"Master of None" co-creator Alan Yang on writing himself into cheerful Brian and his family's powerful immigrant story: "All that stuff happened to my dad"

Salon talks to the "Parks & Rec" alum about collaborating with Aziz Ansari and the creative power of optimism

Published November 18, 2015 11:59PM (EST)


Alan Yang is the other co-creator of “Master Of None,” Netflix’s latest original series starring Aziz Ansari and Noël Wells, which has met rave reviews from critics across the country (including myself). Ansari is the bigger name, what with his stand-up career and a lead role on “Parks and Recreation,” but he and Yang were both with “Parks and Rec” from the very first season, before becoming friends and deciding to pitch a show together. I spoke to Yang about his engaging and already beloved new show—why it’s set in New York, how much he has in common with Kelvin Yu’s Brian, and how the writers hit the show’s confident, breezy tone.

Is it correct to conclude that Brian is a little bit of your stand-in?

Yeah, there’s definitely some elements of me in that character. One of the reasons we put a character like that in was because obviously I would know how to write for him. And also the “Parents” episode was a script we wrote early on. So a lot of Brian’s relationship with his dad was based on my relationship with my dad, and some of those details are 100 percent ripped from that relationship. Just like Aziz’s parent’s relationship is in Dev’s life. So all that stuff about [Brian's] dad reading the Economist and killing his pet chicken — all of that stuff happened to my dad. And you know, Brian is generally a happy, upbeat guy, and so am I, so I guess that’s similar.

Yeah, it struck me that the chicken story had to be true because it was just something that was too ridiculous to make up, if that makes sense?

[Laughs.] Yeah, it’s definitely very evocative, and very sad. And it makes me feel very guilty, as someone that’s never had to do that.

The recognition of guilt in the show is one of the things that really interested me. Watching the “Parents” episode, especially, was kind of a kick in the stomach. Can you tell me a little bit about why you wanted to make a story about that?

Well, we wanted to do episodes that were original, and interesting, and stuff we hadn’t seen covered that much in comedy. These stories are very personal to us, and we realized the more personal and specific you got to your own experiences—kind of paradoxically—the more universal they became. Because obviously we’ve been contacted by a lot of kids of Asian immigrants and Indian immigrants—but also Latin-American immigrants and also plenty of white people, who, if maybe their parents weren’t immigrants, maybe their grandparents were.

It’s really not just a story about immigrants. It’s a story about being grateful to your parents, no matter what their background was. Regardless of where your parents are born, chances are they made some sacrifices for you, and they took care of you, and they worked really hard. And that was something that really connected with me emotionally. It’s just something that I would think about a lot, and think about how amazing it was a struggle for our parents. That stuff is really real and a lot of those lines in those episodes really hit home for us. Because they didn’t get to have fun. They didn’t get to have fun! It’s a luxury that only we have—it’s true!

I watched it with my parents.


I don’t know if you had an opportunity to do the same.

It’s a funny story actually. I invited my parents to New York for the premiere to watch the episode—because it was really special to me and I wanted them to be there, along with my sister. And the night of the premiere, Aziz and I had to say a few words before the screening, and we were showing the “Parents” episode first. I noticed my dad wasn’t there in the audience, in my row. So I ran out of the theater to call him, and I got his voicemail and I left a message: "What’s going on? I’m not sure why you’re not here.” And he arrived later at the theater in a panic and said, “I got the date wrong.” He had gone to see a production of the musical “Matilda.” So he missed the screening. So you know I spent a year and half writing and working on this episode and he didn’t get to see it in the theater. But he watched it the next day, and said he thought it was good.

Did he enjoy “Matilda,” at the very least?

I think he enjoyed it. But he left halfway through, so hopefully he’s going to get to see the end of “Matilda” at some point too. [Laughs] I hate that I tore him away at the end of that narrative.

Aziz’s character, Dev, is grappling with being a creative professional, and when he talks about it with his parents who did not have the choices that he does, he expresses a lot of ambivalence and guilt making those choices. You’re a creative person, too. Do you have some of those same feelings?

Frankly, at this point, I feel like it’s all gravy in my life. I’m at the point where I think about it a lot– how lucky I am—in a lot of ways. Number one, I live in a country where—obviously we have episodes about increasing awareness and tolerance and acceptance, but to be honest, if you’re one of my friends you’ll know this already—but I always talk about how much I love America. Because America’s incredible. I mean, I’m not just grateful to my parents. I’m grateful to the entire country, to give me this opportunity. I never want to seem like I’m ungrateful towards this amazing place that allows immigrants to come and start the process of integrating themselves into the culture and making new things and opening up new viewpoints. That sounds like a weird, grandiose thing to say, but it’s true. Where else in the world could two guys who look like us come to a country where most of the people don’t look like us and we get a chance to make that show?

Any time I get mad about anything, I always have to check myself, and be like, “Well, I’m in a very lucky place in a lot of ways.” So I don’t know. I’ve always had this perspective where—in many ways it’s a charmed life and that’s great. And the most you can do is work really hard, and be kind to people, and respectful of that fact that you got lucky in a lot of ways.

I feel like the difference between “The Master of None” and other shows with a similar style is that this is a really upbeat show, even when it is dealing with things that are difficult. There’s this optimism to it that I certainly recognize from Aziz’s stand-up and from the personality he has in the media. It’s interesting to hear you also share that.

Yeah, no, again, I’m very excited about everything. That was my reputation. I’m serious. That was my reputation as a “Parks and Rec” writer. I believe in the future. I believe things are getting better—and absolutely there are things we need to tackle, but I think we’re getting there. And by the way, that entwined with my racial identity. Because for me, when people talked about the good old days—how things were better before—I was always like, well, I don’t think I could have dated someone outside my race, even in the ‘60s. It must have been really hard. Or the ‘70s! So I’m always looking forward. I think things are getting better. And we can all try to be smarter, and we can all try to make things better, and I’m always seeing silver linings everywhere. Sometimes, it’s tricky to make that stuff funny, but I think it’s a challenge that we’re up to. We’re both really excited, optimistic people, and I definitely try to infuse that optimism in the stuff I’m writing.

You know, not being so negative about everything really helps you with the empathy aspect of it. You’re seeing other characters’ points of view, and not just dismissing them outright. For instance—the mildly racist executive in “Indians on TV” — we let him say his piece, and he has a justification. It may not be entirely right, but he has one. And even the guy masturbating on the subway in the “Ladies and Gentleman” episode—we gave him a moment, because it’s not like his choice. There’s probably just something wrong with him. He’s probably got his own troubles. What he’s doing is awful, but he’s a human being, and there’s something wrong in his life. So that’s all part and parcel with let’s not be complete curmudgeons—although there are great shows where the main characters are, like “Curb [Your Enthusiasm],” but you know, that’s not what our show is about. And hopefully we want to stay funny, and not just be all nice, all the time.

“Master of None” is a very confident show. It has its tone down right from the start. How did you get there?

Well, first of all, thank you very much for saying that. It’s a huge compliment. Because the tone of this show is, to me, incredibly tricky. There’s a lot of pitfalls that hopefully we didn’t fall into. The show took a while to develop, and it took a while for us to figure out exactly what we wanted it to be, and I think that helped. We had some time to put it in the oven, so to speak. And the reason behind that is, frankly, a little bit of luck, because we sold the show two years ago, and at the time we were both working on “Parks and Rec” and we didn’t know if “Parks” would get a seventh season. We sold the show as, frankly, a little less of an ambitious show. We thought it would be a little bit more normal—more characters hanging out in the city. Some of it is dating, some of it is their work. But a little bit more a standard show. And not that that couldn’t have been interesting. There are good shows like that.

But because “Parks” got picked up for a seventh season, Aziz and I both worked on that season, which was a wonderful experience. But we did take a few episodes off to really think about this show, and the fact that we have this opportunity where we’re going straight to series and the show was definitely going to exist. What do we really want to say? What do we think is really interesting? What do we think is original? What do we think hasn’t been done? And because we had that time, and we traveled around a little bit and did some more thinking, the more we thought about it the more we realized, what if we could do a show that covered anything we’re excited about? That was basically our watchword. That sounds a little bit simple, but we didn’t want to limit ourselves. We wanted to say, if there’s anything in the world that we can have an excited conversation or argument about, why don’t we do an episode about it? Why can’t every episode be about something unbelievably interesting and worthy of debate?

That’s when we just started to come up with any topic we wanted. Why don’t we appreciate our parents more? Do we ever want to have kids? Why is it so difficult for men to understand the difficulties that women go through? Is it OK to cheat? And those are the first four episodes, that Aziz and I wrote before we even had a writing staff.

That’s a very long way of saying, because we had a little benefit of time and a little bit of perspective, we came up with this very weird and very interesting show—which totally, again, is all over the place, but in a good way. Every episode can surprise you a little bit, because you never know which direction we could go, or which tone we’re going to hit.

How did you and Aziz decide to do this together?

We both started season one of “Parks.” We both got hired when it was still being called a “The Office” spinoff, potentially. The premise hadn’t been completely nailed down. Before I started on "Parks," my friends heard that Aziz was hired as an actor, and they told me, “Aw, man. You guys are going to love each other, you’re similar ages, you’re both among the younger people there.” I hadn’t seen that much of the stuff he’d done, I didn’t really know who he was that much. I was like, “I’m sure, I’ll meet a lot of people.”

And then, the first day we met, we hit it off. And we just started hanging out in L.A. all the time—going out to eat, going to parties and bouncing around. We became really good friends. And working on the show, we had a lot to talk about and a lot to discuss, because [“Parks and Recreation”] was being shaped and the character [Ansari’s character Tom Haverford] was being shaped, and I feel like I was the one Aziz could trust in the writer’s room—obviously he trusted Mike [Schur] a lot too. But as someone who was closer to him in age, I was someone he could call upon to talk about the show, or talk about other things going on in his life.

Over time, he became a really close friend, and we respect each other, and like hanging out, basically. It was a great decision to work together, and we continue to work together. And as far as the dynamic of the conversations—we just put a lot of the conversation we had in the writer’s room, he and I and also other writers, just organically into the show. We would disagree about the issues—and I think reasonable people can disagree on some of these issues. We want to hopefully not be didactic and act like we’re wagging the finger at anybody. And we don’t want it to be un-entertaining. But at the same time, some of these conversations can be entertaining, just because the viewpoints are extreme. That was really important to us, that we would explore more sides of issues than you might expect.

But to be completely honest, personally and personality-wise, there was really never a moment – and you’d have to ask Aziz if he feels the same – but I don’t think there was ever a moment where I felt like, meh, I wish I’d never done this show with this guy. And that’s really lucky. Would we yell at each other about stuff on the show? And would we have arguments if we should put music somewhere or if the characters should do X or Y? Absolutely. But I never felt like our friendship was falling apart or anything.

What’s hard about writing a show that you didn’t know until you and one of your good friends were in charge of one?

I would say, specifically for this show, one of the hardest things was integrating the, for a lack of better term, issue-based topic into a story that is compelling and funny. We’re not writing Op-Ed pieces here. You shouldn’t feel like you’re reading a New York Times Op-Ed, you should feel like you’re watching a comedy show that you like.

And by the way, that’s kind of a backdoor way to get people talking about these topics, because you get seduced by—hopefully—that it’s funny. And that is very difficult, when you’re doing these topics. “South Park” does it really well, when they’re tackling issues that are tricky and controversial and heated. But they’re so funny that you’re enjoying yourself, and as a backdoor mechanism, you start thinking about these topics. That’s very hard. You don’t want to hear too much one side and the other, you don’t want to make light of the issue so much that you’re coming off as grim, and you don’t want to sound so heavy-handed and preachy that people are just turned off and not interested in the story. I feel like the balancing act between writing about things that we’re interested in and topics that we’re interested in, and also converting them into a story with actual motivation, stakes, and turns and escalations – that’s what is challenging. And by the way, again, it wasn’t a thing we specifically entered into the show knowing what we wanted to do.

The process of finding a balance, is it writing and rewriting? Is it like doing table reads and adjusting pieces of dialogue?

Absolutely, it’s exactly the things you just said. It’s rewriting constantly. It’s refining. And we did a lot of reading the episodes out loud in the writers’ room. We would assign different writers parts and we would just read it. That’s when things you’ve papered over or things you’ve patched become exposed. That’s when writing that doesn’t ring true or scenes that seem contrived or chunks that seem too preachy or message-y or not what a person would actually say, that’s when those things get exposed. We just did a lot of reading aloud in the room, we did a lot of rewriting up until the shooting. I’m very proud of the fact that we had drafts of all 10 scripts done before we started shooting anything, which was immensely helpful.

Why did you guys go for a ‘70s aesthetic, with the typefaces and music selections?

This is the dumbest distillation of it—but we thought it was cool. We like how those fonts look, we like how those movies look, and we like how the emotions those songs evoke. And, a lot of credits to Aziz and our music supervisor Zach Cowie. All three of us love music, but those guys really put in a lot of work selecting each song.

Visually, we just wanted it to stand out, and pay attention to every aspect of the show, technical and creative. A huge part of the game, it’s hiring awesome people and letting them donate their hard work and talent. I love the way the show looks.

By the way, the production design—Amy Williams is our production designer—the stuff just looks really good. We’re happy about it. We didn’t want it to look like a really standard comedy—the standard kind of bright and wide look that a lot of shows use. And again, not to insult those shows, many of them are some of the greatest shows ever made, but we wanted our show to look a little more dramatic.

Yeah, Dev’s apartment is dope.

[Laughs.] Yeah! We discussed it too. We didn’t want it to be too nice, but we didn’t want it to be in like, “Friends” land, where these unemployed actors have 3,000 square-foot apartment. But we were careful for most of the furniture to be knock-offs. Our rationale is that Dev did a national Go-gurt campaign, got him some money. He has incredible taste… and finds bargains on the Internet. [Laughs.]

You both met in L.A. Why did you guys decide to set the show in New York?

We just love New York so much. Both of us have lived there before. I lived there before I lived in L.A. and I think Aziz did too. I think L.A. is underrated, and I love L.A., and I was born in California. But I’m pretty sure New York is the best city in the world—at least for an American guy like me.

There’s just so much going on, and it’s so dense, and there’s people everywhere and there’s activity everywhere and there’s 50 new restaurants and bars opening every night, and it can be exhausting and frustrating and overwhelming, but it’s also just full of possibilities. It’s very, very stimulating creatively. We both agreed on that. There was never really a discussion of shooting in L.A. There’s a long tradition of comedies in New York, and we didn’t want to imitate them and feel like them, but at the same time it’s undeniable how exciting that city is and how beautiful it is to film. We knew we wanted to do long city-type walk and talks on the street, and we know we wanted to show the city, and we knew we wanted to show, by the way, a million good restaurants and shoot them there and show how amazing they were. I’m not saying that wasn’t part of the decision.

Speaking of restaurants. One of the things about Brian’s character is that he reviews everything, including once, via text-message. Do you do that, too?

Well, I don’t send that many reviews, but I’m known as a good person to ask for recommendations. But a lot of my friends—if they want to go to a bar, if they want to go to a restaurant, in a different part of town—in either New York or L.A.—they know I’m a good person to ask, because I like to try every place. I’m not quite as annoying as Brian was in that scene. But I definitely have opinions.

By Sonia Saraiya

MORE FROM Sonia Saraiya

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Alan Yang Aziz Ansari Master Of None Netflix Parks And Recreation Tv