Following seven seasons on Parks and Recreation as Tom Haverford, a sarcastic, local government employee with unrealized entrepreneurial skills and aspirations, Aziz Ansari, only 33 years old, really came into his own as a comedian, actor and producer with the Netflix series, Master of None.
Not confined to the conventions of a traditional sitcom, Ansari and co-creator Alan Young pushed the limits of what their show could be. Master of None, which stars Ansari as Dev Shah, a commercial actor, tells stories about what it’s like to be an Indian American -- or anyone who is not a straight, white guy, for that matter -- living in New York City and working in the entertainment industry. With episodes like “Indians on TV” and “Parents,” Ansari and Young dealt with issues of race and immigration, while “Mornings” and “Nashville” showed audiences that romances can be told in ways other than the typical rom-com way.
“When we were writing the show, Alan and I were thinking to ourselves, ‘Who knows if we'll get a second season or if we'll ever get an opportunity like this [again],’” Ansari tells ET about the creation of the show. “Basically, Netflix is letting us do what we want and we have such creative freedom, let's really take advantage of that and do something crazy.”
“We went through every idea we had,” Ansari says. “I think that’s part of the mission statement of the show. We wanted to do something ambitious that went beyond doing another show about a guy in his 30s and his friends hanging out. We wanted to push the form and try to do unconventional things with the narrative and really just write to the stories and ideas.”
The push for unconventional ideas is what led to “Mornings,” which started off as an episode about a double date but ended up being about a year in Dev and Rachel’s (Noel Wells) relationship told through different morning vignettes. “We had an outline for it, and I was like, ‘We can do this on any show,’” Ansari recalls, before channeling his own dating life into the episode. “In the writers' room, I told some story about something about an early morning situation with me and my girlfriend at the time. And they were like, ‘Wow, that's one of the most intimate things you've shared with us.’ And I thought about that and I was like that is a really intimate time when you wake up in the morning and you're with your partner.”
The creative process is also what led to one of the show’s most talked about episodes, “Indians on TV,” which opens with a montage of non-Indian actors, such as Ashton Kutcher, Fisher Stevens and Max Minghella, portraying Indian characters and sees Dev confront the idea of what it means to be Indian on TV when he goes on two different auditions and encounters racist producers.
“My hope was that it would get people to talk,” Ansari says. “I thought it was a pretty powerful thing to see. For me, as an Indian American, and anyone who we showed it to who was not Indian American, they were just like, ‘Wow, that's pretty crazy. I’ve never seen this thrown together in this way.’ It's a very powerful statement.”
While he confronted Stevens about his role in Short Circuit 2 for an essay for The New York Times and has spoken to Minghella, Ansari has not heard from any of the other actors in the montage -- and he was quick to add both Fisher and Minghella were “cool” about the whole experience. “I don’t have anything against those guys,” he says. “I don’t think they’re bad people.”
In fact, thanks, in part, to the show and that particular episode, Ansari has been at the forefront of recent discussions about diversity in Hollywood and Asian whitewashing onscreen. “I can’t control what other people do,” Ansari says when asked if speaking out will only increase tokenism onscreen instead of actually expanding the diversity of storytelling. “It’s a problem that, unfortunately, there’s no quick fix. It’s going to take time.”
But he does credit people like Michael Schur, co-creator of Parks and Recreation, and director J.J. Abrams, both of whom he says “really do go out of their way to have a genuine kind of diversity” onscreen and in the writers’ room. “You see that this stuff works and the audience responds to it,” Ansari says, whether it’s his series or The Fast and the Furious franchise. “That looks like America to people. Hopefully, it becomes a thing where audiences respond to it and it takes effect in that way as well.”
While he’s proud to speak out, Ansari does admit the whole experience can be daunting. “There are so few voices of your kind because you’re a minority,” Ansari says, speaking to the added burden and responsibility of having a platform. “Your voice is amplified in the community and there’s this pressure to handle that in a certain way.”
It’s a similar sentiment to what America Ferrera, who has also spoken about tokenism and diversity onscreen, told ET. “As actors of color, there is that pressure to feel responsible to take roles that are representative of everyone,” she said. To which, Ansari says, “What can you do? You're not going to please everybody.”
Luckily, for the most part (“Ninety-nine point nine percent of the feedback has been pretty positive,” he says), Ansari has.