As the Emmy-winning co-creator of Master of None and best friend to Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang’s had more than a few pinch-me experiences to brag about over the last few years. Still, not one of them tops what happened to Yang just two months ago, when an impromptu meeting squeezed in before a flight out of L.A. led to Yang landing the opportunity to direct a Jay-Z video. Yang helmed Jay’s latest for “Moonlight,” a re-creation of the classic Friends bottle episode “The One Where No One’s Ready” with an all-black cast featuring Jerrod Carmichael, Issa Rae, Tiffany Haddish, Lakeith Stanfield, Lil Rel, and Tessa Thompson for a sitcom parody turned meta commentary on representation in Hollywood.
But to hear Yang tell it, making his music video directorial debut wasn’t even close to the most surreal part of the story. Yang talked to Vulture about how he landed the gig, making Jay-Z cry, why the video wasn’t inspired by The Carmichael Show’s end, and the unexpected celeb-filled 4:44 private listening party he still can’t believe he was invited to.
First of all, congratulations on all of Master of None’s Emmy nominations! It must feel great watching your show get even more critical acclaim in its second season.
It’s always incredible, man. You make the show because it’s something you want to see and you get to make it with your friends, so to have it be recognized is wonderful. And there are so many people who got recognized this year who didn’t for the first season, so I’m happy about that. I think we doubled our nominations.
I assume Aziz connected you with Jay-Z.
Actually, no! It’s very crazy. I had met Jay years and years ago, we had shaken hands and had some conversations. I’m sure he didn’t remember who I am. We played Jenga once, that was really interesting. But I hadn’t talked to him in years. I was in L.A. taking some meetings and I got a call from my commercial agent and he said, “Hey, when are you leaving L.A.?” I said my flight’s at 4 p.m. today, and he goes, “How would you like to meet Jay-Z at 1?” Yeah, cool! At the last second, Jay actually couldn’t go to that first meeting, but I met with his manager, Chaka Pilgrim, and she explained the project to me, which was this very secret album called 4:44 that no one knew about yet. She said they wanted to create this visual component and she asked if I’d heard the song “Moonlight.” I said no, so she called Jay’s engineer, [Young] Guru, and the first time I heard the song was on her cell phone. She was like, “If you have any ideas, let me know,” so I asked if they had any ideas. She said they maybe wanted it to be funny or be a sitcom. I flew back to New York and I really racked my brain because an opportunity like this doesn’t come up all the time, and I sent them treatments for two ideas, and the one I really loved was the Friends one, and that’s the one they responded to, too.
How long before the album dropped was this meeting?
This must’ve been in June sometime. It all happened so fast. Chaka came back to New York and I had to sell her on it a little bit because it’s such an insane idea. I don’t think she was super familiar with Friends, it’s not her jam, but I was like, “trust me, it’s a very popular show and this will be a weird but interesting thing for us to work on. It’s a provocative idea and I really believe in it.” So she sent the treatment to Jay and, I don’t know if this is true, but she said he really liked it. And then later, when we were deep into production, she pulled me aside and told me that after he finished reading the treatment, he felt like he wanted to cry. That’s a good sign!
Did you already have this cast in mind, or was it more based on everyone’s availability?
That’s one of the things about the video that I’m just the happiest about. Literally in that first treatment I wrote up, it’s so many of the people who ended up in it. It’s really a dream cast for me, just a deep roster of talent, not unlike the original cast of Friends. So many different personalities and so much charisma. Jay and I both wanted Jerrod Carmichael from the start. We thought he’d be perfect for Ross, and I think Jay had been wanting to work with Jerrod for a while, and I’d been friends with Jerrod for years. We used to go out to dinner in L.A. while we were developing our shows. I’m not sure how Jerrod felt about the idea originally — obviously, it’s very crazy, so if he was skeptical at all, he certainly had a good reason to be. I found out he was in New York, so I texted him to hang out. He came over to my apartment and we went out to dinner down at Pasquale Jones in the Lower East Side and ate some pasta, and I just really did my best to sell him hard. Finally, he agreed to do it.
The dominoes started to fall from there; we got Issa Rae, Lakeith [Stanfield]. Some of them I just called, like Tessa Thompson. Lil Rel was in from the beginning, he was so excited. The great thing is we shot this a couple months ago, and since then, Girls Trip came out and Tiffany [Haddish] is like a nuclear bomb in that movie. She’s unbelievably funny, holy shit! She steals every scene. So it’s a real murderer’s row in the video. I was always firmly in the camp of, let it be the right generation of black actors and actresses, and let it be this new crop of up-and-comers ready to explode. They’re not top-lining movies yet, but they will be soon.
The parallels to Jerrod’s TV career in this video are hard to miss. Had you spoken to him about what was going on with the end of The Carmichael Show before you wrote him walking off the set of an NBC show in the video?
That’s the thing: This happened before all of that. His show was still on the air. The timing is pretty coincidental because the video was pretty much done by a month ago, they’ve just been releasing these videos one a week. The video was conceived, shot, and edited before all of that came out. I know people might look at the video as some sort of implicit criticism of shows, but, to me, that wasn’t really the intention. I say that with complete honesty. I think Friends is a really good show, it’s a well-made show. So it was less pointing a finger at that show or any network and more of a balance of, look how far we’ve come as a culture in terms of representation onscreen. Look how far we still have to go. And look at how important it is that we get the opportunity to tell our own stories and create our own art. I don’t wanna be didactic and preach to people and tell them what the video means. But this video does not come from an angry place. It’s more to point things out and start a conversation rather than try to shame people. And when I pitched Jerrod, it wasn’t in that context at all.
People are loving the accuracy of the set. How did you pull that off on such short notice?
I love that we’re getting that question. When I sent a picture of it to my sister, she was like, “Wait, did they just never take the set down?” No, the set’s been down for years, the second it wrapped! That’s just a testament to our production designer, JC Molina. The precision with which he reproduced things was incredible. The first call I got was saying, that fountain’s in New York and we can’t shoot there, but I didn’t think it was. It’s in L.A. So we shot on the actual fountain where they shot the opening credits. And then JC got the original plans from the original set and just literally reproduced it brick by brick, piece of furniture by piece of furniture. Every prop was the same. And I watched that episode so many times, some of those lines are etched in my head — I was telling Lil Rel, I’m never gonna forget the line “glass of fat” — and we had a split-screen monitor of the episode on set. So I made sure every shot was exactly the same as the original. Chaka sent me a great side-by-side comparison of the cold open and it’s pretty close.
Why re-create this specific episode?
This one always stuck in my mind. One of the biggest priorities aside from the meaning of the episode was that we pick an episode with all of the characters in it, all in one story, and also all in one set. It’s a bottle episode, so we didn’t have to build Central Park or anything. I also love the kismet of it – Ross is in a tuxedo. He’s wearing a tuxedo in the episode! It’s crazy. It ended up being perfect. And according to a lot of Friends fan sites, that’s an episode people really love.
I have to know who picked that Whodini song for the theme. That to me, is black sitcom excellence.
Shawn Carter. Jay-Z! I told him we couldn’t clear the rights to the original theme song, and he was like, “Yo, what if it’s this Whodini song?” Shit, what an amazing idea. It’s so funny seeing them dance to that song.
Jay has that brief voice-mail cameo, but was he on set?
That cameo was so fun. I had the idea that he would play that Tom Selleck character, Richard, and I had him call my cell phone. So I have this voice-mail on my phone that’s Jay saying, “Monica, it’s Richard. Call me.” I’m gonna have that six-second voice-mail on my phone forever [laughs]. Then he came by the set and he was really great. He just trusted me to do my own thing. He hung out with Jerrod and Hannibal [Buress] ’cause he knows those guys.
Did you hear all of 4:44 like the rest of the world or did Jay ever play it for you on set?
This is a story: I wanted to hear the rest of the songs, but never really did, and we were gonna shoot the video on a Tuesday. I had gotten to a place where I was pretty happy with the script, but I was going back and forth with Roc Nation a little bit about what specifically would be in it and the levels of meta. So I wanted to sit down with Jay face-to-face and talk to him about what the song means to him. I went into the studio on that Sunday night, less than 36 hours before we were shooting, and I talked to him about what he was thinking when he wrote the song, and we talked about representation and his views on it. We got on the same page and I felt really good about where we were after that conversation. I was ready to go back to my hotel and rewrite the whole thing, and as I was walking out of the studio, Chaka pulled me aside and asked if I wanted to hear the album. So I go down the hall and I’m in this big recording space and there’s like 15 people in there: Jay, Lana Del Rey, Chris Paul, Jessie Williams, Gerard Butler. It was a really diverse crew, I’m not sure what’s happening [laughs].
Then they said, “we’re gonna listen to the album, Jay’s gonna explain what each song meant to him after each track, and then you guys are gonna respond to each track and we’re gonna film it all [for the ‘Footnotes’ companion series].” I had no idea this was happening. I just pulled a chair in and wedged myself between two random people and they started shooting it. It’s like 11:30 p.m. and a producer runs in and whispers to me, “Just to let you know, this is gonna take three or four hours.” What! I guess I’m here for for the long run. He starts playing songs, we start loosening up, and Kenya Barris, the creator of Black-ish was there. I’ve known him for years, we used to play basketball together before I even knew he was writer. He started responding to the songs, so then I started saying stuff too ’cause it was fun to joke around with him. The album was incredible. I’m so happy it’s as great as it is.
We’re there until really late. So then I ended up running home to rewrite my script at like two or three in the morning, and then we shot it! I’m glad it’s not a totally incoherent mess. It was a crazy night in the life of Alan Yang. In some of those “Footnotes” videos, I’m sure you can find a clip of me drinking Jay’s cognac and praising how vulnerable he is on the album and how that’s a projection of strength [laughs].
Please find a way to put that story in Master of None season three.
It’s very insane. We’ll make [another season] maybe. Maybe we won’t. We wanna have something we’re really excited and passionate about.
This interview has been edited and condensed.