Aziz Ansari – Comedy Genius, Diversity Advocate, Feminist Ally & A ‘Master Of None’

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If you have Netflix but haven’t yet binge-watched Aziz Ansari’s new series ‘Master of None’, we HIGHLY recommend you run, don’t walk, and watch it immediately (well, after reading this post, obviously). The ‘Parks and Recreation’ star and stand-up genius is back on our small screens with a show he wrote, created, and starred in.

While we watched the show simply because we were fans of his already, we were blown away by the themes he touched on while seamlessly delivering the signature Aziz style of comedy that we all know and love.

Many of us are already familiar with his support of feminism, and how he more fully understands the issues women face on a daily basis that men don’t have to fear on the same level. In his Netflix original series, each episode has a different central theme which manages to perfectly blend, in some cases, a serious social message, with interesting characters and comedic values.

The two episodes that stood out most to us were ‘Indians on TV’ and ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’. The former discusses issues of race and racism within Hollywood, and the latter touches on harassment and sexism toward women. One of the coolest aspects of the show is its casting. Aziz got his real life parents to play his folks on the show, and they are both absolute scene-stealers. His “entourage” is also a picture of what real life diverse America looks like today: he has an Asian friend Bryan, a tall overweight white guy named Arnold, and a queer black woman named Denise that appear in each episode helping Aziz navigate through each situation.

As an Indian American who is the child of first-generation Indians who migrated to American to give their children a better life, Aziz knows first hand the struggles of being a person of color, and add to that a Hollywood career, and those issues are compounded. Sure he has had immense success, but while there are a million Matt Damons and Ben Afflecks roaming the halls of Hollywood, Aziz Ansari stands out as the lone Indian male comedian of his caliber.

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In an op-ed for the New York Times, he expands on a story line from the ‘Indians on TV’ episode where he and a fellow Indian (who both play actors on the show) discuss how disappointing it is when they learn that certain Indian characters on popular movies and TV shows were actually played by white men in brown-face makeup.

“Seeing an Indian character in a lead role had a powerful effect on me, but it was only as I got older that I realized what an anomaly it was. I rarely saw any Indians on TV or film, except for brief appearances as a cabdriver or a convenience store worker literally servicing white characters who were off to more interesting adventures. This made ‘Short Circuit 2’ special. An Indian lead character? With a Caucasian love interest? In the 1980s? What’s going on here? A bold foray into diversity far ahead of its time?” he begins.

He then talks about how shocking it was when he IMDB’d the actor who played scientist Benjamin Jarhvi in ‘Short Circuit 2’, that the producers couldn’t even be bothered to cast an Indian actor. Aziz said as a kid he saw the evil guy in the film as the “bad guy”, but as an adult he viewed Fisher Stevens, the white actor who played the scientist, as the real bad guy for mocking his ethnicity.

Granted the film was made in the late 1980s, and when Aziz actually got in touch with Fisher Stevens, the two talked about how at that time Hollywood was not as savvy about offending certain groups.

“Toward the end of the conversation, it seemed to fully hit him how insensitive his casting may have been, and he said several times that he believed the role should have been played by an Indian and that he would never take it today,” he recalled of his conversation with the ‘Short Circuit 2’ actor.

While Aziz acknowledges there are major strides made today to cast authentically, especially when it comes to ethnicity, he feels there isn’t enough effort.

“I loved ‘The Social Network,’ but I have a hard time understanding why the Indian-American Harvard student Divya Narendra was played by Max Minghella, a half-Chinese, half-Italian British actor. More recently, ‘The Martian’ was based on a novel with an Indian character named Venkat Kapoor, who in the film became Vincent, a character portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British actor of Nigerian origin,” he said, before adding that he auditioned for a part in both films.

When it came to casting diverse characters for his own show, he admitted that he learned how hard it really was.

“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,” he said.

Although he has had enormous success in his career, he candidly admits that a lot of the roles he is offered are defined by ethnicity. Thankfully the world of TV is certainly pushing in a more inclusive and diverse direction, with creators like Shonda Rhimes really leading the way. Aziz mentions shows like ‘Fresh Of The Boat’ and the ridiculously successful ‘Empire’ as examples of why it is stupid to think a show that has anyone other than straight, white male leads wouldn’t make money or draw in huge audiences.

“But, as far as I know, black people and Asian people were around before the last TV season,” he said. He cited a recent study which identified only 16.7% of lead film roles went to minorities, in broadcast TV, only 6.5% of lead roles going to nonwhites in the 2012-13 season, and in cable, minorities did better, getting 19.3% of the roles.

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One of the biggest barriers to upping those numbers is opportunity. It is a topic that actress Viola Davis emphasized in her Emmy Award winning speech not too long ago about how the opportunity for people of color to see themselves represented on screen can be incredibly powerful. Aziz agrees, and says if Mike Schur hadn’t given him the opportunity on ‘Parks and Rec’ he wouldn’t be where he is today, repping for all the young Indian actors out there.

“Without that opportunity, we wouldn’t have developed the experience necessary to tell our stories. So if you’re a straight white guy, do the industry a solid and give minorities a second look,” he said.

He then goes on to explain an example that is undeniable evidence of diversity not being a factor in whether audiences will watch or not: Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘Terminator’.

“There had to be someone who heard his name tossed around for the role and thought: Wait, why would the robot have an Austrian accent? No one’s gonna buy that! We gotta get a robot that has an American accent! Just get a white guy from the States. Audiences will be confused. Nope. They weren’t. Because, you know what? No one really cares,” he concluded.

As for the issue of harassment toward women, Aziz says the idea for the ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ episode came from part of his most recent stand-up show in Madison Square Garden. During the show he asked all the women who have ever been followed home or harassed by men to put up their hands, and literally every woman in the auditorium raised their hands, to the shock of some men.

“They couldn’t believe it. I thought it was interesting that this is happening, yet so many people are unaware of it. And the problem is people aren’t talking about it,” he said.

One of the areas where harassment happens quite commonly is on social media, and that men need to be more aware of this. There are of course studies which show women are disproportionately targeted by stalking and harassment online, but there are also many naysayers out there who feel uncomfortable with any gender discrimination narrative. Thankfully we have feminist allies like Aziz Ansari who aren’t afraid to call out the problem.

“Go on any famous woman’s Instagram and there are crazy death threats in the comments everywhere. No one is giving Drake death threats—only female celebrities get that. It’s f**ked up. I don’t understand it. I don’t know how you can be that disgusting of a human being to write those things, and also, if you’re not aware that it’s happening overwhelmingly more to women than it is to men, you’re an idiot who’s detached from reality,” said Aziz.

The best advice he can give for any male to understand the issue is to just talk to women, which is what his character Dev does on ‘Master of None’.

“What I’ve learned, as a guy, is to just ask women questions and listen to what they have to say. Go to your group of female friends and ask them about times they’ve experienced sexism at their job, and you’ll get blown away by the things they tell you. You’ll think, ‘What the f**k? This is way darker than anything I’d imagined’. You need to have an empathetic worldview that’s open to voices other than your own,” he concluded.

It’s a brilliant show from a brilliant guy using his platform to bring awareness to important topics. Comedy can be a very powerful vehicle for social change as it presents issues in a way that is easily digestible and doesn’t necessarily feel like a “sermon”. We hope Aziz continues to challenge existing narrow social boundaries in the name of diversity and inclusion.

If you want to see the original harassment piece from his Madison Square Garden show, watch the video below:


 

 

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