Alan Yang talks to Awards Daily TV about shaking up the dynamics on Season 2 of Master of None and his ongoing working relationship with friend Aziz Ansari.
When a hit show comes back after a super successful freshman season, it feels like everyone has eyes on it to fail. Master of None does the nearly impossible and actually improves in its second season mainly because of its unconventional structure. Aziz Ansari co-created Master with friend Alan Yang, and his work behind the camera helps Master become the hilarious and heartfelt hit that it is.
I learned that Yang and Ansari have an ideal working relationship full of trust and that a lot of the comedy comes organically from personal experiences.
Your Twitter bio says, “I want to bring you joy.” Is that a motto that you use for your work?
I don’t know why I wrote that. I’m a happy person, and I want to make other people happy if at all possible. We just work as hard as we can. It’s stuff that we like, so we hope other people like it as well.
Since the first season was so well received, did you feel pressure to bring the series back?
No man! All of our pressure is self-composed. We’re crazy workaholics. We don’t want to disappoint the crazy voices in our own heads. We like to push ourselves too, so we try to not half-ass stuff. All that stuff is very nice, and we’re really glad that people respond so well to Season 1. I think we would be just as crazy no matter how well people responded.
Master of None took some time off between seasons, and a lot of people were surprised by that considering how successful the first season was. Do you think this new season benefits from the extra cushion of time?
Yeah, that absolutely benefited us greatly. We got to do stuff and experience stuff and travel and cram all those experiences into the second season. We got to go to Italy and spend some time there and it was about making mistakes with your buddies and going to restaurants and going on dates. All that is packed into there. I think the time off definitely helped.
I have to admit that I was surprised by the first episode.
I thought the black-and-white Italian vibe was only for the promo. I had no idea what you were modeling the whole thing after Bicycle Thieves.
We definitely got together before the season and said, “Let’s not make this a carbon copy of season 1” because it wasn’t that good! We wanted to do something original and different and be ambitious and take risks. And then we got stuck and didn’t know what the episode was going to be. For inspiration we watched a lot of Italian movies. We watched a lot of neo-realist movies. There was a lot of Antonioni and Fellini and De Sica.
Then we started talking about the actual issues that Dev has while he’s in Italy. I kind of quizzed Aziz. I asked him, “You were there for a month. What were your experiences and what were the issues? What did you actually feel?” He told me that while he had a lot of fun and made a lot of friends, there weren’t a lot of eligible, younger women in Modena.
I thought, if it happened to Aziz, it could probably happen to Dev. That idea of him being lonely in this beautiful town and this contrast between that and how picturesque it all is, and he’s getting over a break up. Suddenly, that was our emotional way in. On top of that we built homage and the way it was shot and turns out that Aziz speaks a little Italian.
His Italian is pretty good! A lot of people on the show give him guff for it, but I was so impressed by his Italian.
He’s very good with language. He took some lessons before going over there and he was there was a few weeks. We were all impressed how he can pull it up. If you go to a restaurant in Italy, he can order. He’s quite proficient.
Speaking of Aziz, how would you say your relationship with him has changed over the course of these two years?
Man, it’s a lot of trust. We’ve been friends for a long time but in order to embark on a journey like this it’s a lot. It’s sort of like a marriage. I think we are both pretty easy to get along with, and in terms of the show, we are on the same page. I think he’s said in interviews before that we have the same opinion and usually the same taste. We have similar sensibilities and ambitions for the show, and we both work very hard. I like to say that we push each other.
When I think something’s good enough and it’s not for him and when he thinks something good but not working for me, we like to challenge each other. We know nothing is personal—we’re never getting offended. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to be afraid to offend your co-writer or star. We always just try something different. It’s just really evolved and grown and we trust each other. After the season wraps, we take a break from each other and we don’t have to look at each other for a while. We’ve been good friends, and I think we’ll be good friends for a long time.
One of the best episodes early on in the season is “Religion,” and it kind of reminded me of “Parents” from Season 1. When you tackle a sensitive topic like that, do you make sure you do it carefully?
It was very intensely personal to both Aziz and Aniz who is another writer on the show who happens to be Aziz’s brother. For me personally as a third party, I just kept trying to probe. We always wanted to do a religion episode and we never knew how to crack it. This thing came up where Aziz was talking about how he couldn’t eat pork in front of his parents, and he had never been honest about it with them. So we started talking about that and trying to tease that out into a narrative and a jumping off point.
Man, that episode took a lot of discussion. There’s so many ways we could have gone with it. I like the path we went with it not being so much about Islam specifically but more about how with any religion or belief system or morality you may not see eye-to-eye with your parents. You have to come to a détente with them about your beliefs.
That’s one of the things I love about the show. It talks about important stuff, but it’s never preachy in a way. I never feel condescended by the voices on the show or by the performances.
That’s the last thing we want to do. We never go into anything with a preachy agenda. We always want to now what other people’s lives are like and experiences different than our own. Obviously, we put a lot of ourselves into the show.
People tell us that a lot of comedy is pessimistic and your show doesn’t seem to be as negative. I think that’s how our personalities are. I consider myself a fairly optimistic person. We can put some comedy in the show and have it not be boring and have a relatively positive outlook.
In your Emmy® speech last year, you asked for more Asian parents to “give their kids cameras instead of violins” in a fun call to action for Asian artists. I know a huge amount of time hasn’t passed since then, but do you think there’s change happening?
I just want to go on record and say that I fixed everything! It’s all solved! This stuff takes time. I see inklings of it. You know, small steps here and there. I’ve heard there’s Asian characters on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and 13 Reasons Why and just small things here and there. Every casting decision matters, every show that’s given to actors of Asian descent, every director who gets hired. It’s cumulative. At the same time, there’s huge steps back. I heard they are making this movie about this Hawaiian war hero and they cast a white guy. You don’t have to do that. No one’s putting a gun to your head and forcing you to cast a white person in an Asian part.
You’re also a consulting producer on NBC’s The Good Place. How do the experiences differ?
I was there helping a little bit. I share a bungalow with Mike Schur—our offices are adjoining when I’m in L.A. Mike and I would talk about his new show because he hadn’t started writing it. Eventually I was on a break for Master of None, and he told me to come in and hang out for a bit and we’ll talk about the show officially. And then he’s like “Why don’t you hang out in the writer’s room?” And then he was like, “Why don’t you write the second episode?”
We go way back, and I’ve learned a lot from Mike when he was running Parks & Rec when I was there. That’s all him. It’s very much his brain child and all the great writers over there. They are working on the second season right now, and I might be directing an episode. I’m happy to be part of their extended family.
You were in front of the camera in Parks & Recreation. Is there any desire for you to step back into acting?
It’s definitely possible, man. I’m writing a movie right now and I’m going to direct it hopefully soon. We’ll see. It’s all Asian people, so you never know!
Seasons 1 & 2 of Master of None are currently streaming on Netflix.