade has been almost anti-political. Longtime fans are more likely to know that he’s from the South than that his parents are immigrants. Ansari is not personally religious and he feels uncomfortable being pointed to as a model Muslim-American, not, he says, because he’s ashamed but because “religious people deserve a better representative than a guy who’s doing a show about f***ing and drinking and eating pork all the time.” His introduction to mainstream America came as the character of Haverford on Parks, the fourth banana in a small-town Indiana parks department so eager for fame and fortune that he gave himself the Waspiest name possible and glued red carpet to the insides of his shoes.
And now Ansari finds himself in the tricky position of achieving his peak visibility, after so many years avoiding being typecast, at a time when half of America is thirsting for its Katniss Everdeen — and Ansari, as arguably the most famous Indian guy in the country, and someone whose family is personally affected every time an anti-Muslim screed comes out of the White House, looks the part, whether he wants it or not.
There’s always been something unlikely about Aziz Ansari’s rise. Or as his mentor, Chris Rock, puts it, “There’s no easy path to stand-up, but an Indian kid from South Carolina? That is some journey. He had to be really funny.” For starters, he grew up among white kids in Bennettsville, a town of 9000, where his family moved because there was a job opportunity for his dad. The Ansaris — Aziz, his parents and Aniz, seven years his junior — basically composed the entire Indian, and Muslim, population. (Well, Aniz tells me there was one other Indian family, with whom they didn’t socialise.)
Aziz left town at age 16 to go to a boarding school for gifted math students. He witnessed racism, like seeing patients request a doctor other than his dad, but it didn’t dominate his existence. His big dream wasn’t getting into comedy, it was leaving South Carolina. “Just moving to New York seemed crazy,” he says. “I remember hearing about this guy from my hometown that lived in New York, and I was like, ‘Wow! That guy lives in New York?’ That was enough.” He ended up at NYU, majoring in business with a minor in journalism. “Coasted like a true Indian,” he says. “Graduated with honours while coasting.”
He’d also graduated from cracking up his NYU dorm-mates to an obsession with stand-up comedy and later a cult following via Human Giant, the sketch-comedy show he co-created with Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer and Jason Woliner that ran on MTV for two seasons, starting in 2007. More than any other comic of that time, he came to epitomise what some people liked to see as the post-race idyll of the Obama years — a very loud, very funny guy who happened to be Indian, and who liked pacing around a stage doing rants about bedsheet thread count or telling insane stories involving Kanye West (a friend), R. Kelly and Seal. (He and Kanye, sadly, don’t hang out the way they used to. “It’s like anyone, man, they get married and have kids and you never see them.”)
Parks co-creators Mike Schur and Greg Daniels liked him so much they cast him before they’d even settled on the concept of their show. Schur says they’d just write in the words “This is where Aziz gets to do whatever he wants” every time they needed a scene to be funnier. “He was just this undeniable talent,” Schur says. “Of course, part of the reason he stood out is that he looked different, he sounded different, he had different cultural touchstones. But if his name weren’t Aziz Ansari and you had only ever heard him talk, you wouldn’t know what his ethnicity was.”
Much of this was a conscious choice on Ansari’s part. He’d taken a firm line, early in his career, to turn down stereotypically Indian parts — an experience he mined for season one’s other standout episode, “Indians on TV”, in which Dev competes with his friend Ravi (Ravi Patel) for a part on a sitcom, just to be told there can only be one Indian guy per show.
“When I first started out, there were a few times where it was like, ‘We want you to come in for this thing.’ I’d be like, ‘Do I have to do an accent?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah,’” Ansari says. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ I have nothing against people that do it, but I just kind of decided in my head that if I did that one time, I would get asked to do it every time, because even then I knew that people have a very limited imagination for what your talent is.”
He wanted to be in movies and he wanted to explore some emotional range as an actor, but every time he tried to branch out, he ran into a second kind of typecasting, as the guy who could only play really loud, outsize characters like Tom. “If I didn’t create Master of None, I don’t think many people would’ve thought, ‘Aziz can do that part.’”
When it became clear that Parks was wrapping up, he sat down with Yang to come up with a series they’d do together that, by virtue of putting a pretty cool thirtysomething Indian-American guy in the spotlight, would be different from anything else on television. Yang says, “What movie or TV show can you point to where the lead is an American dude who looks like me and Aziz? I can think of one — Harold & Kumar — and that movie’s like 13 years old!” (There have been others, usually starring John Cho of Harold & Kumar fame, not to mention Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project and Fresh Off the Boat, but yeah, not a ton.)
Master of None came out a few months before the controversy around #OscarsSoWhite, arriving into a bespoke-TV landscape where Girls still hadn’t given a person of colour a significant plotline, and Issa Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta were still a year away. Critics adored Ansari’s vision. “The year’s best comedy straight out of the gate,” raved the New York Times. The Emmys came, four nominations, one win — Netflix’s first for comedy writing. Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos tells me he’s pleased with viewership numbers, but more than that, with evidence that the show is penetrating the Zeitgeist, as people go on self-guided tours of the New York businesses featured on the show. “I’ve been in restaurants and heard people say, ‘This is the restaurant they went to in Master of None.’”
That was all, of course, before a man won the presidency while essentially promising to ban people like Ansari’s family from entering the country. For Ansari, Election Night was brutal. Season two was fully written and had started shooting, and he had to be on set at five the next morning. “It really f***ed with him,” says Wareheim. “It was hard for him to get in character and be silly.”
By coincidence, they were shooting a flashback montage based on something that happened to Aniz in New York after 9/11, when he was crossing the street and someone yelled, “Go back to Pakistan!” In the end, they cut the sequence. “Does seeing someone who looks like me starring in a show now mean something different than it did a year ago? Yeah, I would agree with that,” says Ansari. “But this show is not about, ‘Oh, Aziz is back to give the finger to Trump.’”
But while the Master of None universe can exist in a parallel reality, Ansari has to live in this one. In June 2016, he wrote an op-ed in the Times about how Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric made him afraid for his family (along with a tweet urging the then-candidate to “go f*** himself”) — which was the first time many of his longtime fans realised he’d grown up Muslim.
Then, in a genius move, SNL tapped him to host on the day after Trump’s inauguration. Ansari came to play: “Pretty cool to know, though, he’s probably at home right now watching a brown guy make fun of him, right?” He went on to offer a solution for ending Islamophobia — just stop playing that scary-ass Homeland music every time a Muslim person is praying on TV. If they just used some jaunty jazz, he said, “People would be like, ‘Man, Islam is one whimsical religion!’”
The monologue was a huge hit. Well, with everyone but embattled R&B singer Chris Brown, who wrote, “F*** NO!!!!!! Somebody tell ALADDIN HOP OFF MY D***!” on his Instagram in response to Ansari’s joke that Trump was the Chris Brown of politics — the guy you vote for if you’re willing to ignore everything about him as a person. “Oh, yeah, I’m so sorry,” says Ansari, sarcastically. “If you work really hard on something and the only person that’s upset with it is Chris Brown, you did a fantastic job. If he’s the only guy you couldn’t reach, job well done.”
What no one saw, though, were the 100 stand-up sets Ansari had done, mostly at New York’s Comedy Cellar, over the course of a month to get ready for his nine minutes on air. He’d skipped the holidays at home and performed up to nine times in a night. According to Rock, that’s what Ansari had to do to get out of his comfort zone.
“I remember he was running his [monologue] set by me and he was going to do all this relationship stuff,” says Rock, “and I was like, ‘Dude, you’re insane. You can’t be on Saturday Night Live the day after the inauguration and talk about getting a girlfriend. Tonight, you gotta be George Carlin. You gotta be political.’ And my man shifted into another gear.”
Ansari realised this was a platform he had to use. “You’ve got to accept, ‘OK, I’m in this position, I have to be somewhat responsible.’” And when it came time to figure out what material to cut for time, he says, “It’s like, ‘Well, I’m going to keep that Islamophobia thing in because no one else can really talk about that.’”
“You ever watch somebody get more famous right in front of your eyes?” says Rock. “I watched it that night, and it was like, ‘Oh, wow, you’re a bigger star right now than you were five minutes ago.’”
“Hey, Aziz, can I grab you for a sec?” someone wants to know. He disappears to put on a sweater that Dev is wearing in the next scene and immediately starts sneezing. “Ahhh, I’m so allergic!” he says, but he can’t take a Benadryl because he’ll be too foggy to act or direct, and he can’t take the sweater off because it’s been established in a previous scene. “Sorry, man,” he tells a concerned Yang. “I am a cutie-pie in this sweater.”
Nearby is Aniz, who was promoted to the show’s writer-on-set and whose main jobs seem to be tossing out jokes, talking Ansari down from boneheaded ideas and making fun of him in a comforting, little-brother way. “Having him and Eric [Wareheim] be with me and Alan is the only way I didn’t completely go mad this year,” says Ansari, who also does Transcendental Meditation twice a day. “All this job is, is just like 20 people going, ‘Aziz! Aziz! Aziz! Aziz! You need to answer this!’ And you’ve got your own questions and your own reactions: "Is this scene working? How do I do this?” Jerry Seinfeld turned him on to TM a couple years ago when Ansari did Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I used to do it once a day during Seinfeld. But once I started doing it twice a day, I was like, 'I could’ve done a bunch more seasons of the show.’ I was like, 'Whoa!'”
Ansari may not have asked for this, but if people need him, and Master of None, to stand for something right now, he’s OK with that. “Look, if there are kind of like these two visions of America, our show definitely takes place in the other America,” he says. “I mean, there’s one white guy around every now and then. Most of the time, you’re following me, a brown guy, and I’m doing stuff that brown guys don’t do in the other vision of America. I’m not just working in a convenience store serving white people sodas. I’m not part of a sleeper cell. I’m not giving my white friend dating advice and totally inept with women, like, ‘Ooh, I’ve never seen a bra before!’ This show is firmly rooted in the other path the country is headed toward.”
As they were creating the show, Yang says, zero thought went into making the cast more diverse because it’s based on his and Ansari’s lives. “And when we have dinner with our friends, 40 percent of the people at the table are already going to be an Indian guy or an Asian guy,” says Yang. “Parents” was one of the first episodes they wrote, and it came out of a brainstorming session in which Yang remarked that it was pretty amazing that his father grew up in a hut in a small village in Taiwan and had to kill his pet chicken for dinner and, one generation later, his son was sitting in a hotel room trying to come up with ideas for a TV show. “And Aziz was like, ‘First of all, is that true? That’s insane. I didn’t know that about you and we’ve known each other seven years. And second of all, why couldn’t that be the show?’” Yang recalls.
Right now, though, Ansari needs to worry about finishing season two, which begins with Dev having moved to Italy to learn how to make pasta following his breakup with his girlfriend, Rachel (Noël Wells). After the end of season one, Ansari really did take two weeks of intensive Italian lessons and move to the small town of Modena, about 25 miles outside Bologna, where he arranged to work in the kitchens of Hosteria Giusti and Boutique del Tortellino, making tortellini starting at eight in the morning. In the afternoon, he’d head back to his apartment and watch films from Italian masters. He wanted to direct more in the second season and expand his cinema knowledge. “I was just trying to crash-course a film school, watching all these older movies: De Sica, Antonioni, Godard.”
Meanwhile, his romantic life had taken a similar turn to Dev’s. Sometime after shooting ended for season one, Ansari and his girlfriend of more than two years, chef Courtney McBroom, broke up. Ansari is protective of his personal life — particularly for someone who makes a TV show based on his own dating experiences and who would call audience members up in front of all of Madison Square Garden during his stand-up shows to analyse their dating text messages, and who wrote an entire book, Modern Romance, with an actual sociologist, about dating in the age of Tinder, wherein he wrote several sweet passages about McBroom. He will say that he was single on that Italy trip and while shooting season two, and that, unlike Dev, he didn’t meet any romantic prospects. “I was really just hanging out with grandmas,” he says. “There was no young woman who worked in the pasta shop. It was me and a grandma named Angela. She was nice. We didn’t have any sparks.”
Master of None’s first season introduced the idea of each episode as a short film, complete with an opening-credit sequence and different title card every time. In shaping season two, Ansari and Yang thought back on the first season’s most conceptually ambitious episodes, including “Parents”, which is filled with flashbacks as Dev’s South Asian and his friend Brian’s East Asian immigrant families tease out their similarities and differences, and “Mornings”, which tells the story of Dev and Rachel’s relationship through a year of waking up together. “We were like, ‘Let’s make every episode that crazy,’” says Ansari, meaning he wanted to take risks with both cinematic form and subject matter.
Shooting the first episode in black-and-white and 70 percent in Italian is only the start. One episode expands on the concept of “Mornings”, tracing Dev’s friendship with Denise (played by black lesbian actor/writer Lena Waithe, and based on her life) through 30 years of Thanksgivings, many of which involve Denise bringing terrible girlfriends over to meet her mum. Another barely even has Dev in it, instead following a doorman, a cab driver and a deaf convenience-store cashier through relationship drama and roommate drama, as they live out their own versions of Master of None.
It’s a huge swing, but Ansari insists that it fits in with the show’s ethos of honouring perspectives not seen on TV. “Netflix was like, ‘Could we get the friends in there a little bit?’” says Ansari. “We were like, ‘No.’ And they’re like, ‘All right, do what you gotta do!’” There’s even an amazing plotline that delves into the dating life of Brian’s dad, who’s based on Yang’s dad, who really is divorced and ready to mingle. “What other show is depicting the dating life of a 70-year-old immigrant from Taiwan?” asks Yang. “But my dad legitimately is on eHarmony.”
“I mean, when someone [Netflix] is nice enough to trust you and let you do whatever you want,” says Ansari, “you better do some crazy s***, right?”
The one everyone will likely be talking about in season two is “Religion”, a lighthearted look at Dev’s efforts to hide his pork-eating habits from his Muslim parents. He’d gotten the idea from watching his dad pretend to be more religious around devout relatives. “It reminded me of that Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where Larry David pretends to be super-religious so he can get Richard Lewis a kidney,” says Ansari. “I was like, ‘There is a version of that with Islam and no one would believe me.’”
Ansari’s own relationship to religion has been complicated. The family practised Islam at home in South Carolina, but there wasn’t a mosque close by until their father helped build one, after both of his sons were out of the house. The kids learned the tenets in the Quran of being a good person, his parents took them to Mecca as teenagers, but Ansari stopped practising in college. Everything in the “Religion” episode is based on things that happened in the Ansari family, pre-Trump.
“I’m so glad we didn’t say anything [overt],” says Ansari. The better statement, he felt, was to just put his dad, an Indian Muslim doctor who likes Harry Potter and makes dumb jokes about Michael Jordan, on TV. “If every time you see a Muslim person, it’s the fucking guy from 24 or Homeland, yeah, it’s going to shape your opinion of all these people,” he says. “If every time you saw a Muslim person on TV, and it’s my dad, you’ll be like, ‘These goofy people! They’re probably gonna ask me for a bite of my sandwich.’ I don’t think Islamophobic people have hate in their heart. I’m not saying it’s justified, but representation is part of the problem.”
The only time Ansari bristles, in some 24 cumulative hours of us hanging out, is when I offhandedly remark that Master of None is a love letter to the blue states. “I made the show, and I’m from a red state,” he says. He’s getting agitated. “Look, don’t say ‘red-staters’, because when you say ‘red-staters’, you’re saying, like, ‘dumb, racist people’ and there are plenty of white people there who are not dumb, racist people. Maybe I’m just very quick to react when, as a culture, we try to paint this whole large group of people as one specific thing. Because that’s what, as a minority, you deal with all the time. It’s just people looking at you and being like, ‘You’re this. I know exactly what you are.’ And you’re like, ‘Shut up! That’s not me. You don’t know me.’”
Ansari wasn’t planning to take me to Curry Row in the East Village — a little on the nose — it just happens to be on the way to a record store he likes. But he needs to take a minute to savour the guy playing sitar in the window of one of the street’s infamously identical Indian restaurants, bathed in red light, who’s a dead ringer for peak-'90s Michael Bolton. “That is a white dude, right?” Ansari asks. “That would be great to see some Indian sitar player walk by, like, ‘What the f***!’”
We are on the second day of a two-day tour of Ansari’s New York, which seems to consist of five restaurants, two record stores and an occasional bookstore he goes to all the time in a 10-block radius in lower Manhattan. When we met up the second time, it’s actually Valentine’s Day (neither of us had plans) and he’s feeling self-conscious about the itinerary. “You’re making me re-examine my life! I don’t do anything interesting. I just eat and drink!”
He’s also in the middle of cramming — which includes taking two weeks of intensive Japanese lessons — to leave New York for three months in Japan, then France. “I’m trying to learn Japanese faster than anyone has ever learned Japanese!”
But what about season three? “I don’t know if we’re going to do a season three. I wouldn’t be surprised if I needed a looonng break before I could come back to it.” He only wants to take on another season if he feels like he can beat the one before it. Plus, it’s a show based on his life, and that means he has to take time to live a life, because he’s feeling a little tapped for experiences. “I’ve got to become a different guy before I write a third season, is my personal thought,” he says. “I’ve got to get married or have a kid or something. I don’t have anything else to say about being a young guy being single in New York eating food around town all the time.”
That means stand-up is off the table, too, for now. He’s on a semi-permanent hiatus because he can’t do that and try to become an auteur writer/director at the same time. Other than the prep for SNL, he’s been off stand-up since he started Master of None.
“I went one or two times when we were filming and even that was too much,” he says. “For me, it just becomes an obsession. Let’s say I dropped in at the Comedy Cellar and did a show at 8:30. I would try a couple of new things, and I’ll be like, ‘Let me tinker with that, and try and make it better.’ So I’ll do the 10 o’clock, and then the 11 o’clock, and then I don’t get home until midnight. And I’m wired, so I can’t go to sleep, and then I’m supposed to shoot at seven in the morning and I’m a zombie. I can’t casually do stand-up like that.” (Though Chris Rock tells me, “You know, I talked to him a week ago, and he was talking about getting onstage with me and Dave [Chappelle].”)
All of this was happening right after the travel ban, and just reading the news and knowing it existed was making him feel drained — “Just this whole treatment of immigrants like these second-class citizens, it’s very frustrating and hurtful. I just feel like, ‘Oh, we’re getting off on a technicality that my family just happens to be from India, and not one of these other countries where brown people are from.’” But he doesn’t get hassled personally at airports. “I’m like the luckiest Muslim-born person. Everyone at Homeland Security knows who I am. They tell me they like my work,” he says.
Our last stop is McNally Jackson books, where Ansari wants to look for something to read as he travels. He picks up a book by Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize winner who’s now living in Rome and who wrote a memoir in Italian. “She’s going to see articles about me and Master of None saying, like, ‘Oh, he learned Italian,’ and be like, ‘F*** you! I wrote a book in Italian!’”
At checkout, a fan in a turban approaches and asks Ansari to sign a copy of Modern Romance that he’s about to buy, even though he already has the book at home. “I got this, you already got a copy. I get a cut of it anyway,” says Ansari, plunking down his credit card. He gets the man’s name and scribbles on the title page: “To Karanjit, sorry you got boned into buying two copies.”
Two months later, my phone rings. It’s Ansari WhatsApp-ing from Paris. He’s just arrived there from having spent two months in Tokyo, mostly recreating his New York life, going to cafés and restaurants, and writing a movie script he can’t tell me about. He’s been doing this thing where he leaves his phone at home, so he won’t be tempted to get on WiFi, and wanders the city with a notebook of hand-drawn maps. Wareheim came to visit, and so did foodie friend and Momofuku empire-builder David Chang, who reports to me, “This f***ing guy studied Japanese for two weeks and he sounded like he’d been living in Japan for 25 years.”
Ansari was notably less guarded. For as much time as he’d given me in New York, for as willing as he was to offer an opinion on almost every topic, for as nice as he was, it wasn’t until our final hour in person and that phone call that I felt like I was glimpsing the person that he sometimes referred to as “real Aziz”, someone who wasn’t constantly self-editing in his head. Wareheim tells me he experienced something similar. “I’ve known him for six years,” he says. “It takes years. But now we talk on the phone every night like we’re teenagers.”
Soon, he’s due back Stateside to promote the new season, which premieres on May 12. He’s proud of it, and he’s confident it won’t be a disaster. “If you liked the first season, maybe you’ll like that season better, but I don’t know how you could watch this season and be like, ‘This is f***ing garbage!’ To me, the game is just longevity.” He realises that the uncompromising way he’s made Master has been a rarity. And he hopes to make a movie someday soon that’s as well received. What he’d like to do is follow the path of great directors who keep being productive even if some of the stuff isn’t amazing. “I’m gonna make something that’s pretty s****y soon,” he says. “And I just hope that after I make that s****y thing, that people will let me try to make something good again.”
This article originally appeared on Vulture ©2016 All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency. A version of this article appears in the May 1, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.