At home with Alan Yang
For a screenwriter, producer, director and actor, Alan Yang sure has a lot to say.
Rightfully so, as the co-creator of Master of None embarks on its third season he shares with us how he got here.
Growing up in Southern California, on the edges of Riverside County, Alan just wanted to fit in. He tried his hand at everything, and this sort of willingness is what gets you into Harvard.
Upon the advice of his parents Alan Yan studies biology, but finds himself writing for The Harvard Lampoon and a passion is born. For the next few years Alan lends his talents to South Park, Last Call with Carson Daly, and finally onto Parks and Recreation. The camaraderie on the set develops into a professional partnership and friendship with Aziz Ansari.
Master of None has the distinction of being critically-acclaimed and still beloved by the masses. It mixes cultural questions with a sharp examination of society. All while being hysterically relatable. The first and second season are widely different, and Yang believes the upcoming third season will be a even bigger stretch.
We hear actors working as journeymen before getting that big break. Similarly, you cut your teeth writing for sports blogs, and even had a stint working for South Park. Which gig would you consider as your big break?
I think one of the most important jobs I ever got was working with Parks and Recreation. That was really a springboard where I learned a little bit more about writing stories as opposed to just writing jokes. I am very grateful to Mike Schur and Greg Daniels for hiring me on that show because over time, they were able to give me more and more responsibility, and I think that gave me the confidence to even start thinking about making my own show, starting to direct, directing a movie and all this stuff I started doing later in my career. So, I learned a lot on that job. It’s crazy to think about nowadays, because shows don’t really even last that long. If you go back and look, I worked for Parks and Recreations for SEVEN seasons, and it was something like a hundred twenty five episodes! That almost doesn’t happen anymore. It was like a different era, even though it wasn’t that long ago.
Parks and Recreation is where you met your writing partner Aziz Ansari for Master of None. Do you have any particular episodes or characters you are really proud of?
On Parks and Recreation, all the writers chip in on everything all the time, but I do remember writing a few things for Aziz that I think we had fun with. One of them was a “talking head” he does to the camera where he talks about different foods he likes and the abbreviations he has for all of them. I think he had a lot of fun with that one and all the writers chipped in with lots of nicknames. There was also an episode that I think people like where he and Retta’s character “Donna” have a catch phrase called “treat yourself.” I can’t claim to have come up with that but I think that episode has my name on it. BUT, I don’t claim to have ever come up with that phrase! It is a thing that people like about those two characters though.
With Master of None we know that some relationships on the set of shows can develop into something meaningful. How did writing lend itself to friendship?
There is nothing better than being able to make a show with people you not only can tolerate but maybe even like and want to hang out with! That was true on Parks and Rec and that was true on Master of None. As far as Aziz and I, the entire cast and a lot of the writers of Master of None, we all tried to create an atmosphere where we are writing comedy, and not trying to split the atom or anything like that. I like when a workplace has a lighter atmosphere and where people are open and transparent and feel like they can pitch anything. I feel fortunate in the sense that I have become friends with a lot of my fellow writers and as well as the cast members in our shows. Sometimes it can be easier when you are hanging out with people who have a similar sense of humor and a similar sensibility in things that they like in movies and television, so that is always a leg up.
Season three of Master of None is highly anticipated. What took you guys so long?
We always have a philosophy on Master of None where we don’t want to do a season unless it is something that REALLY excites us. The same thing happened between season 1 and season 2 where we took a little bit of a break and we wanted to do something that not only excites us but challenges us. One of our watchwords with the show is that we try to do something we haven’t seen before, or at least haven’t seen very often on television and the same way that season 2 was a little bit of a departure from season 1, season 3 is even MORE of a departure from season 2. I think we really take that seriously in terms of trying to challenge ourselves artistically and do something that scares us a little bit! So, season 3 is very different. It actually focuses on the Denise character and her relationship with a new character played by Naomi Ackie named Alicia. It was actually an idea we had dating back years ago to when we did the Thanksgiving episode in season two. We always wanted to go deeper into Denise’s life, so this is the manifestation of that.
Without giving anything away. What makes season three different from season one and two?
Oh wow! I could write a whole essay on how different it is, because it is indeed pretty different! I think it reflects a little bit more of where we are in our lives, not just me and Aziz but Lena as well. You know, we are just a little bit older! Our tastes have changed and our lives have changed, and I think this season is a reflection of that. If we want to talk more technically, the show is a little bit more dramatic this year.
There are still some fun moments, but we really wanted to explore relationships and we took that pretty seriously in terms of the ups and downs, the triumphs and tragedies, and the way it really feels to be in a relationship. We talked about all these classic movies that we love: Ingmar Bergman, Chantal Anne Akerman, and Yasujirō Ozu and how beautifully they portray relationships and how deeply they investigate them, and we especially wanted to do that for a queer black couple in 2021 since we hadn’t really seen it portrayed very often in that way. This season is so different in many ways but I hope there is still the DNA in the show—which is the creative auspices of me, Aziz and Lena all working on the show together and we were so happy to do it again.
Master of None walks that fine line between reflective character development and laugh out loud comedy. Which is more important when you are writing?
I actually go back to something that I heard on South Park, when I was writing over there. One of the things I will never forget is what Trey Parker, one of the co-creators of the show said: no one is laughing unless you care about the characters, you got to care what’s going on! Similarly on Parks and Rec and Master 2, we always came from a philosophy that you got to develop these characters, you got to develop the story, you got to develop what happens and why we care about everyone involved. Once you build those characters, hopefully you can put them in comedic situations and show their flaws, their foibles and the ways they screw up. The most challenging thing is creating characters that are really compelling, interesting and three-dimensional. That’s more and more what we have all become interested in from our work and that goes for the television shows I have worked on and the movie I directed. It’s getting into the motivation and psychology of these characters, and ultimately that is the fundamentals of all drama: following these people and the conflicts they get themselves into. Don’t get me wrong, a great joke is a great joke and it is very difficult to write great jokes! Believe me, it is really REALLY challenging! It is an art form of its own, but in terms of the shows I have worked on, I am definitely drawn more towards character based story telling.
You have been able to pivot from writing to directing and producing. Tigertail is a beautiful story about the unspoken sacrifice of immigrants. What motivated you to develop and tell that story?
The story of Tigertail was really inspired by my family. It is an idea that I’ve had for a while and was working on for a long time in screenplay form. I had all of these different versions of the script where I was writing about all these different members of my family and I started honing in on my dad’s story and his relationship with the most important women in his life: his mother, the one he was in love with, the woman he married, and his daughter. Obviously, while a lot of it is fictionalized, there are some elements of emotional truth to it too. I thought it would be interesting to see a movie that gave life to our parents’ generation of immigrants and how you don’t realize the lives they have lived unless you have talked to them about it. Oftentimes they haven’t shared with us their stories and at least in my experience, it is difficult to get our parents to share their experiences with us. So, the movie is a result of a lot of conversations that I had with my parents and beyond that, visits to Taiwan. I, myself, was fairly distanced from my heritage. I had only gone to Taiwan once before I started thinking about the movie, and so I went back there with my dad, went back there to scout, and tried to learn a little bit of Mandarin. I was a very bad Asian kid and never learned Mandarin growing up so all those things kind of converged. I put a lot of work into trying to make the movie authentic. Shooting in Taiwan, shooting in the Bronx where my parents lived, and just trying to pack all that into one 90 minute experience.
Tigertail captures a miscommunication that is quite common in Asian American households. Many children feel distant to their parents due to a generation gap and growing up with different experiences. What is one piece of advice you have for people who feel this way?
It’s never too late to connect. It is never too late to connect to your parents or to your children. It goes both ways as a two way street. Pick up the phone and call them. You get a limited number of chances to see them. I don’t want to take it too dark, but you’d be surprised at what people are willing to say to each other and open up to, if you just ask. Sometimes, it is not in our nature, not in our culture and not in our upbringing—it certainly wasn’t in my family—but if you are interested in that connection, just ask. Just say hi, just call, just text, just do something! Even if it is not day one, or like people with their white parents giving hugs, saying I love you or calling them by their first names or whatever, you will get somewhere! This is obviously not for all Asian people as we are not monolithic in nature, but I think it is common in our various cultures to be a little bit more reserved and sometimes, it is not reflexive for us. However, if you reach out, I think there is often a good result in store.
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Yeah for sure! I always used to tell people I am really omnivorous in what I like and what I consume, and obviously, I started working in comedy and still love doing comedy, but I watch a lot of different kinds of movies and shows. Tigertail is inspired by a lot of the Taiwanese art films I’ve watched, whether you are talking about Edward Yang or Hou Hsiao-hsien, and of course there is a little bit of Hong Kong cinema with Wong Kar Wai as well. I love big blockbusters too. Growing up, I loved Jurassic Park and Back to the Future, and I took some meetings with Marvel to work with movies over there and that was really fun. I love those movies, I love Star Wars and it really runs the gamut and I think it’s fun! It exercises a different muscle. Going back to when we did season 3 of Master of None, it’s a little bit of a different challenge! It’s like “oh can you do a different tone, can you do a different genre”, and I think it keeps things really interesting. You can look at someone like Ang Lee who has done all kinds of movies! He has done romances, he has done movies with Asian people, movies with white people, movies with superheroes, period pieces, all kinds of stuff, and it works different parts of the brain. I think it really depends on the subject matter, the particular projects and what your passion for is. It’s always exciting to try different things.
With May being Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month and with the recent increase in hate crimes towards Asian Americans, what would you like to say to those that do not recognize the hate being faced by Asian Americans?
Well, first of all I would say that I assure you, it is VERY real! We are not making it up and it’s not fictional! Last year, I actually directed a public service announcement for the Ad Council about acts of Anti-Asian hate, and I can assure you it is real because I talked to the actual people. The spot was people filming themselves in their homes, describing incidents where they had racial slurs directed at them, people blaming them for the coronavirus, or when people spat on them. It is happening and to not acknowledge that it is even reality is, to me, really, really wrongheaded. So, that is the first thing. Then of course, we should look for ways to stop it. We have to protect people who are vulnerable in our communities, more specifically the elderly, but it is happening to people of all ages.
With more Asian Americans finding opportunity in Hollywood what are the things that can be done to maintain that momentum, and to increase the influence.
I think it’s fostering the next generation. I think it’s offering opportunities to young filmmakers, writers, directors, actors coming up and showing them that there is a future in the arts. One thing that Aziz and I have talked about is if you look at somewhere like the UK, they have schools for this kind of thing. You have young Indian actors in the UK going to acting school and they get the reps in and the practice in and you get great results from people starting young. So, I think showing that there is a future in it, showing that you can be the lead of your own show, that you can be the writer, the showrunner, the director of a movie, that is all possible. You look at Chloe Zhao and Lee Isaac Chung at the Oscars this year, they are just great examples of the fact that we can make great stuff and this is JUST the beginning.
Master of None Season Three Now streaming on Netflix
Watch The Making of Season 3 below: