Aziz Ansari On 'Master Of None' And How His Parents Feel About Acting
Aziz Ansari is in the midst of a whirlwind year. In January, the comic hosted Saturday Night Live the day after President Trump's inauguration — an experience he describes as "one of the most watched stand-up sets I'll ever do in my life, if not the most."
Other segments from the episode on May 24, 2017
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Aziz Ansari, co-created co-wrote and stars in the Netflix comedy series "Master Of None." All 10 episodes of Season 2 are now available. Ansari previously co-starred in "Parks And Recreation," and he's a comic. He hosted "Saturday Night Live" the day after President Trump was inaugurated. We'll talk about his opening monologue a little later.
Let's start with "Master Of None." Ansari plays Dev who, like Ansari, is the son of two immigrants from India who are Muslim. Dev's parents are played by Ansari's parents. The series is about Dev's life as a first generation Indian-American trying to bridge the cultural gap between himself and his parents, trying to find a place for himself in the entertainment world where there aren't many parts for brown actors and trying to find a woman with whom he can have a meaningful relationship.
In Season 2, Dev is recovering from a breakup. He's striking out with dating apps. He might be falling in love with a good friend, but she's engaged. As for Dev's career, he gets a job hosting a TV cupcake competition on a food channel. In the episode titled "Religion," Dev, his parents and his visiting aunt, uncle and cousin go to a restaurant. Dev's parents have urged him to act like he's religious and prays every day so as not to offend the relatives. But Dev gives up on that pretense and orders pork. After the dinner, his parents are angry. His mother speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTER OF NONE")
FATIMA ANSARI: (As Nisha) I can't believe you did this.
SHOUKATH ANSARI: (As Ramesh) Uncle and Aunty were very offended.
AZIZ ANSARI: (As Dev) Well, I'm sorry they're offended. But you know what? I'm not religious, and I don't think it's right to pretend to be.
S. ANSARI: (As Ramesh) What do you mean you are not religious?
A. ANSARI: (As Dev) It's just not for me.
S. ANSARI: (As Ramesh) What's not for you?
A. ANSARI: (As Dev) Um, well, there's definitely issues. What about all the stuff with women?
S. ANSARI: (As Ramesh) What is this Fox News? Why am I under attack?
F. ANSARI: (As Nisha, foreign language spoken) You know we don't believe that. Some people have bad interpretations.
A. ANSARI: (As Dev) Yeah. And, you know, you guys have your interpretations. Right? You eat non-halal. You used to smoke cigarettes. You don't wear the hijab. Why can't I have my interpretation where I'm just nice and I eat pork?
F. ANSARI: (As Nisha) It's not funny.
A. ANSARI: (As Dev) Look, I get it. For you guys, religion has its cultural value. It's not like that for me. It's people calling me terrorist and getting pulled out of airport security lines.
F. ANSARI: (As Nisha) That's because you lost your passport three times.
A. ANSARI: (As Dev) I lost it twice.
F. ANSARI: (As Nisha) No, three times.
A. ANSARI: (As Dev) Oh, yeah.
F. ANSARI: (As Nisha) I don't want to talk about this anymore. I'm really disappointed in you. I'm going to bed.
S. ANSARI: (As Ramesh) We could have gone to the seafood place. None of this would have happened.
A. ANSARI: (As Dev) Really? That's your takeaway after all this - that we should have gone to the seafood place?
S. ANSARI: (As Ramesh) Yep. Good night.
GROSS: Aziz Ansari, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on Season 2 of "Master Of None."
A. ANSARI: Oh, thank you very much.
GROSS: So is it, this little episode that we just heard, based on something that happened to you?
A. ANSARI: The real thing that happened is - it's even sillier than what happened in the show. The real thing that happened was - I was in a relationship at the time. And me and the woman I was seeing - we were out to dinner with my parents, and she didn't know about the whole pork thing. And she ordered a dish that had pork in it. And I saw it, and I was like - well, I want to eat some of that. And I had second when I was like - well, I don't want to eat it in front my parents. They might get upset.
And then I thought - well, what am I talking about? I'm in my 30s (laughter). I can do what I want to do. I can eat what I want. And so I ate some of this pork, and my mom got a little upset with me - not at the level that the character in the show gets upset. But she wasn't too pleased about it.
Next day, I was walking around with this girlfriend I had at the time. And we went to just go get, like, a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. And she's like - hey - I, you know, I don't know if we should get a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. Your parents seem kind of upset that you eat pork. And I said, it's fine. What are we going to do, run into them on the street? We get the sandwich, and then two minutes later, we run into my parents on the street.
A. ANSARI: And my dad is like, what are you eating? Can I have a bite?
A. ANSARI: I was like no, there's bacon in it. And he was like OK. And then I had to go do something. And they - the three of them went off together to go walk around in a park or something. And then my girlfriend at the time texted me about 10 minutes later. And she says, your parents are asking me why I'm peer pressuring you into eating pork.
A. ANSARI: And then I texted Alan and said we should do an episode about this. And the episode ended up being a totally different story. But just this idea of this conversation about pork and how it segued into a deeper conversation about religion and family and tradition is what was interesting to me. And so me and my brother wrote this episode that's in the second season about that. And it just seemed like an interesting way to get into this whole discussion. And (laughter) our show has so much stuff about food, it was kind of perfect.
GROSS: Do you remember the first time you ate pork? Was it served to you, or did you seek it out?
A. ANSARI: It's actually exactly what happens in the first scene of that episode. That is a direct-from-Aziz's-life-to-the-screen moment, where I was a little kid. I was at this other kid's house, and they were eating bacon. And I was eating it, and I'd never had it before. And I thought it was so good. And my mom called me. It's exactly like what's in the show. I don't even know if my - hey, I got to talk to my mom and ask her if she remembers the phone call when I was a little kid.
But she called me and said, Aziz, what are you doing? And I was like, oh, I'm just here eating bacon. And she was like, oh, bacon is pork. We're Muslims. Muslims aren't supposed to eat pork. And (laughter) I remember being very upset (laughter) 'cause I was really enjoying it. And that - maybe that's why I don't like religion because the first introduction to it was...
A. ANSARI: ...Oh, you don't get to do that thing you just discovered that you really enjoy (laughter).
GROSS: So were you raised within the Muslim tradition?
A. ANSARI: You know, I was never really that religious. And I grew up in South Carolina, so it was kind of hard to participate in the religion because there was no mosque or anything like that. So I was never really religious. I never really took to religion in general. I just remember being a kid and even having that thought of, like, well, it seems like everyone's just doing whatever their parents' religion was. It never seemed like any parent went and, like, read all the religious books and said - well, I'm not really into Buddhism or Taoism. Christianity's the one for me (laughter). It just seemed like they just...
A. ANSARI: Everyone just did what their parents did. So that immediately made me skeptical of the whole thing, even as a kid. So I never was really into religion as a concept.
GROSS: You know, a question I think this episode raises is, who is religion for? You know, like, if you are not religious and you're trying to be honest to yourself, do you do something from the religious tradition just out of respect for your parents? Like, where's the line between doing something to please your parents because you love your parents? At the same time, you're not a child. You're an adult. At what point can you say - but this is who I am, and you need to respect me as much as I need to respect you? It's a really difficult one when it comes to religion because it's such a very deep and complicated, you know, cultural and spiritual issue.
A. ANSARI: Yeah. I mean, that's really what the episode is about. And, you know, I don't know what the answer is. The answer I kind of came to in my own life and in the episode is just, you know, there's a difference between respecting your own values, and there's another thing of just rubbing it in someone's face and maybe hurting their feelings.
GROSS: So I love - you know, we talked about this the last time you were on the show that you've cast your parents to play Dev's parents, your character's parents, in the series. And they're great in it. I'm wondering if working together on the series has brought you together more.
A. ANSARI: I would say it has. We just spent more time together from doing it. They don't live in New York. You know, they live in North Carolina.
A. ANSARI: And, you know, my dad told me this really touching thing last year whenever we finished the - last year when we finished the season and after the season aired, my dad came to New York, and we went on the - Stephen Colbert's show together. And we were both guests on it. It was very fun, and we went out to dinner afterwards. And he was telling me, like, yeah, this is all fun. And, you know, it's great to, you know, go on the show with you and everything. But, you know, the reason I'm acting in the show and doing all this is just to spend more time with you and to see you.
And it really hit me 'cause, you know, he - my parents, you know, they're - my dad is a practicing gastroenterologist. My mom works at the office. When they come to do the series, they're using their vacation time to help me. My mom doesn't even like acting in the show. She's really just doing it 'cause she loves me very much. (Laughter) She hates acting. She's already like - before the second season - when we announced the second season - like, OK, this season, the mom character's on vacation or, you know, she's just gone...
A. ANSARI: ...You know. And I was like - well, she can't be on vacation the whole time. She's like, no? Well, maybe she's at a wedding sometimes. She just didn't want to be a part of it, but she did it because, you know, she loves me. And my brother's also heavily involved with the show. And it's a really special thing that we get to do this together. My entire immediate family worked on that episode. I mean, my brother's with me all the time when we do the show. But for that episode, the religion episode, you know, my parents are acting in it. My brother's a writer on set. We wrote the episode together. And we're making this product that I'm very proud of. And to do that with your entire immediate family, it's a very rare pleasure.
GROSS: Well, I'm thinking that, in a way, you're following in your parents' footsteps because they kind of have a family business. You know, your father's a gastroenterologist. Your mother runs the office. And so now, like, you have a family business - your show (laughter). The whole family's a part of it...
A. ANSARI: Oh, yeah, I never thought about that. Yeah.
GROSS: So when it comes to religion, how do you describe yourself now? Do you call yourself an atheist or a Muslim?
A. ANSARI: I just don't say anything. I don't know. I feel like you say atheist, it has all these weird connotations...
GROSS: Wait, let's test this. Aziz, what's your religion (laughter)?
A. ANSARI: Let's talk about something else.
GROSS: No, no, no, let's talk about this. So what is your religion (laughter)?
A. ANSARI: I'm not really a religious person.
A. ANSARI: Do you want to go get a taco or something?
GROSS: My guest is Aziz Ansari. He co-created, co-writes and stars in the Netflix comedy series "Master Of None." All of Season 2 is now available. We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CURE SONG, "IN BETWEEN DAYS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic, actor, writer, and director Aziz Ansari, who co-created, co-writes, stars in and directs some of the episodes of "Master Of None," which is now in its second season on Netflix. All 10 episodes of the second season are up.
So one of the episodes, the Thanksgiving episode, takes place over the course of several years, from your character Dev's childhood through the present. And every few minutes, it's like - it's another year. And every Thanksgiving - since his family - his parents are from India. They don't celebrate Thanksgiving. So every Thanksgiving, Dev goes to his best friend Denise's home and has Thanksgiving with her, her mother, her aunt and her grandmother. And in this episode, when they're kids, she kind of comes out to him. So I want to play that scene in which Denise explains that - well, let's hear her explain it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTER OF NONE")
EDEN DUNCAN-SMITH: (As Denise) Hey, can I talk to you about something?
SURAJ PARTHA: (As Dev) Yeah, sure. What's up?
DUNCAN-SMITH: (As Denise) All right, you know Erica?
PARTHA: (As Dev) White Erica or black Erica?
DUNCAN-SMITH: (As Denise) No, mixed Erica.
PARTHA: (As Dev) Oh, yeah, I know mixed Erica. She's cute.
DUNCAN-SMITH: (As Denise) No, mixed Erica's fine as hell.
PARTHA: (As Dev) OK.
DUNCAN-SMITH: (As Denise) That's what I'm trying to say. Like, I like her. I have a crush on her.
PARTHA: (As Dev) Wait, are you trying to tell me that you're, you know...
DUNCAN-SMITH: (As Denise) Lebanese.
PARTHA: (As Dev) Wait, you're from Lebanon?
DUNCAN-SMITH: (As Denise) No, I just - I don't know how to - I'm not comfortable with the word lesbian.
PARTHA: (As Dev) All right. So we'll say you're Lebanese. I mean, I always thought there was a good chance. You're the only girl who wore Jordans to the spring fling. And you've had those Jasmine Guy posters up for years. I always felt like it wasn't about her acting.
DUNCAN-SMITH: (As Denise) And I have been dressing like Da Brat since preschool.
PARTHA: (As Dev) Are you going to tell your mom?
DUNCAN-SMITH: (As Denise) Being gay isn't something black people love to talk about.
PARTHA: (As Dev) Why?
DUNCAN-SMITH: (As Denise) Some black people think being gay is a choice. And when they find out that their kid is gay, they try to figure out what they did wrong.
PARTHA: (As Dev) Gay Martin's white, and his parents did the same thing.
DUNCAN-SMITH: (As Denise) Yeah, but it's more intense for black folks, all right? So everything's a contest for us, and your kids are like trophies. Me being gay is like tarnishing her trophy.
PARTHA: (As Dev) I don't think being Lebanese tarnishes the trophy. There's plenty of straight trophies. I think it's cool you're a Lebanese trophy.
DUNCAN-SMITH: (As Denise) Thanks, dude.
PARTHA: (As Dev) Damn, this has been an intense talk. Do you want to smoke some weed? I got some [expletive] that's dank.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. And that was Suraj Partha playing the 16-year-old Dev and Eden Duncan-Smith playing the 16-year-old Denise. So...
A. ANSARI: Does the bleep guy always get excited when I get booked as a guest?
A. ANSARI: He's like, finally, I can use my bleeps.
GROSS: So this is in part, I think, the story of Lena Waithe who plays the adult Denise...
A. ANSARI: Yeah.
GROSS: ...And is a recurring character in the series and a good friend...
A. ANSARI: She co-wrote the episode with me.
A. ANSARI: We wrote the episode together. And, yeah, a lot of it is her mining her own story.
GROSS: How did you decide to have her tell part of her story in an episode?
A. ANSARI: Because I know when someone that's not you tries to tell your story, especially when you don't look like the person whose story you're trying to tell, you're going to screw it up. And the only way to get it right is to have them be as involved as possible. And that's why I told her from the get-go - I said, you need to write this with me. And I'll help you, and we'll get this in shape and make it feel like the show. But you've got to make sure we get this right. If I wrote that by myself, what am I going to - that episode, it's just me and four black women the whole episode. (Laughter) I joked with Melina, who directed the episode, and Lena - I was like, this is the most amount of screen time I've seen on any film or television show with one Indian character and four black women. 'Cause - it - so how am I going to write that episode by myself? It would be offensive, you know?
GROSS: You got Angela...
A. ANSARI: I guess I don't have the gall of the - of all those white writers that write for minorities (laughter). I wanted to have her be involved as possible. And I wanted to have Melina Matsoukas, also African-American, direct the episode. And I wanted to have those two women make sure we got this right.
GROSS: So the series is always in part about your character's attempts to find a meaningful and lasting relationship. And so there's an episode in the second season that's all about dating and dating through one of those swipe apps (laughter), and it is not working out.
A. ANSARI: (Laughter).
GROSS: I don't know where you are in your - in your own love life. But it seems to me, once you become a celebrity, you can't really use a dating app because, first of all, everybody would like to date somebody who's famous. Some people would want to date a famous person just on the assumption that they make money. And then you put your picture up. Like, everybody's going to recognize it. So you can't - it's just a totally uneven playing field if you're famous. So I assume you had to - if you ever did it at all, that you had to give it up at some point.
A. ANSARI: Well, in my own life, you know, people ask me about that often. Like, oh, it must be hard dating when you're recognized or whatever. And I would say it doesn't really affect things as much as people assume. And it affects things in ways that people don't understand or predict. In the beginning, you just have a big advantage because people know who you are. And they - in my case, if someone comes up to me, they're, you know, probably a fan of work I've created. And you know, they have an idea of who I am and what I'm like, and they're probably not too far off in some of their assumptions.
And it's like being someone that's just, like, very, very attractive, that people just, like, want to come up to and say something to. As far as, like, the money and things like that, like, I've never went out with someone and then them, like, try to, you know, embezzle money from me or get them to buy them a car or something like that. You know, that stuff doesn't happen. The thing that's tricky is it's a very weird lifestyle. You're gone for often - you know, if you're filming something in another place, you're living in another city for three months.
It's weird if - I don't have too much of this, but other people, you know, whenever people are taking pictures of you all the time and you go out on one date with someone and there's pictures of you guys together, that stuff's kind of intense. And, you know, just kind of having the public scrutiny of your personal relationships - that stuff is weird. But, you know, I don't have that at the level of other more famous people. But, you know, in my life, I haven't found that to be something that causes me too much problem, you know. I think I'm ultimately - I'm dealing with the same thing the guy in the show is. You're just trying to find a meaningful connection with someone, no matter who you are.
GROSS: In the dating sequence episode, I want to ask you about one detail in it. So he actually goes home with a woman, and he's in her bedroom. And she says, you want to reach in the jar for a condom? And he does, and it's an Aunt Jemima jar (laughter). And he's just, like...
A. ANSARI: It's...
GROSS: ...Mortified to see this. And she's like, well, I don't know, what's the problem? Where does that come from? I mean, does anything like that happen...
A. ANSARI: Well, let's go back a second.
A. ANSARI: Let's go back a second because it's not really an Aunt Jemima jar. Aunt Jemima's that - the maple syrup. I don't know how you would say - it's like a racist - it's a racist...
GROSS: But it looks like an Aunt Jemima kind of character.
A. ANSARI: I don't know what the proper term is. But it's a - it's a ceramic jar that has a shade of black for the African-American woman depicted in the jar that's way - that's an offensive color. And it's what you'd find in kind of racist stuff, you know, and it's very offensive. And that's the jar she's keeping her condoms in. And, yeah, afterwards they have a chat about it, and he's like you can't have that jar. And she's like, well, it was a gift. And he's like, well, it's still racist. You can't have that. And then she's arguing that, well, why did you sleep with me? (Laughter) And it was a fun scene.
Where that idea came from, I was - I'd never been in a situation where I slept with someone and they had condoms in a jar like that. But I saw a jar like that in someone's home once. And I said, what are you doing with this jar? You can't have this jar. And they had that same back-and-forth with me. Oh, someone got it for me as a gift. I was like, you can't have that out. And I said some of the same things that my character says, like, well, you - have any black people seen it? Have they been offended? And she was like, well, I haven't had any African-American guests. And I was like, well, I'm the person with the darkest skin tone that's seen this, and it's very upsetting to me. I think that's enough. I think you need to get rid of it. And eventually, this woman threw out this jar (laughter).
GROSS: So do you have, like, a notebook of ideas that you keep so that you can hold on to memories like that?
A. ANSARI: Yeah. It's a weird thing. You see that jar, and you're offended. And then a few minutes later, you're like, oh, I'm glad that happened. Maybe I can put this in something (laughter).
A. ANSARI: Yeah, I keep notes about things. And, you know, sometimes they're things that I am not able to use for years. And that episode - we were writing it, and I remember we were trying to figure out what could be the last beat. It needed to be something very comedic and unexpected. We wanted it to go bad with the last girl. And - but we wanted him to, like, go home with her and it seem like it's going well. And then I just remembered that jar thing, and I pitched it. And we were all into it, and we used it.
GROSS: My guest is Aziz Ansari. He co-created, co-writes and stars in the Netflix comedy series "Master Of None." All of Season 2 is now available. We'll talk more after a break. And our book critic Maureen Corrigan will have some recommendations for summer reading. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DENNIS TAYLOR'S "SPECIAL K")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Aziz Ansari. He co-created, co-writes, stars in and directs some episodes of the Netflix comedy series "Master Of None." The main character, like Ansari, is the son of immigrants from India who are Muslim. He also co-starred in the NBC series "Parks And Recreation" and has been doing stand-up comedy since his college days. So I want to ask you about hosting "Saturday Night Live" the day after President Trump was inaugurated. When did you find out that you would be hosting the day after Inauguration Day?
A. ANSARI: I found out a month before. I directed the last two episodes of the season, and I wanted to get my edits, the director's cut of it, done before I went away somewhere for a Christmas break. And so I finished it. And I was like, OK, now I just have to go somewhere and get away. It was a very intense shoot for me, and it took a lot out of me. And then the day I finished, I went to some Christmas party and I ran into the talent booker from "SNL."
And she was like, I've been trying to call you all day. We want you to host next month. And I was like, great (laughter). And, you know, part of me was like, oh, I wanted to just go away. But hosting "SNL" has always been a dream of mine. And I was so excited for the opportunity that I didn't care. And the next day, I just started going to the comedy club, and I started working harder than I ever have at stand-up to try to get this set in order for the show in January.
GROSS: Did you feel, like, a responsibility to make the set political in some way and a response to the election and the inauguration?
A. ANSARI: Yeah, I think there was some expectation that I was going to have some take on this. And it was a lot of pressure. You know, even from friends of mine in my own life, they were like, man, you better do something amazing.
A. ANSARI: You know, people are going to be watching.
GROSS: No pressure, yeah.
A. ANSARI: Yeah, I mean, it's been one of the most popular seasons of "SNL" ever. Everyone's watching the show for their take. And, you know, I think there was this expectation of, OK, well, Aziz is going to have some take on this. And it's a really tricky task because everyone's talking about him and the whole situation. So it's a challenge to find a take that feels unique and sharp and original enough. But I had that whole month. And I just did so many sets. And, you know, I had no material.
I had no material that I'd been working on 'cause I'd been making the show. And all the other material I had, I put in a stand-up special. So, you know, I had little pieces here and there, but they weren't about him. And - but slowly but surely, the set evolved and I ended up with what I did. And I was really happy with it.
GROSS: So let's hear the very beginning of the set. So this is Aziz Ansari on January 21 hosting "Saturday Night Live."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
A. ANSARI: Thank you. Thank you very much. Wow, I can't believe this. I'm here hosting "Saturday Night Live."
A. ANSARI: Yeah - the day after Trump's inauguration.
A. ANSARI: Pretty cool to know, though, he's probably at home right now watching a brown guy make fun of him, though, right?
GROSS: OK, so that was your opening. Were you thinking about that a lot that Trump was actually watching "Saturday Night Live" a lot then and hate tweeting about it?
A. ANSARI: I didn't think about it too much. But it was interesting to know that that was likely happening.
GROSS: To my knowledge, he didn't respond directly to your monologue, did he?
A. ANSARI: No, not that I'm aware of, no. No, wait, no, he tweeted that he loved it.
GROSS: Oh, yeah. That's right. How could I have forgotten that?
A. ANSARI: This guy hit the nail on the head, fantastic job.
GROSS: (Laughter) So when you were testing out material at comedy clubs, like, you couldn't test that out 'cause that was, like, a unique "Saturday Night Live" kind of joke. That whole joke is based on Trump watching you at "Saturday Night Live." So there must have been material, like, you couldn't test at the comedy clubs before doing it live.
A. ANSARI: What's interesting about doing "SNL" is no matter how many times you practice in a comedy club, it's happening that day. So with the whole election and the inauguration, everyone's mood was changing, you know, every day and crazy things were happening every day. So you never knew what you were going to be in for that Saturday. You know, the day before on the inauguration, everyone was so down and depressed. The whole mood on the set was - it was so bad. And then the next day on Saturday, there was the women's march and everyone's spirits were boosted and it was a totally different environment.
And no matter how many times you practice in a comedy club, being there at "SNL" at that stage, it's not like any comedy club. You know, it's a very strange setup. And it's really just about what these people think, you know? And you have one rehearsal and then you do the show and that's it. And that's what's out there forever. And it's one of the most watched stand-up sets I'll ever do in my life, if not the most. And so there was a lot of pressure on it, but it went really well and I was really happy with it.
GROSS: So I want to play another excerpt of your opening monologue on January 21 on "Saturday Night Live." Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
A. ANSARI: So, look, we're divided. It's OK. We've always been divided by some of these big political issues. It's fine. As long as we treat each other with respect and remember that ultimately, we're all Americans, we'll be fine. But the problem is...
A. ANSARI: The problem is there's a new group. I'm talking about this tiny slice of people that have gotten way too fired up about the Trump thing for the wrong reasons. I'm talking about these people that as soon as Trump won, they're like, we don't have to pretend like we're not racist anymore. We don't have to pretend anymore. We can be racist again. Whoa, whoa, whoa, no, no. If you're one of these people, please go back to pretending.
You have to go back to pretending. I'm so sorry we never thanked you for your service. We never realized how much effort you were putting into the pretending. But you have to go back to pretending. I...
A. ANSARI: Hey, I know it's been a rough couple of years - Obama, "Empire," "Hamilton." It's just been hit after hit after hit - "Star Wars" movies where the only white characters are stormtroopers. I get it, it's been rough. But you have to stop. You know who I'm talking about. There's, like, this new lower-case KKK movement that started, this kind of casual white supremacy. Oh, let me put my foot in the pool and see how cold this water really is. No, no. I'm talking about these people that are running around saying stuff like, Trump won, go back to Africa. Trump won, go back to Mexico. They see me - Trump won, go back to where you came from.
A. ANSARI: Yeah, they're not usually geography buffs.
A. ANSARI: Is that the plan, by the way? We're all going to move, all the minorities, 40-something percent of the country, every minority's going to move. Beyonce's going to move.
GROSS: That's Aziz Ansari the day after Inauguration Day on "Saturday Night Live." I love that part of the set where you're talking about how people have to go back to pretending they're not racist (laughter). So when you walked off stage, did you know that you killed - like, did you know you did really good?
A. ANSARI: I felt pretty good, yeah. But what's interesting is you don't have very much time to enjoy that moment 'cause as soon as you finish, these amazing people that work on the show just yank you and pull you and, like, rip all your clothes off to change you for your next sketch. So, you know, I was, like, having that moment of, like, I did. Like, that was great. It went as good as it - and then someone's like, come on (laughter). We've got to get you changed.
And they yank me down. But it was super fun. And the woman's name's Donna (ph) who kind of heads your changing and everything. And she's like, you did really good. And it felt great.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Aziz Ansari and his series, which he co-created, co-writes and stars in, "Master Of None," is on Netflix. And season two just went up. So we're going to take a short break here, and then we'll be back and talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDENBOY SONG, "KITTENS OF LUST")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Aziz Ansari. He co-created, co-writes and stars in the Netflix comedy series "Master Of None." He co-starred in "Parks And Recreation" and is also a stand-up comic. So what was your first time at the mic?
A. ANSARI: That was summer of 2001. I was - summer of my freshman year in college. And I just did one of the new talent nights at the Comedy Cellar.
GROSS: And what - did you know at that point you wanted to do comedy for real or was this just, like, a whim to try it?
A. ANSARI: It was just, you know, some friends that I had at school told me, oh, you're really funny, you should just try one of these new talent nights. And then I went to the club one night. I watched and I'd never seen live comedy before, never went to a comedy club. But I saw it and I was like, I think I can do this. And then I did the new talent night, and I wasn't any good. But I was really comfortable on stage. And I felt like it was something I wanted to get better at.
And then I just kept doing it and just kept trying to get better and better and better. And then, you know, before I knew it, that was what I was doing. But I never had thoughts of, you know, being an actor or - never thought I would tour theaters or arenas or - I never could have imagined it's gotten to the point where it's gotten.
GROSS: I can't imagine doing comedy at a club having never been to a comedy club before, except for once.
A. ANSARI: Yeah. I mean, I went that one time and then I did it. And I was very nervous and, you know, bad. But I was comfortable on stage. I've always been comfortable with public speaking, even since I was a little kid. I remember there was a thing when I was, like, 6 years old where I spoke in front of the whole school. My dad, like, helped me and I memorized everything and spoke and, you know, there was - I was a little kid. I was, like, you know, probably first, second grade and I was speaking for the whole school, like, 300 people.
You know, most people are terrified of public speaking, you know? And I just didn't - I wasn't scared of it. And I remember I made the speech and I just stood there. And then - I was supposed to walk somewhere else. And I just, like, stayed in the place where I made the speech. And then people started laughing 'cause I didn't (laughter) walk off. I don't know it that makes sense (laughter). But I finished the speech and I just kind of stood there. And the principal or whoever was, like, waiting for me to come walk to go do something (laughter).
And I didn't walk. And I remember people laughed and I remember that.
GROSS: What was the first time your parents came to hear you?
A. ANSARI: I think they came one time when I was doing kind of stuff at the Comedy Cellar pretty early on. I don't even remember what it's like. I think they had a good time and whatever. But I think they're - it wasn't like when they came and saw me at, like, Carnegie Hall or - they come - usually when I do a tour, I'll do, like, a big New York show and I invite them to that. So they came when I did Carnegie Hall, they came when I did the Garden.
And one time I did the Apollo Theater they came. And those are always fun. I think when they came to Carnegie Hall, it was a big deal for them 'cause, you know, to see thousands of people in a place go nuts like that and then you're in Carnegie Hall, you know, this world-famous venue, I think it was a pretty big deal for them. I didn't realize it, you know? To me, like, I - you know, I kind of progressed in my career and I never kind of stop and process how crazy some of this stuff is.
And to me, the idea of doing these theaters, I had just become desensitized to it. I didn't realize what a crazy thing it was. And when they came, they were like, wow, this is really something that this many people came to see you. And I was like, yeah, I guess it is.
GROSS: What was the first time you met one of your comic heroes face to face?
A. ANSARI: The first time I met someone face to face - I mean, the first time I saw Chris Rock was - a few weeks after I started comedy, I remember I went to the Comedy Cellar. And at the Comedy Cellar, what's cool is sometimes people like Rock or Seinfeld will just drop in to work on material. And you don't know it's going to happen. And it's always a surprise. Everyone in the audience goes nuts. And it's a very fun New York kind of thing. And I was there - I was just going to the Comedy Cellar all the time just to watch people.
And Rock dropped in, and I went nuts. I mean, I couldn't believe it. You know, I was - I memorized his stand-up specials. He was just my favorite thing. Like, I liked his work more than any TV show, movie - I mean, I just thought he was brilliant. And then he went on - I couldn't believe I was there in this small, you know, 80-seat comedy club watching him. And he had a pretty bad set.
(Laughter) He kind of tanked. It was a bad set. And people after were like, yeah, he stunk. But for me, it was, like, the coolest thing to see 'cause I was like, wow, what an incredible artform. This guy is the best at this thing and he just did horrible (laughter). That's unbelievable. And that was the first time I saw him. And as far as, you know, meeting him, I met him in passing and we slowly became friends. But that's the first time I remember seeing him.
And it's just so crazy to think that, like, I remember exactly how I felt in that moment. And to now be in a place where he's someone I look to for advice all the time and I'm someone that drops in at the Comedy Cellar and people go crazy, it's just - it really blows my mind. And I can't believe that I'm that fortunate and then that's how my life has ended up.
GROSS: So was watching him tank a really useful experience for you to see that somebody as brilliant as he is could have a bad set and then survive, you know, fix it and survive?
A. ANSARI: Yeah. And even, you know, watching back then, you know, Dave Attell and all these guys would be there and they would just bomb. And they just wouldn't care. And, you know, there was something really impressive about that fearlessness, you know? Really good comedians like that, you know, when they go on stage, they don't really care what the audience - they're fearless, you know? They're so comfortable that they don't care. They don't have that neediness where they need the laughs.
GROSS: So when you were testing material for "Saturday Night Live" the day after Inauguration Day, did you have jokes that didn't get a response - that you had to take out?
A. ANSARI: Yeah. Any comedian when they're working on stuff, you hit little patches where a bit you're trying just doesn't work. Or maybe the idea is funny, but you haven't figured out how to execute it properly. And yeah, I'm sure I had, you know, many moments like that when I was working on the set, you know. What happens is you get to a point where you almost get mad at yourself when you do really well because you think - oh, that means I'm not taking enough risks. And if I do a set where I just completely tank, that means I really went for something and tried something difficult. If I'm just killing all the time, I'm just worried too much about having a good time and doing a good show in that moment. But you really are pushing yourself if you do something and it goes horrible (laughter).
GROSS: So are you going to continue doing stand-up?
A. ANSARI: In my life, I'd like to think so, yes. But I think I want to take a little breather from it and come back. But I don't know. I don't know what I'm going to do now. You know, it's so interesting to me (laughter). I do all of these interviews. And everyone's always like - well, what's next? What are you going to do now? Are you going to go do stand-up? Are you going to do another season? Are you going to do a movie? What are you doing? It's like, I don't know. Let me just relax for a second.
A. ANSARI: Let me just live my life. Let me - forget Season 3 of "Master Of None." I'm also doing Season 34 of Aziz Ansari.
A. ANSARI: Let me do that a little bit. Let me live a couple of episodes (laughter).
GROSS: Well, good luck with your life (laughter).
A. ANSARI: Hey, same to you.
GROSS: Well, thank you. And congratulations on Season 2. It's terrific.
A. ANSARI: Oh, thanks. I feel like - I hope I didn't let anybody down 'cause I didn't get enough stuff bleeped or try to get you to say anything inappropriate this time.
GROSS: Oh, this time around - yes, yes (laughter).
A. ANSARI: I feel like - I've got to come back and do some more inappropriate stuff. This was a little too appropriate.
GROSS: (Laughter) See you then (laughter).
A. ANSARI: All right.
A. ANSARI: OK. Bye.
GROSS: Bye. Take care.
Aziz Ansari co-created and stars in the Netflix series "Master Of None." All of Season 2 is now available.
If you're looking for good books for summer reading, stick around. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has some recommendations after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH SONG, "OVER AND OVER AGAIN (LOST AND FOUND)")
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Journeys near and far, into the past, and even into space are the subject of the novels, memoirs and narrative histories that make up our book critic Maureen Corrigan's early summer reading list. Here are her recommendations.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: There's still time to make travel plans for August 21. That's the date when a total solar eclipse will cross the continental United States, the first such eclipse in 99 years. The total eclipse can only be witnessed within a 70-mile-wide path called the path of totality which stretches from Oregon to South Carolina. According to David Baron, it's nature's most awesome show. And he should know. Baron is a self-professed umbraphile, or eclipse chaser. He's also a science writer who's just written a suspenseful narrative history about the last total solar eclipse to cross North America in the summer of 1878. Baron's book is called "American Eclipse," and it follows a group of 19th-century adventurers who raced out to the Rocky Mountains to study the last eclipse up close.
Thirty-one-year-old Thomas Edison was one of this intrepid band. Another was astronomy professor Maria Mitchell, who took some of her Vassar students out to Colorado to prove that women could do science too. As the eclipse got underway, Baron vividly describes how the temperature plummeted, nocturnal animals emerged from hiding and familiar colors of mountains and trees shifted. The total eclipse itself lasted about three minutes, the same span of time predicted for the upcoming August 21 eclipse. But Baron makes those three minutes seem transcendent. Experiencing a total eclipse, he says, is like falling through a trapdoor into a dimly lit, unrecognizable reality. The sun and the moon are thoroughly foreign, an ebony pupil surrounded by a pearly iris. It is the eye of the cosmos.
If David Baron is obsessed with eclipses, Helene Stapinski is obsessed with family history. But she's not one of those genealogy bores predictably intent on proving her relation to royalty. Rather, Stapinski wants to get to the bottom of a long-ago murder case that propelled her great-great-grandmother Vita from southern Italy to Jersey City in 1892. Stapinski's atmospheric new book "Murder In Matera" is part memoir, fiction and travelogue. And it reads like a detective story, with Stapinski playing the part of her clan's Columbo. As she tantalizingly tells readers in her introduction, by the end of her 10-year investigation, Stapinski would travel deep into the countryside and dusty archives of southern Italy and discover one shotgun blast and five dead bodies, most of them belonging to my family.
Transatlantic family calamities of a more comic sort are the subject of Francesca Segal's novel of manners called "The Awkward Age." Segal's heroine, Julia Alden, is a middle-aged widow with a teenage daughter. Julia has fallen for a divorced American obstetrician with a teenage son. The foursome move in together into Julia's north London home, and the teenagers, at first, loathe each other. But when a truce is called, trouble of the erotic sort ensues. This is a smart and droll domestic drama reminiscent of the work of those two magical Lauries, Laurie Colwin and Lorrie Moore. Two American writers with one-of-a-kind voices and sensibilities have written superb new memoirs about their parents.
To my way of thinking, nobody gives ordinary human beings their due with the grace and precision that Richard Ford does. His slim new memoir about his parents called "Between Them" is so gently spellbinding that I've already read it twice. Ford's father was a traveling bleach salesman in places like Mobile and Little Rock during the 1930s and early '40s. So part of the bonus of this little book is that it sits readers down in the company car and takes us on an unsentimental but enchanted journey through the long-ago landscape of the American South. According to Sherman Alexie, his mother Lillian was a beauty, a liar, a sometimes loving, sometimes abusive parent who lost custody of her kids at least once and a strong-willed woman who gave up drinking cold turkey one day and never looked back.
I'm just skimming the surface of Alexie's portrait of his mother in his whirlwind of a memoir called "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me." There's straight personal history here, as well as fable, poetry, and raw and mordant accounts of life on the Spokane Indian reservation where Alexie grew up. Unexpected revelations are a constant throughout this memoir. At one point, Alexie tells us white folks love to think that Native American culture is progressive and liberal, but it is often repressive. Indians are quick to socially judge one another. I wouldn't realize it until I read more widely in college, but living on an Indian reservation was like living inside an Edith Wharton novel, a place where good and bad manners were weaponized.
For decades, the weapon of choice in John Grisham's thrillers has been his main character's quick wits. This summer, Grisham is publishing his 30th novel. This one is a standalone, and it's the perfect beach book for bibliophiles. "Camino Island" is a heist caper that begins when a gang of thieves successfully steals a priceless literary treasure, the handwritten manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald's five novels, which are kept in a vault deep in Princeton's Firestone library. I've been there. This could never happen. But as usual, Grisham is such a deft suspense writer, he makes me believe. Even if you can't get yourself to the solar eclipse's path of totality this August 21, any of these very different books will get you onto the path of a totally good story.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the investigations surrounding General Michael Flynn, President Trump's former national security adviser. My guest will be Matthew Rosenberg, who covers intelligence and national security for The New York Times. He knows Flynn from the years Rosenberg was covering Afghanistan and Flynn was the U.S. military intelligence chief there. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF HUTCHINSON ANDREW TRIO FEAT. ROGERIO BOCCATO'S "MINTAKA")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.