Aziz Ansari knows how to take the pressure.
When one utters the name Aziz Ansari, most comedy fan’s eyes light up with joy. Whether it’s his riotous comedy specials or his time on the lauded “Parks and Recreation,” Ansari has enjoyed both critical and fan praise. He’s become a comedy darling in many regards, having frequently been included in top 10 lists for best comedians in the country with Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Yahoo! TV and many more. His cultural, racial and gender observations are astute and hilarious, all at the same time. It’s a comic approach that is decidedly refreshing in today’s tumultuous climate.
But not wanting to rest on his laurels, Ansari has joined the ranks of other bonafide comedians who have started their own autobiographical TV shows. From Louis C.K.’s “Louie” and Marc Maron’s “Maron” to Bill Burr’s “F is for Family” and Pete Holmes’ “Crashing”, more and more comedians have begun reflecting their own lives on television instead of concocting the stereotypical sitcom shlock found in the 1990s. And with Ansari’s critically acclaimed “Master of None” coming back for a second season, it appears that the comedy gravy train is yet to stop anytime soon—much to the delight of fans and critics alike.
Aziz Ansari recently joined the Vulture Festival to discuss his time working on his new hit show, listening to some sage advice from Louis C.K. and falling in love with Italian neorealism.
The Mike Leigh Approach
Many people assume that comedians love improvisation. After all, it’s the forte of many comics who rely on the skill to help them out of a dead room. But for Ansari, that improvisation seems to have stayed on the Upright Citizens Brigade stage where he first began. For Ansari, it appears that improvisation has no place in front of a camera, a quality that is shared with other directors like the Cannes-favorite Mike Leigh.
“I really like to rehearse with the actors so what I’ll do is kind of a process that I bring from reading about other directors like Richard Linklater. You take the script and you put it aside and say, ‘alright let’s treat this situation like its reality and improvise the dialogue,’” Said the golden Globe-nominated actor. Ansari went on to explain his inspired approach by saying, “it’s not improvised in the way that everyone is being funny and whacky but rather we try and treat it like a real situation.” The actor added, “I did a little bit of that in the last season too. You discover different things and you have a much more natural look than before. You do that a few times and it five, ten times and from doing that you find a cream of the crop for the scene.” It appears that the approach most certainly paid off for the series’ touchingly humanist look at love, loneliness, jealousy, parental relationships and being a young professional in Brooklyn.
From One Comedian to Another: Practice, Practice, Practice
“Saturday Night Live” is often considered the mecca of comedy for performers and comedians alike. It has established itself as a lasting bastion of popular culture, satire and sketch comedy having been on the air for over forty years. It has become quite the institution, with its own rituals, beliefs and curses. Coupled with the perennial presence of the imposing showrunner Lorne Michaels, “Saturday Night Live” is also often considered to be a cutthroat work environment in which people sleep little and work a great deal.
And yet, it is in many ways one of the greatest schools for comedians, having produced numerous stars throughout its time on NBC’s Studio 8H. And while the host is usually given free rein to be actively involved with selecting, writing and starring in the segments, it can still be a nerve-wracking experience. And for Ansari, it sure seemed like it. Ansari had just wrapped on the first season of “Master of None” when he got the call to be the host of the post-inauguration show. It was a tense moment for the United States as Donald J. Trump ascended the presidency. Ansari knew the pressure was on. Especially on his monologue.
“It was this weird moment of ‘oh fuck, man!’ and ‘oh my god, I can’t wait!’ but it was way more the ‘I can’t wait’ attitude because I’ve always wanted to host that show and it’s obviously on every comedians list. I was thrilled to be given the opportunity,” said Ansari about being given such a lofty opportunity. The actor went on to explain why he was so nervous, saying, “I had no stand-up. I hadn’t been doing stand-up at all because I had been doing the show for so long. The only material I had was from my stand-up special so I really had nothing.”
Ansari described how prepared for the one of the biggest moments of his performing career, saying, “I immediately began doing sets at the Comedy Cellar. One of the first days there, I saw Louis C.K. and I asked him about how to do the monologue. He said, ‘well, you have to understand, this is going to be the most watched stand-up set you’ll ever do. Don’t try to write something specific to this. Just do your best stuff.’ I said, ‘I have no material…’ to which he replied, ‘oh, then you should be here all the time.’”
“So that’s what I did. I was there all the time trying to figure my set out.” Trying to remain topical and yet true to himself, Ansari explained that “it was really interesting to try and figure out how I felt about this whole Trump thing. It was such a crazy time because everything was changing every day. I dropped into the Comedy Cellar to work stuff out all the time. They have three rooms and during the holidays, I did shows in all of them. So, I would do anything between five to nine shows a night just to keep trying new things.”
Ansari Captures Reality in the Long Take
Perhaps one of the most endearing and charming qualities of “Master of None” is its pastiche heavy camera work. Whether it’s Vittorio de Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” or Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” many of the shots in “Master of None” provide a filmic aura that had been established by the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealists that inspired them. Andre Bazin argues that the long take is a quintessential part to creating the “art of reality.” It is a modernist aesthetic that screams postwar humanism while also detailing the futility and listlessness of everyday life.
Ansari is clearly enraptured by the work of the European auteurs, with one of the first shot of the new season showcasing all of the films that Ansari’s character Dev has been watching while in Italy—Fellini’s “Amarcord,” “8 ½,” and “La Dolce Vita” along with Michelangelo Antonioni’s “La Notte”, “L’Avventura” and Sica’s “The Bicycle Thieves.” It is as if Ansari and his team are foreshadowing the neorealist aesthetic that we are soon going to be enchanted by. Speaking of the inspiration, Ansari explains, “I love doing things in one take. A big influence on this season was the Italian stuff that I watched like Antonioni which really tests your patience sometimes. I feel like sometimes you can do more with just facial expression or silence than with any dialogue. I think that that moment really puts you in that [Dev’s] head.”
Stream all of season one and two of “Master of None” now on Netflix.