Hi there Aziz,
I read your article in The New York Times. The one that talks about the lack of minorities in leading roles and how the number of characters of color onscreen don't reflect reality. The struggles you faced casting an East Asian actor for the role that became the “Brian” character, as portrayed by Kelvin Yu, struck me:
I had to cast an Asian actor for “Master of None,” and it was hard. When you cast a white person, you can get anything you want: “You need a white guy with red hair and one arm? Here’s six of ’em!” But for an Asian character, there were startlingly fewer options, and with each of them, something was off. Some had the right look but didn’t have comedy chops. Others were too young or old. We even debated changing the character to an Asian woman, but a week before shooting began, Kelvin Yu, an actor from Los Angeles, sent in an audition over YouTube and got the part.
I auditioned for that role.
The casting agency found me on the Peoples Improv Theater website. They were auditioning any Asian 20-something man with comedic potential. I had won the genetic lottery (cue angelic singing). I read for Dev’s best friend, “Alan,” an Asian guy—the same name as the series co-creator, Alan Yang. As an avid Parks and Recreation fan [Yang and Ansari were both involved in that show] and comedy podcast listener, I knew you and Yang were real-life best friends—and that if I didn’t nail your dynamic in the audition, there was no way I’d get the role. Regardless, I was thrilled you were intentionally writing a BFF situation between an Indian guy and an East Asian guy—and that the show was happening.
Alas, I didn’t get the part; I should've sent in a YouTube tape. But, really, my audition was bad. Like, left-out-the-milk-in-100-degree-weather bad. I wasn’t surprised I wasn’t cast. It didn’t matter, though, because some other lucky East Asian guy was going to play Aziz Ansari’s onscreen BFF, and that was good enough for me.
When November rolled around and Master of None premiered, I was curious about the show and the character, and I binge-watched like everyone else. Then the thoughts came flooding in: Who the heck are Arnold and Denise? Dev has three best friends? Why are the scenes I read for as Alan coming out of Arnold and Denise’s mouths? Where did Brian go after the second episode? Dude straight up disappears, except for the occasional texts, grading bars and girls, which is genius and efficient.
Where was the "Dev and Alan Show?"
Your comments about the difficulties in casting an Asian actor made me think you and Yang had to rethink the BFF Asian concept and write around the problem by adding characters and dividing dialogue. I was disappointed the show wasn’t about two best friends, who happened to be Asian, living it up 20-something style in New York City. But just like with any production, things change throughout the process.
I reached out to Andy Blitz, a writer on Master of None. Here's what he told me:
It was always an ensemble—with the Denise and Arnold characters in Dev's circle of friends. The only way casting affected that, if I recall, is after reading with or meeting Lena Waithe [who plays Denise], Aziz and Alan loved the idea of Denise being a lesbian… So the fact that she, like Dev, was attracted to gals, maybe led some Brian or Arnold dialogue to feel more interesting coming from her? No offense to straight, Asian fellows.
I wasn't in the loop on the casting, but because the Dev-Brian friendship was, to a large extent, modeled on Aziz and Alan, the actor playing Brian would—besides being good and funny—need to (with a bit of luck unless he creepily spied on Aziz and Alan) hit their specific dynamic reading with Aziz.
It'd be like if Spielberg had secretly cloned Lincoln and had him hidden to avoid media mayhem—but he secretly knew what his real voice was like—and Daniel Day Lewis had to just take a wild guess. Why wouldn't Clone Abe Lincoln just take an alias and play Lincoln himself, you ask? (A) Daniel Day Lewis is that good. He can do Lincoln better than Lincoln. (B) What if Lincoln Clone wins rave reviews and an Oscar even and then he gets another part and everyone's like "What the fuck? He's still doing Lincoln! Is that just who he is?! Take back his Oscar!" Total Internet mayhem.
Anyway, Kelvin did great. Sorry you didn't get it.
I ain’t mad at you, Aziz. I just felt a bit like a disappointed Asian father, expecting what I thought was best. The "best" being a show about two Asian dudes. Luckily, I'm not an emotionally stoic father, so I can tell you as a fan that I'm extremely proud of this show. What I imagine Broad City is for 20-something women, Master of None is for me. Shows with Asian casts like Dr. Ken and Fresh Off the Boat are great, but I'm neither a doctor nor a family man. I'm a 20-something Asian guy looking for love and Yelping for delicious tacos. I can truly relate to the Master of None characters.
Despite having a difficult time casting an Asian actor, you and Yang pushed forward to positively portray an Asian man:
When we were looking for an Asian actor for "Master of None," my fellow creator, Alan Yang, asked me: “How many times have you seen an Asian guy kiss someone in TV or film?” After a long hard think, we came up with two (Steven Yeun on “The Walking Dead” and Daniel Dae Kim on “Lost”). It made me realize how important it was not to give up on our search.
Master of None is a major step in giving minorities a voice and exposing people to our stories. I let out a Stone Cold Steve Austin “HELL YEAH” when this scene happened:
Thank you for staying the course and repping Asian men everywhere.
Aziz, if you ever needed to see what we'd be like as BFFs, here it is: