Alan Yang is tired of feeling like “the Other.” For starters, he’s “the other guy” behind Master of None, the hit Netflix comedy-drama he co-created with Aziz Ansari. Sure, Ansari is the bigger name, what with his stand-up career and beloved role on Parks and Recreation, but Yang is just as key to the show’s freak success.
The two became BFFs on the set of Parks and Rec, where Yang was a writer, and eventually decided to team up for a series — a casually multicultural comedy, loosely based on their own experiences, that adroitly riffs on social mores, racial identity, and the millennial tyranny of choice. “If Season 1 is about a character who doesn’t know what he wants,” says Yang, “Season 2” — now streaming — “is about wanting what you can’t have.”
Then there’s the other “Other” Yang feels like — you know, the non-white kind. During his acceptance speech at last year’s Emmy’s — Master of None won for best writing in a comedy series — the son of Taiwanese immigrants made waves by calling Hollywood out for its lack of Asian-American representation. As outrage continues to boil over the whitewashing of Asian-inspired roles, Yang’s just trying to crack the bamboo ceiling the only way he knows how: by telling stories that better reflect what America looks like now — like what happens after an Indian dude breaks a condom during a Tinder hookup. Stories that show we’re really all the same.
Your and Aziz’s lives provide much of the material for Master of None. Now that the show’s successful, do you feel burdened to have lots of shit happen to you?
I constantly feel pressured to make mistakes now. The more stupid stuff I do, the better for me career-wise! But I think it’s good to push yourself to get out of your comfort zone and do things you might not otherwise do. Meeting new people, traveling, all that stuff. You never want to stagnate as a writer, director, or creator. And I mean, what else are you going to write about?
I’ve noticed that lately we’re seeing more shows about single thirty-somethings, like Dev, who are lost and making mistakes in life. Why is that?
When I look around and see where my friends are in their lives, it’s very different from our parents’ generation. Certainly, when my dad was my age he was married, he had kids, he owned a home. And for whatever reason, a lot of adults today enter this suspended adolescence where they don’t have to make final decisions. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, because I personally am very much enjoying this period of my life. You know, I’m single, I’m in my thirties, and I’m very career-focused, but I’m having a lot of fun. For some people, it works out to not get married when you’re 25. It’s just a different experience.
Master of None is perhaps the first successful show to have an Asian-American male romantic lead. You’ve obviously been very outspoken about the lack of Asians in starring roles.
Look, there’s a global scale of problems and many larger issues we have to face. But that being said, what you see in culture matters. Stories affect people. Just from the small reaction I’ve seen from our episodes depicting Indian, Asian, and gay people, I can see it affects your psyche. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone who looks like me and talks like me be the lead in a movie. I mean, maybe Harold from Harold and Kumar. But that’s one movie, ten years ago, out of the thousands of movies I’ve seen! If a little Asian-American girl can watch a movie and see an Asian-American woman be the star, that makes a big difference. We are just now getting to the point where the majority of leads don’t all look the same. And we have a huge library of leads that all look the same, so if you’re really hankering for that, just watch any movie made over the last 80 years. Like, Indiana Jones and Han Solo were literally the same dude!
Did growing up seeing Long Duk Dong as one of the only representations of yourself in movies have an effect on you?
I think it’s more of a holistic thing because I was never scarred from watching any of that stuff. It was more like, “Oh yeah, that kind of sucks.” And, you know, kids would ask you if you do karate, because the only Asian people on TV were Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. So kids are dumb. We had a custodian at my elementary school who was Asian and everyone would ask me if that was my dad. Like, c’mon! There can be two Asian people who are not related! But, it’s a process. I understand it takes time.
“It’s frustrating when the character is Asian in the source material and you’re still giving it to a white actress, who frankly, doesn’t need the career bump.”
I’m half-Asian. I went to an elementary school that had predominantly white kids in it. I was pretty shy. I bet seeing some cool Asian role models on TV might’ve made me a little less shy.
Yeah, for sure! We don’t have anyone. You know, black people and Asian people deal with entirely different things in society. And, by far, black people have had it harder. But we don’t have any cool people! We just don’t! They’ve got Denzel, Usher, Jay-Z — the coolest people in the world. We’ve got Harold and the dude on The Walking Dead who got his face smashed in. We don’t have one cool guy yet! We’re waiting.
We do have Goku, though!
Exactly. All we’ve got is cartoons! People who aren’t real! [Laughs.]
Although, when they made a live-action movie adaptation of Dragon Ball, they cast a white dude as Goku. Hollywood’s been on this tear of whitewashing Asian stories. Most recently, it happened with Scarlett Johansson being cast as the lead in Ghost in the Shell.
It’s very rare they’d cast an Asian unknown as a lead character who’s race-neutral, so it’s frustrating when the character is Asian in the source material and you’re still giving it to a white actress, who frankly, doesn’t need the career bump. It just comes down to people being risk-averse. I don’t think they’re being overtly racist, they’re just thinking, “We need a star because the film won’t make money otherwise.” But, you put Chris Pratt in Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy and he wasn’t even the lead in Parks and Rec! You cast Sam Worthington, who was an unknown, in Avatar and it became the biggest movie of all time! This is sad, but if they cast an Asian-American female in Ghost in the Shell, she immediately would’ve become one of the five most famous Asian-Americans in the world.
Well, after all the social pushback, Ghost in the Shell bombed at the box office. And it’s not the first film to feel the burn of “race-bent” casting. Do you find that encouraging?
I’ve felt for years that Asian-American people didn’t really have any voice in media. And I do feel that for a long time, and even a bit now still, we’re the group you can make fun of and kick while they’re down and no one really says anything. No one gets mad. There weren’t enough of us and there was no unified front — and I’m not sure there has to be, but it’s cool that these situations, which aren’t ideal for Asian-Americans, now get commented on and become stories. I think that’s progress.
Master of None seems to have this overall tone of positivity. Do you think this generation’s going to be okay?
I’m an optimist, man. People complain about millennials, but these younger kids are more tolerant than older generations were. You know when people ask, “What era would you want to live in?” Well, I want to live now! I don’t want to be a 30-year-old Asian dude living in America in 1950. That would be horrible. I wouldn’t get to date who I wanted to date. If it were the ‘40s, I might get put in a camp. I know recent developments in American politics haven’t been for the best, but I do believe the arrow of progress generally points upwards. Look at all this Bill O’Reilly stuff. He did that shit for years! Why is he losing his job now? Because societal norms have changed. Advertisers pulled out. So I think we’re getting to a better place.
Master of None Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.