Mr Aziz Ansari
The comic and Parks and Recreation star explains why looking good is expensive and how he hired his parents; plus… a grapefruit?
“The guys at table three wanted to send over this grapefruit,” says the waiter, pointing across to the other side of the restaurant. “They said it comes compliments of 50 Cent.”
“Haha, that’s really good!” says Mr Aziz Ansari, waving back to acknowledge the joke, which references a true story the comedian told on stage as part of his stand-up show Dangerously Delicious when he revealed the rapper and now-bankrupt entrepreneur 50 Cent did not know what a grapefruit was.
We’re eating breakfast in a cosy subterranean café called The Smile, one of Mr Ansari’s favourite New York restaurants where he filmed several scenes for Master of None, his new 10-part comedy series. On the day we meet, Mr Ansari is particularly excited: the show is due for release on Netflix at midnight and the reviews have been five-star across the board. “I’m proud of the show obviously, but I never expected it to be received with such fervour,” he says. “It’s a hit! We’re done!”
Up to now, Mr Ansari, 32, is perhaps best known for his role as the local government worker and wannabe nightlife impresario Tom Haverford in cult sitcom Parks and Recreation, which ran for seven multi-award-winning seasons before wrapping in February this year. He is also a stand-up comedian who sells out arenas, including Madison Square Garden last October. And he’s a New York Times bestselling writer following the release in June of his first book, Modern Romance, for which he received a reported $3.5m advance. Unlike most other comedians’ books, this was no run-of-the-publishing-mill cash grab. Written with New York University sociologist Professor Eric Klinenberg, Modern Romance is an intelligent and winningly readable blend of social science and gags that examines dating in the digital age. “Sociology is a lot like comedy in many ways,” says Mr Ansari. “It’s about making observations that resonate with people and trying to work out why they do the things they do.”
Mr Ansari wrote his TV series Master of None with his friend and Parks and Recreation writer Mr Alan Yang. Mr Ansari plays a less successful version of himself called Dev, an upbeat and “adorkable” 30-year-old aspiring actor who is muddling his way through New York life. Dev’s parents emigrated from India to the US, as did Mr Ansari’s. They came to the land of opportunity so that their children would enjoy the privileges that they were denied. But Dev is now paralysed by the “paradox of choice”. Too many options – whether on Tinder or Yelp – leads to indecision and a gnawing dissatisfaction that there might be something better out there.
Mr Ansari’s real parents – Fatima and Shoukath, who had an arranged marriage – were cast to play Dev’s mother and father. “I auditioned all these actors [to play my parents] and none of them felt real,” he explains. “It was important to get these characters right because immigrant parents can be portrayed awkwardly on TV and film. It’s like the Indian dad will come into the room and go like, ‘Oh, I slipped on curry!’ and that’s not real, that doesn’t happen. When I decided to cast my parents it was with that in mind and they played it very real.”
The show was very much a family affair – Mr Ansari’s 25-year-old brother Aniz was one of the show’s staff writers. “We wanted a younger writer in the room,” explains Mr Ansari. “Aniz is hilarious in conversation, in emails and on text, so even though he’d never written a script, I was like, ‘I think he can do this, let’s hire him!’ And he was one of our best writers. He got a lot of funny jokes into the script.”
The series is cleverly structured. Each of the 10 episodes is built on a single strong theme such as sexism, parenthood or a split condom and, as such, any could stand alone as a one-off. But there is enough connective tissue provided by the recurring characters and the narrative arc of Dev’s new and developing relationship with his white girlfriend, Rachel (played by Ms Noël Wells), to reward the Netflix binge-watcher.
The supporting cast rotates. “We started writing and would be like, ‘This character doesn’t need to be here. Why are we trying to force them in?’” says Mr Ansari. “No one has dinner with the same four people every day.” Dev’s social circle includes the straight-talking black lesbian Denise (played by Ms Lena Waithe), the straight-laced Taiwanese-American Brian (who is based on Mr Yang and played by Mr Kelvin Yu); and gentle giant Arnold, who’s white (played by one of Mr Ansari’s best friends in real life, Mr Eric Wareheim, who also directed several episodes).
It’s a multicultural, multiracial show. Were the creators making a point about the lack of diversity on mainstream television? “No, I was trying to be true to what my real life is,” says Mr Ansari. “I have a pretty diverse group of people around me. I’m not really around just three white people that often. There is some diversity in my life and in my group of friends.”
Mr Ansari shoots for authenticity in other ways – such as the way the characters talk. “We didn’t want that rapid-fire dialogue because people don’t talk like that. I don’t buy it and it takes the emotional heft out of the conversation. We wanted them to sound like real people.”
Even the wardrobe in the series is true to life. “I just wore my own clothes. But people have been asking me on Twitter where I got such and such a jacket from and I can’t tell them it’s Saint Laurent because my character is supposed to be a struggling actor! There’s no way he could afford a Saint Laurent shearling jacket.” Mr Ansari loves fashion and was a particular fan of the now-defunct Band of Outsiders. Japanese brands tend to fit his slight 5ft 6in frame well and Dior and Saint Laurent also suit him. “Hey, you know what brands look really good on me? The most expensive ones!” Recently he’s been trying to get out of the skinny/ preppy rut and embrace unstructured tailoring from Italian brands such as Boglioli.
The waiter returns to clear our plates. The grapefruit remains untouched. “Do you want this?” he asks. “I don’t want to waste it. Let me go say hi to that table and see if anyone there wants it.”
The release of his sitcom marks the culmination of a big year in Mr Ansari’s life. What’s next? “A vacation!” he says as we get up to leave. “When you list all the things I’ve done in the past 12 to 13 months, from doing the [Madison Square] Garden to putting out a book, to the show coming out, it’s only hitting me now that – wow, all those things went really well and it’s pretty big!” he says. “I’m really proud of all of those things. They’re three of the best things I’ve done in my career if not the best.”
Far from being a master of none, Mr Ansari, it seems, is an over-achieving polymath.
Master of None is streaming on Netflix now
TREAT YO SELF
In Parks and Recreation’s arguably most celebrated episode (season four, episode four), Mr Ansari’s character Tom introduces a beautiful idea: a day, not a birthday or any holiday, on which to “treat yo self”. It’s a concept that has lived on.
Recently, Mr Ansari has been treating himself rather often. “I keep on buying these things from your site and justifying them as ‘investment purchases’. And recently I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I seem to have made several investment purchases. I am investing a lot.’”
Here, Mr Ansari lists his top picks from MR PORTER for the holiday season – should you feel like “treating yo self”.