How Aniz Ansari Started Working With His Brother on Master of None and What It Was Like to Grow Up With Aziz

L-R: Aniz and Aziz Ansari. Photo: Noam Galai/WireImage

They say you never know anyone until you’ve talked to their sibling. Well, I don’t know who said that, but that’s certainly how I felt when I called up Aziz Ansari’s younger brother Aniz, 27, as part of a New York Magazine cover story on the Master of None star and co-creator (who’s 34). I’d actually met Aniz back in December on the MON soundstage in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where he’s the show’s writer on set and spends his days throwing out jokes and talking Aziz down from harebrained ideas. I spoke to Aniz — who is the physical opposite of Aziz, with long hair, a mustache, and a chill skater/comic-book-nerd vibe — about how he joined MON, the weirdness of doing a show with his brother and his parents, and, most important, the inside scoop on Aziz as a kid.

You’re now officially a TV writer in L.A. Were you already headed on this path when you started working on Master of None?
I wasn’t really aspiring to do any television. I wanted to write comic books and from there try to get into movies. So I ended up going to art college in Atlanta [Savannah College of Art and Design] and then moved to L.A. and got a job as an editor for DC Comics in their digital division. I love Batman, so it was a dream job for me, and I was planning on just doing that for four or five years and doing my own comics. But a couple of years into it, Aziz and [co-creator] Alan [Yang] sold Master of None to Netflix and talked to me about maybe working on the show.

It was kind of a calculated risk on my part. I had to quit my nice corporate job where I had benefits and health insurance, and it was something I really loved doing, too. Now I’m like, “Oh, good idea.” [Laughs.]

Had you worked with your brother before?
I’ve always kind of worked along with him. He would always let me look at stuff, and when he started doing stand-up when he was really young, he would call me and try bits on me, and send me movie scripts to read.

What was the original idea for the show? I asked Aziz and Alan, and they both were just like, “It’s stuff we were interested in.”
I can’t even articulate it myself, and I read the pilot from its first incarnation. [Laughs.] The show is Aziz’s shit basically, it’s his life. The way Aziz tells stories is very ripped from the headlines of his life, to a crazy level. I would probably say I know him better than anyone. I can tell you there’s an extreme level of authenticity to his work that is what makes it so special and makes it resonate with people.

How aware do you think your brother is about the fact that he’s the most prominent Indian-Muslim-American to have his own TV show?
He’s definitely aware. It’s such a unique situation. Especially when you’re actively in it, it’s a hard thing to process. But I think with the “Parents” episode, Aziz and Alan wanted to tell that story because they were the only two people who had lived those experiences and had the opportunity to write and present a TV show to millions of people.

The thing that I love about that episode is it really resonated with young Asian people. Almost 100 percent, any time I’m talking to an Asian-American person, or honestly any second-generation kid who has seen the show, immediately talks to me about that episode. I’ve had people whose parents are from Africa or even Europe. And I think that’s really unique and powerful. So we’re aware of it, we take advantage of it, but I think the other aspect is you don’t let it define you.

Does it have to do with where you grew up, in Bennettsville, South Carolina?
Growing up where we grew up is 100 percent the reason why our perspective is the way it is, and even why we ended up being creative people and doing TV and comedy. The town we grew up in is really, really small — 8,000 people. There wasn’t a movie theater in our town or a mall. The nearest movie theater involved an hour-and-a-half drive away. I think there’s a Walmart there now, but when we were growing up you had to drive 45 minutes and over state lines to go to a Walmart. There just wasn’t stuff to do. We had cable and it was just the two of us at home watching Seinfeld and Monday night wrestling and American Gladiators all the time and doing little bits to entertain ourselves.

And our relationship with being Indian, we were in South Carolina, but we went to India as kids, and that gives you a very intense perspective on the world at a young age, seeing our family in India and what their lives are like. Our family is from a very rural, small villagey part of India — what you see in that “Parents” episode is based off of the actual house and town my dad grew up in, which is still the house and town where my grandma lives and my uncles live. It gave us a really intense experience of how fortunate we were to be in America and to have all this cable.

What was school like?
The town we were in was really small, so we both went to the same school. It had 1st grade through 12th grade, and every grade had one class of 30 people. So when he went there in first grade, he was, like, the only Indian kid in school for seven years, until I came and there were two of us. The peak was when I was in third grade and we were both there, and then our two cousins came who were in kindergarten and first grade. So there were four Indians. It was pretty deep. [Laughs.]

There was one Vietnamese or Filipino family who had a daughter who was Aziz’s age, and I think they were often paired up in school plays because they were the two Asian kids. One reason why we felt pretty culturally accepted was because all the kids we went to school with we’d been going to school with since preschool. So those kids grew up with us, and their parents knew our parents. Our parents had been in that town since the mid-’80s. My dad was the doctor in town and everyone knew him. It wasn’t like we were going to school every day and getting bullied by redneck kids. Bennettsville was our hometown, and we were part of the town.

We both also left the house really young. The public schools [in Bennettsville] were really bad, so I left when I was 11 to live with our aunt and uncle in Columbia, South Carolina. Aziz left the house when he was 15. He went to boarding school for gifted and talented math students. I always like to mention that because otherwise it sounds like he was a cool, bad kid. No, he was really smart at math so he had to go to a special math school. [Laughs.] And then he went to NYU. He’s been in New York since he was 17.

Did you go to mosque as kids?
When we were really little, the nearest mosque was a two-and-a-half-hour drive away in North Carolina. So we’d drive up there for the two high holidays to say prayer. And then by the late ’90s there was a mosque in Columbia, where our aunt and uncle lived, and we’d go there every other weekend. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive. When we’d go to these mosques, that’s where you’d see all these people who were like us, the second-generation kids who had this kind of weird religion in their life. An important thing to understand is that what Islam was before 9/11 and what it was after 9/11, are, from my perspective, two very different things. After 9/11 everyone knew what Islam was and had a perspective on it. But before then, when I told people I was Muslim, they’d be like, “Oh, yeah. I kind of know what that is.”

Religion was in our lives sparsely when Aziz was home. And then after Aziz left, my dad and a group of ten other Muslim doctors put their money together and built a mosque in Rockingham, North Carolina, which is the nearest big city, famous NASCAR town.

Aziz talks a lot about being nonreligious. Are you more religious than he is?
I was exposed to more religious stuff just because I was able to go to mosque a lot more because we had a mosque when I was living there. But we had it a lot in our house. Our parents took us to Mecca to see a pilgrimage when we were pretty young. I was maybe 10 and Aziz was 16, 17. But that’s fucking intense! That’s literally the most intense religious experience you can have, going to Mecca and touching the stone and stuff.

So our parents are pious people and they taught us Islam, and what we took away from it is just the general message of Islam: “Be a good person. Do right by people. Be charitable.” We’re not religious people. Speaking for myself, our parents gave us religion in our lives and that guided us to being good, decent people, and I think that’s the reason they gave us to it.

I think the general public has heard more about your cousin Harris than about you.
Very intentionally! When Aziz started stand-up, I had a joke that I’d keep my name out of his routine. There are no Aniz bits. I’m not doing stuff to get in the bits and be in the Zeitgeist like that. There’s no humor you can draw from my life. [Laughs.] I’m just fucking reading and watching TV and playing Xbox a lot.

What was it like for you when Aziz started blowing up?
That’s a really hard thing for me to articulate because it’s a generally weird part of my life. It’s made my life so weird, the fact that we work together and he has a TV show and all this fucking shit. Honestly, at this point I maybe don’t have a grasp on it. I think I was a good age when it all happened. Like if he was this famous and I was in middle school, I would probably be pretty fucked up. It would be worse than my actual junior high. [Laughs.] But I don’t think he got really famous — like famous famous — until I was in college.

To me, there’s a key moment when Parks and Rec went on Netflix. That’s when I think Parks really blew up. Then that was like, “Holy shit, he’s famous famous.” And by then I was a weird reclusive art student dealing with my own shit. So it didn’t really hit me. Then I remember when he hosted the MTV Movie Awards. It was the third time I’d ever come to L.A. and that weekend was like, “Oh fuck! I’m in a room and the Rock’s right there, this is the fucking coolest shit ever!” [Laughs.] But we’re both pretty humble, grounded people. It’s not like Aziz is fucking at the clubs and popping out on TMZ and shit. In our day-to-day life, it doesn’t really affect it. But it’s really cool. We feel very fortunate.

Was New York always his dream town? He told me he basically created Master of None so he could move back to New York. 
I think he applied to a bunch of schools and got into a bunch of schools and NYU is where he wound up. I remember I called him and told him I was moving to Atlanta for art school and he was like, “That’s good, man, just get the fuck out of South Carolina. Number one, man, just get the fuck out of South Carolina.”

How would you describe your sibling dynamic on set? Can you use it to your advantage?
Our sibling relationship definitely helps in the writers room. I will talk to Aziz the way I talk to Aziz, and if I were working on another show, I wouldn’t necessarily talk to the main person in that way. But with Aziz I’m like, “No, that’s a terrible idea. That’s not funny.” And anything I write for Master of None, I’ll sneak in weird jokes and references just to make him laugh. There are things in the show that are literally extensions of bits from when we were 5 and 12 that we’ve just been doing for years and years and years and years. Like deep, deep, deep reference cuts to things Aziz and I talk about all the time. I wouldn’t say there are any strong negatives. I mean, if you locked me and him in a room with a desk for three weeks and were like, “Write a script,” maybe we’d end up at each other’s throats.

What’s the most annoying thing about Aziz as a brother?
He has a very specific style of humor on the personal family level. Sometimes he’ll just be annoying! Family trips are when the old habits and old emotions come back. When we go to India, it’s so intense because of where our family lives. The flight to India is really long, multiple flights. But then when you get to India, you’re just in a car driving all the time. From the airport it’s four or five hours to get to where my aunt and uncle live, and then when you’re there you just go to different family members’ houses every day, so every day is driving a couple of hours. So we’re stuck in the car all the time, you’ve got limited device energy, we’re all just getting on each other’s nerves. Well, he gets on my nerves. I don’t think I did anything. [Laughs.] My annoyance with him is that I get moody and don’t want to joke around sometimes, and if he wants to joke I’m like, “Fuck off, man.” That’s more on me for getting really wound up on a trip, but we’re fine. We joke around a lot.

Your parents met via arranged marriage. Are they from the same town in India?
No, they’re from two different towns that are an hour or two away. My dad’s from a town called Tirunelveli and my mom’s from a town called Nagercoil. My mom’s older sister went to medical school with my dad. Their families were in roughly the same societal zone.

But the same region of India, right?
Tamil Nadu. That’s a state in the Southern part of India. Aziz had a joke in one of his stand-ups where he’s like, “It’s the South Carolina of India. The southern part with good food that no one goes to.” They both grew up there and my dad went to medical school and came to Queens to do his residency, then went back and got married and then they moved to South Carolina.

Your mom works in your dad’s office?
My dad has multiple offices in small towns in North and South Carolina and my mom manages all the offices. Here’s a crazy example of how hard they work: Ten years ago they moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, but they still work in Bennettsville, so they commute to work two and a half hours every day back and forth. And they drive to work together! I can’t imagine being in a relationship where you get up, you eat breakfast together, then you drive to work together two hours, work together all day, drive back together. They spend all their time together. It’s so crazy.

When Trump won the election, how did it affect your brother?
I think it affected him the way it affected everyone, that people had elected this guy who says all these bigoted, terrible, Islamophobic things. It’s scary. And it’s something that affects me, it affects my family, it affects friends. And it wasn’t lost on us that we were creating a very well-watched show that has a Muslim character, who I don’t think many people even realized was Muslim. I think that’s how perverted people’s views of Islam are. So in making the show, that’s something we thought of.

For what it’s worth, it’s kind of unclear to me, as a creative, what to do in this time. On my personal level, I’m more scared for just my general day to day. Not in terms of Islamophobia, but more general life in America, like are we going to wake up and get nuked? I’m more worried about that than whatever I’m saying.

Aziz told me about the montage tracking Islamophobia through Dev’s family that got cut from the “Religion” episode. Weren’t some parts based on things that had happened to you?
Yeah, 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. One of them was right after 9/11. I was 13 and in a 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. I was so excited to put that in the show because to me there’s a 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.

But then as we were making that episode and Trump happened, our perspective changed on how we wanted to talk about Islam within the context of the show. As an Indian, there’s a fine line you have to walk when you’re talking about discrimination and racism in any kind of narrative, but especially as a comedy. There’s a balance you need to find in terms of things that will affect people, things that will come off preachy, things that will seem funny, and I think we found it this season.

So you did change things about the show after Trump got elected?
I would say Trump — it didn’t change the essence of it, but it guided our intent. The other thing is, look, it’s not like Trump got elected and a switch turned on and everyone was just all of a sudden racist or hating Islam. We were following it, obviously, throughout our whole lives. But when the election started, before we even started writing, we were like, “This guy. We have to address …” Very early on, I knew that if we did another season religion was something that could be talked about. But you’ve got to be careful with Trump in terms of just, like, making everything about Trump. And this show isn’t about Trump. We wanted to tell the story we wanted to tell and do it in a meaningful way.

Have you met Kanye West?
I did get to meet Kanye. I got to stand in the same room as the Rock. But the craziest thing for me is, like I said, we grew up in South Carolina in the ’90s so we were really into Monday night wrestling. And two years ago, Aziz got us ringside streets to WWE Summer Slam at Barclays Center, so that was like meeting Kanye ten times over. This is a TV show we watched every week as kids and then we were ringside at the show 20 years later, watching the Undertaker, who was our favorite wrestler, slamming someone right in front of us.

Do you stay with Aziz when you’re doing the show in New York?
No! I don’t think we could live together. That would be a bridge too far. During shooting we’re always around each other. Then we’d literally be spending all our time together. [Laughs.] We’d be like our mom and dad.

You know, I found it really hard to get him to brag about himself. Is that normal or just how he is with a reporter?
He has a level of modesty. Working with Aziz, the best trait he has that I’ve taken away is he will be very passionate about an idea, and argue for it and stand up for it, but if enough people in the process say otherwise, he will always concede. And a lot of times, if you’re writing, directing, starring in something, you can develop a god complex. Aziz has a very grounded perspective and he trusts his collaborators in a very sincere way, literally everyone who works on the show from me and Alan to the wardrobe person to the DP, to the other actors. He trusts that we all share the same vision.

Has he ever gone off the rails with fame?
No. Well, maybe. He just orders way too much pasta. It’s like, “Dude, you bought this much food?!” Not really. He’s a goofball. He is what he is on the show. He’s just fucking eating pasta and working.

Aniz Ansari on What It Was Like to Grow Up With Aziz