Typically, the makers of television comedy do not research to any great extent the subjects their programmes cover – connecting with grandparents, for instance, or learning how pasta is made. Then again, Master of None isn’t a typical television comedy.
The star, Aziz Ansari, is a 32-year-old American of Indian descent, his best friend is played by a Taiwanese-American actor and another character is a gay African-American woman. In the single-camera comedy, the actors play loose versions of themselves and Ansari’s real mother and father – Fatima and Shoukath – appear as his onscreen parents.
Set entirely in New York, the show features a lot of talking and walking along the streets (as in Sex and the City, the Big Apple itself is a character) and the friends clustered around tables in real bars and restaurants, ruminating on such commonplace subjects as finding love, impending parenthood and spending time with the parents they are neglecting. It is warm-hearted and authentic, and has found a global audience through its appearance on Netflix.
“In our second round of discussions with Netflix, this show was referred to as ‘comedic investigative journalism’,” says Michael Schur, executive producer of Master of None, when we meet at a Netflix shindig in Pasadena, California. “The idea was the episodes would have a certain theme about them, but that the characters wouldn’t be passive; they would be actively interested in that theme. The characters would seek out the answers to the questions they had. Once that working theory was put into place, everything became clear.”
That approach is paying dividends; along with drug cartel drama Narcos, Master of None is among the most popular of the streaming vehicle’s original programmes worldwide, according to Netflix executives. Ansari was recently nominated for a Golden Globe for his role and the show itself has been accumulating awards.
The storyline unfolds around the life of Dev Shah (Ansari), a semi-successful actor, and his friends Brian (Kelvin Yu), Rachel (Noel Wells), Arnold (Eric Wareheim) and Denise (Lena Waithe). Each episode is predicated on something fairly trivial yet thought provoking: a bedroom mishap leads Dev to consider having children; he is attracted to a married woman (Claire Danes); he spends time with the grandparents of his friends.
The slapstick and quirkiness of other popular sitcoms are absent; there are no memorable one-liners. Instead, Ansari’s likeability and crisp humour provide a foil for his co-stars: Arnold is lovably self-deprecating and has clearly perfected the art of the deadpan delivery; Brian is cool and unruffled; Denise is full of pithy, sometimes raunchy observations, which she dispenses over cocktails and beer. The set-ups feel organic.
The show was co-created by Ansari and Alan Yang, who, in 2009, was named one of Variety magazine’s top 10 screenwriters to watch. Yang and Ansari had worked together on the critically acclaimed political sitcom Parks and Recreation, the seven-season run of which ended last year.
“We were both the younger kids on that show,” says Yang. “Aziz was one of the youngest cast members, I was one of the youngest writers, and we hit it off. We went to restaurants and parties together. We had similar comedic sensibilities. And as that show was winding down, we thought, ‘Why not jeopardise this friendship by working together?’ “I feel like our personalities preceded what the actual idea for the show would be. And then we got Mike on board.”
A producer and writer, Schur is best known for his work on the American version of The Office, in which he also had a small acting role, and Parks and Recreation, which he co-created.
Yang says he was able to sell the show to Netflix when it was still in the concept stages. All that was known at that stage, he says, was that Ansari would be the star, he and his friend would write and Schur would supervise.
“We had a year to let that idea gestate and we wrapped Parks and Recreation immediately after sealing that deal. But as Aziz and I talked, the idea that kept coming up was about how we could do a show where each episode could be about its own theme. It could be any idea, emotion, anything that we’re passionate about. To Netflix’s credit, when we approached them with that idea, they were open to it, even if it sounded a little weird, a little ambitious, unusual in its form.”
Certainly, the characters are engaging; Yang has heard from admirers as diverse as a “75-year-old white dude who is a bartender, and my 30-year-old Jamaican Uber driver”.
“There is that sense of listening to other people, considering what it might be like to live in their shoes,” says Yang. “We tried to walk the walk. If we were doing an episode about old people, we went out and interviewed them, had lunch with them at their senior centres, tried to soak up as much as we possibly could, to be like sponges and learn about their experiences.”
For an episode that features Brian’s parents, Yang’s father sent him photos of the house in Taiwan in which Yang senior grew up and a replica of it was built.
Yang, Ansari and Wareheim are foodies, and that obsession shows up in the series, too: many scenes are shot in eateries and bars such as popular bistro Dirty French and Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right, a purveyor of live music and the “best food from Bangkok”.
“These are places we really hang out in,” says Wareheim. “We’d have dinner at Mission Chinese the day before and then say, ‘Hey, let’s shoot this scene here at this place, that our friends own!’ “There are now people who do restaurant and bar tours of the places in the show; they are the best and coolest places. It’s going to be fascinating to people who don’t live in New York … because they will be entertained by it. It’s such a time capsule of what’s going on in that specific scope.”
Says Yang, “To me, it’s an interesting document of what it’s like to be in New York City and be 30 [in the present day]. Even if it’s not your experience, I’d be fascinated to know what that’s like, as long as it’s specific and real.
“There’s emotional truth to it, and that’s what’s important.”
That truth may have emerged, says Wareheim, because there isn’t much “acting” involved: “There’s only one role I can do, and that’s myself. I don’t have the range to go outside of that. It’s a cool work environment, where we’re allowed to ad lib and try different things to make it really be natural.
“A lot of our dynamic on screen is how we are in real life,” he says. “We are always talking about girls and food, and that’s really the role.”
Yu, however, prefers to stick to the script: “You can [improvise] if you want, but Alan and Aziz are no slouches [as writers]. What’s on the page is pretty damn funny, and that’s what ends up being in the final cut. But there is always that freedom.”
As a result, says Yu, Brian “has 600 times more confidence than I do”.
“I think there’s something interesting about showing an Asian male who glides through life without any friction. I try to play Brian a little bit more pumped up than I really am. In real life, I kind of freak out. And I don’t know if they could have done this in any other city. So much of it is around the anxiety of being alive, the anxiety of choice. You can’t do that in Los Angeles, or in Tucson, Arizona. You have to do that in New York.
“[We] were able to make a show that had something for everybody; generally that’s a bad thing, when you try and please everyone. But it’s a testament to the broad appeal that Aziz has. It’s a show that’s totally different every time you click on it,” says Yu, like a born salesman.
Having begun acting in theatre at the age of 13, Yu had worked with Ansari and was introduced to Yang because “we were both Chinese-American comedy writers, and by law we had to meet”.
Wareheim says he was originally tapped to direct the series, but at the last minute auditioned for the part of Arnold.
“At first, I didn’t want to do it,” he says. “It seemed like a lot of work. I just don’t like working. But Aziz said I could throw away the lines, that I could make it sound like me. I felt like that was something I could do.”
Of course, now he’s glad that he stepped up to the plate.
“I’ve never made anything that had 100 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes,” says Wareheim, of the review aggregator site, on which the critics’ consensus of the show is: “Exceptionally executed with charm, humour, and heart, Master of None is a refreshingly offbeat take on a familiar premise.”
“I literally felt that Aziz made a deal with the devil, that we are getting all this perfect press,” says Wareheim.
Schur says he’s not surprised the series has had a positive response.
“I was in a supervisory role but when I would watch the episodes as they came in, I felt very strongly that it was special, that there was something gratifying about it. Aziz is really funny, the cast is funny, the episodes are about things we all know – parents, relationships, old people, what it’s like to be a minority, about people and their friends and families in real situations. It happens to be about an Indian guy and his Taiwanese best friend and his lesbian African-American best female friend, but that’s just the background. It’s not the point of the episodes.
“They are just good stories, well told.”
The 10-episode first season of Master of None premiered in Hong Kong on Netflix last month and is available anytime for streaming to subscribers.
Five places to eat and drink that feature in the series
Dev and his friends gather to swap stories in or outside everything from jazz bars to trendy fro-yo places and taco trucks. And according to the show's insiders, rabid fans of Master of None are embarking on self-guided tours of New York to sample the same culinary delights.
Here are some of the most popular:
In the heart of downtown Manhattan, this lively restaurant serves popular brunch dishes with a gourmet twist (think baked eggs and avocado with crushed tomato sauce and manchego cheese). Much of the appeal is the location: the eatery is housed in a townhouse that dates back to the 1830s.
Shun Lee Palace
On the East Side, this place, which opened in 1971, bills itself as the city's first fine dining Chinese restaurant. The sophisticated interiors (think frosted glass panels and subdued lighting) and expansive menu (Sichuan leg of lamb with leek and hot peppers) make it a popular venue for private parties as well.
Located in the Ludlow Hotel, on the Lower East Side, the menu here is "French bistro" in theme. The Dirty Dejeuner menu includes updated lunch classics such as roasted chicken breast with endive lettuce and preserved tomato, and a lamb burger with cumin onions.
In the height of summer, expect to see a line outside this popular new addition to the gourmet ice-cream-shop landscape. No junky ingredients at this Lower East Side shop, just fresh and natural dairy (and sorbets for vegans), with inventive flavours such as cardamom lemon jam and rose pepper cherry.
El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette
Also on the Lower East Side, the El Rey is both hip and healthy, with plenty for vegans, vegetarians and those on a gluten-free diet. Breakfast dishes include chia seed pudding with coconut, almond and fruit, and later diners can opt for shaved cauliflower with chickpea vinaigrette or octopus salad with black bean purée.