'Master of None' co-creator Alan Yang on that New Yorkers episode, Chef Jeff and season 3
Master of None caught a lot of folks by surprise when its acclaimed first season arrived in 2015. Netflix wasn't quite the original content powerhouse it is today (this was before Stranger Things premiered and sent us all into the Upside Down), and for all of Aziz Ansari's comedic success, he had never spearheaded his own series.
But Master of None was an instant hit. Critics loved it, praising its portrayal of modern dating and the stellar writing that was infused with the creators' personal experiences — the latter of which earned the show an Emmy win. It was also during that Emmy speech that co-creator Alan Yang came to the fore, with a call for more Asian representation on TV. "There's 17 million Asian-Americans in this country, and there's 17 million Italian-Americans," Yang said. "They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos. We've got Long Duk Dong."
While television still has a ways to go with Asian representation on-screen, Master of None continues to impress in its second — and possibly final — season. The series shakes things up with a brief departure from New York to the lush, Instagram-worthy Italian countryside and even mimics the news of today with a sexual harassment subplot of fictional food celebrity Chef Jeff (played by Bobby Cannavale) in a storyline that echoes the recent downfall of Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. Despite the creators' new ambitions, the storytelling is no less lived in. Episode three centers around Dev's Muslim faith in relation to his mom and dad, which acts as a fitting companion piece to season one's impressive "Parents."
Perhaps the best episode of the bunch, and one of the best episodes of TV so far this year, is the sixth episode, "New York, I Love You." Directed by Yang, the episode is essentially a collection of short stories focused on three New Yorkers — a doorman, a deaf bodega cashier and a taxi driver — connected together by a faux film starring Nicolas Cage, Emma Watson and Tyrese Gibson. (It's a long story.)
In a recent interview with Mic, Yang discussed how he came up with the idea for "New York, I Love You," the timeliness of the Chef Jeff storyline and whether we'll see a third season.
(Editor's note: Spoilers for Master of None season two ahead.)
Mic: The obvious change fans will notice between seasons one and two is the setting, since we spend some time in Italy at the beginning. Were there any big changes happening on set and behind the scenes, or was the approach to season two quite similar to season one?
Alan Yang: Generally, the approach was similar. You know, some people have asked, "Hey after people saw season one and you saw the reaction, did you change anything?" No. I think the direction has really been the same, which is "what to come up with?": episodes that really excite us, things that we're passionate about and things that we're really interested in. Then, we really dig in and trust our own instincts, because, honestly, we just don't know any other way to do it.
We tried to keep the process similar and just wanted to go bigger, you know? We wanted to be more ambitious and take more risks and make the show look and feel different but retain the same spirit. And we kept on a lot of the same team. Behind the scenes — our producer, cinematographer, production designer and editors. A lot of the same people are around, and we were lucky enough to work with them again. It was a lot of the same to make something that hopefully felt bigger and better and different and fresh.
I want to talk about the sixth episode of this season, which is one of my favorite episodes of TV this year, following the lives of three New Yorkers unrelated to Dev's story. What inspired you to make these specific characters the focal point of the episode?
AY: Yeah, that's one of my favorites, too, man. Ever since we came up with the idea, I was so excited about it. The way we picked the specific characters, we brainstormed a lot of different jobs and people you interact with. One of the inspirations, honestly, was the idea that everyone is the star of their own show. No one is a side character; no one is a background character in the movie of their life.
But if you watch most movies, most giant movies, the doorman is someone who says hello to Jennifer Aniston's character and then you never see them again. It's like, "Well, what is that guy's life like?" So after we brainstormed a few jobs and areas we were interested in, we started doing research. We interviewed a bunch of cab drivers. We interviewed a bunch of doormen. We brought them in and really just asked them for stories — funny stories, sad stories, things that made them angry, things that brought them joy.
At some point, I had the idea of having one of these characters being deaf because some of my friends have deaf relatives, and it's just an interesting world that I haven't seen depicted in very many shows and movies. And so we interviewed some great deaf actors and actresses and talked with them about their lives and their experiences. One of the actresses had worked in the service industry, so we thought maybe she could be a cashier, and she told us some great stories that really inspired us.
In the case of that episode, it was really like, "Well, this isn't our lives, so lets do the research and figure out what the real stories are so we're not making it all up." So much of the rest of the show is about our lives, and we've done the research by living them, but in this case, we just didn't want to be inauthentic and patronizing.
I've lived in New York for almost two years now, so it really hit home with me. How do you think this episode will resonate with non-New Yorkers?
AY: I think it's a very relatable premise. To me, the fun of it is just the camera bouncing around, and it's just like, "Wow, let's follow that other person now," or "Wow, this section doesn't have any audio, holy crap." That was definitely a discussion with Netflix, where they told us, "Well, we think people are going to restart their computers." I was like, "Let them do that!" I mean that would be funny, you know? Let them do that and really engage the process.
We found that in screening the episode, when we got to that section, people leaned in and paid attention. It's just this beautiful thing to see, that people were paying more attention. And that scene in the gift shop, that scene got as many laughs in the screening as any scene in the show we've ever screened.
Were there certain jobs and characters that didn't make the cut? I kept thinking an MTA worker might show up.
AY: Yeah, oh man, I'm trying to think of all the other jobs that were brainstormed. There was a whole story we wrote and scripted that was about an older Asian waitress at a Chinese restaurant. The idea was Dev, Arnold and Denise would walk in and order their food, and she's really pissed off at them.
And then you follow her life, it goes into the kitchen, and there was a storyline we had for a while where she and the cook were just hating each other and they had this really bad relationship. And then she goes home, and you see her family life and you see her kids, and she lives with her mom and a bunch of people — we did some research about people living in Chinatown and how often there are six or seven people living in the same apartment — and then the other family members would leave, and you would see the cook come over and it's clear that they have some sort of secret relationship. It was a cute story.
So we dealt with a lot of other paths. Just people you might cross paths with in your day, and you know nothing about their lives.
I also love that the link tying everything together was a fake movie called Death Castle. It had the unintended effect of making me want to see Death Castle become a real movie. If Lupita Nyong'o and Rihanna can greenlight a movie pitch over a tweet, we can make Death Castle happen.
AY: Yeah, man, did you know that the voice of Nicolas Cage at the end of that movie is done by Andy Samberg?
Oh, that's awesome.
AY: Yeah, he did us a favor. He got in the ADR room after a Brooklyn Nine-Nine taping and did that as a favor to us.
We also see very little of Brian, who can be seen as the on-screen version of you, this season. Was that a conscious choice? While the focus of the show is certainly Dev, is there more to Brian's character that you'd like to explore in future seasons?
AY: Yeah, it wasn't a conscious thing at all. We love [actor Kelvin Yu]. Also, it was more of a thing where it's like — let's say if you called me at the beginning of the season, we had 100 ideas. We just keep whittling down, and this season, for whatever reason, we did a little bit more with Arnold in an episode. We definitely did a Denise episode, and who knows? If we end up doing future seasons, we might do a Brian episode.
One of your biggest guest stars this season was Bobby Cannavale as Chef Jeff. Jeff's storyline takes a darker turn when it's revealed that he's sexually harassed women in his workplace. It obviously feels very timely given the recent news surrounding people like Bill O'Reilly, but this plot line was conceived beforehand. What was the message you were trying to convey through this character?
AY: That was the saddest observation we made. When we wrote it, the point was raised by one of the writers or somebody saying, "Well, will this feel dated?" And you're like, 'Man, there will be Chef Jeff in the future.' It just keeps happening.
When the O'Reilly stuff came out, I texted Aziz and was like, "Man, another fucking Chef Jeff!" It's just crazy — this guy's literally a TV host like Chef Jeff in the show. It's really disheartening, and the other aspect of this character is we kind of wanted to get across the feeling of is it's not always a very obvious monster.
In the case of O'Reilly, that's kind of a distasteful guy, and it's not a stretch to believe he's a monster. But it's not always that obvious. And sometimes, we also want to convey the idea that it's this person you know, but maybe you don't know that well.
That sort of idea is really difficult, and we struggled with that a lot as far as when the Lisa character talks to [Dev] about the harassment. Dev's in a really difficult situation where it's not his story at that point. We talked about how we don't want Dev to do nothing, but at the same time, we don't want to portray him as this white-knight character who saves the day because that's not realistic either. So our solution was to compact the timeframe and then have that scene on Raven Live where it's taken out of his hands. It's not his story at that point — it's Lisa's story.
Season two ends on a relative cliffhanger for Dev's future with Francesca. Aziz has talked about taking a longer hiatus between seasons, or possibly not continuing the story at all. Should there be a season three, what kinds of stories are you looking for tell?
AY: I think that's the kind of thing we'll only know when we start thinking about it. I really think, with the way we've done these previous two seasons is, you just kind of have to be in it. It's like, "Oh, okay we're doing a show and let me funnel everything that's happened to me, all of my experiences, and what am I really, really passionate about right now." What is this soup that's in your head at that point?
To me, I think you're most inspired when it's just something so immediate. Yes, ideas sometimes have to gestate and develop. But yeah, I would say there is not yet, like, a seven-season plan at this point. (Laughs.) I'm gonna say that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The second season of Master of None is currently streaming on Netflix.
Mic has ongoing coverage of Master of None. Follow our main Master of None hub here.