Aziz Ansari: from stand-up to sitcom to role model

The comedian and Parks and Recreation star capped off 2015 with his critically acclaimed Netflix sitcom Master of None. It turns out he's Master of Everything...

When most of us look back on 2015 and reflect on our achievements, they might include a promotion at work, a pay rise – perhaps a new partner, a new house, even a wedding. But it would be wise not to measure any milestones against the meteoric success of Aziz Ansari. 

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The start of the year saw a fond farewell to hit US comedy Parks and Recreation and Ansari’s scene-stealing government employee-turned-restaurateur Tom Haverford. The summer brought rave reviews for his debut book Modern Romance and last month saw the release of Master of None – the Netflix original created by and starring Ansari that has had viewers hooked and critics singing its praises.

It’s been quite a year, so we caught up with the 32-year-old to talk diversity on screen, series two and treating yo’self…

You share many similarities with your character, Dev – you have the same career, you’re the same age, and you have many of the same life struggles. Does that make it easier or more difficult to play? 

It makes it easier, that’s why I do it. It’s easier for Larry David to play Larry – that’s exactly him. I could do the one that’s exactly me too but if Dev was Aziz there would be scenes of him walking down the street with people asking for selfies and things. I didn’t want to deal with that stuff or the Parks and Rec stuff. It was easier to eliminate that stuff and say ‘this guy’s not that guy’.

You’ve created the series as well as starring in it – did you see this as the right point in your career to make that move? 

I was lucky to get the opportunity when I did because I think I’ve developed a stronger viewpoint on a bunch of different things as I’ve grown older. Of course your comedy evolves – I’ve been doing it almost 15 years now so I’m going to evolve as a comedian, mature as a comedian, talk about different things. If you’re good at what you do you’re able to evolve but still maintain some sort of essence that keeps you interesting. The musicians I like who have stuck around for a long time – whether it’s someone like the Beastie Boys or whatever – that’s what they do. Each album is somewhat different but there’s some sort of essence that’s preserved.

You recently wrote in the New York Times of your disappointment when you discovered that one of your childhood heroes Fisher Stephens, the Indian lead in Short Circuit 2, was actually a white man painted an “Indian colour” – how does it feel to be a role model for Indian kids today as a sitcom lead who shares their ethnic background but isn’t defined by it?

I do think it means a lot to kids when they see that. I was talking to a friend of mine that was Asian and we were talking about the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie – the old ones, in the nineties – and at the beginning there’s this scene where there’s this kid, the pizza delivery kid, who beats up all these guys and he said, ‘that was a big moment for me as a kid to see an Asian guy as someone cool who was not just a nerd’. I think those representations do make a difference. It makes a difference in how people treat people and the things they say to people and if all you ever see is a guy doing a thick accent running a convenience store, I think that’s going to shape how you view people in real life.

Yet you also wrote, “the roles I’m offered are often defined by ethnicity and often require accents” – does it frustrate you that that’s still the case? 

They’re bigger parts but people are only thinking of ethnic people when it’s an ethnic role and there’s not a ton of what we did on Master of None where anyone can get that part. Denise’s role [one of Dev’s best friends] in the show was not written for an African American lesbian woman. We kept it open and we saw straight white women, we saw straight Asian women, we saw gay black women and the woman we cast was an African American lesbian woman and we cast her because she was the funniest woman. We didn’t cast her because she fit a certain ethnic quota we were trying to fill. But I don’t know if all the time people are casting they do that approach of keeping it open or thinking that way. When we were casting the show we were really trying to think like that – we would have a role and we’d be like, ‘well, does this have to be a guy? This is a good character, we could just make it a female character.’

Dev’s parents are your real-life parents, although your mum (above) was a little reluctant to appear on screen – how did you convince her?

She was rehearsing with my dad a bunch and getting more comfortable with it and by the end I was pretty much just like, ‘if you love me, you’ll do this’. I couldn’t find anyone who felt right.

Dev goes on some pretty appalling dates, most memorably with bartender Alice – have you ever been on a date that bad?

I’ve never had anyone as bad as Alice but I have been out with people – I went out with someone who has a bad sense of humour which is openly what [Alice] is. That’s how I connect with people – laughing with them – so I think the idea of someone being that off and that crazy and that high energy was really funny to us and Nina Arianda did such a good job.

The series has a bunch of celebrity fans – do you have a favourite?

Just my fellow comedians – that’s always the nicest thing to hear when other comedians you really respect enjoy your show and other writers. That’s the best. Critics and all that stuff, that’s great too but for your peers and people you really look up to to text you and say I just saw that, holy s**t – that’s great.

Have you heard anything about series two?

I don’t know. We haven’t heard officially about series two but the signs point to that. If we do do a season two I definitely want some time to come up with ideas because season one was a combination of years of stand up and the book and everything – so many things went into it. it wasn’t like we wrote for three months and came up with that so I wouldn’t want to rush it and make something that didn’t have the depth of the first series. 

And finally, how do you “treat yo’self”?

Some good food and nice wine.

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All 10 episodes of Master of None are available to stream on Netflix now