Bobby Cannavale on Master of None, Aziz Ansari, and the Inspiration for Chef Jeff

Bobby Cannavale, left, as Chef Jeff, with Aziz Ansari.

All along, Aziz Ansari had an idea for a boisterous chef character on Master of None’s second season who becomes a professional mentor to Dev — but then turns out to be a scumbag. To fill the role, they needed a lovable and charismatic actor, but someone also capable of going dark. Ansari immediately thought of Bobby Cannavale, whom he’d seen in tons of stuff and loved, and had hung out with socially with his own mentor, Chris Rock.

It should come as no surprise that Roger Ailes’s sexual-harassment scandal was in the news when Ansari and his writers were coming up with Chef Jeff’s downfall (which comes in the presence of former Cosby Show kid Raven Simone, no less). Here’s an interview I did with Cannavale for the New York Magazine cover story on Ansari. We talked colonoscopies, whether Anthony Bourdain inspired Chef Jeff, and how he wishes Ansari weren’t his only Indian friend.

I wanted to ask you about Aziz. For this feature, we’re putting him on the cover.
Cool. He’s on the cover?

Of what?

New York Magazine.
Get out of here.

It’s happening.
That’s bullshit, you’re not putting him on the cover. Come on.

What? It’s the one that’s here in New York? It’s not like Middle Eastern New York? It’s not like the Middle Eastern edition of New York, it’s New York Magazine.

Yeah, it is. It is.
Wow, that’s incredible. Yeah, I’d love to talk about Aziz. I love Aziz.

How do you guys know each other? It sounds like you had a friendship before the show.
Well, certainly before the show but not before he became Aziz Ansari. I met him after he was Aziz Ansari, through a mutual friend. I think it was Rashida [Jones]. They were doing Parks and Rec together.

I’ve just always liked him, he and I just always clicked. He’s fucking funny and he’s so curious. He asks a lot of questions, which I love. He always knows where to go to eat. He’s the kind of friend that compliments you on your shirt, you know what I mean? I don’t have a lot of friends who do that, but the few that I have in my stable, Aziz is one of them that’s like, “Dude, where’d you get those pants?” I love hearing that.

Just makes you feel good about yourself.
He’s funny, you know? When the show came on, I just called him right away because Rose [Byrne, his wife] and I saw it in like two nights. I loved it so much. That episode with his parents, that rocked me. I had never seen anything like that before. I just called him and I said, “Hey, man. That show is great. Holy shit.” He remembered and a year later called me and said, “Dude, would you play this part I wrote for you? I would love it.” I was like, “Yes. That’s all you got to say.”

He wrote the part specifically for you?
I think so, yeah. He called me and he was just like, “I want you to play a guy that everybody loves to be around and he loves that people love to be around him.” I was like, “All right, done. I love it.”

[Editor’s note: In Aziz Ansari’s recap of episode 205, he said, “I think it was around the time Roger Ailes was getting all these reports filed against him, and the same way it happened for Bill O’Reilly, so it was like, ‘Okay, what if this is one of those types of guys and we just get the audience to love him? And then pull the rug out from under them at the end and reveal that he’s actually not a good dude?’”]

You know, I just love Aziz. He’s really curious. Aziz, at heart, is a good person. That’s why I like him personally. He’s a good person. He asks about your family and you can tell he was just raised right. He’s not making fun of you so much as he is highlighting your specialness or complexity. I find that really cool and admirable. He’s got a great humanity.

A lot of people feel like the stuff Aziz talks about is universal. Did it remind you of your family or your family’s experience?
I don’t watch a lot of TV, to be honest with you. If I hook into something, it’s because it’s a take on the messiness of life. It’s why I like Louie, it’s why I like Aziz’s show, it’s why I like Transparent. You know, they’re unique, and they’re brave, and they’re about people who are constantly fucking worried about what to do next. That’s real, to me. It’s messy and they’re not the most confident people, even though they put it on. That’s why I identified with it. Aziz’s show reminds me of Louie, if Louis C.K. was in his 30s, with some really interesting things about race and culture in there that I identify with.

You said he asks a lot of questions. Does he ask you about your parents and family, or is it other stuff?
I mean, he’s just a person who’s interested in the person that’s across from him. That’s not that common in this business. I think he gets a lot of his material from things people tell him, and from his experiences of meeting really interesting, weird people in New York. It’s why he loves New York so much. That’s why I like those characters so much — his best friend and the girl. They’re their own kind of messes. I like that about the show.

Do you think that he got any of the Chef Jeff character from observing you?
I don’t know. I make him laugh, you know? Sometimes, in my enthusiasm, I’ll say something that’s weird or funny, but mostly because I’m uncomfortable. Those are the little things that I think Aziz does a really good job of observing, like the things that we do out of insecurity.

When he was directing me, he might say, “You know that thing where you come up and you say, ‘What’s up, meng?’ and I always crack up when you call me meng?” He’s like, “Let him [Chef Jeff] do that. I love when you do that.” There are these little, weird ticks that one gets from a deeper insecurity, I might say. It’s not like anything you’ve actually seen before. All those characters from his show, you don’t really know anybody quite like any of them, you know? They’re all so weird, in the best way.

Wait, you say, “Hey, what’s up, man?”
Meng. He likes when I say meng: M-E-N-G.

Meng. What does that mean?
It’s man, but it’s man in like a Spanglish accent. They’re little quirks and whatnot that I find that he’s a very good observer of. The other thing about Aziz is he’s pretty much running everything while we’re doing it, you know? Him or Eric [Wareheim]. You’re communicating a lot, you’re ad-libbing and changing things on the fly.

Louis is like that too, when I worked with Louis on his show. The script is the script, but then we’ll be talking and he’ll start laughing and say, “Say that instead. Say that instead.” I remember when we were talking with Aziz’s dad — I don’t think the scene is in anymore, actually. I think he cut it for time, but his dad and I got into a conversation about prostate exams because I was like, “I’m 47, I don’t have to do it yet, right?” He was like, “You can beat it if you want to go before you’re 50,” and it got into this weird conversation about our prostates. Aziz was like, “What are you guys talking about?” That became the scene. Again, I don’t think that’s in, but it’s not just about it being a big improv or anything. It’s just his observation of what’s funny.

Does Aziz remind you of Louis C.K. in the way he puts his show together, other than improv or anything?
He’s younger, obviously. He’s seeing it through a different lens. He’s seeing it as somebody consciously — especially in the first season — as what he calls a little, short, brown person, which is a different way than Louis would see himself. But it’s also set in New York, and it’s his unique take of what he runs into in the city day to day, his dating life, all that. It’s a good companion, I think, to Louie. I mean that as the highest compliment.

Do you think your character is based on Tony Bourdain at all?
I don’t think so. I think Aziz is smarter than to just go, “I’m going to base him on Anthony Bourdain.” He never mentioned Anthony Bourdain, he was just like, “Dude, I love these cooking shows.” He just wanted me to be really fucking friendly, and really into his job, and really excited about everything. He’s just fucking inappropriate and it just takes Dev a second to figure that shit out. I think it happened to Aziz. He was relaying some kind of story loosely based on a guy that he met. He thought he became friends with him and then was like, “Oh, shit. This guy’s wrong.”

You know, Aziz loves to cook and he knows so much about restaurants. I really think one of the reasons my character’s a chef is so that we could go and eat at all these places. We shot at all these cool, hip-ass, four-table, three-table restaurants that nobody could get into.

You must have had a ton of fun shooting it.
Yeah, we laughed all the time. Come on, man, we shot a scene where he was in a sandwich that I was eating. Like, what do you think? You think we had fun doing that? Yeah, of course.

Has he cooked for you? Have you had his food?
Has he actually cooked for me? No, actually. No.

I hear he’s pretty good.
Oh, I’m sure he’s really good. I’m sure he is. I’m telling you, he’s the guy to go to when you want to know what to eat and where to eat. He just knows. He’s also got great taste in music. We have this great scene, fucking John Legend singing “I Can’t Help It.” That was him. I was like, “Wow, dude, I can’t believe you picked that song to do.”

John Legend picked it?
No, Aziz did. I was like, “Wow, dude. Nobody ever does that song. That’s a good cut from Off the Wall.” He was like, “Yeah, I know. I love that song.” That was a great night.

Do you still hang out with him off camera?
Yeah, but not that much. Aziz isn’t one of my closest, closest friends. I wouldn’t characterize it that way. I’ve just known him now for, I don’t know, a good six or seven years. I see him when he’s in the city. If I go to L.A., usually we’ll hang out with a bunch of friends. That’s the other thing about Aziz — he knows everybody. I’ve been in hilarious situations where it’s like me, Chris Rock, Aziz, and Jay Z drinking wine. That happened once with my son. Oh, it was so fucking funny. We were sitting around, it was in L.A., it was before the SAG awards. Jake [his son] was like 19 at the time. We were both nominated for a SAG award for Nurse Jackie, my son and I. The night before, we went with Chris, who picked us up at the hotel, and we met Aziz, Rashida, and Jay-Z at this cigar bar that they closed down for these guys. Jake was just in his phone the whole time. It was literally just us at a table. Finally, Aziz turns to him and he goes, “Hey man, how much more interesting can your phone be than who’s at this table right now?” It was hilarious and it started a whole thing where my 19-year-old named all the things that were cooler than these guys, who were way older than him.

Wait, what kinds of things?
You know, whatever shit he was into at the time. Whatever teenagers get into. Their YouTube videos, music, whatever it was.

That’s really funny.
There’s something fundamental about Aziz that’s funny. The things that he wants to know about, the things that he’s interested in. There’s just something about him. It’s a very funny point of view. A funny curiosity. If I was in high school with Aziz — he’s like ten years younger than me — but if I was in high school with Aziz, I’d be friends with that guy. He’d be the funny guy, with the funny voice, who just is funny as shit. Plus, I’d get points because he’d be my only Indian friend. He’s my only Indian friend. I’m terrible. Every time I see him, a little piece of me goes, “I’ve got to get more Indian friends.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Bobby Cannavale on Master of None, Aziz Ansari and Chef Jeff