Gobble gobble, on to the next Aziz-cap! As a special supplement to your regular recaps of Master of None, we’ve asked New York Magazine cover star Aziz Ansari to give us the behind-the-scenes breakdown of each episode, pieced together from multiple conversations over the past several months.
Episode 208: “Thanksgiving”
This very special episode of Master of None is the big one for all you Denise fans, spanning 30 years of Thanksgivings at the home of Dev’s childhood best friend, who happens to be black, queer, and the Best. Lena Waithe, who plays Denise, co-wrote the episode with Aziz Ansari, largely based on her life. The guest stars include Angela Bassett as Denise’s mom, Catherine; The Cleveland Show’s Kym Whitley as her aunt, Joyce; and Venida Evans as Grandma Ernestine. And this Vulture writer predicts that “Thanksgiving” is the episode you will hear a lot about during Emmys conversations. Waithe guest stars in this Aziz-cap.
The Origins of Denise
Lena Waithe: [Before season one, casting director Allison Jones] called and said, “Can you go meet with Aziz and Alan Yang?” and I didn’t know what it was about. I didn’t even know Aziz had a show with Netflix, but I’m a fan. I got there and I just started talking about my life. I had recently fallen in love, so I was talking about meeting my girlfriend and our first kiss. I just felt really comfortable with them. Then I got a call saying, “They want you to come in and read with Aziz.” It was just a real conversation about life and love and shared experiences of being 30-somethings, and it was a wonderful chemistry that we immediately had.
They really pulled a lot from my life. They were sort of like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis with Janet Jackson and that Control album! You can have a conversation with them about nothing and they’ll turn it into an episode of really cool television. They pulled stuff from how I met my girlfriend, some of my moves — I’m very romantic. That part [in episode five of season one] where Dev comes to a work party with me and I meet a girl and get a vibe. That’s something I said to them: “I was getting vibes from her.” They got a kick out of it, so my character digging straight girls became a thing.
Aziz Ansari: [At some point during the original brainstorming for the show] we were like, “All right, we should have a female friend.” We auditioned a bunch of people and Lena came in and she was just unbelievable. She was so interesting! We were like, “Let’s make a character based on her.” All the fucking diversity shit, I didn’t think about that. Look, one of the characters is me, so that’s already a diverse thing. And then we had a character kind of based on Alan with Brian. And Lena was just the funniest person.
Waithe: I tested with a very white girl. I think they only knew they wanted the Denise character to be a girl, but I don’t think they were bargaining on this girl! They definitely weren’t sitting around like, “Oh, let’s have a black lesbian on the show for shits and giggles.” I think whenever someone does that, it comes off as false and fake. But because it was genuinely organic, because they just told Allison like, “Send us interesting people,” and Allison thought of me, they really took a chance on me. They already had a lot of the scripts written, so they did have to go back and tweak all of that and make sure it reflected the new person who was now in the role. So I really give them and the writers credit for going back and changing things and not being afraid.
Ansari: Lena and I didn’t know each other until season one, but we just clicked and had a funny rapport together. You know, all these people we cast, most of times I’ve seen no acting work they’ve done. I just meet them and then we do scenes where we improvise and I can just tell if they play our tone, which is very grounded, but funny when it needs to be. Not ever forced jokiness, you know? With Lena, I knew right away. We became such fast friends. I wish she lived in New York and I could see her more often because we get along so well.
Waithe: We both love movies, we love going out to eat. I don’t drink, but him and Alan and Eric love a good cocktail. Whenever Aziz picks a restaurant, he’s going to get your entire life and have a wonderful meal. Sometimes when I’m in New York, I forget that we’re on a TV show. So I’m surprised when we walk down the street, and people are like, “Oh my God, I feel like I’m in an episode of Master of None right now!”
Writing the Episode
Ansari: The goal was to push things farther, so before we started writing, Alan and I were like, “All right, what are the episodes from season one that really hit people?” They’re probably “Parents,” “Indians on TV,” and “Mornings” — the one where it’s different mornings in a year of Dev and Rachel’s relationship. I was like, “What if we made every episode that ambitious and crazy? Let’s make every episode a huge swing.”
Lena was filming a movie in London, and we only had her for a chunk of time, so we were like, “Let’s do a big Lena episode.” It started with me and Alan talking to Lena on the phone, just, you know, “What’s been going on in your life? What do you think could be interesting?” She talked about taking her girlfriend home for Thanksgiving, so we talked about doing a normal Thanksgiving episode where it’s just me going home with her. I think Aniz [Ansari, his brother and a writer on the show] pitched the idea of, “Well, this might be too Master of None-y, but what if it’s just 30 years of Thanksgivings?”
We just loved the idea of going through the different eras and seeing all these big moments in Denise’s life. Plus, we don’t really explain these characters’ connections. [Laughs.] You don’t really know how Denise and Dev became friends, so that also seemed interesting to show their backstory and that they grew up together and they have this close bond.
Waithe: I don’t think my story as a queer black woman is so crazy and random, but it’s very specific. Especially in my community there’s a lot of images in the media or social media about, “Oh, this is what a black lesbian is and what she looks like.” I thought the more specific we could be about it, the more interesting it could be. That’s also what Aziz gravitates toward. He’s like, “How specific can we get?” We felt like it didn’t look like anything I’d seen on TV before, and that’s our litmus test. Have we seen this before? What’s the most honest way to tell this story?
I came in and spoke with the writing staff. I was like, “Go for it,” because I was a little busy and I had a lot going on! And they were like, “Yes, we’re good writers and we can do our version of it.” But Aziz really pushed me, he said, “Yo, your hand and your voice has to be in this. Otherwise we’re not going to get it right and it’s too important to get wrong.”
Ansari: Look, what I’ve learned in my own experience is I’m going to do a better job writing for an Indian guy than a white guy is. Lena is going to do a better job writing for a queer African-American woman than I am, you know? [Laughs.] I can help her with jokes, but the episode was really me going to Lena, “Let’s do with you what we do with me all the time. Let’s really go deep. Let’s get this out here. You can do whatever you want on this show. Anything you want, I’m going to support and try to make great, so let’s go.” And what she gave me is one of my favorite episodes.
Waithe: Aziz and I did the heavy lifting, scene by scene by scene. I would put things back in, take things out. I was trying to remember and relive those moments so people could go, “Oh, this is her version.” It’s not everybody’s story, but you can hook into the emotion of it. It’s not easy subject matter, but it’s important subject matter — something that’s personal to me, things that involved my family members. It’s how I remembered it.
We really wanted people to understand Dev and Denise’s love for each other, why they hang out, how they’ve become such close friends, why they remain so close as adults. And this episode shows you that these two friends are more like family. That’s something I can really relate to, when you’re like, “These are the people I’ve chosen.”
Ansari: The episode is about friendship, it’s about family, it’s about honesty with your family, learning who you are. I think the reason it works is because of Lena and how she really gave us so much about her story. I’ve only known Lena from the first season, but we are very close. I don’t see her often and we don’t hang out all the time because we live in different cities, but we get along really well and it was very clear from the start, “Oh, this is someone I have a connection with and we get along well in real life and it’s going to show onscreen.” It’s a cool depiction of our real dynamic and rapport.
The Many, Many Thanksgivings
Ansari: I’ve got to give a big round of applause to every department, everything from wardrobe to hair to set decoration. You kind of don’t notice how much work was going into it from generation to generation, but it’s pretty incredible. The hairstyles are different, the clothes are different, and all the decorations in the house are different. It was a challenge for everybody on our crew and everybody rose to the challenge and helped us make something that I’m really happy about.
For me, personally, the hard part was directing those kids and making sure they felt like younger versions of Dev and Denise, and just making it feel like a coherent story even though it’s going across generations. They were all good little Denises and little Devs. They all came through for us.
The weed stuff wasn’t based on anything, but kids in general. Aniz and I never smoked weed when we were growing up. He’s seven years younger than me. That would be too intense.
The “Brown Sugar” video, that was just perfect for that scene of Angela saying, “Oh, look at Denise, staring at D’Angelo.” The kid who plays little Denise is just so good in that moment, the look on her face. It’s so funny.
And there was so much Thanksgiving food! I’ll never forget! They had so much Thanksgiving food everywhere. They just this whole room full of macaroni and cheese — I love macaroni and cheese! [Laughs.] You don’t think of all the Thanksgiving dinners the art department had to have prepared and styled. And it’s all edible. We’re not taking down a whole meal, but we ate a lot.
Ansari: My favorite set decorations were all the posters in Denise’s room. Lena was telling me about having a poster of Jennifer Aniston and Hilary from Fresh Prince. She and Aniz and I realized there was a lot of cultural overlap in the TV we watched, despite me being from an Indian family in South Carolina and her growing up in Chicago. All of us knew all the episodes of Fresh Prince really well. Those are the things that are really us.
Waithe: Aziz is blacker than me in his cultural references. He always hears the new Kanye before me. He’s always like, “Have you heard the new Kanye?” And I’m like, “Send me the songs, let me see.” He has a great ear for music. A big thing we really connected on — me, Aziz, and his brother Aniz — is that we all loved this mini-series that came on ABC many, many moons ago called The Jacksons: An American Dream. It was a three- or four-night mini-series about the Jackson 5 growing up and becoming stars. That’s a thing that, for real, black kids, we know backwards and forwards! We all have taped it off TV, watched it over and over again. And Aziz and his brother Aniz are like, “Not only do we know it, we know it well, too.” We just started going back and forth and quoting it, and I was like, “Man, you really are a special person. I cannot believe you know this reference!”
The Jacksons: An American Dream, it comes on VH1 all the time, and when it comes on, it’s a wrap. You gotta sit and watch it. No matter what part of the journey they’re on, whether they’re on the victory tour, whether they just met Berry Gordy, whether it’s like when Joe Jackson was mad at them for leaving the towels in the pool. It’s these little moments that you know by heart, and when he did that, I was like, “Alright, Aziz, it’s official. I freaking love you. The fact that you know that and you know it well, that’s a wrap. You get it. You’re part of the culture. You in the culture.” We send each other clips and GIFs all the time.
Ansari: All black people and apparently Indian people, as well, are into The Jacksons: An American Dream, because me, Lakshmi [Sundaram, a Master of None writer and actor] and Aniz really knew it well. It’s just funny things like that are pillars of our friendship. So we were all obsessed and at some point we realized, “Oh my God, Angela Bassett played Katherine Jackson in this multigenerational story and now we have her playing Catherine in our multigenerational story!” We told her how much we loved The Jacksons: An American Dream and it was really funny.
Ansari: That was the dream choice, like, “Well, let’s go out to Angela Bassett for this and hopefully there’s a chance.” And then she said yes right away and we’re like, “Oh my God!” She was the person we’d imagined from the get-go. Angela is such a powerhouse in that episode and Kym Whitley, they’re so fun together. And I love the woman who played Grandma Ernestine. They just played off each other so well. I would love to see a sitcom with those three women! They were so good together!
[Director] Melina Matsoukas wanted it to be that every time we go into a new era, you show the kitchen and you show them doing stuff. We didn’t have dialogue written for that, so I would just go up to them and pitch random jokes and they would improvise based on my suggestions. I remember saying to Grandma Ernestine, “Just say something about some food you don’t like.” And she was like, “Can I say I don’t like parsnips? I hate them suckers!” And I was like, “Say it just like that.” [Laughs.] And she really hates parsnips! She hates parsnips for some reason! So that little exchange was improvised, and then when she’s talking about adding flavor with cigarette stuff, that was all improvised.
The coming-out scene, when we were writing it, I was like, “Let’s get this right. Let’s make it feel like your experience.” I think Lena saw how I’d really just ripped my own life and put it in there for certain moments, and those are the moments you want to use your real experience and get all the details right and make it feel really real. Then we finished the first take and I was like, “Holy shit!” Angela Bassett is sitting there crying and Lena is holding her own. It was just incredible. It’s really a testament to Angela and to Lena for just being open and really sharing some honest moments from her life that we adapted into the story.
Ansari: Lena and I talked about, “What is the template for these different eras of Thanksgivings?” You have a check-in with Dev and Denise where you see where they’re at in their lives. Then at the dinner table, Lena tells me she remembers the moment when Clarence Thomas came up and her grandma was like, “Fuck his ass!” That’s straight from her real Thanksgiving. And I think the O.J. conversation as well. She said, “Oh yeah, every year we would just have this conversation about politics.”
The modern-day stuff, the Sandra Bland one we wrote specifically for the series. I had a similar thing when I watched some video about the Indian grandpa, the guy who was slammed on the ground [by Alabama police] and paralyzed. There’s something on a visceral level of seeing someone who could be you, or someone who looks like someone in your family. Lena’s relationship to a video of Sandra Bland is probably hurting her on an even different level as a black woman, which is something I never really thought about until I read the thing about the Indian grandpa.
Ansari: It all stems from months earlier just being like, “What if we do an episode about Thanksgiving?” And then a month later, I’m in London with Lena and she talks about shady Instagram people.
Lena came up with that thing, NipplesAndToes23. At one point, we were going to have Denise and Nikki and Dev watching The Jacksons: An American Dream, and we were like, “Wait a second, but Angela’s in that. Is that weird?” [Laughs.] So we then switched to Do the Right Thing. We were like, “Let’s pick a really intense moment and have [Nikki] just be so annoying and not aware of what’s going on.”
The R&B Montage
Ansari: One of my favorite things about Lena is that she’s incredible at gift-giving and surprises. That story about what she did for her girlfriend’s birthday, it’s pretty close to what really happened, and her girlfriend’s favorite song is “Can You Stand the Rain.” We were talking about the scene and I didn’t remember what “Can You Stand the Rain” sounds like, and then I played it and we were both like, “Oh my God, when Michelle comes, we have to play that!” It really made us laugh imagining the scene with that song, and it worked out perfect. It’s also the best gift that the scene was a nod to her real romantic partner.
I don’t know if the moment when her mom and Michelle bond about the way she dresses is directly from Lena’s life, but we just wanted to make everything seem real and not be a huggy sitcom moment. At the end, Angela doesn’t say, “I like your girlfriend.” It’s very subtle. They do such a good job playing it. You just see it in their eyes, it’s still hard and it’s still a little strange for her, but she loves her daughter. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re better, and you just see it in their body language and their performance.
Lena really killed it in that episode and gave us so much, really poured a lot of herself into it. She sent me a text that really touched me. I was like, “Hey we just streamed ‘Thanksgiving’ and it killed so hard and everyone who’s started watching the season is talking about what a beautiful episode it is and how good you are in it and blah blah blah…” And I was like, “Thank you so much for sharing yourself with us and the show.”
And she texted something so nice to me. She was like, “Yeah, I wouldn’t share that with anybody else. I really respect you and the show and what we make together. You’re one of the few people that I would trust.” I was like, “Wow.” It’s the highest compliment.