AZIZ ANSARI was in theory taking a huge risk when he signed up to star in and write a sitcom for Netflix.
The US comedian had attracted a cult following with the underappreciated Parks and Recreation. But there he had been part of an ensemble.
Now he was carrying an entire show on his shoulders. He might have fallen flat on his face.
“I’ve had enough friends who have done that,” says Ansari of the leap from support player to leading man.
“I put a lot of work into it. And I had a good team around me. Netflix were super enthusiastic. With a television network, they’ll want to see a pilot and then offer suggestions. Netflix wanted to go straight to series.”
As with Parks and Recreation, Ansari’s show, Master of None, is a departure from the nihilistic tenor of the standard 21st century TV comedy.
Though nominally dealing in the same slice-of-life observational humour as Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Louis CK’s Louie, the tone is wry rather than cynical, the humour leavened with humanity and humility.
Ansari, 32, plays Dev, a struggling actor in New York. He has the standard-issue disastrous love-life and the usual dysfunctional friends with whom to share wisecracks over brunch.
But, alongside such well-trodden tropes, Master of None is unusually perceptive — and not witheringly cynical — about what it is to be a modern person making their way in the world.
And it looks fantastic, with a cinematic sheen that recalls late 1970s Woodie Allen (Annie Hall is clearly an influence).
“My co-writer Alan Yang and I are both optimistic guys,” says Ansari, who as a stand-up has sold out Madison Square Garden and London’s O2 Arena.
“We try not to be overly optimistic. I’m probably a little darker. Our reference point for the series was all those ’70s movies where the characters would not be happy or sunny or with the person they felt they were meant to be with.
“Films such as The Graduate or Annie Hall often had a character who wanted something the whole movie and then they get it and realise they aren’t happy with it.
“That to me feels more real than the an ending where everyone is happy and we drive into the sunset.”
Ansari’s parents are Indian and he has been vocal about the under- representation of minorities in American TV, both on and off screen. It is a subject with which he grapples, albeit sardonically and with self-awareness, on Master of None.
In one pointed scene, Dev is rejected by a casting agent because he refuses to deliver his lines a stereotypical Indian “cab driver” accent.
“Things are changing but slowly,” he says.
“We are seeing more actors and writers and creators from diverse backgrounds. It’s taken many years.
“And people have to have the skill to do it: You wouldn’t want to just give some random Indian guy a show. If you gave Master of None to me five years ago, it wouldn’t be what it is now.”
Master of None has one of the most diverse casts on television, but this was mostly a happy accident, says Ansari.
“We didn’t set out to tick any boxes. You do that and you end up failing — and everything feels fake. I was always the lead, the main guy or whatever.
“After that, the casting was open ethnicity. The people we cast were the funniest we could find, who could improvise, and with whom I had great chemistry.
“There wasn’t any window dressing — we just got the funniest people we could.”
Much of what the show has to say about race flows from his personal experiences.
In Master of None Dev and another Indian actor are constantly mistaken for one another. This has of course happened to Ansari on multiple occasions.
“People think you’re the guy from Slumdog Millionaire,” he groans.
“When Community [a sitcom also starring an Indian-American actor, Danny Pudi] and Parks and Rec were on, I used to get it a lot. It’s as if they only have room in their brain for one Indian actor at a time.”
Becoming the master
In person Ansari is dapper and low-key. In London for a day of press he is battling jetlag but eager to create a positive impression.
He was born in South Carolina, the product of an arranged marriage between Tamil-Indian parents. His family was solidly middle class (his father is a gastroenterologist) and he had a comfortable upbringing.
He got into stand-up while studying for a business degree in NYU.
His big break was a part of the ensemble MTV comedy Human Giant, which led to roles in HBO’s Flight of the Conchords and the Russell Brand vehicle Get Him to the Greek — and, eventually, Parks and Rec.
He cast his real mother and father in Master of None in an episode reflecting on the things we do and don’t talk about with our parents.
Always on the YouTube... pic.twitter.com/WrKrf5K4Dc— Master of None (@MasterofNone) January 14, 2016
Of all the 13 parts of the first series, it is the one that has resonated most widely (he plans to start writing a second season shortly).
“Everyone has a relationship with their parent that needs some work,” says Ansari.
“We all have complicated relationships with our parents. The point we wanted to make is that it’s a relationship worth working on.
“I’ve heard from so many people that they called their parents right after watching that.”
He blanches slightly when it is put to him that Dev is not always a sympathetic protagonist. He has a generous side. But he can be selfish and pig headed .
“That’s everybody, isn’t it?” he says.
“I don’t think he’s that much of a jerk. The show isn’t trying to tell people this is how it should be, in terms of how they behave. We’re saying this is an interesting area of discussion.”
Ansari was nominated for a Golden Globe for best comedy actor. He didn’t win at the ceremony last week.
That he was even shortlisted was regarded as a turn-up in some quarters. Dev is, after all, widely perceived as an exaggerated version of the actor himself.
“Well I wasn’t shocked, “ he says. “The show has received good reviews. Everyone has been very positive. I’m glad it’s doing well. I wasn’t surprised that it should be recognised.”