the vulture transcript

Alan Yang’s Art-House Comedies

The Forever creator on making Cassavetes for people of color, Master of None’s future, and Parks & Rec’s Secret Santas.

Photo: Kyle Dorosz for Vulture
Photo: Kyle Dorosz for Vulture
Photo: Kyle Dorosz for Vulture

Even though he subsisted on comedy growing up — Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, SNL — Alan Yang didn’t think that it was something you could actually do for, like, money. “We had the very traditional Asian-American upbringing where you’re going to be a doctor, lawyer, or businessman,” Yang said on a recent Monday afternoon. “Those are your options, and those are sensible professional careers.”

Those worlds — of pragmatic Taiwanese immigrants, and comedy — have only now begun to coalesce. At Harvard, Yang majored in biology and joined The Harvard Lampoon, where he began to realize that maybe he should give this comedy thing a shot. After graduation, he moved out to Los Angeles with some friends, and put that same work-hard mentality to scriptwriting. “I probably wrote about ten spec scripts and god knows how many sketch packets — I wrote a Letterman packet, a Kimmel packet, a Daily Show packet, a Tonight Show packet,” said Yang. His first break was writing for Last Call With Carson Daly, where he worked for a few years before doing a season of South Park, and then most crucially, Parks and Recreation, where he would write a number of iconic episodes (“Treat Yo Self!”) and meet his writing partner Aziz Ansari. It was then that the second-generation immigrant thing and the comedy thing finally gelled: The duo won an Emmy for Best Writing in a Comedy Series for the episode “Parents” from their first season of Master of None.

There have been more projects since then, including his most recent, Amazon’s Forever, which Alan Yang made with fellow Parks and Recreation alum Matt Hubbard. The day after they wrapped post-production on that show, Yang flew to New York to begin pre-production on Tigertail — a Netflix movie starring John Cho, loosely based on Yang’s family, that will later shoot in New York — before heading out to Taiwan for a couple of months. In between bites of Cobb salad at Sadelle’s (Bagels? On a Monday?), we discussed the optimism of Forever, his bar for when to bring up race in a script, and how the Parks and Recreation writers’ obsession with Secret Santa bled into the show.

When was the last time you went to Taiwan?
As of two years ago, I’d only been once in my life when I was 7. I went for my grandfather’s funeral. Then, I was in Shanghai and I called my dad and said, “Hey, do you want to just go to Taiwan?” It was really meaningful and helped me write [Tigertail]. It was a culmination of becoming more accepting of all parts of who you are.

Certainly in terms of what I’ve written, produced, and directed, there was a time in my 20s where I didn’t want to write “Asian” stuff, to put it crudely. I wanted, “Let me be whatever and let me try to be the best at playing other people’s games,” if that makes sense. You don’t want to be pigeonholed as an “Asian Writer” or as a “Guy Who Does Asian Stuff” and can’t do other things. I had that chip on my shoulder when I was younger.

Or thinking of white things as neutral.
Exactly. Baseline, right? Where I grew up there were very few Asian kids, and everything you see on TV, the best stuff — with some exceptions like the major African-American [shows and movies] — stars white people. So that’s what I thought movies and TV were. But the sea change in the whole landscape [has] definitely helped me. I’ve been embedded into it with Master of None and now with this movie. I realized one of the most important things in your writing and directing is your point of view, and that’s inextricable from who you are and how you grew up. To deny that part of you is fighting with one hand tied behind your back. The stuff I work on is generally character-based and emotion-based, it’s not plot-based or spectacle-based. When it comes to writing characters, specificity is king. And so if that person happens to be Asian-American or Latino or gay, it impacts a lot of who they are. Not every part, but a lot.

It also shouldn’t be an either/or situation.
No! I actually got some questions about Forever, like, “This doesn’t talk about race that much!” What, like I have to talk about race in every project? This is a weird, supernatural show!

Also, they’re missing …
I was like, “Did you see episode six? It’s about a black man and an Asian woman falling in love. We talk specifically about growing up black in Monterey Park. We worked on that script a long time and that one was really special to us. One of the scenes I wrote was the one where they’re sitting on the stairs and they’re talking about their backgrounds. It was cool that we got Hong [Chau] and Jason [Mitchell], too, because Hong grew up in New Orleans. They actually both grew up in New Orleans, but she has a little bit of a Southern twang so it really fit in with that character.

One thing I’ve been telling people when they ask me about the episode is, [it’s] obviously very inspired by naturalistic directors like Richard Linklater, Éric Rohmer, Cassavetes. I know those are highfalutin comparisons, but you want to aim high. And so you watch those movies and they’re so brilliantly done and so delicately written and so real, but they’re almost always two really smart white people talking to each other about their lives and experiences.

I do love Before Sunset.
I had the actors in Tigertail watch that trilogy. It’s just so well-written in terms of the dialogue. So one of the questions we wanted to raise is, “Why can’t we see that story with characters who are people of color and have them feel passion and be funny and interesting and smart and intellectual and curious within the framework of a 32-minute story?” which again is another challenge.

There’s also something very specific even about the fact that they are two people of color who are in relationships with white people.
Yeah, yeah! We were happy about that scene because they love their spouses. They love their spouses! But there are certain things that you only experience as who you are. So we thought that was an interesting area of bonding between these two characters, especially growing up as outsiders in their community.

People are squeamish when talking about interracial dating, and race is often not acknowledged in romantic comedies, so that conversation really hit on the idea that they can connect because they’ve felt like outsiders. Also, I appreciated that it was an interracial relationship that didn’t involve a white person.
The way we used to look at it in the writers room of Master of None was, these characters aren’t going to talk about their race 100 percent of the day, 24-7. But our bar was, “Does it come up at dinner sometimes?” Yes. So let’s talk about it as much as it comes up at dinner. Hopefully things don’t feel too forced. That’s what we’re trying to go for in a way that gets you to buy into the story and the characters. Do Asian people talk about race? Yes! Do black people talk about race? Yes, they do! They have three-dimensional lives, so they’re not just nattering on about race the whole time. But that is a part of it, and to not address it, to me, would feel a little bit untruthful.

Have you ever done stand-up?
I’ve done stand-up maybe two to three times in my life, literally in the last year and a half. It was just kind of a lark. One day my friend Claire Friedman, who writes for SNL, was like, “I’m doing an open mic up the street,” and I said, “I’ll do it with you.” I went up the street to a place called Climate Lounge. I did probably five minutes of stuff. I don’t really have the time to become a stand-up at this point [laughs], but it helps you become a better writer and probably a better director and probably a better actor.

What was your set about?
Some of it was about dating white women as an Asian man. Some of it was about how we’re now too into celebrities. It was whatever I was thinking about nine months ago.

What are the jokes about dating white women?
Oh god! I struggle to remember the punchlines at this point, but the point of entry was, I’ve dated people of a lot of different races, but I do feel like for a lot of the white people I’ve dated, I have been the first Asian person they ever dated, and then you’re educating. It’s a comment we actually made in Master of None where Aziz is on a date with a black woman played by Condola Rashad named Diana. They talk about how on dating apps, there’s a metaphysical certitude, a statistical fact that the least-responded-to groups are Asian men and black women. That’s just it. So you’re born that way. Nothing’s going to change that. You’re already working 30 percent behind whatever it is.

Do you feel generally optimistic about long-term relationships? And do you feel like Forever has a stance on that?
It’s funny, because if you had stopped after the word “optimistic,” then in general, yes. I am a hugely optimistic person. I like a lot of things. In the writers room of Parks and Rec, Mike [Schur] and Dan [Goor] would always be pessimistic about the future, despite the happy nature of that show. They were always like, “The world’s going to end in nuclear war, this is horrible, technology’s going to ruin everything.” I’d always be like, “Guys, there’s no time in the history of the world I’d rather be alive in than right now.” I wouldn’t want to be alive as an Asian man in the ‘70s or the ‘40s in America! Put me in a time machine — I’m only going forward, never backwards!

In terms of long-term relationships, the show is generally optimistic. That last episode is not necessarily an unflinching Pollyanna-ish endorsement of all relationships. It’s just saying that life is lonely for a lot of people; it’s isolating, but maybe if you find the right person it can be a little less lonely. That’s pretty much it. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to have problems. It doesn’t mean you can’t feel isolated and lonely in a relationship, but it’s the very simple notion of, “It could be fun to have someone with you along for the ride.” [Matt] Hubbard has a lot more experience with this because he’s been married for a long time, but he’s always saying, “Do you have someone you can watch TV with? I watch TV with my wife. It’s great.” He has a very pragmatic view of all of it. He’s so funny. I think we complement each other pretty well on the show because he’s always poking holes in things and has this more cynical attitude.

Do you feel like Parks and Recreation became a blueprint for shows you worked on afterwards?
It was a blueprint in terms of, “Don’t be an asshole in the writers room and run things humanely and normally.” Parks and Rec was one of the best writing jobs in comedy and probably entertainment in general. We were all really good friends. We’d come and talk about our days, work, and go home; people often were home in time for dinner. They could see their families and they could have lives. I know it sounds like a very small thing. I was never shown any other way. We had a great Secret Santa.

What did you get each other?
Early on, it started like any normal Secret Santa: You’d draw names in November. We had a $40 price cap or something. Somewhere around season two or season three, people stepped up their game [and] personalized stuff. There’s a running joke about how [Dan Goor] never became a doctor and his parents wish he were a doctor (and his production company is called Not a Doctor productions). I believe Katie [Dippold] got him a doctor’s coat that said Doctor Goor, and it was like, okay, we’re starting to get personalized. [Then] it started to escalate. Matt Hubbard loves Game of Thrones, so someone got the actor who played Renly Baratheon [Gethin Anthony] to come in and give him a personalized sword. I mean, it was getting out of control. We started drawing names in August! [Laughs.] And not only that, this insane Secret Santa tradition started to bleed into the show, where we started making Leslie the best gift-giver in the world. So we just started pitching our gifts! One of the things we said about the show was, “It’s about gifts, parties, and jobs,” because at the end of a lot of episodes, someone gives someone a gift, they throw a party, or someone gets a new job. It just happens a lot!

Finally, we had a wonderful one in the last season. The person who loved Secret Santa the most was my old roommate and my co-worker on the show for six years, Aisha Muharrar. We saved her for last, and Mike was her gift-giver. His gift to her was a photo album of photos from all the previous Secret Santas, and she’s already crying. And then she gets to the last page, and it says, “This page is reserved for all the photos we’re going to take on our trip to Las Vegas,” and then everyone pulls out suitcases from their offices and we get on a plane to Las Vegas, because Mike gave a trip for all of us to go! She was crying and it was just insane. That’s the spirit of that show, right? People getting along. On Master of None and Forever, the two shows I’ve run so far, we work 10–5, 10–6, we go home, we come in and work. I’m very proud of the shows we’ve made, but I’m also proud of the fact that people didn’t hate each other, we had a great time, and it was us working with our friends.

Why do you think that’s so rare?
[Laughs.] That’s a good question, man! I don’t know. Sometimes creative people, especially funny creative people, tend to thrive a little bit more on chaos, or they need a little bit more of a desperate situation. Maybe that helps them, whatever their processes are. For me, I like when people are feeling good. I like when people are getting along. I don’t like conflict. There are shows that work like that and they’re brilliant shows. That’s just not my personality. That’s not how I want to run things.

Did you anticipate that in the episode you wrote, “Pawnee Rangers,” the phrase “Treat Yo Self” would become a catchphrase?
No idea. I apologize to Retta and Aziz because the amount of times they get yelled at on the street I’m sure is annoying. But it’s really fun! You’re writing for a sitcom on a network — why not have a catchphrase? And to go back to character: There’s nothing more on-character than those two characters treating themselves. That’s what they had in common. Finding the relationship between their characters and seeing it grow and blossom was one of the joys we had. That’s one of the fun things about doing 100 episodes.

I know it’s hard to remember jokes you wrote, but are there any that you’re particularly proud of from Parks?
There are a couple of things that weirdly started sticking. One thing that started our obsession with food on the show: This long talking-head where Tom talks about all the food and nicknames for food. That was my script. I wrote a lot of nicknames out, and the writers room and Aziz pitched a lot more. But I do remember the genesis of that — I definitely wrote that.

When I really started having fun on the show, I wrote a wonderful character by the name of DJ Roomba, which is a Roomba that has an iPod on it and goes around the room. That was something where Mike was like, “I don’t get this at all, but other people seem to think it’s funny so let me put it in the show.” That was an example of Mike trusting me like, “It’s weird. I don’t understand it at all, but I’ll put it in.”

I love coming up with boring names. The project that sank Ben’s mayoral tenure in Minnesota, in Partridge, was a winter sports complex called Ice Town that bankrupted the city. Ice Town was the name of a skating rink where I grew up. The words Ice Town got said on the show a million times because of a random skating rink in Riverside. I came up with Food and Stuff, the most boring name there is. “It’s where I get all of my food and most of my stuff.”

There are some complaints that it’s hard to staff diverse writers rooms, because there aren’t enough people of color. Why do you think there’s a racial and gender disparity in writers rooms? How do you go about staffing?
I don’t know. I think we got lucky. I can’t speak for other people’s experiences in terms of who they’re hiring or how they’re finding people. Season two of Master of None, I think we had one white guy on our whole staff, and we turned out fine! [Laughs.] I thought it was a good season. So I think it can be done. You can build the room. Maybe we were lucky, and maybe people took our job and didn’t take other jobs. The directors for Forever this season were a woman of Panamanian descent, a Puerto Rican guy, and a Taiwanese guy. Those were the three directors. But you just got to do the work, and it’s hard.

What does the work look like?
Keep looking and make it a mission. Don’t just be like, “I’m hiring my friends.” That’s another thing where we tried to push ourselves on Forever. We did hire a lot of our friends, but it was very specific. Our writers room also happened to be pretty diverse. A lot of it is not a conscious racism or bias or sexism. It’s more like, you know who you know. It’s your buddies and you’ve worked together before. So you’ve got to fight against that if you can. If you’re looking around your writers room and it’s 22 white guys and one woman … probably not great for the show.

I read in the press notes for Forever that you asked the writers room to write fewer jokes?
[Laughs.] I didn’t want the show to feel like six jokes per page. I didn’t want it to feel like rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat, snappy. I wanted to do something a little bit more naturalistic. Some scenes don’t have to have jokes. [Something] we talked about a lot in our room [was] where you feel the hand of the writers, it’s too “cute,” too perfect. We didn’t want that either — that’s an amazing comedy writer sitting in a room in Studio City coming up with that! We wanted it to feel a little bit less perfect. Another thing I kind of hate is this trend, and this has been going on for a long time in comedy, of everything being a Frankenstein. Someone’s on set screaming for hours and you can kind of tell. Yes, they’re funny jokes, but it sometimes seems like the two characters aren’t even in the same room, much less talking to each other. They’re just saying disjointed jokes. I wanted it to feel like people were actually talking to each other.

We talked about restraint a lot in terms of the show: the look of it, the feel of it, the pace of it. We don’t even really get to the premise of the show until episode three. That’s slow as hell. It’s also one of the things Hubbard and I love the most. The balls to go into a TV pitch and say, “You don’t know what the show is about until episode three.” It’s antithetical to everything everyone’s ever told us about television! Usually in minute one of the pilot, everything gets laid out. Someone’s screaming at you! “Ah, I grew up in a blah blah blah! This is my sister, isn’t she crazy? This is my dad!” I thought, “What if we did the complete opposite of that and you don’t know what the fuck this show is, you don’t know what’s happening, it’s disorienting.” It’s not for everyone.

Forever really felt like it took June’s point of view. How did the writers room affect that?
In many ways, June is the emotional center of the show. I’m a single man. I’m not married. Two guys making a show about marriage? Please, let’s hire some women. So we had 50 percent women and 50 percent men. We had such strong female writers: Jen Statsky, who had written with me on Parks and Rec, Colleen McGuinness, who’d written with Matt on 30 Rock, and Ali Gusberg, who’s Matt’s old assistant. They’re all married and they all had specific life experiences they could put into the show. And besides being women, they’re all brilliant, funny, people.

I don’t want to go down the road of, “You can only write people who look like you,” but a writers room is specifically a room. It’s not a book. If it’s a book, you’re writing everybody. And I think there’s some truth to it sucking when you’re the only one [in the room] — the only woman, the only black guy, the only Asian woman, whatever it is — because I know the experience of “something comes up that is specific to who you are and everyone’s heads turn to you and are like, ‘what do you think?’” Suddenly you’re the arbitrator? You’re the authority on, “Is this okay to say about an Asian person?” That’s not the best situation. I never worked with another Asian writer until Master of None. That’s ten years of my career. I mean, look, there’s not that many of us. All the Asian writers in Hollywood — TV writers, movie writers — I think I know most of them!

How did it feel, then, to do Master of None?
It was cool because we got to run shit! I love representation. It’s great. But there’s a difference between mere representation and being the lead. The lead of a show goes through all the trials and tribulations, they have the most dimensionality, they have the love interest, the struggles, they have a family you meet, they have the triumphs. They have an inner life, a psychology. Best friend, comedy character, villain — not so much. Same thing goes behind the camera, right? The showrunner gets to put their stamp on the show. It’s their show. Could two white guys have made a show about an Indian guy and an Asian-American guy in New York? Probably. It might be good. Would it have been this exact show? Probably not. So the fact that we were writing about our experiences as 30-year-old people in NYC lent the show an air of realism that I’m proud of.

I saw a casting call for Tigertail where it said you were looking for Taiwanese actors, and that experience was unnecessary. Do you have a general philosophy around that? I know one reason why people say they can’t cast people of color is that there aren’t any.
Well, I’m of two minds about it. Because sometimes you can tell the difference. Let’s say it’s a comedy show and you’re looking for a 30-year-old white guy. The people who come in are great. They’ve been to UCB, Groundlings, Second City; they’ve been on stage for ten years, and everyone’s professional. And if I do that same call for, let’s say, a 26-year-old Asian guy, it’s going to be way more limited because they just don’t have the reps. They haven’t done as many auditions, as many roles, they haven’t booked as much stuff. It just ends up being harder. The same thing happened when we were trying to get Little Dev [on Master of None], an 8-year-old Indian kid. There just aren’t as many! And so we had to fly some in from Washington, D.C., or somewhere.

That being said, we have had some good experiences with non-actors acting. Obviously, Aziz’s parents played themselves in that show, and they are by no means Laurence Olivier or Alec Guinness, but there’s a charm to them. There’s a rawness and an honesty that’s kind of nice. It also came to bear in the “New York, I Love You” episode. The main cab driver is played by a non-actor. His name was Enock Ntekereze, and the guy’s just very charismatic on screen. We saw him in the waiting room and had him read cold for one of the smaller parts, and then we just kept bumping him up. We were like, “This guy, he’s great! And he’s not an actor!” There’s a long history of people casting non-actors — sometimes there’s a magic there. It’s really a leap of faith for you as a filmmaker.

So I can’t help but notice you sound a lot like Aziz Ansari. Have you always had Aziz-isms in your speech pattern?
This is a weird thing, because right after I got the job on Parks and Rec, people were like, “I think you’re going to get along with Aziz. You’re about the same age and you both grew up in these smallish towns and your dads are doctors.” I was like, “I don’t know who this guy is.” And they were like, “You kind of sound like him too.” I was like, “What?” because I grew up in the redneck part of California where a lot of people drive pickup trucks with Confederate flags on them. It’s the 909! It ain’t Malibu! So I have a little bit of redneck-isms from growing up in Riverside. And then he came in to meet the writers and we hung out like every day! [Laughs.] We were among the younger people on that show, we were single at the time, and so we’d go out to dumb parties. We really built a bond during those first couple of years. For a while we spent way too much time together so I’m sure there’s been some mutual rubbing off on each other.

I understand if you don’t want to talk about this, but I’m curious about how you feel about the article accusing Aziz of sexual impropriety?
You know, I’ve tried to sort of stay out of it. People asked me a little about it in the last press tour. I support him as a friend and I do feel bad about what happened. I tried to be there for him and I think I’ll let him speak for how it affected him. That’s his story to tell, not mine. But I just tried to be there for him and talk to him. This whole movement is a wonderful thing for society, and it’s important. The overall effect is obviously a positive one, but I do feel bad for what happened.

Would you do a third season of Master of None?
Yeah. We’re open to it. Netflix has talked to us and I’ve talked with Ted Sarandos and he’s open to the idea. It just has to be something that’s really exciting for us. Once we get to a benchmark of about six to seven ideas, then we feel like we’re ready to do a season. Between seasons one and two, there was a little bit of a delay, and there’s been a longer delay with this season because I went in to do this other show. We’re open to it, and we have a few ideas. But again, it needs to be like, “Holy shit, we have do this,” because it’s a year and a half of our lives.

How do your parents feel about your shows?
I actually got a pretty nice text from my mom. Making these shows has opened up some avenue of communication where they can watch them and tell me they like them, whether they’re being honest or not. [Yang pulls out his phone.] This weekend they said, “We watched the first two episodes. We love Forever very much so far. I am very tired this weekend because Sharon had two kids over here. I did not have time to rest. I saw the critics, they are very good. You have done the excellent job. I’m really proud of you.”

That’s something where I feel we’ve crossed a Rubicon, because that text wouldn’t have come through ten years ago, or probably even five years ago. I [told] her I love her and thank you for your support when I was growing up and figuring out what I wanted to do in my life. I’m sure they were scared shitless that their son was throwing away his education in a shitty apartment in West Hollywood not earning any money, but they never pushed me to do something else. Not every parent’s like that. Not every Asian parent is like that.

I feel like our parents’ generation gets a bad rap.
Yeah, right? Maybe the generation before them was worse. But yeah, I’ve seen a lot of kids whose parents have supported them. Not all stereotypes are true.

Also, I get it.
Oh, I get it like crazy. You get why Asian immigrant parents want their kids to major in math and science because it’s objective. There’s a right and a wrong. You get a math question right, you answer it, you get it right. If you write a paper in anthropology, there’s any number of ways they can take that away from you, even if it’s brilliant. So if you’re an immigrant, you came here with nothing, and you built your life on basically objectivity. You didn’t base it on people giving you things because they liked you or because you had stuff in common.

My mom wanted me to be a doctor, and I remember she said, “They can’t be racist to you if you can save their lives.”
I’ve heard literally the same thing! My dad was a doctor and every restaurant we’d go to, he delivered their babies. Same thing with Aziz’s dad. He was a doctor in South Carolina. People loved him, he was a neighborhood character because you’re doing a service. You’re an upstanding citizen. People always get sick, you know? But people … always need stuff to entertain them, I hope. People need weird art-house comedies, right? That’s one of people’s most basic needs! [Laughs.]

Alan Yang’s Art-House Comedies