Ecco, signore e signori! Behold, ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to the premiere of Aziz-caps! As a special supplement to your regularly scheduled recaps of Master of None, we’ve asked New York Magazine cover star Aziz Ansari to give us the behind-the-scenes breakdown of the making of each episode, pieced together from multiple conversations over the past several months.
Episode 3: “Religion”
This is the episode most analogous to Season 1’s “Parents,” for which Ansari and MoN co-creator Alan Yang won a comedy-writing Emmy. Ansari wrote “Religion” with his younger brother Aniz, who’s a regular writer on the show. He also brought back his parents, Shoukath and Fatima Ansari, as Dev’s parents, for a lighthearted look at Islam in which Dev, a secular Muslim, tries to hide his pork-eating habits from his more traditionalist mom and dad. A number of guest voices will appear in this extra special Aziz-cap.
Aziz Ansari: No one ever sees anyone laugh about Islam, but I was telling Alan [Yang], there are so many little bitty funny things. There’s a bit in the show where my dad is trying to pretend like we’re more religious than we are. Where he’s like, “Dev prays five times a day.” It reminded me of the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David is pretending to be super religious so he can get Richard Lewis on the kidney list. I was like, “There is a version of that with Islam and no one would believe me.”
“Religion” was one of the first episodes we wrote this season. It has real stuff like parents dealing with children who are not as religious as them and the politics of inheriting this religion that has all this baggage now in the political climate. But there’s all this humor that’s coming from this thing that’s portrayed as this dark, mysterious thing, that, as I say on SNL, is the thing you normally just associate with that scary Homeland music. I’m really happy with that episode. It’s like, no one’s ever done anything like that. Just my dad walking around going, “As-salāmu alaykum, brother,” and lying about me fasting, that’s so funny to me. [Laughs.]
Islam has the same kind of lighthearted issues as every religion, like someone being more religious and judging the less religious people. There are a lot of things in the episode that people who are of my background are going to watch and be like, “Whoa!” The thing about different levels of religiousness, that’s a real thing. I’m not a religious person at all. It was tough because we’re in South Carolina. There’s no community, there’s no mosque, anything. Some people in my family are a little more religious than my parents and I are. Some of the kids are more religious than I am. Some of the kids don’t drink, some of the kids don’t eat pork, others drink but they don’t eat pork, others eat pork but they don’t drink. The episode is called “Religion,” but it’s really about family and tradition and the passing on of values and what that means. It’s one we’re really proud of and happy about how it turned out.
All this Trump stuff didn’t really happen until we were done writing it. And we filmed it a little bit after he was elected, but we didn’t add anything. It was basically the same script, and I’m so glad we don’t say anything. Because it’s almost a better statement to be like — you never see a character like my dad. I remember seeing an article where President Obama said he wanted to see more characters on TV who are Muslim and who aren’t fucking terrorists. And I was like, “I did that, man. Go watch Master of None! My mom and dad, they’re Muslim!” But my parents don’t wander around being like “I’m Muslim.” They’re just them. Just like Jewish people, Christian people. It’s not their defining characteristic.
As a kid, your religion is just doing whatever your parents picked up. I’ve never heard of [a] kid who’s like, “Well, I studied every religion and the one I picked ended up being the one my parents picked.” No, everyone’s like, “This is what our parents did, we’re doing the same thing, and you’re doing the same thing.” And I remember even as a kid just not liking that aspect. I remember learning about religions in school and being like, “Well, why?” And this is before there was any kind of issue with Islam. I didn’t want to be doing it just because my parents did it.
Alan Yang: We saw this episode as this bigger metaphor for any time you don’t get along with your parents or you become an adult and you’re making decision that are different from decision they would make — what is that conflict like and what is it when it’s couched in terms of religion? I’ve had a few people talk to me about that episode and say that, “Hey, I’m not Muslim, but I’m Catholic and it really reminded me of me and my mom.” That was really important to us, to show that this family is a family like many others.
Aziz Ansari: It’s interesting, we write these episodes and the more you talk about it, the more you’re like, “What’s the real issue here?” I realized it’s like, yeah, I just don’t need to rub it in their face. That’s what’s not cool. Hopefully they see these things and have a takeaway, too.
The Bacon Incident
That’s 100 percent true. That really happened in Bennettsville, where I grew up. I must have been 6 or 7, some neighbor gave me bacon and my mom told me we don’t eat it because we’re Muslim, and that’s the first time I heard of religion. My first association with it was, “You can’t eat this delicious thing.” You’re a kid so you’re like, “Alright, I guess I can’t eat it.” I wasn’t like, “Oh man, I really want to eat it.” But I do think I did eat the rest of the bacon that time.
My mom has actually gotten mad at me for eating pork. I told the story on Conan and the real story is almost too crazy. If you saw it in the episode you’d be like, “Well, how would that happen?” It would look too fake! But I was like, “Well, we could probably do an episode about this.” This is the short version. The Conan one has some details I’ve probably forgot. Basically, I was out to dinner with my parents and my girlfriend at the time, and my girlfriend ordered this dish that had pork in it. She didn’t know about them not eating pork and I was like, “You know what, I’m 30-something years old, what’s the big deal? I’m just gonna eat some of this dish.” And so I ate it and my mom got kind of upset with me. Not as upset as she does in the show, but she wasn’t pleased about it.
And then two days later or maybe even the next day — this is 100 percent true. I’m walking around with this woman I was dating and we stopped at Murray’s Cheese or something to get this bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. And she was like, “I don’t know, man, your parents seemed to be kind of bummed about you eating pork …” I’m like, “Whatever, we’re eating this now on our own, who cares?” And we get it and then I run into my parents on the street while eating the sandwich! And my dad’s like, “What is that? Can I have a bite?” I was like, “No, it’s pork.” Then I had to go to do some interview or something and I left them to walk around with my girlfriend at the time and they basically were like, “Why are you making Aziz eat pork?” She texted me and she was like, “Your parents are asking me why I’m peer pressuring you into eating pork.” And I was just like, “Hahaha …” So that was the thing that inspired it.
Aniz Ansari: I have my own situation with that, and Aziz has his own situation with that. He talked about it on Conan. That’s the difference between us. I just don’t want to have that conversation with my mom, so I mind my business. Our parents understand; they’re not crazy. That’s the takeaway from the episode: The message to kids is you can maybe do your own path, but you don’t have to go out of your way to do things that could be hurtful just to prove a point.
I’m wearing a shirt right now that has a pig with a football helmet and says “Bob’s Barbecue,” so you can put two and two together on where I really stand on pork. I grew up in South Carolina and love barbecue, I just don’t do it around my mom. I didn’t eat pork until I was 19. I don’t want to get in trouble with my mom.
Aziz Ansari: I don’t even want to talk about when I started eating pork because my mom doesn’t like reading about it. [Laughs.] But it was sometime in college. Once you leave home and have your independence you’re eventually like, “Okay, this is just something I’m going to do. It’s not something I care to adhere to anymore.” I talked to a bunch of other young, Muslim people about the pork thing, and it’s a weird thing! Kids are like, “Oh yeah, my parents have seen me drink, they’ve seen me smoke cigarettes, but I do not eat pork around them.” [Laughs.] And it’s like, why is the pork thing such a big deal? And there’s something about it. It’s what my dad says in the episode. It’s symbolic of something, and it’s a rejection of who you are. That’s what it feels like to them.
One of my favorite jokes is that thing where Dev says to his cousin, “Have you told you parents [you eat pork]?” He’s like, “No! I can’t do that! They’d freak.” And I’m like, “Oh yeah, I get it, you’ve gotta keep up a façade. It’s not like white kids talking to their parents about fucking.” Because that is so crazy. How come some kids are just talking to their parents about fucking? Do you realize how far away I am from talking to my parents about something like that? [Laughs.] You know that thing in the first season where the parents meet the girlfriend and then they get mad about not knowing about the girlfriend? That happened with me. And it’s the same stuff I say in the show. After the first season came out, some Asian people came up to me and they’re like, “I’ve been in that situation, man, didn’t tell me parents about seeing someone.” Because you just don’t have those conversations, and then at a certain point you get uncomfortable talking about it, so you stay quiet and no one opens up. It’s weird Asian-people shit where you’re just quiet. You don’t talk about stuff.
The Election and the Montage That Wasn’t
Alan Yang: We were already shooting the “Religion” episode, which I directed. A few of us got together that night at the Spotted Pig for an election party and then we had to shoot that morning.
Eric Wareheim: It was insane. All our friends are at the Spotted Pig, we’re eating French fries and burgers, and then you know what happened. People started crying, walking out, screaming at the TV. And then making a show at 5 a.m., you have to be on camera, being funny all day. It’s a very crazy experience if you’re in a bad mood or something dark is happening in the country. It really fucked with him [Aziz]. It was very hard for him to get in character and do that. So we tried to shoot some scenes that weren’t so silly. Try to get some heavy scenes in there so he could match the energy of the world. We tried not to talk about what happened until after the shooting day. You won’t see how it affected us.
Alan Yang: The scene we were shooting was [part of a montage], including a flashback where Dev is crossing the street, and it’s post-9/11 time and a driver says, “Get out of the road, terrorist!” It was part of a larger series of flashbacks and there was a joke at the end. But this specific shot was literally a driver driving up to Dev and calling him a terrorist. It was a strange thing to shoot the morning after the election! I think some of that stuff we ended up not even putting in the episode because it’s too dark and sad. We were like, “Wow, this flashback’s supposed to take place 15 years ago but it definitely feels very relevant.”
Aziz Ansari: That happened to me when I was at NYU and a guy was in a car at a stop sign and I started crossing, and he’s like, “Fucking terrorist!” I was like, “Well, I don’t know if I’m a terrorist because I crossed the street when you were trying to go.” [Laughs.]
That montage is supposed be me dealing with all the baggage that comes along with being a Muslim living in America. So it was me as a little kid and the teacher being like, “Islam is a religion where they read a book called the Quran,” and then some kid’s like “Dev’s a Muslim …” And then you see me later in life and the family’s watching TV and the news is like, “They have just named suspects in the attack,” and we’re all just like, “Please don’t be a brown guy …” And it’s like, “Muhammad al Muhammad,” and we’re like, “Fuck!” And then you see me walking down the street — and this really happened to my brother. He pitched this and the idea is, I’m walking and this guy is across the street and he goes, “Hey, why don’t you go back to Pakistan?!” I’m like, “What the hell?” And he was like, “Oh, I’m sorry man, I’m talking to my friend Gopal behind you.” And there’s a taxi driver sitting there, the guy’s like, “Yeah he really is moving back to Pakistan. It was just like an inside joke we have.” My brother said that really happened to him! What are the chances of that?
So the day after Trump won, we were filming one of these scenes where someone’s like, “Terrorist!” And it’s just like, why are we filming a scene the day after where it’s just people being racist to me?! [Laughs.] It’s so funny. We had to audition all these people to just say racist stuff with these montages.
Aniz Ansari: I feel very, very lucky. Obviously there’s latent racism everywhere, but I have gone through life experiencing, I think, the average amount of racism that brown people experience. I’ve only had a couple of intense incidences. There was another one right after 9/11 — and I felt this a little when the Muslim ban happened — but right after 9/11 was such an intense time in terms of Islamophobia. I was 13 in a Dicks’s Sporting Goods store and someone yelled something racist at me. I looked around and I couldn’t see them, and I looked up and they were on this indoor rock climbing wall.
Aziz Ansari: It just made me laugh so hard to think about Aniz walking around and he hears some guy go, “Hey terrorist, get out of here!” And he looks around and he doesn’t see the guy, and the guy is climbing an indoor rock wall!
Aniz Ansari: I really wanted to put that in the show because to me there was some very intense poetic justice about having these Islamophobic things happen to me and then getting paid very generous amounts of money to turn it into a comic TV show.
Aziz Ansari: The montage didn’t make it in, though. It just didn’t work, and the episode didn’t need that scene. We did a similar kind of montage in “Indians on TV,” and then we were like, “Ahh, we don’t need this.” In this episode also, there’s another montage in the beginning where it’s all the kids of different religions getting asked to go to church. So we didn’t want to have two montages back to back.
Aniz Ansari: As an Indian, there’s a fine line you have to walk when you’re talking about discrimination and racism and all of that stuff in terms of any narrative, but especially as a comedy. There’s a balance you need to find just in terms of things that will affect people, things that will come off preachy, things that will seem funny. I would say Trump changed the essence of the episode, but it guided our intent. We were going to go down that path. Look, it’s not like when Trump got elected a switch turned on and everyone was all of a sudden racist or hating Islam. We were following it, obviously, throughout our whole lives. Even before we started writing, during the campaign, we were like, “This guy …” Very early on I knew that if we did another season, religion was something that could be talked about.
Alan Yang: After Trump got elected, we had serious conversations about whether we should rewrite or change the direction of the show. And, ultimately, we decided not to. It felt like directly addressing it was not the way to handle it and that we should just depict the characters we had conceived of and let the audience draw parallels and relationships and meaning themselves. I definitely think that with a few of the episodes — the “Religion” one and a few others — there’s a deeper resonance given that the president was actively calling for Muslim people to get banned while he ran for president. [Laughs.] I mean, he can’t deny that he did that. I think he used his full name, too, where he’s like, “I, Donald J. Trump, call for a ban of Muslims.”
Mike Schur: I don’t know if Aziz feels a responsibility, but I know this is something he thinks about. At least during the campaign when Trump was talking about banning entire nations of people and those nations of people all happened to be dominantly one religion, he was thinking about that a lot. But there was no discussion at all of [including the Muslim ban in the story line]. Maybe now that episode is put into extremely clear relief and is very pointed in a way that it might not have been before. But I still think it turned out exactly as it was supposed to turn out.
Aziz Ansari: I don’t really see the season as political at all. What I’m really happy about is we were able to make the show before all that stuff happened. I feel like everything — everything — is just so influenced by the election and what’s happened. And I’m really glad that we’re putting something up that actually doesn’t have anything to do with that, and is just stories about this guy’s romantic life, his family life, blah blah blah.
It’s weird that it becomes political just because I have my skin, you know what I mean? If you look at shows like Louie, there are these political ideas in them, but they’re not necessarily political shows. I don’t think ours is either. But what you said about how seeing someone that looks like me starring in a show now means something different than it did a year ago, yeah, I would agree with that.
The Montage That Was
Mike Schur: What that episode is about, to me, is that opening montage. It’s about being a Russian Orthodox little kid and the father saying, “You have to go to church because I want to go to church.” Or being an Orthodox Jewish family or a Scientologist. “But I don’t want to go to processing!” That’s maybe my favorite 60 seconds that the show has ever done because it’s such a damn good point and it’s so perfectly presented. The point of those 60 seconds of the show is that you may find some religions scary or alien or foreign, but people are just people. And regardless of the situation, there’s a bunch of kids in every religion who are annoyed at their parents for making them attend services of the religion they practice. If Aziz happened to be a Southern Baptist, he could have told that exact same episode from the point of view of a Southern Baptist. It happens to be that that’s his experience and his family’s experience being Muslims.
Aziz Ansari: I just love all the kids! That’s a subtle nod to say that as different as people try to paint these religions, ultimately it’s all the same. We had to make that Scientology book, by the way. It’s not a real book.
The Easter Egg
Alan Yang: Dev’s cousin is played by Harris Gani, who was mentioned in Aziz’s stand-up years ago as “my chubby cousin Harris.” But looking very different these days! [Laughs.]
Aziz Ansari: I don’t know exactly how old he is, but he’s in his 20s. And whenever I did the standup, seven or eight years ago, he was still in middle school. He’s grown up a lot since then. He graduated college. He’s an adult. He has a job. I don’t want to give away too much of his personal life, but he works in the tech industry, and he’s pretty much exactly like what we depict in the show. We cast him similar to how we cast my parents. We had people audition and no one had the charm that Harris had. So I just asked Harris if he would do it. And he was down. He’d never acted in anything before.
And he is not a little kid anymore! Him and his brother Darwish are super into fitness and they’re part of this whole Indian fitness scene, which is part of the inspiration for the Anush character, because they were super into exercise and there’s this whole like Indian-dude guy scene that I didn’t know about until I heard about it through them. [Laughs.]
That barbecue fest, by the way, there’s usually one that happens in Madison Square Park in June, the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, but we weren’t filming then so we had to make one up. That was at Smorgasborg. We just filled it with barbecue places.
Directing His Parents
Aziz Ansari: I think they were both a little more comfortable and knew a little more what they were in for after doing the first season. My dad was more than eager to get back and my mom was very eager to get out of it any way she could, so she was pitching that her character was on vacation or at a wedding. I was like, “No, you’ve got to do this one.” I had to twist her arm a little bit, but I think it’s just one of those things where she pretends to be not into it as much as she really is. You know, they’re taking off work to do this. The first season, they used their vacation time to do the show. My dad is a practicing physician; my mom is working at his office. They’re not just sitting around waiting to act! They’re really so kind to come and do the episodes.
Ted Sarandos (Netflix’s chief content officer): Of course when somebody tells you they want to cast their parents who have never acted on your very expensive TV show, your first reaction is, “No, no! Oh no!” By the way, Aziz wasn’t a guy who just wanted to work whose parents. He knew how they would work on screen and he had to convince his parents to do it. And they were amazing, obviously. No one who had anything to do with the show, outside of Aziz, had any idea of the potential of how they would break through on the show.
Aniz Ansari: Aziz and me, we’re funny and we do bits and stuff, but I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re class clowns. My dad would definitely be the class clown. He’s always joking. I always say what you see on the show is very toned down. To put his real self on the camera would be too unrealistic for TV. He’s just constantly spilling stuff on himself and dropping stuff.
My mom is serious. I think I’m more like my mom and Aziz is more like my dad, but I have a bit of my dad in me. I drop my glasses, spill stuff on myself.
Aziz Ansari: Oh yeah, our dad is definitely toning it down to play the guy on the show. I heard that he would be in the wardrobe trailer and he would just start hiding stuff. It’s like, “I don’t even know if that’s funny!” [Laughs.] You’re just annoying people! He was just always goofing around on set. And that really is how my mom and I text. It’s half sweet and it’s half her just getting annoyed. We’ve had family group chats and she’s, like, blocked me because I’m just saying silly stuff to try to get a rise out of her.
Alan Yang: It’s really funny. I’m technically directing them, but Aziz is also directing them because there are things that you can say to your dad that I can’t, right? So sometimes we have to remind Aziz that we need him to be performing the scene, too. God bless Dr. Ansari, he’s a really funny performer, but he’s not a trained actor. As recently as a year and a half ago, he was just a gastroenterologist from South Carolina, so there’s a learning curve. And we do have to do a fair amount of it line-by-line just so he gets all the lines down and they’re clear and easily understood and the correct line.
Aziz tends to be pretty patient, and Dr. Ansari loves it. Mrs. Ansari hates it, but does it as a favor to her son. I was happy with her performance. She had to do some fairly heavy lifting and I know it’s not her favorite thing in the world to do, but there’s a genuineness about her. I realize this is a very small portion of the audience, but anyone who sees the show and knows her in real life knows that that’s just how she acts in real life. She’s very soft-spoken and genuine and sweet, and I hope we captured a tiny amount of that in the show.
In the end it’s a kid directing his parents, man. It’s very weird. Three people in the scene are people he grew up with, so they’ll bicker about, “Would the mom say it this way? Would the dad say it this way?” And if Aziz can’t remember something, he can ask Aniz and they can discuss, “Okay, well what is the actual dynamic here, or what would our uncle say?” But mainly it’s Aziz saying, “Just get the line and you can go home.” There’s a scene where his mom has to pinch him and he’s like, “No, pinch me harder like you do in real life. Just pinch me like you do in real life when you’re mad at me.” There’s a lot of that.
I think [they’re okay with the episode] because it ends on a sweet note and it ends on a tiny step forward in understanding. A lot of the stuff is real. The Quran they gave him before going to college and that note, a lot of that is based in reality. I’m sure when they saw the script there were things they were concerned about and probably feelings they still have, but I think they saw the value in, “Look, this is a story told from both of our sons’ point of view, and this is how they feel. And it’s not so antithetical to how we feel, either.”
Aziz Ansari: I think my dad is even funnier than he was in the “Parents” episode. He kills it. We were screening the episode and there’s this joke where the two aunts and uncles are talking about basketball, and then my dad goes, “You know who’s really good at basketball? Michael Jordan!” And it really hit me, it was so heartwarming, like — Aniz picked that joke and then my dad did it and then we screened it and it killed! And it’s in a show that I make. Like, what an insane experience to get to share that creative joy with you the most immediate members of your family? It doesn’t happen.