The comedian and actor wrote a book about relationships, sold out Madison Square Garden twice in the same night, toured with Amy Schumer, and launched a hilarious and diverse Netflix series. What's next?
Illustration by Elizabeth Renstrom
This story appears in the December issue of VICE magazine.
Sometime around 2008, the website AzizIsBored.com began redirecting to the more straight-ahead AzizAnsari.com. Old website names can tell you something about their creators, in this case, actor and comedian Aziz Ansari. When AzizIsBored.com was first purchased, in 2005, Ansari was finishing up a marketing degree at NYU, hitting up open mics and comedy nights around the city. Since then, he's become one of America's most popular stand-ups and distinctive comedic actors, selling out national tours and starring alongside Amy Poehler for seven seasons on the hit TV show Parks and Recreation. Since this time last year, Ansari has published Modern Romance, an engaging and unexpectedly research-driven pop-psychology book on relationships in the digital age; sold out Madison Square Garden twice in the same night; toured with Amy Schumer; and, not least of all, created and starred in a new show, Master of None, which debuted ten episodes in November to wide acclaim and a slew of media coverage, from Fresh Air to Fallon. These days, it seems safe to assume, the prolific 32-year-old has been less bored. Aziz Is Really Busy would seem more like it.
A few days before the show's release, I met Ansari for lunch at an upscale bagel spot in SoHo, where the hostesses and server greeted him with familiarity (whether it was as a celebrity or a regular customer was hard to say). Although he now lives in Manhattan—and has on and off since enrolling at NYU in 2001—a lot is made of Ansari's being a native son of South Carolina, where I was born and raised, also by Asian immigrant parents. I wanted to know what his experience of growing up in Bennettsville, a town of 9,000 with an Asian population of less than 0.5 percent, was like.
"It was weird," he said, "but it was one of those things where I'd never lived anywhere else or had a frame of reference to know it was weird at the time. I was the only minority; it was only white kids in my school. People always ask me, like, 'Were people racist?' And I'm like, 'No, not really.' I mean, occasionally, but it was never super mean, not as mean as, like, other crazy stories I've heard from friends."
This wasn't the answer I had expected, given my own experience of small-town South Carolina, which I found to be a fairly antagonistic place, more in line with the nuanced if blunt observations to be found in Ansari's act, when he describes the state as a crossroads between racism and good biscuits.
I asked whether growing up as an outsider had shaped his perspective as a comedian, and Ansari redirected the question. "Again, you don't feel that when you're there," he said. "Like, me being an Indian guy from South Carolina was not treated as such a crazy thing until I came to New York. It was not a thing in South Carolina; it's now when it's a thing."
"We're a generation that has so many choices, that finds it really hard to make its choices. Your thirties is when you finally have to fucking make those choices."
After our server stacked an impressively architectural arrangement of our dishes—including plates of whitefish salad, sable, and meticulously sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onion, with other salads and a basket of everything bagels to the side—we constructed our sandwiches and discussed the origins of his show. As the semiautobiographical character Dev, a struggling Indian American actor in New York, Ansari makes his way through his early 30s like many in his demographic—going on dates, attending weddings, grabbing coffee with friends, cooking pasta for his girlfriend (Noël Wells), reevaluating his relationship with his aging parents, and trying to get ahead in his career—in short, he's a rounded character whose parents happen to come from India. Starring as members of Ansari's inner circle of friends are Kelvin Yu, Lena Waithe, Ravi Patel, and Eric Wareheim (of the comedy duo Tim & Eric)—"my token white friend," Ansari recently quipped to Jimmy Fallon. The cast is a refreshing change from the historically lily-white worlds of similar ensemble comedies set in New York—Girls, Seinfeld, Friends, the list goes on—where people of color rarely appear in any significant way.
Co-creators Ansari and Alan Yang, a writer on Parks and Recreation, set out simply to do "a premium-cable-type show, with cursing and no content restrictions." But when they started writing, they realized that they were in a unique position to tell stories informed by the kinds of personal experiences that are rarely shown on TV, as they did in the episode "Parents," which dramatizes the divide between immigrants and their American-born children and features Ansari's actual parents as Dev's parents.
"No show starring a white guy is going to do an episode like 'Indians on TV,'" Ansari told me, referring to the standout episode that deals with racist stereotypes and quotas in media. He brought up a recent round table with Empire creator Lee Daniels. "Black people hate white people writing for black people," Daniels told the audience. "It's so offensive."
"I really related to that because a lot of times people don't get it right," Ansari explained. For Master of None, he worked closely with Waithe to develop the character of Denise, Dev's friend, who is a black lesbian. "[Lena] really helped tailor everything to make it sound right, and there's stuff in there that I wouldn't have been able to write without her help. I try to be very conscious of that issue with all the characters."
That a show as diverse and representative as Master of None exists is offered by some as evidence of changing times in the TV industry, where diversity has finally started creeping in, with shows created by and starring people of color, such as Empire, Key and Peele, The Mindy Project, and Fresh off the Boat, among others. Still, Ansari isn't convinced. "Guess what?" he'd said during an Entertainment Weekly panel in October. "Every other show is still white people." Ansari told me how Brian, Yu's character, was an important one for them to get right. "Asian guys have had such a rough time in their representation in film and television. That's one thing Alan always used to say: 'You think everything's all right? When's the last time you've seen an Asian guy kiss someone?' Only in the past few years has that really happened.
"They don't fuck anybody at the end of those movies," he added, laughing, and it's worth noting that is not the case in Master of None. Sex plays in Ansari's stand-up act too, in the exaggerated form of now retired frat-bro alter ego Randy (or, as he calls him, Raaaaaaaandy, "with eight A's"), who boasts of such feats as giving cunnilingus while underwater and receiving blowjobs in an igloo.
But Dev is a far cry from Randy or from the role Ansari is best known for, Tom Haverford, the catcalling government employee he played on Parks and Recreation. The new character's views about sex and women are more like the real-life Ansari's, whose 2015 Live at Madison Square Garden comedy special included bits about how frequently women are harassed by men—basically all the time. This reality is echoed in the episode "Ladies & Gentlemen," which shows the stark difference between a female character's frightening late-night walk home, tailed by a stranger, and the 2 AM jaunt of Dev and Arnold (Wareheim), set to the tune of "Don't Worry, Be Happy." When Dev finds out about her experience, he seeks to better understand—and help enact some change.
It's a socially-engaged approach to making comedy, as well as to just being a decent human being, which still isn't without its drama. "[Dev's] figured his shit out for the most part," Ansari told me, helping himself to some whitefish salad. "But that's still scary. You're like, 'All right. I guess this is who I am as an adult.' Whether you decide to get married or have a kid, that changes the course of your life. We're a generation that has so many choices, that finds it really hard to make its choices. Your thirties is when you finally have to fucking make those choices."
Making the right decisions in a world overloaded with choices is a primary theme, too, in Modern Romance. "Historically, we're at a unique moment," Ansari and his co-author, psychologist Eric Klinenberg, write. "No one has ever been presented with more options in romance... With all these choices, how can anyone possibly be sure that they've made the right one?" The mood of inquiry continues throughout Master of None. Constantly, characters are bogged down by things that need deciding: whether to go to Nashville on a first date, whether to break up or settle down, whether to do a racist accent to land a role, where to get tacos. It's over these conversations that Master of None lingers and ruminates with a patient, if occasionally slack, naturalistic style.
"Our influences were a lot of these seventies films where things have a little bit more room to breathe," Ansari explained. "Now I think the instinct is just so fast-paced. We wanted to slow it down," he said, citing influences such as Woody Allen, Hal Ashby, The Heartbreak Kid, and The Graduate. He complimented Richard Linklater's Before trilogy for its "natural-sounding dialogue."
"No, no one cares. It doesn't matter what the ethnicity of these characters is, as long as it's real and funny and good."
As we finished lunch, our conversation returned to "Indians on TV." The episode opens with a brutal montage of Indian caricatures in media, ranging from Ashton Kutcher hawking potato chips in brownface to that guy who eats chilled monkey brains in Indiana Jones. Next we see Dev and Ravi's auditions for a role as a cab driver. When asked to read in an accent, Ravi, played by Patel, is fine with it, but Dev protests and isn't called back. A little later, the two are vying for spots on a sitcom but are flatly told, "There can't be two."
"My favorite thing about [the episode is that] it's proving the point the whole time," Ansari said. "It's saying no, no one cares. It doesn't matter what the ethnicity of these characters is, as long as it's real and funny and good."
What carries Master of None, ultimately, is these moments when one senses a funny yet piercing truth in the scenarios, a kind of personal testimony. At their best, these moments deliver something reminiscent of the hilarious yet searing social critiques of Chris Rock and Louis CK, two of Ansari's comedy heroes, but are also original in their mash-up of immigrant narratives and cultural issues such as gender privilege and stereotyping in the media.
"That opening scene of me at the audition, like, that's real," Ansari admitted toward the end of our meal. "You go into an audition and you see all these Indian guys there and you're like, 'Oh, I get it. I know what this is going to be.' And [when] someone asks you do to an audition in an accent, it's a weird moment. And you do have to decide if you're going to do it or not. Some people are comfortable with doing it; other people are not. We tried to get all the kinds of perspectives."
As we left the restaurant, Ansari came across a friend, a well-dressed Asian-American woman around his age. They'd been chatting before we sat down for lunch, and I had apologized for interrupting them.
"Oh, don't worry about it," she'd replied. "I get to see him all the time." With the success of Master of None likely meaning greater opportunities for Ansari, and perhaps others from underrepresented groups, America might also be so lucky.
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