In his acceptance speech for Best Comedy Series at the Critics’ Choice Awards in January, Master of None co-creator Alan Yang had a couple of people to thank. “Thank you to all the straight white guys who dominated movies and TV so hard, and for so long, that stories about anyone else seem kind of fresh and original. Because you guys crushed it for so long, anything else seems kind of different.” Jokes aside, the win was significant in the shadow of Hollywood’s #OscarsSoWhite fiasco, as a show with a diverse cast and poignant themes from Asian immigrant stories to musings on male privilege has piqued the interest of anyone paying attention to their Netflix queue.
Alan Yang met his co-creator Aziz Ansari on Parks and Recreation, where Yang cut his teeth as a writer and occasionally cameoed as the bassist in Andy Dwyer’s (played by Chris Pratt) band. In stark contrast to a little town in Indiana, Master of None is set in New York and stars Ansari as Dev Shah, an aspiring actor who has a few idiosyncrasies to contend with in an overstimulating city. Yang explains the essential premise: “What happens when you place an indecisive person in an environment where there’s unlimited choices, ranging from choices as mundane as food or things as enormous as choosing a life partner or choosing a job or education?” Kelvin Yu plays the fictional version of Yang on the show—Dev’s dapper, confident and successful friend whose family history is an intimate feature in the “Parents” episode.
CAAM hosts Yang and Master of None cast member Kelvin Yu March 12, 2016 at CAAMFest as they share more details about the show’s inspiration and their own experiences in the industry. See more details here.
Yang talks to us about the show’s premise for refreshing material, the grit it takes to produce a series, and lends advice to aspiring creatives itching to put their work in front of a mainstream audience.
—Diana Emiko Tsuchida
How did you develop the premise of Master of None? What was the conversation between you and Aziz when you decided to write the show?
I think we were in Aziz’s hotel room, and I told him this story about my dad growing up in this tiny hut in a village and not having enough food to eat and having to kill his pet chicken for dinner. And I was like, “His life was so hard and here I get to talk about a TV show I’m going to make.” So we thought, what if that’s just the show? What if it’s real stories that we’re passionate about? Every episode could be about any conversation, a different idea, or a different emotion. And so that was a good jumping off point for us when we started to think we could do something a little different than most of the other shows out there.
The show takes a stab at a lot of subtle yet difficult things that happen everyday — gender privilege, immigrant stories, race in the media, etc. But these things are tackled in such a comedic way. How do you write about them so they remain funny?
We want it to feel as much as possible like you’re having dinner with your friends and they’re saying thoughtful things. It was very, very important to us that the show didn’t become an after school special and we’re telling you how to think and patting ourselves on the back for being so progressive and interesting. It’s a comedy, it’s the thing that makes it go down a little easier. Let’s make it clear that we’re smiling while we’re writing all this stuff. People can disagree but also respect each other’s positions. It is a very difficult thing to thread the needle of communicating something meaningful but we don’t want the audience to feel preached to.
What’s your process for nailing down the dialogue?
A huge part is if we’re doing stories that aren’t exactly like us, if the stories are about women, or older people, or about our parents, we talk to those people. We did interviews. We wouldn’t pretend to know what it’s like to be a 75 year-old lady living in Manhattan, so we had lunch with some older ladies and they told us stories and we took the essence of what they were communicating and tried to express that in the story. I think it’s really valuable to have those primary stories. Your imagination can be powerful but you won’t get any better than the real thing. So in the “Ladies and Gentlemen” episode, we asked our female writers on staff and our girlfriends and our wives, what anxieties do you have? What are the things that annoy you? What are the things that are really objectionable even among people who are progressive or tolerant? So hopefully some of that stuff rang true.
Why do you think being a “jack of all trades, master of none” resonates so much with the audience? Why is feeling lost or having too many interests a unique problem for this generation?
It’s a factor of a lot of things combining at once. There are so many things competing for our attention and that’s true in a mundane media landscape way but it’s also true with larger things like relationships and jobs. You can pull out your phone and see profiles of hundreds of single people near you and talk to them. That didn’t exist five years ago. It’s this thing we talk about a lot which is the Paradox of Choice, where a kid who has fifty pieces of chocolate in front of him is less happy than one who has three pieces of chocolate because you always want to know what’s behind door number 3, door number 4, door number 6 through a million. Choice is generally a good thing but I think we show how it can sometimes paralyze a person.
Most of the stories about Dev and Brian’s parents are true to life. What’s one story about your family that you want to write into the show?
I actually want to put my mom in the show. She’s really loud and vivacious and happy. And we purposefully left it a little vague where Brian’s mom doesn’t appear in the show so you don’t know whether she passed or away or if they’re divorced. My parents in real life are divorced. We had written this pretty funny scene that takes place at the dinner they have [in the “Parents” episode]. It’s the story of my dad and the Brian character running into my mom having dinner with her mom. And then my grandma—she does this all the time in real life—goes, “Why don’t you just remarry him? He’s doing well!” It was a funny scene. My mom is a really interesting character. I’d love to write her in somehow.
Would she want to be on the show?
I don’t know, she’s never acted. She’s an older, Taiwanese lady. It’d be the same thing we did with Aziz’s parents. You don’t want a non-actor to derail the show and sort of take you out of it but what we wanted were actors who lent this air of genuineness. What was more important to us was that it just seemed that their soul was in the right place and that it feels real. I think it’s nice for people to see people who look like them on TV because I know when I was a kid there weren’t any Asian main characters.
What was going through your head the moment they announced that Master of None won the Critics Choice Award?
I was really surprised. I was just really happy for everyone on the show. It’s a weird, personal, idiosyncratic show so I’m glad that people seem to be responding well.
Your acceptance speech spoke to a hard-hitting truth about the lack of diverse stories in media. What do you think is the biggest obstacle to people of color being both in front of and behind the camera?
It’s kind of a two part answer. And the most boring part is that it takes time. It takes time for these things to change. It’s good to be proactive and it’s good to make a little noise about it but the thing I always say is, if Aziz and I had made this show when we were 25, it probably wouldn’t have been very good. And I’d rather have no show on than a bunch of bad shows starring Asians or minorities, right? You want it to be good. And the way we were able to gain experience and learn how to write is by working on a show we both liked and we learned a lot from those guys. It takes time for people to get those jobs to rise up and all of that stuff.
The second part is, who’s in charge right now? Who has the power to green light? Who has the power to hire people and pick up shows? That power structure in large part is white guys and that’s no fault of theirs, they’re working hard. That’s just the reality of where we are. But I also saw this when we were hiring for Master of None. You’re looking at a lot of resumes but you’re also looking in your own circle because the number one thing you want are people that are going to work hard for you and not drop the ball. Every time you hire someone you’ve worked with before, you’re dodging another bullet. That’s your ingrained circle and that often tends to be people who look like you. It’s been shown again and again that when there’s a female director, the crew ends up more female. I don’t think that’s a malicious intent. It’s a lot of factors and I don’t think intentional racism is a big one at all. It’s just going to take time.
Who has been the biggest creative influence or mentor in your life?
I got to give a shout out to [Parks and Recreation creators] Mike Schur and Greg Daniels for sure. I spent the last seven years in a writer’s room with one or the both of them. I started out as a baby writer on Parks and Rec. I had worked on South Park for a year but really, Parks was the first time I got to write scripted television. Those guys are just really good at what they do. They have a sort of philosophy of, we’re just going to hire people we think are funny and we can teach them how to do the structure. And that’s what they do; they’re just really good teachers and they create a healthy work environment which was a huge inspiration to me on our show.
Speaking of Parks and Rec, you played the bass in Andy’s band Mouse Rat. Do you currently moonlight as a musician?
I wish, I wish. I was in a punk rock band when I was 18 or 19 and I played bass and sang in that band. So that’s why Mike Schur said you should be in Andy Dwyer’s band and we thought it would be a one episode thing. And then Chris Pratt was so amazing that we added him to the cast of the show and his band ended up being in like, 12 episodes. What was really fun about that was we learned all those songs and we would play them while we shot and then at the wrap party every season, Mouse Rat would just play the five songs we learned that year. I have to say I became really derelict in my song writing, I haven’t written a song since I was 21 or 22 but I really love playing.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring writers or underrepresented creatives who want to make it?
I think you just have to work really hard to make undeniable shit and do the best you can. And do stuff that is different from what’s out there and you just really got to kill yourself. If you’re not getting funding, finance it yourself. If you’re not getting a staff job, write your own show. Behind the camera is just as important as in front because you want to make sure those experiences are communicated accurately. Anything less than accurate is going to infuriate the people who are represented. At a certain point you have to do your part, buckle down and do the best you can. I know that sounds like clichéd advice but it’s true.
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Diana Emiko Tsuchida is a freelance writer and digital media strategist for the restaurant and wine industry in the Bay Area. She has lived in Hawaii and New York and conducted research on race and gender representations in the media. She wrote Table for 8: Asian American Women Chefs You Should Know for Off the Menu. Her writing can be read at Medium: https://medium.com/@
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The interview is made possible by Comcast.
CAAMFEST 2016 PANELS
Asian Americans made great strides in television and media during 2015. Leading this wave was the game-changing Golden Globe-nominated Netflix series MASTER OF NONE, which critics and viewers alike have been binge-watching and thirsting for more. CAAM is thrilled to host series co-creator Alan Yang and cast member Kelvin Yu as they share details on the show’s inspiration and production as well as their own experiences in an industry full of both opportunity and obstacle.
March 12, 2016 6:00 pm
CAAMFest will explore the bane of existence for many Asian American actors: typecasting. For Asian American women and men looking for work, roles can be severely limited and stereotyped, especially when it comes to appearing as a character intended (or specifically not intended) for romance. Featuring actress Vella Lovell and Bay Area native, Filipino-American actor Vincent Rodriguez III from the hit series CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND. Rodriguez and Lovell join other actors and filmmakers (TBA) to discuss the gradually changing landscape for gender roles and what they hope the future holds.
Gray Area Foundation for the Arts
March 13, 2016 6:30 pm
Join director Sanjay Patel and producer Nicole Grindle for an insightful peek behind the curtains of Pixar Animation Studio’s latest Academy Award-nominated short, SANJAY’S SUPER TEAM. In this screening and presentation, the filmmakers will discuss the production process and unique inspiration for this incredibly personal film that features superheroes like you’ve never seen them before. This family-friendly program will include a book signing with Patel.
March 15, 2016 6:30 pm
With the success of digital platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, 2016 will see a record number of new digital services looking to fund/distribute content from and for diverse communities. This year has already seen or will see the launch of SVOD/AVOD/OTT platforms including NBC Seeso, CBS All Access, WatchABC, Comic Con, Warner Brothers TV, Verizon Go90, Fullscreen, YouTube Red, Seriously, Rated Red and others. In addition, filmmaker Justin Lin (FAST & FURIOUS franchise, upcoming STAR TREK BEYOND) and YOMYOMF will be launching Interpretations 2.0 with Comcast/NBCUniversal to discover the next wave of promising Asian Pacific American filmmakers. As traditional opportunities dry up for filmmakers, could digital become the new indie cinema? YOMYOMF talks to key players from the industry providing outlets for this new and sustainable content about the opportunities for Asian Pacific American content creators in the brave, new digital world.
Gray Area Foundation for the Arts
March 13, 2016 1:30 pm