Master of None has quietly shifted the paradigm of Asian-American representation on television simply by being itself. On the show, Aziz Ansari plays a version of himself as Dev, whereas Kelvin Yu plays Brian, the onscreen version of co-creator Alan Yang, Dev’s chill, super-good-looking friend. Yu got his start on television back in 1999 on Ryan Murphy’s WB show, Popular, where he played Freddy Gong (yep, that’s his name), a stereotypical Asian nerd. From there, it was “kill-my-wife-for-honor kind of jobs” on crime procedurals before joining the writers’ room of Bob’s Burgers. Vulture spoke to Yu by phone about how he got back to acting with Master of None, immigrant parents, and playing the hottie for the first time in his career.
Aziz’s show is such a good New York show.
I think so, too. For one, it looks like New York ethnically.
A New York that actually starts to look like New York.
Right, with people that aren’t just sort of Gap models in their mid-20s that just work out a lot!
How did you get together with Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang to become a part of the show?
Well, I know Aziz sort of in passing because of a show that we both work on called Bob’s Burgers.
Oh, right. He voices and you write for it.
That’s correct. So I’m a producer on Bob’s Burgers. Aziz does the voice of Darryl, a hilarious 12-year-old, so we had known each other in passing. I don’t think he was aware I was an actor, which was the case before I started writing. He saw a tape of mine, and they were in such a rush. They had a matter of days before they started shooting. So Alan texts me, “Do you think you can come out here?” I was like, “Yeah,” and he was like, “Tonight?” So I was like, “Oh, all right.” So I jumped on a plane that night just to meet the producers and feel it out and it all worked out from there.
I love the episode about the immigrant parents, and I was curious if your parents had watched it yet and if it brought up any emotions for you?
You know, I don’t think so. Technologically, I would put my parents around ‘83, 1984, somewhere in there. They’re just learning how to rewind their VCR. So when I see them in a few weeks, I’ll put it on, and we’ll sit together and hold hands and cry. No, my dad will probably turn to me and go like, “Why are we watching this?”
I have a lot to say about it. I mean, personally, sometimes I’ll lament the journey of an Asian-American actor, walking into audition rooms in 1999. But at the end of the day, I think what Aziz and Alan really tapped into is that [is] literally nothing compared to the journeys that our parents have had to endure. When my dad came here, he came on a scholarship in the late ‘60s and he went to Mississippi State. My dad is not a large man. So there’s a little Taiwanese guy walking around Mississippi in like 1966, and I cannot imagine what that must have been like. He told me he does not know how he got from the airport to the dorm. He didn’t speak a word, like didn’t know the word hi, or the. He didn’t know English. There were a handful of 500 or 600 Asian students there on scholarship and it was basically like Jim Crow segregated. It was post-segregation, yet you know, Mississippi. He said people looked at him like he was an alien, not even like African-American because they had a place for that in their mind. They didn’t know what he was. It just seems like people like that should win some kind of weird award we invent. It’s so much more than me being born in Los Angeles and essentially walking in a straight line into college, and then walking into a straight line into a career of some sort. So it’s so special to see it up on TV. And then Aziz’s parents are obviously going to win Oscars someday. It’s a weird bizarre world we’re living in where that story’s up onscreen. My brother and I, we are almost speechless about it. We don’t quite know what to say to each other about it.
I was going through your past work and I realized that you got your start as Freddy on Ryan Murphy’s Popular, which is a show that I totally watched back in the day. I was like, “Holy shit. That’s him.”
Yeah, and you know what? My name was Freddy Gong, and I was the high-school nerd. And to be fair, with Ryan Murphy in it, it was very tongue-in-cheek and it was very self-aware. So it’s not like I was selling my soul. He knew what he was doing. He’s a genius as well. So you watched that show back in the day?
I did watch that show and I remember your character, which was the quintessential Asian nerd. It’s striking now because of who you play on this show, where you are the hottie of your friends — if you don’t mind me calling you a hottie. Is that the first time you got to play a role like that, as opposed to being a nerd?
The answer is yes, absolutely. It’s interesting because diversity doesn’t just happen by garnishing your omelette with a little bit of parsley. Diversity happens because the people that are telling the stories — the writers, directors, storytellers — want to tell their story. So this is an example where Alan is an incredibly dapper, handsome, high-achieving young man in Hollywood. He’s like a master of the universe. He’s running a series on network TV by the time he’s in his early 30s. To us, to the Lena Waithes and the Alan Yangs and Aziz Ansaris and the Kelvin Yus, that’s just our lives in terms of who we are and how we operate as we walk through the world. The media has sort of been interested in like, “Oh that’s interesting that we’ve never seen that,” but we don’t feel like it’s a step forward, progressively in terms of culture, but then when you look at it, I guess it sort of is. You don’t often see those kinds of things. And not to hyperbolize what we’re doing but to a 9-year-old or a 10-year-old little Asian-American kid out there, for him to see depictions of people that are three-dimensional and have depth on Fresh Off the Boat or Dr. Ken or on Quantico or whatever it is, is a pretty big deal. You don’t grow up, as 10-year-old Aziz, Kelvin, or Alan in the ‘80s seeing your faces all over things.
So for years I played nerds, and then for a long time I played jilted Asian men who were angry because they’d been dishonored. I would like murder my sister or my wife on CSI: New York or Without a Trace or NCIS. I just would kill my wife because I was so mad because I’d been dishonored. The problem with that is there’s some well-intended writer whose probably not Asian-American back there doing his or her best to write an episode of their show that involves Asians, but they don’t have any primary or even secondary interactions with Asians to go off of. So they end up falling into a little bit of low-hanging fruit and they don’t realize how many times I’ve had to kill my wife and my sister because she was like, dating a white guy and I couldn’t take it. And then you walk around New York and there’s guys like Alan and girls like Lena walking around, so this is the first time it was like, “Hey dude, just be you. We’re going to put you in great boots. You’re going to walk down Elizabeth [Street] and say some funny things.”
That’s the crazy thing about this entire conversation. Seeing characters like yours on the show is reflective of my world. It’s reflective of our sort of daily lives, and yet it’s so surprising how that is so absent on television that it has to be progressive because you’re like, “Oh my god. I’ve never seen that before,” which is crazy because it’s so prosaic.
Right, and if anything it’s shining a light on the lack of accurate reflection between your general entertainment options and what you experience in everyday life. Without getting into too much of this, there’s a little bit of bottlenecking at the top with the broadcast models that stops some of those things from making it through, if you get my code. So along comes something like Netflix where it can live. It can exist, and because of their economic structure or just the business model of it all, they can take a shot at something like this. And oh Jesus, lo and behold, people watch it. It’s like this total lightbulb, but it’s long overdue and it is refreshing and it’s been nice to have people reach out on Twitter and say, “Hey, this is a big deal. I’m a college-aged Asian guy and it’s a big deal to me.”
This is something that they obviously talk about on “Indians on TV,” on the fourth episode, but as a working actor, you sort of have to take the jobs that you can get. I’m curious now for you, because you are a writer, too, would you continue to take roles that you feel like may be iffy or trafficking in stereotypes, or would you refuse them? Would you be able to say, “Nah I’m good,” and wait for something that you feel like is actually three-dimensional?
Well, I think that the goal of every actor is to have discretion. The word control and the word actor don’t usually happen in the same sentence. To be an actor is to be flipping through the dry cleaners of life, hoping that your phone rings or somebody gives you a shot. When I started in 1999, if somebody had a camera, you felt a world of possibilities. “Oh you have a camera? We can actually go shoot a movie?” Now you can shoot a high-level, HD movie without thinking, and then probably edit it on your phone. So I think that that idea of discretion on top of the fact that five, six years ago I started writing professionally. Life is short, and you’re only sort of fun to look at for a few years of your life before you’re not. So in that window, I think I would want to have some discretion over the stories that I tell, and I do feel a sense of responsibility to tell interesting stories. Aziz sort of talks about this in the episode — it’s not about the accent. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about, what are we serving? And is the story good?
Watching you on the show, I was really hoping we’d get a romantic story line for your character. Is that something you’d want to do for the next season, for the second season?
That was out there in the ether when they were conceiving it all. I think it’s a big deal to Aziz and Alan to put that on the screen. So, someday maybe, if there is a season two. Nobody’s heard anything, but someday they’d want to put that on the screen with an Asian-American guy in a legitimate relationship. Just to see that is meaningful. So yeah, absolutely I’d be open to that.
I was really surprised in a pleasant way to see how there was no competitiveness between Dev and Ravi Patel. It made me wonder if you sort of feel competitive with other Asian-American writers or actors when you see them in a cattle call or something or if you feel a sense of camaraderie instead?
Well, the easy thing is they’re all terrible. Just kidding. I think that was very intuitive of Alan and Aziz to not necessarily have a competitive dynamic between Ravi and Dev, but it’s funny, from a third-person perspective, people are like, “Oh that’s an interesting take on it” because I do have that relationship with other Asian-American writers and actors. I do not have any competitiveness. When you have empathy for what it feels like and the numbers are so stark, it does feel like a rising tide raises all boats. When I see a person like Alan Yang just killing it or a person like Randall Park on Fresh Off the Boat, who I went to UCLA with and have known for a long, long time, there’s not an atom of competitiveness or envy in me, because it feels like we’re all tugging on this parachute and hoping that it sort of lifts the whole thing up. I can’t speak for them. Maybe they all hate me. I can’t speak for other minority subcultures, but it sure seems like you have this shared experience that’s meaningful to you, and if there’s any competitiveness it’s only a positive competitiveness that makes you get up in the morning — light a little bit of a fire under your ass.
How did you go from acting to writing for Bob’s Burgers?
I was a working actor, doing like I said, Freddy Gongs and the kill-my-wife-for-honor kind of jobs. This was years ago. I was walking by a Blockbuster video and I saw a poster for The Proposal. The poster was Sandra Bullock holding Ryan Reynolds up against the wall. I’d been an actor 12 years already. I was auditioning all the time. I had great representation. I was involved. I was making enough to live. I remember looking at Ryan Reynolds and thinking, They’re never going to put me on that poster. I don’t know why it took me over a decade to realize that. I need to start creating the story. So I happened to be working on Milk not too long after that, and a good friend of mine, Steven Davis, was working on Brüno. We were both working on the two gayest movies of the last ten years and he and I were spending lots of hours in hotel rooms. Not together — he was in Alabama tricking people, and I was in San Francisco waiting to say one line to Sean Penn all day. So we ended up writing together via email across the country. That pilot made its way to Fox, and [at that time] they were looking for people to fill the staff for this guy, Loren Bouchard, who had come from Adult Swim. It was a weird lining up of planets. I was feeling iffy because I’d never considered that.
When I saw the 12-minute presentation for Bob’s Burgers, I just blew the top off my head. I was like, Oh my god. This is funny and on a much deeper level than I ever would have expected it to be. There was Kristen Schaal’s voice and Jon Benjamin. It was like candy and pizza and chocolate. It just felt like I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. So I had to jump onboard. At the time, it just seemed like, Oh let’s try this. It’s found its own life. It’s been a really special thing to have people find us and have Tina Belcher resonate, just like Brian on Master of None, with a certain category of girls out there that really latched onto Tina. When have you seen that character? It’s been a really, really, really special place.