“It’s easier to be funny when you’re really mean,” Alan Yang said on Saturday during a Master of None panel at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival, alongside co-creator/star Aziz Ansari and stars Noël Wells and Kelvin Yu. Yang told a packed audience that instead of seeking its humor in nasty behavior or innovative insults, he wanted the show’s characters to reflect his own friends: funny, of course, but also nice.
Throughout the hour-long panel, moderated by Andy Greenwald, the conversation kept coming back to the essential geniality of the Emmy-nominated Netflix comedy. (The panelists stayed mum on Season 2, which is currently in the works.) Yu compared the series to a travel or cooking show in that each episode is a little different — but the analogy also works because of the series’ convivial tone: If Veep is a take-no-prisoners night of debauchery, Master of None is ordering Thai food, watching a Netflix documentary, and going to bed at ten.
Yang and Ansari said the show’s warmth owes a lot to their experience on the set of Parks and Recreation, where the two met and began developing Master of None. “Every season we thought we were getting cancelled,” Ansari recalled, so he and Yang figured they should have a backup plan in place. They approached executive producer Mike Schur, the co-creator and showrunner of Parks and Rec, about developing Master of None the season before Parks and Rec ended. “We’re Asian and we plan ahead,” Ansari quipped.
From the get-go, the creators knew Master of None would be “slower-paced” and more “conversational” compared to the rapid fire joke slinging on Parks and Rec. They also knew they didn’t want to write a 22- or 24-episode season, like most network comedies. And there’s a reason the Netflix series feels like a love letter to New York: Ansari recalls thinking that they should set the show in the city that never sleeps for their own benefit, “so we don’t have to be in L.A.”
Being in a happy place, literally and figuratively, mattered to the show’s creators. Ansari said that he Yang actively tried to replicate Parks and Rec‘s “positive atmosphere on set” while shooting Master of None. A big part of Ansari’s writing process involves simply hanging out with the actors so he can get a feel for their personalities and how best to write to them. Unsurprisingly for a show that features so much food porn, the cast shares a lot of meals. (Greenwald kicked things off by passing the panelists a bag of Montreal-style bagels; when it came time for audience questions, one woman asked Ansari if he had any plans to put out a recipe book, a question he called “ridiculous,” to much laughter.)
“I never felt like I was working,” Wells said of shooting the show. “The hardest part was when I ate too much and sometimes my stomach was upset.” Yang added, “That’s a hazard of working on our show.”
When it was released in the fall, Master of None was lauded for its diversity of viewpoints, which is partly due to the writers’ encouraging the actors to have a say in their characters’ arcs. Wells would suggest that her character, Rachel, stick up for herself in a particular scene, for instance, and Yang and Ansari would go back and change the script to reflect that imbalance.
Wells and Ansari said they worked out the relationship between their characters by simply arguing on tape — they’d pick a topic and bicker about it for 15 minutes or so while recording the conversation, then go back and select which parts would work in a script. Wells said the reason she and Ansari work as a couple onscreen is because “we argue well.”
But it was hard to imagine anyone on the stage in a truly heated dispute; they were all so damn pleasant, which, to be frank, resulted in a fairly dull panel. The event’s monotony belied the show itself, which is interesting despite its gentleness, avoiding neat or easy resolutions. (It didn’t help that moderator Andy Greenwald, a former critic who now hosts recap shows for TV geeks, asked disappointingly predictable questions.)
Yang and Ansari denied that they’re consciously trying to write “nice” comedy. “The main character is coming from a place of curiosity,” Ansari said. “The goal isn’t really to be nice,” Yang added, “the goal is just to be real. We just want to write how we talk in real life,” — and, he said, in real life they just happen to not be assholes.
And yet the moment that elicited the most laughs by far came at the end, when Greenwald announced there was time for one more audience question. Ansari admonished the final questioner not to screw up and end things on a bad note: “Don’t fuck it up!” he repeatedly insisted, prolonging his reproach as the audience erupted in laughter. “None of that recipe book bullshit!”
Considering the success of Master of None, viewers clearly crave the show’s generous-spirited approach to its characters. But judging by the volume of the audience reaction during that moment — not to mention this farce of an election season — we still have a mighty big appetite for the comedy of cruelty.