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Aziz Ansari's fight against 'hacky ethnic jokes' fires his new Netflix show 'Master of None'

Aziz Ansari's fight against 'hacky ethnic jokes' fires his new Netflix show 'Master of None'
"The chance for an Indian guy to star in his own show and do an episode like 'Indians on TV' — that doesn't come around a lot, right?" Aziz Ansari says. (Jesse Dittmar / For The Times)

When Aziz Ansari set out to create his own Netflix series, the comedian had several ideas on what the show should be: "unique," "cinematic," "funny." He also had one clear mandate on what it should not be.

"Those comedy films where someone is always getting hit in the head," says Ansari, launching into a rant not that far off from something that Tom Haverford, his longtime character on NBC's "Parks and Recreation," would go on about.

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"I mean, where are the comedies for people who don't find that funny? It's not real. No one falls down that often. It's like, have you ever been hit in the nuts as an adult like that? No, it happens in grade school, then it's done."

Wacky escapades are few in the conversational "Master of None," the 10-episode Netflix original series in which a revolving cast of characters, led by Ansari, spin low-fi hilarity out of nothing in particular. The show, which premieres Friday on the streaming network, was written and created by Ansari, 32, with former "Parks and Rec" writer Alan Yang.

Ansari's character, Dev, is a single 30-year-old New Yorker who is fairly unexceptional. But his observations on dating, acting as a career goal and sad friends with kids are as funny in their vapidity as they are painfully true.

"There's this idea now that you have to have a joke every line or people will get bored," Ansari says. "But it's like no, you can still be funny in a conversation that feels natural. The last thing I want is for it to feel like all these characters want to be comedy writers."

"Master of None," which costars Ravi Patel, Noël Wells and Kelvin Yu among others, is loosely based on Ansari's life, but the actor swears it's not autobiographical — even though Dev lives in the same city as Ansari, is in the same profession and happens to have the same parents.

(Los Angeles Times)

That's right, Ansari cast his own father and mother, Shoukath and Fatima Ansari, in the role of Dev's parents.

"There is some overlap with real life," admits the stand-up comedian. "Observations are based on things that really happened to you. Take 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' Chris Rock in 'Top 5' or Amy Schumer in 'Trainwreck.' There's overlap there too. But, yeah, I'm Indian and I'm an actor, so there's definitely that."

Yet the South Carolina native hasn't made a career of lampooning his ethnicity. From his TV role as the cocky Haverford in "Parks and Rec" to the annoyingly desperate comic Randy in Judd Apatow's "Funny People" to his satirical book on dating, 2015's "Modern Romance: An Investigation," he's largely avoided the stereotypical roles reserved for actors who look like him (cab driver, 7-Eleven clerk, IT nerd).

"I have to give credit to the people who put me in those other [diverse] parts," Ansari says on speakerphone from his car while heading to an interview at a New York radio station. "My character in 'Parks' was not a role that was purely based on an ethnic stereotype. Any movies stuff or TV stuff I've acted in has not been ethnicity dependent. It was done as me a comedian, not me as an Indian guy."

But that dynamic changed when Ansari recently commented during an interview about the limited roles for Indians on TV. Ansari said he once refused to do an Indian accent in an audition for "Transformers." He had spoken about the incident before, but a blogosphere now obsessed with racial tension made it a thing recently. Ironically, in "Master of None," there is an entire episode ("Indians on TV") dedicated to the racism Dev faces when trying out for parts.

Now, at least for the moment, Ansari is the unlikely poster boy for South Asian equal opportunity in TV and film.

"It's funny because I made a clear choice in my stand-up not to make it about 'Here's what it's like to be an Indian guy, here's what it's like to be a white guy,'" says Ansari, who has three Netflix-exclusive stand-up specials to his name, the last being at Madison Square Garden. "I feel like when you do that kind of humor, you tend to end up doing these kind of hack stereotype jokes. But to have this kind of conversation about race that I have in the show, I've never had a chance to do that."

"Master of None" is also one of Ansari's first real leading roles in a major production beyond his own stand-up comedy specials.

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(Los Angeles Times)

"I had been kind of frustrated in acting because I hadn't really found anything that represented my comedic voice," says Ansari, who's had roles in films such as "I Love You" and "Get Him to the Greek." "I like all the things I've acted in, like 'Parks' 'Funny People.' But I wanted to do something where I played a lead character. As I finished 'Parks,' I talked to my friend Alan, who I did the show with, and was like 'Let's make a cool show that we shoot in New York. Make something interesting.'"

Netflix has been behind a series of unconventional and original productions, including "Beasts of No Nation" and the Emmy-winning hit "Orange Is the New Black." It's unlikely these works would have seen the light of day a decade ago. That same principle applies to the oddball "Master of None."

"We're in a time when people like myself can get someone like Netflix to make a show for like 10 episodes; that's going to go away soon," Ansari says. "Someone's going to really [screw] that up soon by making something horrible. It's like we have to make something now where they're still giving everyone this freedom of letting people make creative stuff."

Ansari was born in Columbia, S.C., after his parents came to the U.S. from Tamil Nadu, India. He attended New York University, where he graduated as a business major in 2004, and also did stand-up, becoming part of the MTV sketch comedy show "Human Giant." He says his father's well-timed sense of humor inspired at least part of his career path.

"My dad wanted to be in something I did, like 'Parks,'" says Ansari of his father, who in real life is a gastroenterologist. "Now my parents play [Dev's] parents, so I guess that adds to that [autobiographical label] a little bit.

"But those characters are really important to me because every time I see Indian parents portrayed on film or TV they're not three-dimensional, they're excuses for hacky ethnic jokes," Ansari says. "I wanted the parents to feel real."

In "Master of None," brilliantly executed flashbacks in one episode chronicle what Dev's parents had to go through to immigrate to the U.S. and raise children who would one day grow up to be great successes — or perhaps video-game obsessed underacheivers.

"If we don't do it, who else is going to do it?" Ansari asks. "That's the point of this show. There's a sort responsibility we have. The chances for two immigrant guys to run their own show and do an episode like 'Parents' — that doesn't happen all the time. The chance for an Indian guy to star in his own show and do an episode like 'Indians on TV' — that doesn't come around a lot, right?"

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'Master of None'

Where: Netflix

When: Anytime starting Friday

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