Aziz Ansari: I try to write political material then get tired of it

Considering the comedians career-cementing anti-Trump monologue on Saturday Night Live, the new season of Master of None is less topical than expected. What is he scared of?

Aziz Ansari is just back from lunch. He went to a hip udon noodle place he found right round the corner from the Soho hotel where were meeting. The food was delicious, the staff were friendly and yet he only managed the soup. Anyone familiar with Ansaris tummy-rumbling Netflix show Master of None will immediately realise the import of this news: Aziz Ansari is unwell. His assistant later confirms that jet lag has got the better of him, and certainly the Ansari half-slumped on the sofa in front of me is a lot less Tiggerish than the one who wowed with his Saturday Night Live opening monologue the morning after Trumps inauguration. Ive never felt more pressure before any standup Ive ever done, he recalls. Even friends of mine were like: Man, thats gonna be a tough gig, youd better come correct! yknow? But I feel like I pulled it off.

Aziz Ansaris opening monologue on Saturday Night Live on 21 January 2017

That he did. In less than 10 minutes, Ansari captured the nations mood, gave cheer to SNLs disconsolate liberal audience and found fresh punchlines in the most talked-about of topics (Im sure theres a lot of people voted for Trump the same way a lot of people listen to the music of Chris Brown, where its like: Hey, man! Im just here for the tunes. Im just here for the tunes! I dont know about that other stuff, was one of the many quotable lines). It was a triumph for the standup form. It was also, apparently, the moment that the funny, squeaky guy from that genial sitcom Parks and Recreation stepped up to the plate. Ansari sighs: I think thats a narrative people have taken on the press tour Ive done this year. Like: Ooh; like, yknow, Because of the Trump SNL monologue, ooh, you became political.

As some of his fans seem to have only recently discovered, Ansari comes from a Muslim family, his parents having moved to small-town South Carolina from Tamil Nadu, India, in the early 80s. This detail aside, his rise through the ranks has followed a well-trodden path for successful US comedians. He first got a taste for standup after moving to New York City to study marketing at NYU and hanging around at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village. He then got a regular MCing gig at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, the same bicoastal improv group with whom the likes of Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Zach Galifianakis and Jordan Peele honed their skills. After two seasons of an MTV sketch show with his group Human Giant, he joined the cast of NBCs Parks and Rec and Tom Haverford, an unlikely Americas Sweetheart, was born.

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The Italian sob The homage to Bicycle Thieves in season two of Master of None. Photograph: Netflix

However, its Master of None, the Netflix series he directs and co-writes with former Parks and Rec writer Alan Yang, that most comprehensively conveys the Ansari worldview. He stars as Dev Shah, a less successful version of himself who still manages to lead a charmed NYC life of checking out new restaurants, talking pop culture with his pals and, in the recently launched second season, hosting a Food Network show called Clash of the Cupcakes. The season two opener is a black-and-white tribute to Bicycle Thieves, set in a racism-free Italy with mostly subtitled Italian dialogue, but Ansari says other than the obvious neo-realist flourishes, there is no wish-fulfilment or fantasy element to the series. He really did spend a few weeks Eat-Pray-Loving around northern Italy and he really did learn to speak Italian that fluently. Yeah, I enjoy learning languages and, yknow, I was also living in Japan for a couple of months, he says. When you really live there, you get better quicker.

Master of Nones willingness to experiment places it in the standup-does-sitcom tradition of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louie, but its much friendlier, happier and lighter in tone. Also, neither Louis CK nor Larry David would do an episode quite like season twos Religion, in which Dev upsets his Muslim parents (played by Ansaris own Muslim parents, Fatima and breakout star dad Shoukath) by ordering pork at a restaurant after pretending to be pious (Im not that religious. And I eat pork, Dev announces in a speech to his parents, but its OK cos Im a good person and Im 33 years old and I can make those decisions!). Today, Ansari downplays the importance of the episode. It wasnt like, Oh, we have a responsibility to do this, he says. That was a funny idea we had and it just kind of worked.

Watch the trailer for season two of Master of None

If his material feels more political now, thats a consequence of internal rather than external changes. I never would suppress anything, but I think as you get older, you get better and I probably was able to do some trickier stuff, he says. I mean, Ive always had ideas about race and everything, but Would he say he made an effort in the past to appeal to white audiences by avoiding anything too confrontational? Absolutely not. Definitely dont care what white people think. I just try to make stuff that I think is good and hopefully people like it, regardless of their race or gender or anything. He pauses: Yeah. If I was trying to please white people I would probably have done a goofy Indian accent early in my career and gotten parts.

In fact, far from being a people-pleaser who belatedly realised his political responsibilities, Ansari is so profoundly chill, he barely even registers the audiences expectations. His fellow standup and mentor Chris Rock has said he had to remind Ansari to get political in that SNL monologue, though Ansaris recollection is slightly different. I knew I had to talk about Trump, he says, but initially when I was working on the set I had some stuff about Trump and some stuff about relationships and he was like: Its gonna have to be all about Trump, man. And I was like: Yeah, youre probably right.

Unusually among comedians, he claims not to be driven by any maniacal need to make people laugh. Master of Nones second series has some very funny moments, but its gag-per-minute rate is more mumblecore-like dramedy than sitcom. One episode features three whole, dialogue-free minutes in which the camera just rests on Devs regretful face as Soft Cells Say Hello, Wave Goodbye plays in the background. Were pretty aware of that stuff, says Ansari. You just have to have your own internal barometer. And if youre not being funny it better be very interesting or dramatic or cool.

He has already warned us to expect a long, Curb Your Enthusiasm-style wait for season three: There is a world where maybe we dont do a third season. I dont know. Ansari is polite and engaged, but he does have this way of saying I dont know that turns the three-word phrase into a single consonant-free shrug of indifference. Maybe its the jet lag. It would be convenient, wouldnt it, if Ansari was the comedy hero who came along at just the right time to unite a divided US? In so many ways, he seems like our guy: a big-city, New York sophisticate with small-town, Red State roots; a millennial atheist who tries to be respectful to his religious parents; the son of immigrants, whose optimistic outlook and propensity for graft couldnt be more in keeping with the American dream. But a man isnt just a list of biographical facts and Ansari the artist is more interested in doing Vittorio De Sica homages, riffing on the minutiae of modern romance, and seeking out the best tacos in Brooklyn. I can only make what Im inspired by, he says. If I try to force stuff and do what I feel like Im obligated to do, I think just it wont be good, he says.

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Parental value Aziz Ansari with his parents Fatima and Shoukath. Photograph: Jamie McCarthy/Getty

There have been moments when he has felt a responsibility to do more, I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times at one point, he recalls. It was published last June and titled Why Trump Makes Me Scared for My Family (In our culture, he wrote, when people think Muslim, the picture in their heads is not usually of the Nobel peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai or the kid who left the boyband One Direction. Its of a scary terrorist character from Homeland or some monster from the news). It felt genuine to talk about that because it affects my parents, he says. But I did it because I knew I could make that good. When Im trying to make stuff I just think: Whats something that I would be really proud of to show my peers, my friends and people I respect?

Ansaris friends and peers famously include not only Rock and Poehler but Kanye West and Jay Z. One reason why he doesnt feel particularly inspired by the harsh realities of Trumps America is that, as he openly admits, he hasnt experienced them. He may have been the only Indian kid at his high school but this was pre-9/11. If I was in that situation now, I think it would be hellish because of all the stuff in the culture, but back then there was nothing, he says. Theyd only seen white people and black people, so they had nothing to, like, make fun of me about. What about more recently? Has he had any interactions that he would characterise as Islamaphobic? Me? he scoffs at the suggestion. No! Like if Im in the airport or whatever, people recognise me! Theyre super-nice to me! I have the most atypical experience of any Muslim American. Perhaps hes just not temperamentally suited to too much heavy stuff. I remember after 9/11, I was reading the news all the time, he says. I would try to write political material and then I kind of got tired of it, because its like, when you read the news all the time it just kind of puts you in a negative mood. I dont know. If every day youre starting your day reading this stuff, thats just such a bummer.

Master of Nones second series is sometimes wistful in tone, but its never, ever a bummer. These are the everyday, everyman struggles that could pass for the fantasy sequences of a less fulfilled comic, but not in Ansaris show. Thats just the kind of happy-go-lucky guy he is.

Season two of Master of None is streaming now on Netflix

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/may/27/aziz-ansari-interview-master-of-none