We all have lines we won't cross. Doors we won't open. Things we won’t do, no matter the circumstances. For Aziz Ansari of Parks and Recreation fame, that line is etched in stone:
No Indian accents.
“It just – it just doesn't feel right to me… it feels like you're doing it so white people can laugh at Indian people.”
It’s a no-brainer, really. But in the midst of Hollywood’s historically problematic attitudes towards race, culture, and diversity, the decision not to give into stereotypes and tokenism is nothing short of radical. Speaking with NPR about his hit series Master of None (now in its second season on Netflix) Ansari, along with co-writer Alan Yang, spoke at length about their experiences working in an industry that is only just now beginning to make major strides towards inclusivity.
In Yang's words, “I think as a younger writer, I always wanted to do stories that are universal… I didn't want to be seen as an Asian writer so much. But as I've gotten older, the more I've thought about it, I don't think I've ever worked with another Asian writer in a writer's room.” It’s part of why Ansari is such a stickler about his no accent rule. A career in Hollywood is a rare thing, indeed. Why waste it reinforcing nasty old habits? "The litmus test for me is, like – is the joke just that the guy has a funny accent? Is that what this is about? 'Cause that seems mean.”
Instead of standing on the shoulders of old stereotypes, Ansari’s climb to the top is marked by incredible comedy, from his work on Parks and Recreation to his Netflix brainchild, Master of None. The latter in particular is a masterpiece – similar in feel to Louie, it's a show that seems unaware of just how progressive and groundbreaking it is. Perhaps that’s because just how much is lifted directly from Ansari’s own life.
Master of None follows the everyday life of a second-generation American named Dev. Like Louie and Curb Your Enthusiasm before it, it’s a mostly slice of life affair. Life in New York, the politics of tinder, the occasional trip abroad – that sort of thing. Yet there’s an honesty to the writing that highlights the importance of diverse storytelling.
Dev’s parents (played by Ansari’s own) are both immigrants – a perspective that’s returned to again and again through his interactions with them. They’re endearing, often hilarious characters, but even in their funniest moments, their experience as immigrants is never dragged through the mud for cheap laughs.
In one standout episode, Dev’s mother recounts her first days in America. It’s the sort of scene that any writer worth their salt would aspire to write – the kind that prompts empathy, spurs reflection, and broadens understanding. On writing the exchange, Ansari told NPR, “I asked her, like, what did you do that first day? Like, did you watch TV? Did you, like, read a book? And she's – and I put it in the episode because it hit me so hard. She said no, I just sat on the couch and cried. And you hear that and you're like wow, these people really did something pretty incredible to get here and give me this spectacular life that I've been able to have, and I've never really thought about it.” For anyone personally unacquainted with the immigrant experience, scenes like these are likely to leave you shaken. Profound stuff for a slice of life comedy.
Still, the sad, unfortunate truth is that shows like Master of None are only just starting to become a reality in Hollywood. Until recently, the notion of a sitcom centered around the everyday life son of an Indian-American would’ve been seen as a ratings-disaster waiting to happen. In many corners, it probably still is – even with the massive success of shows like Seinfeld. Without a streaming service like Netflix, which recoups its production costs through subscription fees, it’s unlikely the show would’ve ever seen the light of day.
What’s even worse is that Hollywood's notion of diversity as a financial risk is almost entirely fictional. A 2016 report out of UCLA makes it perfectly clear that, generally speaking, America’s diverse audience increasingly prefers diverse content. In 2014 alone, minority audiences made up the majority of ticket sales for 4 of the top 10 highest grossing films. Worldwide, films showcasing diverse talents enjoy the highest median global box office. And TV is no different! The same study shows that the much coveted 18-49 demographic tends to peak during scripted shows with casts that are 30 to 40 percent diverse.
Financially, the profitability of diversity is a matter of fact. Morally, it's a no brainer. So, why is it that diverse talent is still so outnumbered by their white male counterparts? In an industry of storytellers, why are the untold points of view only now beginning to emerge?
Perhaps Aziz Ansari’s “no accent” rule isn’t so trivial, after all.
To learn more about WeScreenplay's Diverse Voices Writing Contest, click here.