Master of None's Alan Yang
In 2016, Master of None received an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. It was a big shock, since the show was in its first season on Netflix. It was a big victory. However, perhaps a bigger victory is the speech the show’s executive producer and writer, Alan Yang, gave that evening.
“There's 17 million Asian Americans in this country, and there's 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, The Sopranos. We got Long Duck Dong. We have a long way to go. But I know we can get there. I believe in us, it's just gonna take a lot of hard work. Asian parents out there, if you could just do me a favor: If just a couple of you can get your kids cameras instead of violins, we'll be all good."
Master of None is coming back for Season 2 on Netflix this May. Knowing that Alan is a big foodie, we invited him to Atoboy, a restaurant we covered earlier, to talk about the show, his life, and his obsession with food.
Alan Yang's interview on video.
by George Ko
Photos and Video by George Ko
GR: How did you get into film? Did it happen at Riverside, CA?
AY: I took a really circuitous, weird path into working in entertainment, comedy, and writing. I always loved film and television growing up in Riverside, California, which is a suburb about an hour from LA. I used to frustrate the hell out of my mom because every night after I got home from school, all I wanted to do was watch TV. My mom didn't really want me to do that, but at a certain point she had to let go. I was watching literally two or three hours of The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and SNL. I was watching all these shows every day. It didn't really strike me as something that could be a job; that wasn't even on my radar. I didn't know anyone that worked in entertainment, even though it was only an hour and a half from LA. Culturally and sort of psychologically, Riverside is as far away from LA as Des Moines is.
In college, I majored in biology. Naturally, just a straight shot into entertainment. No. I was trying to find my way in college. Science was okay. It was one of the things I was okay at academically so that's what I did for my major, but I started playing in a punk rock band and I started writing for a college magazine. The magazine was kind of a comedy magazine and one of those two paths led to my job. I'm not in a punk rock band anymore, but I do write for a living and I realized that the people that I wanted to hang out with were writing stuff, making stuff; they were funny, interesting, original people and that's who I want to spend my time with. I found that writing gave me way more joy and filled me with a lot more passion than anything else I was doing.
"I found that writing gave me way more joy and filled me with a lot more passion than anything else I was doing."
GR: Biology. Guessing you were pre-med? I read somewhere your dad is a physician.
AY:My dad's a doctor. But I was really at no point thinking of pre-med. I respect that field too much. If you are going to be a doctor, my advice is that you better want to be a doctor because that's a ton of work. You got to really focus and put in the time. I had a bunch of friends who were pre-med, especially freshman year of college. I don't think I ever really thought I would do that. But, God bless. We need more doctors. We don't need more people in entertainment.
GR: Growing up, were there a lot of Asian Americans at your school or was it like you're the one Asian?
AY: I've told this story a couple of times, but yeah. I went to an interesting school called Riverside Poly High School. It's a big public high school. There are 600 people per grade, something like that. It's relatively diverse. At the time I think it was 40% Latino, maybe 10, 15% black. White people were actually a minority at this school, but there weren't that many Asian people per se.
I noticed something as I was growing up. It bothered me a little bit. At lunch everyone ate outside because it was Southern California. It was beautiful, but people were a little segregated racially. These lunch tables are where a lot of Mexican kids sit. This area is where a lot of black kids sit. I'll never forget this. There's this one girl, an Asian girl, in my grade who started passing me notes. She would pass me nice things. I don't know. Maybe in retrospect she had a crush on me or something. One day, she sent me a note and passed it over to me and I read it. "Hey Alan, why don't you ever sit at the Asian tree at lunch?" Because there was one tree where five Asian kids would sit. I was like, "Well, I got other friends. I don't only hang out with Asian people and if I did, I'd only have five friends." I think from an early age, I kind of learned to get along with a lot of different kind of people because there wasn't really the option of just hanging out in an Asian clique. I think that ended up being a good thing in some ways.
GR: Do you mind talking about your heritage? Where are your parents are from?
AY: Yes, absolutely! My parents are both from Taiwan. Their families lived in Taiwan before Chiang Kai-shek came over, so there's a dichotomy in Taiwan of oh are you mainlander, are you not mainlander? I'm not well versed in Taiwanese politics. I'm not well versed enough in Taiwanese culture. I'm trying to learn more. I saw this movie Taipei Story on Friday, directed by this guy Edward Yang, who's one of the greatest directors of new Taiwanese cinema. I believe it's the first time it screened on the big screen, 35mm (film) in America so that was really cool. My dad is from a small town south of Taiwan. My parents met in Taiwan and got married there. They came over to America and they lived in New York City for a while. They lived in the Bronx. They lived in Buffalo– I don’t know why they went to Buffalo. It's really cold there. My sister was born in New York and then they moved to California. I was born in California.
But yeah, I'm just learning more and more man. I actually went to Taiwan with my dad in December and the last time I went to Taiwan before that was when I was seven-years-old, so it's been a while. I'm an old man now, so it’s definitely been a while. I really want to learn more. When I was growing up, my mom asked me to go to Chinese school, and the first time I went I hated it. I was like, "This is for nerds. I don't need to be here." To my mom's credit and to my discredit, she let me quit. I just didn't ever want to go, I was doing a bunch of stuff, I was playing sports, you know, whatever, playing music. Now I don't really speak Mandarin. I don't speak Taiwanese. My sister meanwhile, was a much better kid and she stayed in those classes and she took Chinese in college. She lived in Taiwan for a while and she speaks Mandarin pretty well. She's older than I am, so it's that typical older child thing I think. But I did notice an interesting phenomenon the last time I went to Taiwan. My dad and I would get in the cab and he used that opportunity to speak Taiwanese to the cab driver because I don't think he gets to speak it very often in America. As he was speaking and the cab driver was replying, I realized I could understand almost everything they were saying. It was so weird. It was like discovering a long, lost talent that you forgot you had. I could understand them, my dad and the cab driver speaking and one of the conversations that he had repeatedly with multiple cab drivers was him apologizing for us staying at a nice hotel. My dad’s a humble man and he would say, “I would never stay at this hotel. My son put me up here because he's some Hollywood guy now and he has to stay in a nice hotel so he paid for my room. Otherwise, I would never stay in this hotel. I would just stay with my friends.” He was doing a lot of that. I was like dad, I understand what you're saying. It was really weird.
GR: I remember having the same Chinese school experience.
AY: Did you stay?
GR: I stayed because my grandma lived with us, and she couldn't speak English well. If I want to speak to grandma, I should probably stay.
AY: You're a better man than I am George, because I also have a grandma who doesn't speak English. She didn't live with us, but I actually saw her in Japan and she speaks mostly Taiwanese and Japanese because she grew up in Taiwan when they were occupied by Japan so we had this odd thing. I was in Japan with my sister and her family and my brother-in-law speaks Taiwanese. So, if I want to speak Japanese to someone, I would tell my brother-in-law in English and he would translate it in Taiwanese to my grandma and my grandma could order in Japanese– it was a whole telephone game to order food in Japan.
GR: Was there one experience that you think of immediately from your childhood in your career today?
AY: I'm not going to point to a single instant, but in retrospect all of this stuff becomes kind of clear with the sort of distance of time. I realized that one of my favorite things was hanging out with two of my best friends in high school, Dave and Paul. We just really liked making jokes and being funny. It's not a thing I really realized until later. I would never have thought of it as a career. I never would have thought of it as anything more than our personalities. We really liked to sit in the back of the classroom and talk to each other, writing down inside jokes. I think we had an insane thing where one year we signed each other's yearbooks with basically a transcription of every inside joke we had had all year and covered pages and pages of the yearbook with just crazy stuff that we had come up with. That's a microcosm of what you end up doing on these collaborative shows sometimes. When you're working on a comedy show, hanging out with people you really like and think are funny is how all the good stuff comes out. That's the sort of collaboration that we encourage on our show, on Master of None, and what I really enjoyed on Parks and Recreation. That's the kind of environment Mike Schur and Greg Daniels created (writers, producers and directors of Parks and Recreation). That's one of my favorite parts of working on a writing staff like that.
GR: How did you get into Parks and Rec? Even though the mockumentary style has been done before, it's so fresh. What a lot of people really love about Parks and Rec is that the comedy was fresh. How did you, as a writer, create each of these characters and their scenarios?
AY: This guy Mike Schur and this guy Dave King, and a few other people who were writing these jokes, myself included, decided to write a blog and it was called Fire Joe Morgan. This was the mid 2000's or something. A bunch of people had access to this blogger account and the only people crazy enough to keep writing it every day were Mike Schur and me. I guess we were the craziest. We had full-time jobs at the time. I think I was writing for South Park and he was writing for The Office, but we ended up writing on it every day, just punishing people with jokes they didn't want about baseball commentary. Long, long 3,000, 5,000 word pieces for no money, no advertising, no photos on this site– just text. It was just for us because we didn't even put our names on it. It was really just to make each other laugh and we wrote on it for years.
Mike is an unbelievable writer. He had written for SNL and The Office. He and Greg Daniels, the co-creators of the American Office got a new show together and I was kind of like, oh that's really exciting. I hadn't really met Mike. I might have shaken his hand, but I didn't really know him. I did think we both write for Fire Joe Morgan and we have this thing in common. I wrote a pilot and submitted it to Mike and Greg to possibly be a writer on their new show, which was as yet untitled, and had no premise or anything. After Mike read it, he said, "Yeah. Pilot's good. Obviously, Greg has to read it and he has to weigh in because he's half the show too. But the good news is, I've read literally tens of thousands of words of your writing and your jokes, so I’m familiar with, at the very least, your jokes about baseball commentary.”
I definitely think that helped get my foot in the door and get me a meeting. That's a long winded way of saying when you write something you really care about and you actually like and believe in, it may lead to good stuff, even if it seems like it has no…honestly, I would have been happy to do it regardless of whether it got me a great job that was such a great launch pad for me. I would have enjoyed writing for that blog anyway.
GR: I'm guessing you and Aziz became friends on Parks and Rec. What’s the origin story?
AY: Definitely. When I got hired on Parks, me and Dan Goor and maybe Norm Hiscock were a few of the first people hired. I think cast wise, they had hired Rashida Jones and Aziz. I knew Aziz had done Human Giant and he was a pretty successful up and coming stand up in New York, but a lot of people were telling me, “Hey, you're going to get along with this guy. You're the same age and you sound like him a little bit.” That's so weird. Weird thing to hear because I didn't know really that much about him. The first time that we met we just hit it off and we had a lot of common interestS, mainly food: mainly just eating food and going to restaurants. We were both young-ish single guys in LA so we would go to parties and we hung out a fair bit. What's interesting is on a show like Parks, writers and actors don't necessarily share the same space that often. I would be on set for episodes that I wrote, but Aziz wouldn't necessarily come up to the writer's room that much. Our actual work time together wasn't that extensive, but we knew we got along well and as we got to know each other better, not only would we go out to eat and have dinner with our friends, but we started going on trips. It just wasn't a big leap when we started talking about making a new show together. It felt like a chance that we both felt pretty confident in.
GR: One thing I really appreciated about Master of None is that there are some parts that are really realistic, like people pulling out their phones.
AY: Yes. We're trying to cut that down. Too many phones on the show, it's hard.
GR: You don't really think about this, but Hollywood is like theater. It’s a constructed reality. However, Master of None is fairly realistic. What led to that decision?
AY: That's a conversation man. It was a very large conversation. From the writing stage we prioritized realism. Aziz also wrote a book about relationships in the current day. It was called Modern Romance and a significant amount of that book is based on texting. Look, if you are young-ish person dating today, or even if you're an older person, I think even my dad would text on his dates. Prior to his dates, he may talk on the phone, but you're probably going to be doing some texting too and I think Aziz had made that observation in his standup. So much of our lives are taking place in this weird phone gadget.
In our own stupid, single dating lives, a lot of it is coming up with the right text to send or being in agony because someone's not writing you back. That's the stuff that's really real. We also had to consider how to portray that on screen. People are still figuring that out. Sometimes people will just put the text up on screen, like House of Cards does that. But as far as the actual shooting of it goes, we just wanted to be as classist as possible and also we wondered how is this show going to age. We're just like, well it sucks: it's going to add a lot of time to our day shooting, but we’re going to have people look at their phones and then shoot the phone. That just seemed to us to be the most realistic and grounded version of it.
GR: I was just curious, I wanted to ask, Aziz's character’s best friend, is that you?
AY: The Brian character is very much based on me. Definitely. When we were writing the parents episode, it was one of the first episodes we wrote. It's based on my dad, Aziz's dad, and our families in general. A lot of that stuff was written as conversations that Aziz and I would have, walking around New York and sort of brainstorming. That ended up being a lot of what the episode is: Brian and Dev walking around New York and just shooting the shit ‘cause that's what we were doing at the time. I think that's part of what lends some of the realism to the show since it was what we were doing at the time: us talking about the X-Men and whatever, dumb bullshit.
"The Brian character is very much based on me. Definitely. When we were writing the parents episode, it was one of the first episodes we wrote."
Kelvin Yu (the actor portraying Brian) brought so much to it himself because ironically he's also a Taiwanese American comedy writer. My dad did kill a pet chicken, but his dad had a pet water buffalo named Ting Ting. That's real. It's kind of a combination. It's a combo meal. It's really funny afterwards. My dad talked to me after seeing the episode. He's like, "You know, my family didn't have a water buffalo. That was kind of more of an upper middle class thing if you had a water buffalo. That really wouldn't have happened for my family." I was like, “Okay, I guess Calvin's dad was doing better than you were in Taiwan.” It was kind of a funny thing, funny observation that he made.
My dad did kill a pet chicken, but Calvin's dad had a pet water buffalo named Ting Ting. That's real.
GR: Season two is coming out soon. How are you feeling about it?
AY: I feel good. Yeah. I'm very excited for people to see season two. One of the things we prioritized this season, like the last one, is to make something that hopefully doesn't feel like stuff you've seen before or hopefully doesn't remind you of a million other things. By that same token, we didn't want to repeat what we did in season one. We want to be as original and ambitious as possible. I think people will see that effort made in this season. I hope people will respond to it.
GR: It's no secret that you and Aziz are big foodies. In Parks and Rec, you see Tom Haverford even has a restaurant.
AY: Tom's Bistro. That was crazily a throw away joke that I might have written early on on some talking head in an earlier season.
GR: Do you and Aziz plan out places to eat at?
AY: It's out of control man. I would say when we're just living in the same city together and not talking about the show or whatever, 60-70% of our texts are just about food: where we should go or if a place was good. Sometimes they're on text chains with other people. We have a text chain called Burger Boys, which is about where we should go eat burgers. A bunch of us went to a place called 4 Charles and we all ate burgers there. It's absurd. I think I have multiple text chains with group names about food. It's bad. I don't know. That's one of the reasons we love New York too. There's new restaurants every day. We've been lucky enough to start meeting people who work in food: chefs, restaurateurs, bar owners. That's the stuff that really excites us. We put in some of our favorite places in season two so if you live in New York, you'll see them pop up in season two just like in season one.
GR: Have you met a chef idol?
AY: I have a few. I wouldn't call him my idol ‘cause he's just a friend of mine now. I'm buddies with chef David Chang who does Momofuku. He's just a good guy. I like traveling with him. We went to Japan together a couple times. I went out and stayed with him in Wyoming. He taught me how to fly fish. I'm buddies with Jon Shook out in LA and I like meeting chefs like Kris Yenbamroong (from Night and Song) and Jeremiah Stone. I've met these people because I'm so into food and it's great man. I respect what they do so much. I enjoy what they do so much that I like hanging out with them. I feel like people in food have a good time. I don't know, I like hanging out with chefs and people who work in food. It's a whole other world and we don't have to talk about TV shows and movies.
GR: What's next for you? What are you looking forward to?
AY: I'm working on a bunch of stuff man. I'm working on a movie that I'd like to direct soon. I have a couple of TV shows that I'd like to produce and write. Working with some friends on those. Yeah. Lot of stuff. Lot of stuff.
GR: Cool. Awesome. Thank you so much for interviewing with GR!
AY: Thank you for having me. It's been great. I got to drink like three-quarters of a drink. It's like 5 p.m.
Click hereto watch Master Of None Season 1.
The music in the video is Chopin's First Piano Concerto.
Played by George Ko and the Irvine Philharmonic.